Category Archives: New Centre

“The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters”: the post and letter writing in literature

When reading your favourite novel or flicking through a classic children’s book, you may have come across mentions of letter writing and even the Post Office. Writing a letter was an important part of our favourite characters’ lives and helps us understand their impressions of the Post Office. It is through these mentions that we can begin to tie together fiction to the history of the Post Office.

Cross written letter, 1827.

Cross written letter, 1827.

This one from Jane Austen’s Emma  is speaks about the ‘wonderful establishment’ that is the Post Office:

Jane Fairfax speaking of the wonders of the Post Office to Mr John Knightley

”The Post Office is wonderful establishment!” said she. – “The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that is does so well, it is really astonishing!”

“It is certainly very well regulated.”

“So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom , is even carried wrong – not one in a million. I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder.”

Emma Chapter XVI page 300

Emma and the world of Jane Austen happened about 50 years before the introduction of the penny post. However, you did benefit (if you could afford it) from a reliable and faster service than there had been in the past. When a letter was delivered, the recipient might have to pay more than a day’s wages! As such, people tried to avoid the system or wrote cross-written letters so they didn’t use as many sheets of paper so were charged less. However, as Jane Fairfax attests if you could afford it, it was a fairly good service.

Before the reform, there was a lot of abuse of the system as described by Edmund to Fanny in Mansfield Park.

Edmund tells Fanny that she doesn’t need to pay for post as his dad sits on parliament.

“Yes, depend upon me it shall: it shall go with the other letters; and, as your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.’

‘My uncle!’ repeated Fanny, with a frightened look.

Yes, when you have written the letter I will take it to my father to frank.’

MPs had free franking privilege so they could send mail for free if they signed it and this was often abused by friends and families of MPs. After the introduction of Penny Post in 1840 it meant that the cost of sending a letter was paid by the sender, and anything weighing up to ½ ounce no matter where it would be going would be 1 penny. This meant that a lot more people could afford to send letters.

These are just a selection and we are sure there are HUNDREDS more.  For The Postal Museum we want to bring out these bits of literature and We’re looking for quotes:

  • reflecting use of the system before penny post;
  • complaining about expense;
  • having to refuse letters;
  • writing cross written letters.

Tweet, Facebook  submit it here or email us your quotes – we look forward to seeing what you come up with!

£4.5 million from HLF for The Postal Museum

We are delighted to announce today that the BPMA has secured £4.5m in funding towards The Postal Museum, including Mail Rail, following a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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The news means that we have now raised over 95% of the funds needed to build a new, national museum in Central London and open up the old Post Office Underground Railway to the general public for the first time in its 100 year history.

Talking about the decision Sue Bowers, Head of HLF London, said:

“This wonderful new museum and archive repository are set to be enhanced by plans to open up the historic ‘Mail Rail’ for visitors to experience.  Proposals for major redevelopment work will help people learn more about the key role the postal service played in shaping the modern world.  It will also regenerate a part of London that has strong community involvement but ranks high on the list of social deprivation.  The combination of all these factors make for an exciting project and we’re delighted to be confirming an investment of £4.5m today.”

We’re now working to secure the last necessary funds to move into the build phase for the museum, which will begin later this year.

On this exciting day, we’re also happy to announce that we have now set up a website specifically for news and information relating to our plans. Postalmuseum.org is a one-stop-shop providing all the latest on The Postal Museum and Mail Rail. We’ll be updating it regularly so be sure to check back for new content.

Finally, I’d personally like to thank all those that have supported us to date and will continue to do so in the future as we begin to realise our dream of opening up this nationally, and internationally, important part of our collective social history. We couldn’t have got here without you.

-Adrian Steel, Director

Sand traps and narrow tunnels: a trip down to Mail Rail

On Tuesday the Creative Design team headed down to Mail Rail for a refresher view of what will be the exhibition space and ride. The Creative Design team is responsible for planning the content and interpretation in The Postal Museum and Mail Rail, including what objects will be on display.

Many people have heard of Mail Rail, AKA the Post Office Railway, the driverless electric railway system that moved post under the streets of London for more than 75 years, but few have had the opportunity to see it. We are working towards conserving its heritage, and opening up a section in Central London as an exhibition and ride.

