Category Archives: Postal History

Guest post: Why “Traditional” is often better than “Digital”

After working at The Guardian Newspaper for 5 years Nick Huxsted is now a freelance digital marketing specialist working with a number of large and small organisations across the UK. He has featured on a number of blogs including The Guardian, Hip & Healthy and is a regular contributor of Weekend Notes. When not glued to his laptop Nick likes to relax by staying glued to his iPad.

The Post Office handles 23,000,000 letters a day, 1947. Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Cramp is usually associated with prolonged periods of exercise. Typically reserved for the legs and arms after a vigorous game of tennis or competing in an often under prepared fun run. It certainly wasn’t expected half way down a sheet of A4 when composing a letter to my grandmother. My hands, that while at school were accustomed to such seemingly simple tasks; had become weak, withered, useless writing implements unable to cope with the herculean effort of writing a short letter. The digital world with its endless button pushing and mouse clicking, had robbed my hands of its calligraphic strength. Instead of the fluid, elegant letter I had imagined the end results was an almost illegible scrawl that only the most gifted or graphologists would be able to decipher. Although extremely touched that I’d gone to the effort of sending her a letter, my grandmother had to call to ask what the content of my letter contained. So in an attempt to toughen up my hands I’ve recently been writing more letters, and the response I’ve received from the numerous recipients has been very surprising indeed. In an age where text speak, emails and social media has become all too common, hand-written letters it would appear not only stand out from the crowd, but have a much more emotional reaction from the recipient. In an attempt to bring back traditional forms of communication, here are some of the reasons why people tend to love receiving a hand written, illegible letter. Showing you care It takes almost no effort to send an email. We perform the daily ritual without ever giving it a moment’s notice, bashing out our message and relying on auto-correct and the delete button to compose a suitable message. Taking the time to consider, plan and compose a personal letter means you actually start to think about what you want to say. It will always be more descriptive, honest and thoughtful. Much more compelling than a text message with a smiley face attached to the end of it. The effort will surely not be lost on the lucky recipient. Memories When we move house, spring clean our wardrobe or clean under the bed, we often come across the boxes that contain many of our memories. The diaries, school essays and letters from loved ones frequently evoke a sense of nostalgia that are tactile, physical reminders of our past. The musty smell and slight brown tinge all promote a sense of nostalgia that is difficult to replicate by searching our old email archives. A message sandwiched between a reminder about PPI Insurance and Gym membership doesn’t really have the same sentimental value. Traditional letters provide a much more emotive glimpse into our past and history. Stand out from the crowd It’s common practice nowadays to send a “thank you” email after a meeting, a job application or attending a social event like a wedding. The sheer volume of messages we receive on a daily basis can either be physically lost in Mr Spam, or become the same standard blurb that we’ve all read a thousand times before. It’s much more likely that you’ll make an impression and stand out from the crowd if you’ve taken the time to send personal thank you. With the job market proving to become increasingly competitive, any advantage you can gain over other candidates is surely worthwhile. What would 60 million stamp collectors do? With such a large number of stamp collectors in the world the postal service is a constant source of culture and tradition that has seen John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Maria Sharapova join the stamp collecting ranks. With the British Guiana 1c magenta selling for a cool £4.66m and the most expensive item in weight and volume ever known, the postal service has helped sustain the hobby of millions who take joy in looking after and collecting valuable stamps. Romance Whenever Hollywood decides to break out the hankies and craft a new romance movie, you can rest assured that there will always be a scene where the boy woo’s the girl with a romantic letter, expressing his complicated but soon to be overcome obstacles of affection. “My friend really likes you” messages on Facebook really don’t cut the mustard in comparison. So the next time you want to send someone a message, have a think about how important his or her reply is to you. It may just be worthwhile enduring the temporary affects of cramp.

Delivery by Design: Stamps in Antarctica at The Polar Museum, Cambridge

With a population of just 250, The British Antarctic Territory, which covers 660,000 square miles of Antarctica from offshore islands to the South Pole itself, doesn’t necessarily seem like somewhere that the postal service would need to operate. But, despite the low number of permanent residents, the Territory issues both its own postage stamps and coins and even has an Antarctic Postman, based in Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, who visits the outlying research bases by ship.

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With such a fascinating story to tell, it’s no surprise that there is now an exhibition devoted to the postage stamps of this remote territory. Last Thursday The Polar Museum in Cambridge launched the captivating Delivery by Design: Stamps in Antarctica exhibition. With the assistance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Scott Polar Research Institute the exhibition uses stamps, printing proofs and original artworks to shed light on this little known corner of the globe, from native wildlife including Emperor Penguins and Huskies to ships ploughing through ice and planes flying over the frozen sea, commemorating British expeditions to the Antarctic throughout history.

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The exhibition at The Polar Museum is a wonderful example of how stamps are much more than just a means of sending a letter from A to B. They are a window into history giving a snapshot of the social, cultural and design influences of any given period across every region of our planet. With every stamp from the Penny Black to the present day and all stamp artwork, both adopted and unadopted (including from such famous artists as Paul Nash, Terence Cuneo and David Gentleman) in our collections, we know that there are hundreds if not thousands of interesting stories just waiting to be told. It’s great to see exhibitions such as that at The Polar Museum bringing these stories into the public domain and I hope you will take the opportunity to pay it a visit.

Adrian Steel – Director

The exhibition will be running at The Polar Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge until 6 September 2014. Entry is free and the museum is open 10-4 Tuesday to Saturday. www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum

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

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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.