Category Archives: Uncategorized

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. To mark the year of the centenary, our First World War exhibition, Last Post, is now open at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group.

The exhibition explores the contribution of millions of people to wartime communication and the far reaching role of thePost Office on both the battlefield and the home front.

Field Post Office

Field Post Office

An Oxo tin among other things

Demonstrating the huge variety of items that could be sent through the post in wartime, you can see on display an OXO tin posted home from the fighting front by William Cox, a former Post Office worker. He posted the OXO tin back to his brother and sister, containing a button from the tunic of a fallen soldier and a piece of shrapnel.

Cox's OXO Tin

OXO tin sent home by Cox

Battlefield will and a favourite plant

You can also view the story of Private Leonard Eldridge of the 8th London Regiment (The Post Office Rifles). Soldiers were encouraged to write battlefield wills whilst on the Front. Private Eldridge’s will is on display in the exhibition.

Eldridge writes: ‘everything I possess except the aspadastras plant of mine, I give to you. The plant, I, with my last wish, leave it, and must be given to, Miss Florence Smith… She must be treated in my absence as my lover with every respect.’

Post Office Rifles

8th London Regiment – The Post Office Rifles

Wilfred Owen

Also on display in the exhibition are two original poems written by local Shropshire-born First World War officer and poet Wilfred Owen, kindly lent to us for the exhibition by The British Library.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, perhaps Owen’s most iconic poem, is on display. The poem was written in October 1917 and revised a few months later, in early 1918. Owen sent the poem to his mother, Susan Owen, with the message: ‘Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final).’

Field Post Box

Soldiers waiting for post

We also fittingly have on display Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Letter’. The poem depicts a soldier writing a letter to his wife back home. Whilst writing the letter, the soldier is fatally hit, and a comrade finishes the letter off for him.

The poem highlights the importance of letter writing to soldiers and also the danger present at all times in the trenches. It also illustrates that the contents of letters home may not have accurately depicted the conditions of everyday life for soldiers.


The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, until 27th March 2015 and entrance is free.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition in person, we have launched a simultaneous online exhibition in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.

Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Mail Rail gets the green light

Last week we received some very exciting news with regard to our plans for the new museum as Islington Borough Council approved our planning application to develop a stretch of the old Post Office Underground Railway – Mail Rail – into a unique subterranean ride.


Waiting in the Dark ©Jonathan Bradley 

The announcement resulted in a great deal of media coverage for the BPMA including pieces on the TimeOut, Daily Mail, Wired and BBC News websites.


Staff working on Mail Rail 

The decision means that, as part of a visit to The Postal Museum, due to open in central London in 2016, visitors will be able to explore the hidden world of Mail Rail under Mount Pleasant through an interactive exhibition and a 12-15 minute subterranean ride through 1km of the original tunnels, following the same route that much of the nation’s mail took for nearly 80 years from 1927-2003.


The BPMA’s vision for Mail Rail 

The Mail Rail ride is part of the BPMA’s project to create the Postal Museum which will reveal the extraordinary stories of British social, communications and design history through the universally iconic postal service. By opening up almost 400 years of records and objects from the reign of King Charles I to the present day, The Postal Museum will reveal unusual and exciting episodes from British history. It will showcase curious items including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial, a Victoria Cross and flintlock pistols used to defend Mail Coaches in the 19th Century.


delivering…The Postal Museum 

We are still waiting on the outcome of an application for £4.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a decision on which is expected in May this year, which will allow us to start construction work on the Postal Museum, now including the Mail Rail ride. This is obviously a very exciting time for us here at the BPMA and we look forward to sharing our progress with you over the coming months. 

The remarkable (postal) life of Tony Benn

The BPMA is saddened to learn today of the passing of Tony Benn. Benn served as Postmaster General under Harold Wilson 1964-66 and was instrumental in establishing our predecessor the National Postal Museum, which closed in 1998. There are many things he will be remembered for including the building of the Post Office Tower, introduction of the Post Bus, creation of the Girobank and overseeing the introduction of postcodes. Possibly the most famous and controversial action, however, was his attempt to remove the Queen’s head from stamps.


