Category Archives: Postal History

New year, new records on the BPMA online catalogue

In mid-January we did one of our periodic uploads of new material onto the online catalogue.  These happen, broadly speaking, every three months, and more than 4,000 records went on this time. This is the largest upload of new records and much credit is due to the cataloguers, both full time staff and volunteers.

The new records include 455 registration sheets from the Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal era.  Each entry includes a full detailed catalogue description including unique cylinder and sheet numbers, the registration date, and a scanned corner section of the sheet.  This work completes registration sheets from the pre-decimal era.

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

Artwork, including first designs, proofs, essays and first day covers, was uploaded for twelve stamp artwork issues from the period 1972-1976, including Christmas issues, the 1973 Royal Wedding, 1975 European Architectural Heritage Year, and the 1976 Telephone Centenary.

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

913 Post Office and Royal Mail Headquarters records (POST 72) were uploaded ( c.1780-2000). These include minutes, reports and correspondence of various headquarter departments and numerous reports relating to Post Office reforms from 1797 to the 1990s.

Reassigning of Post Office PR and marketing files

After four months’ work by a Project Archivist and a volunteer, we’ve completely appraised and catalogued the backlog of files assigned to POST 108 (the Post Office Public Relations Department), freeing up half a bay of our repository shelving! This great material includes Post Office PR and marketing campaigns, from the ‘Meet Your Postal Service’ campaigns of the 1970s to the controversial ‘Consignia’ rebrand in 2001, as well as promotional films, corporate design guidelines and public opinion surveys.

Many of the files assigned to POST 108 eventually found homes elsewhere in the catalogue. Substantial amounts were added to POST 63 (training guidebooks), POST 68 (staff briefing packs) and POST 109 (designs for press advertisements). We also weeded, catalogued and repackaged thousands of photographs collected during the publication of the Courier staff magazine in the 1970s and 1980s (POST 118).

Cataloguing of Photographs of Post Office facades

Our volunteer, Julian Osley, scanned, re-housed and catalogued a series of photographs showing the facades of post offices across the country from 1984. The identity of the photographer is currently unknown, as is the purpose of the photographs. They were transferred into the archive as part of the Post Office photograph library at the beginning of this century.

POST 118/PF0243 - Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

POST 118/PF0243 – Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

For each post office, there is often a photograph showing the hours of business notice and these were used by Julian to identify each location. For post offices without hours of business notices, Julian had to use his knowledge of post office architectural history and Google’s Streetview to identify locations. This series now offers a fascinating snapshot of post offices prior to the significant reduction of their network in the last thirty years.

Some of Julian’s finds have also been posted to the BPMA’s Historypin channel, giving viewers a chance to see photographs pinned against modern day Google Streetviews.

Annual opening of files under 20-year rule

I also did the annual opening of files under the 20-year rule transition timetable. More than 600 files which contain material dated up to 1984 and 1985 have become available covering a huge number of topics from Board papers to individual mechanised letter office operational efficiency audit reports.

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

The Royal Mail Archive is open to the public, find opening hours and visitor information on our website.

BPMA at the V&A – First World War: Stories of the Empire event

This Friday (24 January), from 6-9pm, the BPMA are taking part in the free drop-in event: First World War: Stories of the Empire. The event has been organised by the Heritage Lottery Fund in collaboration with the V&A and is being held at the V&A’s Sackler Gallery.

A large number of museums and organisations are taking part with a variety of engaging  stands and displays. The purpose of the evening is to encourage greater understanding of the First World War and the role of Black and Asian soldiers from the Empire.

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam, at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916 © IWM (Q 692)

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam, at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916 © IWM (Q 692)

Volumes of mail in the First World War were huge. Exceptional organisation and logistical control was required to ensure mail reached the front lines as quickly as possible. From October to December 1914 alone, over 1.2 million parcels were sent to the troops. All troops were able to send letters home free of charge.

Australian mail storage in Kew (POST 56/6)

Australian mail storage in Kew (POST 56/6)

The BPMA stand will consist of the touring version of Last Post: Remembering the First World War, plus two new additional panels focusing on the wider delivery of mail across the world during the First World War. Panel research for the new panels was undertaken by AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD student Victoria Davis. Additional research has been completed by Dr Pete Sutton. We will have plenty of other material available on the night and also have a number of First World War handling items available for visitors.