The Creative Design team consider how to incorporate the hoist (large yellow structure) into the new exhibition space.

The focus of this workshop was to identify key features to preserve and use in the exhibition and ride. Led by Ray Middlesworth, Royal Mail engineer for 27 years (and recent Mail Rail celebrity), we started off in the depot and still operating workshop, which will be transformed into an exhibition. We want to preserve the industrial heritage of the space, incorporating it into the new exhibition space. Right now the biggest safety concern is tripping. A removable floor that sits over the original will solve this and ensure visitors can still see the tracks below.

Walking around the depot space, we identified objects and features we want to stay. The lockers, used by Mail Rail engineers, will hopefully be an interactive in the new exhibition. The lockers have ‘inherited’ much of their contents from when engineers left, including tools and the odd old uniform here and there.

Inside one of the lockers.

Inside one of the lockers.

Next we headed into the tunnel and walked some of the route which will be the actual ride. The tunnels are no larger than 7 ft and walking proved to be quite difficult at times. Calcium deposits measuring a few inches dotted the tunnel walls. During maintenance work, engineers would sometimes come back looking like they had been snowed on as they broke off into their hair and on their clothes Ray told us.

Entrance to Mail Rail tunnels from Mount Pleasant.

Entrance to Mail Rail tunnels from Mount Pleasant.

In the tunnels (approaching platform 1) we came across a bay full of sand bags at the end of a track. These weren’t used to stop flooding, but to slow down any trains on the second track.

Ray telling us about the sand trap by Platform 1.

Ray telling us about the sand trap by Platform 1.

To get a very rough idea of what the ride will be like, we took a ride on the VIP train, built in 1967. Unlike the electric-powered trains that use to transport mail around the network, the VIP train is powered by a battery locomotive. There isn’t much lighting, but we were able to pick up on features to possibly include from old trains to a dartboard showing the last game ever played before it closed over ten years ago.

Find out more about the history of Mail Rail and how you can support help make it happen!

-Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager

Photographs courtesy of Vicky Parkinson, Head of Archives and Records Management

What the privatisation of Royal Mail means to us

Our Director Adrian Steel gives a historical perspective on today’s announcement that Royal Mail will soon be privatised.

The human need to communicate is ever present. But to give a historical perspective on the British postal service – details of the sale of which have been announced today – the usual starting point is the creation of the office of ‘Master of the Posts’ in 1512, its endorsement in 1517, or the Royal Proclamation of 31 July 1635 which effectively saw the opening of the ‘Royal Mail’ to public use. The last of these is most frequently given as the start of what is now the Royal Mail business.

The King's Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail's origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

The King’s Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail’s origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

Throughout most of its existence the service has been the subject of public and political debate. The tension between the need for it to run as a business and turn a profit (which at times in the 17th century was paid to those who bought what was effectively the ‘farm’ of revenue for a part of the service – we have the accounts in the Royal Mail Archive), and the need for it to provide a socially necessary service, is ongoing and – as underpins Duncan Campbell-Smith’s authoritative 2011 history Masters of the Post – recurrent.

The political importance of the postal service is by and large a constant. For a good part of its early history there were two Postmasters General – (usually) one Whig and one Tory – as shown by our POST 67 archive series containing appointment Letters Patent. The 19th century expansion as a result of postal reform was a transformative national event, one that saw what had by then become known as the Post Office permeate literature from Dickens to Trollope (who was himself a Surveyor for the Post Office and credited with the creation of the pillar box). In the early 20th century the service grew to encompass the infant telephone system, saw politicians such as Austen and Neville Chamberlain and Clement Attlee cut their teeth in government as Postmaster General, and the first extended thought on whether a government department really was the right vehicle for what the Post Office did. Harold Wilson’s government – whose Postmaster Generals include the only surviving holder of this office, Roy Mason and Tony Benn – converted the Post Office into a state-owned corporation via the 1969 Post Office Act. After that, the telephone service was separated and later sold as British Telecom, and in the past 15 years two Postal Services Acts have again changed the status of the organisation. The most recent, that of 2011, is the legislation that has led to today’s announcement.

