Category Archives: Genealogy

The Postman’s Snuffbox (Part 1)

While on holiday in London Kenneth Grey Wilson and his wife found a snuffbox owned by a British postman. In trying to find the relatives of this postal worker he came across a few unexpected surprises. This week (in a two-part post), Kenneth will be sharing his story and that of the snuff box owner.

We all love a good treasure-hunting story; accounts of buried pirate booty, lost gold mines, or Roman coins found in a farmer’s meadow seem to capture the attention of nearly everyone. Most of us are not fortunate enough to discover a buccaneer’s hoard behind a chimney stone, but it seems that we all in our way do a bit of treasure hunting—keeping an eye out for a Picasso at a jumble sale, searching for bargains at Debenhams, or just looking for forgotten change in vending machines.

My wife and I are both collectors and treasure-hunters of a sort, and when traveling we look for inexpensive curios in antique shops, shop windows or flea markets—objects that seem to convey history, hold a strong visual appeal, and ideally some level of mystery. The object might be a hand-made toy, a piece of jewelry, an old postcard or a faded photograph, but it must convey a human touch or story that communicates across time. On a recent trip to London we spent hours in the British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of London, but what really excited us was the prospect of discovering small treasures in the many flea markets of the city.

On a damp, grey Sunday—the kind of day that makes tourists feel that they are in the London of Sherlock Holmes or Charles Dickens—we ventured out to the Old Spitalfields Market in the East End, an area of London outside the old medieval walled city that has seen buying, selling, haggling and trading of all sorts for hundreds of years. The historic market looked promising—crowded aisles between stalls filled with bits and pieces of other times and other lives.  The odors of age and dust were greatly improved by the smells of of Cornish pasties and meat pies and we eagerly took to the hunt.

While bargaining over some small metal hooks that might find use in our bathroom, I noticed a small, nickel-plated snuffbox with the words, “A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley” marked on the lid. The letters had been stamped into the metal, one at time, with hand tools. The repetition of the letter “X” turned on its side had created a border around the words.  My wife and I immediately thought that this intriguing find had enough clues to trace it to its original owner, and that mission might serve as a fun challenge. The snuffbox would be our map. The owner would be the treasure.

Snuffbox

Snuffbox

I made a cash deal with the seller for both the bathroom hooks and the snuffbox and my wife and I went happily back to our hotel room to rest up for the next day’s adventures.  A week later, back at home in Texas, I searched the Internet for Dursley, and found that it was a small market town in Gloucestershire. A search for A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley, quickly turned up a link to an online forum for past residents of Dursley and a comment by Julie Smith from Ohio, USA, about growing up in the town, along with a mention of her late brother, Alan Whittard, who had been a Dursley postman.

Parsonage St., Dursley, circa 1910. The old post office was on this street. Postcard from Kenneth's collection.

Parsonage St., Dursley, circa 1910. The old post office was on this street. Postcard from Kenneth’s collection.

It appeared that we had a win on the first spin of the wheel, but in further investigation, we recognized that Alan was too young to be our snuffbox owner, and what’s more, no one remembered him ever using snuff. Julie offered to contact a friend in Dursley, Jennifer Rennie, known as “Paddy.” As it turned out, Paddy’s maternal grandfather was Arthur Whittard, a Dursley postman at the turn of the 20th century. So, unknown to Julie, she and her “friend” Paddy were actually distant cousins…

If this story inspired you to do some family history research of your own, or you just want to find out more about a family member who worked for the British postal service, the BPMA has range of records in its collection that may help you find out more.

Who Do You Think You Are? Live

On 24-26 February we will be attending Who Do You Think You Are? Live at London Olympia. This is the largest family history show in the world and is a great opportunity to meet lots of family history organisations under one roof.

BPMA at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

BPMA at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

This will be the sixth year that the BPMA has attended this event and we have always enjoyed meeting new people and telling them about our family history sources. Last year we had over 550 people visit our stand over the weekend and this year we would love to meet even more.

BPMA resources at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

BPMA resources at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

As well as having our usual stand in the Society of Genealogists section of the show (tables 116-117), we will also be participating in the new ‘Our Working Past’ area. This area examines the working lives of people in the past. We will have historic uniforms, photographs of postal workers on duty, and staff magazines available for handling and consultation. The staff magazines, in particular, provide a fascinating insight into life in the Post Office and include accounts of social events, stories and jokes.

We look forward to seeing you there!

- Helen Dafter, Archivist

See the Family History Research section of our website to find out how we can help you search for your postal ancestors.

How the Post Office Can Take You from Struggling Artist to Famous Society Portraitist!

Or at least this is just what it did for renowned artist George Romney in the 1760’s. Romney was one of the most popular portraitists in London during the second half of the 18th century, competing with the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds for commissions and patrons. He painted many leading society figures of his day—most notably Lady Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Horatio Nelson, who was Romney’s muse and appeared in over sixty of his paintings.

But Romney was not always the famous society artist that we know him as today. Born in Dalton-on-Furness on December 26, 1734, the son of a cabinet maker, Romney began his artistic career in Kendal at the age of twenty-one, apprenticed to a local artist. He was married in 1756 to Mary Abbott, but they were almost instantly separated after their marriage and remained apart for the better part of Romney’s life. He then moved to London in 1762, but continued to struggle financially and never found any great success, as Romney had very few acquaintances in London, which made it difficult to find commissions. However, this changed somewhat when Romney befriended Daniel Braithwaite, the clerk to the Postmaster General, who introduced him into the middle-class professional circles, an important society group eager to commission portraits. You can see Mr. Braithwaite’s appointment records in the Post Office below, in 1765 and 1768, which hail from the BPMA archives (POST 58/1).