The shipping of mails (POST 56/6)

The shipping of mails (POST 56/6)

The evening is a drop-in event and begins with a drinks reception at 6pm, open to all. Activities and stands will be available throughout the evening. A panel discussion begins in the auditorium at 7.45pm.

The BPMA stand will be situated downstairs in the V&A Sackler Centre, directly behind the Sackler Centre Reception desk.  We look forward to seeing you on the night!

Check out our Flickr set on the First World War. We will be updating it regularly with images from our archive relating to postal history and the war.

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Two BPMA touring exhibitions open in Aberystwyth

Two of our touring exhibitions (Designs on Delivery and The Post Office in Pictures) are both on display at Aberystwyth Arts Centre starting tomorrow (18 January) until early March.

Designs on Delivery

Design played a crucial role in promoting social progress and technological change across Britain between 1930 and 1960. General Post Office (GPO) posters were commissioned in the context of specific channels of communication. Posters were designed for Post Office walls, pillar boxes and transport vehicles.

POST1103184

Post your letters before noon, Jan Lewitt and George Him, 1941 (POST 110/3184).

The exhibition posters offer a variety of visual language adopted to meet these different needs. GPO posters included work by those associated with both fine art and graphic design, demonstrating the blurring of the boundaries between high art and popular culture that poster design encouraged.

This exhibition showcases 25 of the best of these posters.

POST110_3177

Air Mail Routes, Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1937 (POST 110/3177) .

The Post Office in Pictures

The Post Office in Pictures is an exhibition showcasing a selection of inspiring images sourced from the BPMA’s vast collections.

Photography was one of the key tools used by the GPO PR Department (est. 1934) to reach and engage with the general public. In order to supply its fledgling Post Office Magazine with professionally-produced photographs, members of the GPO Photographic Unit began to accompany the magazine’s journalists.

Down Wapping Way, 1935 (POST 118/252).

Down Wapping Way, 1935 (POST 118/252).

The exhibition showcases 30 outstanding photographs from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Also available to read alongside the exhibitions will be copies of the Post Office Magazines, from which many of these photographs are drawn.

The Post Office in Pictures and Designs on Delivery both open on Saturday 18 January at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and run until Saturday 8 March. Entry is free of charge and open to all.

Please let us know if you do visit the exhibitions, on dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk, 0207 354 7287, or @postalheritage. We hope you enjoy your visit!

– Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Mail Coach welcomed back to BPMA

This morning we welcomed back our mail coach following its long term loan (4 years) to Grampian Transport Museum. This is part of the wider annual curatorial audit and stocktake happening this week.

Return of Mail Coach 14-01-2014

BPMA volunteer Don Bell, Mark Speirs (Car Storage Scotland) and Senior Curator Julian Stray steer the coach safely into storage at Debden, Essex

Our mail coach was restored from several broken elements that were found in a farmyard, using the original 18th-century undercarriage. We believe that our mail coach transported mail between London and Bristol.

mail_rail_coach_gr

Photographic lantern slide of a Royal Mail horse-drawn mail van with a ‘GR’ cypher (c. 1910).

Mail coaches required quick changes of horses every ten miles.  Mail coaches transported mail from London from 1784 till 1846. Check out our online catalogue for more information on our mail coach and mail coach history.

Tenth Anniversary of the Final Traveling Post Office Journeys

Image

Men stand in front of the first train coach used to sort mail on the North Eastern Railway.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the last journeys of Royal Mail’s Travelling Post Offices. First used in 1838, they revolutionised the way mail was moved across the country. From romantic images of steam engines to the brutal realities of the Great Train Robbery, TPOs were an instantly recognisable part of the national fabric until they were phased out in 2004.

To mark this anniversary, BPMA has written a guest blog for the National Railway Museum which can be found here. An online version of our Great Train Robbery exhibition, The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive, marking the most infamous episode in the history of the TPO can be viewed on Google Cultural Institute’s website.

They came to do a job and they did it

Head Postmaster of Dover AWB Mowbray kept a typed account of the Blitz years in what became known as ‘Hell’s Corner’, recounted here by BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes.