Central Telephone Exchange - telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

Central Telephone Exchange – telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

During the debates on the 2011 Act, concern was expressed across the political spectrum that Britain’s postal heritage, as cared for by the BPMA, should be safeguarded. At the time I took part in correspondence with a number of interested politicians and Ministers and we had visits from All-Party Groups, individual Peers and MPs from all parties (and none), and from Coalition ministers. Amendments were tabled and discussed and eventually a clause added to what was already in the then Bill, ensuring that the heritage of the postal service was properly cared for and reported to Parliament upon even after a privatisation such as was announced today. With this protection and support behind us, plans for our new home well advanced, and ongoing support from politicians, Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, BPMA looks forward to providing a first class home for this great service’s history for generations to come.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

For more on the history of the Royal Mail see our online exhibition The Peoples Post.

Duncan Campbell-Smith, author of Masters of the Post – The Authorized History of the Royal Mail will speak on The Royal Mail Past and Present at the Guildhall Library on 24 October 2013.

Countdown to Sotheby’s: Rare and colourful – the King Edward VIII accession issue

On 11 July the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) will be selling 191 lots of surplus, duplicate philatelic material at Sotheby’s auction house. The proceeds of the sale will support the significant fundraising efforts currently being undertaken by the BPMA to deliver an important new postal museum and archive in Central London. In this blog Julia Lee, Assistant Editor at Stamp Magazine gives her thoughts on the auction.

I’m very excited about the Sotheby’s sale. It will be the first major sale I’ve been to since the Sir Gawaine Baillie sale, and I can’t wait to see what some of this material goes for. And, of course, to write screaming headlines about it.

The BPMA asked me to pick an item to talk about, and while the journalist in me wants to highlight the most expensive, it’s the King Edward VIII 2 1/2d registration sheet that I’d buy if I had the chance.

Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

In fact, King Edward VIII helped me get the job as Assistant Editor on Stamp Magazine. ‘What happened with his stamps?’ I wondered in the interview.

Now I know the answer. A set of four stamps was issued in September 1936, at a time when, even though there was a voluntary press blackout on King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson‘s relationship, the General Post Office must have known a constitutional crisis was looming. In fact, three months later, in December, the GPO was asked by the Cabinet Office to bug the King’s phones.

The stamps’ simplicity and the very obvious break with the previous florid tradition appeals to me. They’re also very much of their time, with the clean styling of head, crown and value.

The 2½d bright blue registration sheet makes a real impact on the page. We didn’t have space to put it in our June issue, but I wish we had. It’s a great colour – far better than any bistre or olive-green!

Detail of Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

Detail of Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

And while all postal history of any kind tells a story, Edward VIII’s references a very specific period in British history. Almost anyone you show the stamps to will grasp their significance immediately and ask you whether or not they were issued.

Like all the best stamps, it provides an easy way to suck people into the historical and social stories philatelists know are lying under the surface of our hobby.

Please visit Sotheby’s sale page to find out more about the lots on offer. And don’t forget to follow Stamp Magazine on Twitter!

Historic Duplicate Stamp Sale to Benefit New Home for The British Postal Museum & Archive

  • Sotheby’s will stage an historic auction featuring duplicate stamps from the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA)
  • Important sale, estimated by Sotheby’s to bring in excess of £5 million, will support a spectacular new home for the British Postal Museum & Archive, set to open in early 2016
  • State-of-the-art centre will represent an exciting addition to London’s cultural landscape, showcasing the BPMA’s world-class collections and celebrating a unique aspect of British heritage
  • New museum will serve as a key cultural hub as part of a major regeneration scheme in Camden & Islington

On 11th July 2013 Sotheby’s will stage an historic auction featuring surplus duplicate stamps from the British Postal Museum & Archive. The auction will provide essential funds for a state-of-the-art new home for the BPMA, representing an exciting addition to London’s cultural landscape when it opens in 2016.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

New Home for Britain’s Postal History

Described by Mayor of London Boris Johnson as “a national treasure of global importance”, the BPMA is the leading resource for all aspects of British postal heritage. It cares for the visual and written records of 400 years of British postal, social and design history, comprising over 60,000 artefacts and 2.5 miles of archives. Together, the collections and archive tell a fascinating human story of British communication, industry and innovation, illuminating and celebrating a unique and integral part of the nation’s heritage.