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1765 (POST 58/1)

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1765 (POST 58/1)

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1768 (POST 58/1)

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1768 (POST 58/1)

After experiencing this success and finally earning some money as a portraitist, Romney then travelled to Paris in 1764 and Italy in 1772 to complete his training and study the works of the Old Masters, as most aspiring artists did in those days. He returned to London in great debt in 1775, but his new found training and his old success in the city helped him to win many important commissions, and Romney’s success as a portraitist was finally secured. It was during this wave of newfound popularity that Romney painted his portrait of Anthony Todd, the Postmaster General from 1762-65 and 1768-1798, whom he possibly had contact to through his friendship with Daniel Braithwaite.

Anthony Todd, George Romney, British Postal Museum & Archive Collection, c. 1779

Anthony Todd, George Romney, British Postal Museum & Archive Collection, c. 1779

Three years after painting the Postmaster General, in April 1782 at the height of his popularity, Romney met Emma Hamilton, then Emma Hart, only seventeen years old to his forty eight years, who he began to paint obsessively, in the form of real-life portraits, allegorical portraits and history paintings. This marked a change in his career, as he was so enamoured by his muse that he found it difficult to take on regular commissions, altering his portrait practice. Despite this change, with the deaths of Gainsborough in 1788 and Reynolds in 1792, George Romney still became the leading portraitist in London. He was continually overwhelmed with commissions until he was forced to return to Kendal and his estranged wife in 1799 as a result of his failing health. Romney died on 15 November 1802 in Kendal at age 68 as one of the most prolific and renowned portraitists of his time—a reputation he earned with the help of his early friends in the Post Office.

- Sarah Cooper, Intern

Postal appointment books now available online via Ancestry

by Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives and Records Management

Today, the BPMA in partnership with the popular family history website Ancestry.co.uk launched the first name searchable online genealogy resource featuring our material. The Post Office Appointment Books, 1737-1969, listing the men and women appointed to roles within the service over these years includes approximately 1.4 million individual entries.

Postman driver collecting at Shotwick, Cheshire. Women and children queueing in the street to hand over mail. (POST 118/1866)

Postman driver collecting at Shotwick, Cheshire. Women and children queueing in the street to hand over mail. (POST 118/1866)

The source of this data is archive class POST 58 (staff nomination and appointment records) which includes the appointment books from 1831 to 1960, these provide the majority of information for this publication. Prior to 1831 appointment records were not kept uniformly over the country and separate series were produced. In 1831 centralised employment records were first created by the Post Office by copying the relevant minute numbers and brief details relating to appointment, transfer, dismissal, resignation, retirement, or death.

The BPMA signed an agreement with the Generations Network Ltd, the company behind ancestry.co.uk, in March 2009. We already had this series microfilmed. In April 2009 two large boxes of microfilm were transported from Freeling House to Provo, Utah, where Ancestry’s headquarters and scanning unit are based. The material was duly copied and returned to us in September. In November 2009 the indexing (transcribing handwritten names) of the documents by Ancestry’s World Archives Project volunteers began. The results of all this work are now available for anyone with internet access to search.

Some people may have questions about how we have made this data available. There will be issues with accuracy and omissions; both in the original source document and the Ancestry indexing. More significantly people might ask why the BPMA hasn’t done the online publication itself and instead worked with a commercial partner like Ancestry.

The reality here is that the BPMA would not have had the resources to co-ordinate the indexing of over a million entries. Secondly searching for names is free, you only have to pay to access the digital copy of the original record. Finally this material is still available on microfilm (and occasionally original paper where we don’t have a surrogate available) at the BPMA for researchers to use (who can also access the ancestry website at Freeling House); charges will of course still apply for providing copies from microfilm.

Now all this data is online, I’ve been doing a little playing with the database and am pleased to say that out of my random five person search all have proved correct. Please let Ancestry know if you come across any errors.

Ancestry’s publicity emphasises the number of Patricias and Pats who worked for the Post Office. I thought I’d track down some other interesting names. There are eight instances of postal workers (sometimes a new appointment for the same person) named Letter, nine named Parcel (or Parcell), thirteen named Post, five named Van, a hundred or so Stamps, more than 850 Mans (mostly Manns!). I also checked my own name and found twelve McGuffies including Thomas McGuffie’s appointment as a letter carrier at Aberdeen in April 1847.

To all those who use this great resource in the next few weeks and months, good luck searching!

Search the Appointment Books on Ancestry.co.uk.

The BPMA at Who Do You Think You Are? Live

The BPMA will be attending Who Do You Think You Are? Live again this year. The show is Europe’s most comprehensive family history event.

The event will take place from 25th-27th February at Olympia, London. The BPMA can be found in the Society of Genealogists section of the show, on stands 111 and 112.

Last year's BPMA stall at Who Do You Think You Are? Live.

Last year's BPMA stall at Who Do You Think You Are? Live.

If you visit our stall you’ll be able to discuss our family history resources with staff, or find out more about the BPMA in general. We will also have a small selection of shop products available for purchase.

Last year we spoke to over 500 visitors over the weekend. Hopefully we will be speaking to you this year.

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2010

For more information about the show visit www.whodoyouthinkyouarelive.co.uk.

A special ticket offer of two tickets for £25 is available from www2.seetickets.com/whodoyouthinkyouare/ or by phoning 0844 873 7330. Quote the discount code EX2425 when booking. A £2 transaction fee applies. Offer ends 19th Feb 2011.