Mowbray wrote with pride when a member of his staff, Miss W N Scanlan, was awarded the British Empire Medal in October 1941. This was announced in the London Gazette alongside a notice that the same award was awarded to two other female supervisors in charge of Post Office telephone exchanges.

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Little more is known of these women’s particular acts of bravery, aside from what is written in the newspaper:

These three Supervisors of Women Telephone Operators have, by their courage and devotion to duty, set a fine example to their staffs. Throughout the air raids in the areas where they work, they have maintained an efficient telephone service during periods of constant danger.

According to the General Post Office press release, eight other female supervisors and telephonists had previously received awards and commendations.

Over 100,000 women had been employed by the GPO by November 1941 – more than one-third of the total staff. Due to the shortage of manpower, women worked a range of duties including some previously considered ‘male’ occupations – such as telephone engineers and the first ever female motorised van driver.

Mowbray describes how, in Christmas 1941…

… the kaleidoscopic effect of the multi-coloured jumpers and overalls of the women temporary sorters who fluttered about like so many butterflies was unmarred even by 2½ hours of shelling in one evening…they came to do a job and they did it regardless of the large quantity of roof glass.

Additionally, one-third of the Sub Post Offices in the country were controlled by women. It is clear that without them, the vital communication networks cared for by the Post Office could not have been maintained.

In addition to these examples there are many other notable tales of bravery by postal staff during the Blitz. A total of 27 post office staff died on duty in 1941. By the end of that year, over 100 men and women had received commendations and awards from the King, while on Civil Defence or Post Office Duty. These ranged from 38 British Empire Medals to eight George Medals.

Mowbray himself was to be included in the New Years Honours list in 1942, as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In 1941, 117 staff were also commended by the Postmaster General for their work on the home front. For every Post Office worker who won an award, there were countless others behind them who received no official recognition. Miss Scanlan announced the award to her staff by flourishing the letter and saying ‘Girls we’ve got the British Empire Medal’. And, as Mowbray himself readily acknowledges, it was the co-operation of the police, fire, transport and military services, and the cheeriness of the population that helped his staff cope with the strain of war.

We do not like the phrase “We can take it”. It would be more honest to say “It’s forced on us”, but the Dover people and Dover Post Office staff do their utmost to make the best of decidedly unpleasant circumstances.

Vyki Sparkes’ podcast The Post Office and the Blitz can be downloaded for free from the BPMA website, iTunes or SoundCloud.

See Shells Over the White Cliffs and Harder times in Hell’s Corner for more from the AWB Mowbray accounts.

130 years of the parcel post

Today marks the 130th Anniversary of the Parcel Post, which began on 1st August 1883. At the time, the service was regarded as the greatest revolution in the postal system since the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage some 40 years previously.

The BPMA Archives contains a wealth of material on the Parcel Post and this blog is by no means intended to be an exhaustive account. Instead, I hope to give a brief overview of the context behind the introduction of the service and some idea of its impact.

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

The idea for a Parcel Post was suggested by Rowland Hill as early as 1842 and was raised again by Hill’s younger brother Frederick in the 1860s. In the meantime, the Post Office did go some way towards a parcels service by launching the popular Book Post service in 1848 followed by the Pattern Post (a service for posting manufacturer’s samples, a sort of early version of catalogue shopping) in 1863.

It was of course possible to send a parcel before 1883 and there were several large courier companies operating nationwide parcel services using stage coaches. By 1850, the Railway Companies had monopolised the market, making them a powerful opponent to any Post Office enterprise. The Post Office had previously tried at length to negotiate with the Railway Companies during the late 1860s, but to no avail.

The impetus for the Post Office to re-enter negotiations with the Railway Companies was provided by the Universal Postal Union Conference, held in Paris in 1880. Delegates proposed the establishment of an International Parcel Post, to commence in 1882. In order to participate, the British Post Office would first need to establish an Inland Parcel Post service.