Under a scheme endorsed by the Government and backed by Britain’s leading heritage organisations, the BPMA is planning a new Postal Museum and Archive to provide a first class home for its archive and collections, which are currently held in storage and largely inaccessible to the general public. The new centre will be situated in Calthorpe House, in the London Borough of Camden, adjoining the country’s oldest mail centre at Mount Pleasant.

World-class Archive and Collections

As well as featuring a purpose-built archive repository, the new Postal Museum and Archive will feature spectacular exhibition spaces to showcase the BPMA’s archive and collections, which range from postal vehicles to pillar boxes, staff records, posters, photographs, uniforms, weapons and the world’s greatest collection of British stamps.

Poster: 79,242 Postmen, Duncan Grant, 1939.

Poster: 79,242 Postmen, Duncan Grant, 1939.

Highlights include every British stamp issued from 1840 to the present day; original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial; the world’s first commercial Christmas card produced in 1843; a 1930s art-deco Mobile Post Office; Valentine’s Day cards dating from c. 1790; telegrams relating to the Titanic disaster; weapons used to protect the mail against theft or piracy; a digital Oral History collection recounting the personal stories of hundreds of current and retired postal staff from around Britain; a first edition of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, intercepted in the post for being obscene; uniforms of Victorian River Postmen; a Travelling Post Office railway coach; films produced by the iconic GPO film unit; telegrams sent by the royal family; medals awarded to Post Office Employees including a rare Victoria Cross; and posters, prints and paintings by celebrated artists including Edward Bawden, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

Understanding and celebrating Britain’s postal heritage and wider social history

The new Postal Museum and Archive will feature a state-of-the-art education centre and extensive research facilities, designed to encourage school children, students and the wider public to learn from and be inspired by postal heritage in all its depth and context. The new education space will increase the BPMA’s annual educational engagement from 2,000 to 12,000 pupils, representing a 600% increase on its current offering.

Key examples of how the BPMA’s collections reflect Britain’s social history:

  • In 1840 the launch of the Penny Black, the world’s first prepaid stamp, encouraged people to write and became a vehicle for education, friendship and commerce
  • The opening of Post Office Savings Bank backed by the Government in 1861 encouraged people of all walks of life to save money safely and to help combat debt
  • W. Reginald Bray became the first ‘human letter’ when he posted himself, later emulated by two suffragettes who attempted to have themselves delivered to Downing Street
  • During WW1 the Post Office co-ordinated all army mail and by 1918 had 22,000 pigeons carrying messages to the front
  • In 1943 the world’s first programmable electronic computer was built by the GPO’s Tommy Flowers, helping to break many German encrypted codes during WW2

Mail Rail: London’s Best Kept Secret

As an added visitor attraction, the BPMA is exploring plans to convert a section of Mail Rail, the former underground Post Office railway network. Introduced in 1927 and operational until 2003, Mail Rail was the world’s first driverless electrified railway, which revolutionised the delivery of mail in the UK. To this day it remains the world’s only dedicated underground mail transport system, representing an important and largely unseen element of Britain’s industrial heritage.

Poster design: Post Office Tube Railway, Edward Bawden, c. 1935.

Poster design: Post Office Tube Railway, Edward Bawden, c. 1935.

Subject to sufficient funding, the Mail Rail depot at Mount Pleasant will be transformed into an immersive visitor centre, introducing a fascinating 15 minute ride on the Mail Rail network on newly-designed trains through the existing tunnels.

Benefitting the local area and contributing to an improved sense of community

Bridging the boroughs of Camden and Islington, the new Postal Museum and Archive will serve as an important cultural hub and community resource. As well as offering cultural and training opportunities for young people, the BPMA will organise out-of-school cultural opportunities and strong community outreach programmes, contributing to a vibrant Camden and Islington.