This task fell to the then Postmaster-General Professor Henry Fawcett. Fawcett was a strong advocate for Parcel Post and in a letter to his father in April 1883, he cited the Parcel Post as top of his list of 5 things he felt needed to be done within the Post Office. His main concern was to prevent any ‘dislocation of the letter service’. Fawcett was assisted in the negotiations by Mr F.E. Baines, who was appointed the Inspector General of Mails in 1882 and had the honour of sending the first parcel by ‘Parcel Post’.

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption 'Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption ‘Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

The Railway Companies eventually agreed to terms which would give them 55% of the gross postage of all parcels carried by rail and The Post Office (Parcels) Act was passed on 18th August 1882, with nearly a full year passing until the service could be brought into operation in 1st August 1883. Given the scale of the preparations involved, it is rather remarkable that this was achieved in only a year!

The introduction of the Parcel Post meant rebuilding or adapting nearly 1,000 Head or Branch Post Offices, as well as arranging collection and distribution in more than 15,000 postal districts. It also meant an immediate change to the workload of the former letter carriers – now to be known at postmen.

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

Wicker baskets and handcarts were required for sorting and transporting parcels, each Post Office counter required scales and were issued with specifically designed cork handstamps to cancel the stamps on parcels. Every letter carrier’s walk had to be altered so they did not have too heavy a load and allowances were made for the use of a horse and cart, tricycle or pony to aid parcel delivery.

Crucially, the public had to be made aware of the new service and four-page handbills were distributed to every household in the British Isles notifying the changes.

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

The scale of the task facing the Post Office was described – rather poetically – by the Telegraph in July 1883:

Never before did any Commercial House leap all at once into so gigantic a concern, with 15,000 agencies and thirty-five million possible in these three kingdoms, never before, it is thought, was a Government department put to so severe a test as that which, twelve days hence, will await the one over which Professor Fawcett presides.

The launch attracted a significant amount of press attention, with the Daily News concluding on 2nd August 1883 that:

on the whole, the very important and very anxious experiment of yesterday seems to have passed off satisfactorily.

Fawcett himself appears to have been similarly understated in his conclusion, and his account three days after the launch of the service stated that

the only difficulty has arisen from the public inexperience in the art of packing.

Parcel Post saw the introduction of variety of carts and cycles as new ways of transporting the heavy mails had to be found. It also prompted a return to long distance haulage by road and the introduction of horse-drawn parcel mail coaches in 1887, which were operated under contract. This service carried parcels overnight along the principle routes out of London, which for such heavy mails were a cheaper alternative that the railways.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

Rather amusingly, it would appear that the public were quick to test the limits of the new service, with the Daily News reporting that:

At Leicester Square a colander was posted to a resident in the Temple, and one or two wooden spoons. At Euston, half a ham was found in one of the mails and at the Waterloo depot, cricket bats and tin kettles were among the articles dealt with.

Accounts also include a coffin shaped package sent from a Poplar undertaker to a workhouse master in Norfolk… Perhaps my favourite ‘strange enclosure’ tale is that of a gentleman who requested that the Post Office deliver a snake! After an initial refusal, the customer explained that the snake was in fact a pet ‘who had been on a visit’ (sadly the account does not specify where it had been!) and it was subsequently delivered by special messenger.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Parcel Post was not a financial success at first. The estimates for both the number of parcels sent and the average weight  – estimated by Baines at 7d a parcel, but on average only 5½d – were higher than those realised. By 1885, the Post Office was handling 26.5 million parcels per annum, increasing to 50 million by the 1890s.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the now Royal Mail were still the number one parcel carrier, processing and delivering 175 million packages annually, using 30 special parcel sorting centres and a fleet of 27,000 vehicles. Competition from private competitors has had a significant impact on parcel services, but many the innovations brought about by the introduction of the Parcel Post helped to shape the modern Post Office and the organisation which most of us are familiar with today.

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce's major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce’s major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

- Sarah Jenkins, Curatorial Assistant

Visit us on Flickr to see images of the Parcel Post dating from the 1880s to the 1980s.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition

Jonathan Bradley previews his exhibition Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition, which opens at the Royal Mail Archive today.

For three quarters of a century, one of the most successful underground railways in the world transported mail under the busy streets of London until its service was suspended in 2003. It remained largely unknown to the general populous aboveground.

Waiting in the dark - 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Waiting in the dark – 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

The Post Office Railway (AKA Mail Rail) is a unique and remarkable infrastructure, being the only dedicated driverless mail haul railway in the world. It came to my attention some two years ago while surveying for another framework environment for the ongoing People : Space work. People : Space is a human spatial study and finding appropriate environments to deliver an artistic treatment to is not an easy task. However, the Mail Rail had the necessary attributes and photography began in 2011.

Descent to the Mount - Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Descent to the Mount – Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

People : Space encourages viewers to look at spaces and areas that are or can be occupied by humans and visa-versa. Photographically capturing space is very challenging and this project often projects vistas that indirectly depict this. Frequently, the humanity element can be suggested. Within each of these pictures lies a distinct, tangible thread of humanity and though the photographs present and record a view of the railway in a quiescent state, the subtle compositional detail of the images lean the eye to regard these degrees of freedom – spaces that contained workers, movement and sound.

Relay board - 'Blue' relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Relay board – ‘Blue’ relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Consider the sound of footsteps, the noise of trains, mail being unloaded off conveyors and cherrys being clicked. Think of the people who walked the platforms, who loaded mailbags, the engineers and fitters tirelessly working in the car shed above Mount Pleasant Station, the section controllers shuffling levers and moving trains and the line crews who worked during maintenance hours who serviced the railway that is now dormant and silent. Contrast what was before with what you see today and consider these People and their Spaces.

Unable to Accept - Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Unable to Accept – Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is on display in The Royal Mail Archive, London. Entry is free.

A selection of exclusive prints signed by Jonathan Bradley are available from the BPMA online shop.

192,000 postmen’s inside legs, and other measurements in the Archive

In last month’s cataloguing update I wrote about the London sub-post office record books I’d discovered in the Archive. Since then I’ve been cataloguing records from the area of our collections devoted to the sorting and circulation of inland mail (POST 17 in the catalogue). I’ve added nearly 130 files to the catalogue this month, and edited existing descriptions for hundreds more. The records cover subjects like mail sorting machinery, the development of postcodes, and all kinds of technical details – some of them slightly odd. Here are some of my favourites.

POST 17/482 is a 1969 engineer’s study entitled Measurements of Postmen. The aim was to improve sorting office machinery ergonomics by finding out the average size of a British postman. The heights, arm lengths, and outside and inside leg measurements of thousands of postmen were collected and studied – there were 192,000 measurements for the legs! Getting all those postmen to proffer their legs for the engineer would have been an impossible (and traumatic) challenge. Instead, he studied all the sizes of uniforms ordered that year, to everyone’s benefit and, one suspects, relief.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

On the subject of measurements, I spent several days cataloguing three large sets of engineering standard drawings from the 1970s and 1980s (POST 17/533-535). The drawings – over 450 in total – cover all aspects of automated mail sorting and circulation: conveyor belts, facing tables, coding desks, chutes, signage, even Morris delivery vans.

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

These standards contain the official dimensions of equipment to be manufactured for Royal Mail, including explanations of the jobs they were intended to do. In the case of postal vehicles, the standards go as far as specifying the turning circles of each model. Combined with the reports, brochures and technical specifications found elsewhere in POST 17, there’s a vast amount of information here for anyone interested in recent postal mechanisation developments.

There are also records dating back to the very early days of postal mechanisation. One of my favourite discoveries was a little book that was used between 1907 and 1930 to record staff suggestions for improving the mail handling process.

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Sometimes staff put forward inventions, and the notes include technical sketches, such as the entry above for a time-saving rolling date stamp. The entries sometimes record whether the suggestions were taken forward. Some are appealingly optimistic, such as the 1909 idea of asking the public to tie their Christmas cards into bundles of ten or more before posting them. Other innovations seem like second nature today. The example below is a 1924 suggestion: envelopes with transparent address windows.*

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

I hope my unscientific little selection of examples from a single theme shows the incredible variety of material you can consult in our Search Room. Some of the files I catalogued this month, including records from the creation of the postcode system, can’t be opened for another few years. This is due to the 20-year rule governing public records. But cataloguing them now ensures they’ll be ready and waiting in their archive boxes when the time comes to open them.