Historic Stamp Sale

The project to develop the new Postal Museum and Archive will cost approximately £22 million and a fundraising campaign is currently underway, with considerable support from Royal Mail and Post Office Limited. Other funding is in place from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from the BPMA itself.

As part of the fundraising campaign, the BPMA is pursuing two sales of surplus duplicate philatelic material currently held in its custody though not part of its accessioned collections. The historic auctions will take place at Sotheby’s, which held the first ever stamp auction in Europe in 1872. The first sale, held on 11th July 2013, will comprise 191 lots and is estimated by Sotheby’s to bring in excess of £5 million.

One of the duplicate items for sale: Seahorse ‘Registration’ sheets, 1923, one of only two such sheets in existence.

One of the duplicate items for sale: Seahorse ‘Registration’ sheets, 1923, one of only two such sheets in existence.

Adrian Steel, Director of the BPMA, said:

Since we first announced our project to open a new first class home for Britain’s postal heritage in London last year we have received widespread support, and following last month’s announcement of this sale it has been great to receive encouragement from those who want to play their part in our fundraising campaign by participating in the auction. The BPMA’s collections are of the utmost richness in iconic British heritage and engaging personal stories, and from family historians to families who want to immerse themselves in something new as part of a day out in London, our new centre offers something sparkling with fascination and enjoyment for everyone. It will safeguard all our collections into the future, and by taking up the chance to own the rare philatelic specimens on offer at Sotheby’s, all potential buyers can feel proud that they are helping to safeguard the originals, and all our world class collections, from Penny Blacks to packet ship records, for the nation and the world to enjoy.

Put Your Stamp on the New Centre Exhibition Space

We have been working hard with our appointed creative designers Haley Sharpe Design on early plans for the main exhibition space of the Calthorpe House New Centre. The 500m2 gallery will be split into five zones, each covering an era of postal history.

Zone 1 will look at the early days of the Royal Mail, with the BPMA’s 18th Century Mail Coach as its centrepiece, whilst in Zone 2 visitors will meet Rowland Hill – a visionary Victorian, who devised solutions to the short-comings of the postal service in its early days. On display visitors will find a variety of objects and records related to the design of the Penny Black, the world’s first postage, as well as other examples of great Victorian inventions that facilitated the sending and receiving of mail.

Visualisation of Zone 2: "Reform and Innovation".

Visualisation of Zone 2: “Reform and Innovation”.

Between Zones 2 and 3, visitors can read profound and moving stories reflecting events from postal history during the early 20th Century, such as the story of the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, the suffragettes who posted themselves to the Prime Minister, and the role of the Post Office during WWI.

Visualisation of Zone 3: "The Post Office in Conflict".

Visualisation of Zone 3: “The Post Office in Conflict”.

In Zone 3, visitors will step into a reconstruction of life in WWII London, whilst Zone 4, by contrast, will present a bright, visual feast, vividly demonstrating the time from the 1930s to the 1960s when the Post Office was a leader in style and design in Britain.

Visualisation of Zone 4: "Style and Design".

Visualisation of Zone 4: “Style and Design”.

Zone 5 will consider the modern Post Office, including the competition and challenges of 21st Century Communications, as well as the role of the service at the heart of isolated rural communities.

Work is currently underway to work up a long-list of objects and records from the Museum and Archive collections to populate the exhibition and illustrate the stories and themes outlined above. Whilst the ‘usual suspects’ (such as items from early Mail Coach Guards and the many photos and posters held in the Archive) are, of course, under consideration, the BPMA are keen to include ‘hidden gems’ that may not have been seen in previous exhibitions – something for which we would like your help…

Tell us which artefacts from the BPMA collections you would like to see on display in the new exhibition!

Blog readers are invited to suggest a museum object or archive record that they would like to see included in the new gallery displays, with an explanation as to why you have chosen that particular item. The best suggestion, as selected by the BPMA Access and Learning Team, will win a signed copy of Julian Stray’s book Mail Trains. Results announced in January.

Please send your suggestions by 30 November 2012 to: Andy Richmond – BPMA Access & Learning Manager, andy.richmond@postalheritage.org.uk.