As for the Measurements of Postmen, studying 192,000 orders for trousers found the average postman’s inside leg measurement in 1969 to be 30.2 inches. The average British postman was determined to be two inches shorter than his American equivalent.

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

All these files and more will be published to our online catalogue in the coming months.

- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sadly this wasn’t an original idea, according to Wikipedia Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, received the first patent for a windowed envelope on 10 June 1902.

The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive

On Thursday 8 August we will be marking 50 years since The Great Train Robbery with a talk by Andrew Cook and a touring exhibition. Exhibitions Officer Dominque Gardner blogs today on the background and story of this famous crime…

The Travelling Post Office

Mail was first carried by trains in Britain in November 1830. The first Railway Post Office, later known as the Travelling Post Office (TPO), was soon introduced. TPOs ran from 1838 to 2004.

TPOs were specially adapted railway carriages. Post Office workers sorted mail whilst travelling to their destination, at speeds of up to 70mph. Workers sorted the mail, in often cramped conditions, and, until 1971, transferred mail on the move via a bag exchange apparatus.

Travelling Post Office bag exchange apparatus. (POST 118/5192)

Travelling Post Office bag exchange apparatus. (POST 118/5192)

The trains often carried large quantities of high value material. This combined with a relative lack of security on board made them a target in 1963 for the heist that became known as the Great Train Robbery.

The Great Train Robbery

In the early hours of Thursday 8th August, 1963, the Up Special TPO was travelling from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston. At 3am, it was held up by a gang of criminals in an orchestrated attack and around £2.6 million was stolen. The audacity of the attack and the brutality used stunned the GPO and the general public.

The TPO carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police.

The TPO carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police.

The TPO coach was carrying 128 sacks of High Value Packets, all with noticeable- and easily identifiable- red HVP labels attached. A staggering 120 sacks containing 636 High Value Packets were stolen in the Robbery. The money enclosed in the missing packets totalled £2,595,997.10s.0d. The £2.6 million stolen is equivalent to over £45 million today.

The banks offered an unprecedented reward of £250,000 for information about the robbery. £10,000 was added to the reward by the Postmaster General who rushed back from holiday after hearing about the crime.

The Investigation

The movements of the 77 PO employees on board the TPO on the night of the robbery were scrutinised. Many were interviewed at length, as were other staff that happened to live in or near the vicinity of the home of a robber. Within The Royal Mail Archive held at The BPMA there are witness statements of the TPO staff (POST 120/106-8) and files devoted to those Post Office employees suspected of potential ‘leakage of information’ (POST 120/128-9).

Despite intense speculation and the enquiries by the Post Office Investigation Branch (later Investigation Department) no proof has ever been found of a Post Office insider.

Wanted poster of the robbers and their associates. This was produced not long after the robbery and was widely distributed. (POST 120/95)

Wanted poster of the robbers and their associates. This was produced not long after the robbery and was widely distributed. (POST 120/95)

Arrests

Twelve suspects were tried and convicted within nine months of the Robbery thanks to the combined efforts of Buckinghamshire Constabulary, the Transport Commission Police, the Post Office Investigation Branch and New Scotland Yard. Many of those convicted were given maximum sentences of 30 years for armed robbery to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

Aftermath

The investigations that took place in the wake of the Great Train Robbery of 1963 were part of this long history of detecting crime in the postal service. Those playing a vital role in Royal Mail Group Security today are successors to those who helped apprehend the most notorious train robbers in history.

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

The investigations of the Post Office Investigation Branch into the Great Train Robbery are documented in a report prepared by Assistant Controller Richard Yates in May 1964. This report can be found in The Royal Mail Archive at The BPMA (POST 120/95). The BPMA also holds many other files concerning the Robbery including several detailing bank losses and property eventually recovered (POST 120/112-9) and observation reports (POST 120/130-3).

The exhibition will be on display in the BPMA Search Room on the 8th August to mark 50 years since the Robbery took place, from 10am to 7pm, followed by a talk by author Andrew Cook. The exhibition then goes on tour around the country. Full listings of the venues hosting the exhibition can be found on our website.

Please contact The BPMA Exhibitions Officer on 0207 354 7287 or dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk for more information or if you would like to hire the exhibition.