Tony Benn as Postmaster General

This revolutionary idea came about as part of a now infamous partnership with the artist and designer David Gentleman. In 1964 Benn launched an appeal for ideas to widen the scope of commemorative stamps to, in his own words, “celebrate events of national or international importance, to commemorate appropriate anniversaries and occasions, [and] to reflect Britain’s unique contribution to the arts and world affairs”.

In responding to this appeal Gentleman raised with Benn the issue of removing the Queen’s head, as he felt that its inclusion often caused problems for designers in terms of space for their work. This appealed to Benn’s socialist leanings and he encouraged Gentleman to submit his designs without the monarch.


Example of a stamp with the Queen’s head

Both Benn and Gentleman fought hard for this radical change to stamp design suggesting that the Queen’s head be replaced with the words “Great Britain” or “U.K. Postage” as can be seen on examples such as Churchill design below. However by the end of 1965 the Queen, having initially entertained the idea, decided in no uncertain terms that she wanted her head to remain on stamps.


The Churchill stamp design without the Queen’s head

A compromise was put forward to address Gentleman’s initial issue of space that resulted in a new small cameo silhouette, created from Mary Gillick’s sculpture for pre-decimal coinage, being included on pictorial stamps instead of the full Queen’s head image. This gave designers much greater leeway and changed the form, appearance and subject matter of stamps for over 20 years, allowing for a wider variety of images to appear including the first British Christmas stamps designed by children.


With new small Queen’s head image

Gentleman had won his battle, but for Tony Benn his socialist idea of removing the Queen’s head off of stamps was never realised. He had however challenged the system, and as a result implemented the first major change to stamps in many years.

Ladies of Medicine

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a good opportunity for us to look at the role of women in the Post Office. As this is such a diverse subject we will focus on the Medical Department and the appointment of the first ‘Lady Doctor’, or Female Medical Officer.

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

The origins of the medical department date back to 1855 when the first full time (male) Medical Officer was appointed. His duties included inspecting candidates for appointment to the Post Office, providing medical care and assistance to staff on lower pay grades, and investigating cases of sick absence. It was not until 1883 that the first Female Medical Officer was appointed. This appointment was made on the recommendation of the Postmaster General at the time, Henry Fawcett, who argued:

Without depreciating in any degree the value of the services of the Male Medical Staff, I am convinced, from consideration of a general character, that the peculiar nature of ailments from which women suffer renders them in a special manner susceptible of treatments by duly qualified female practitioners

(POST 64/1)

The number of women employed in the Post Office Headquarters at this time was 1150, compared to 7250 men. Initially the Treasury rejected Fawcett’s request for this new role, on the grounds that the number of women employed was too low. However Fawcett persevered, claiming that the number of women employed was likely to increase, and eventually the Treasury accepted his recommendations.

Miss Shove was appointed the first Female Medical Officer in the Post Office in March 1883. She was entitled to one month’s leave each year (the same as the male Medical Officer), but had to provide a substitute to cover her absence. In contrast the male Medical Officer had a deputy and they covered each other’s leave. Her salary was £300 a year, increasing by £20 a year to a maximum of £450. This was lower than the salary of £400-£600 recommended by Fawcett, and considerably lower than the £800-£1000 paid to the male Medical Officer. Regulations established at this time stated that;

the female Medical Officer will, in ordinary cases, address her reports direct to the Secretary, but will confer with the Chief Medical Officer on all occasions when it may be necessary.

(POST 64/1)

By 1894 the number of women employed at the Headquarters had increased to 2807 (the number of men stood at 10345). Spencer Walpole, the Secretary to the Postmaster General, applied to the Treasury to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, and to appoint an Assistant Female Medical Officer. The Treasury approved the appointment of the Assistant Female Medical Officer, but refused to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, on the grounds that the appointment of an assistant would ease her workload. Miss Madgshon was appointed Assistant Female Medical Officer in October 1895.

As the role of the Medical Department began to extend to other major cities, further Female Medical Officers were appointed. Almost immediately after the appointment of Miss Shove in London, a Female Medical Officer was appointed in Liverpool. By 1892 a female Medical Officer had also been appointed in Manchester, and consideration was being given to the issue in Glasgow. However, after consulting with the Supervisor of Female Telegraphists and her 4 Assistant Supervisors, it was felt that this would not be popular among the female staff;

from what she tells me, it appears that none of themselves viewed the suggestion with much favour, and the belief of all was, that of the female staff generally, the number who would prefer to be under the care, medically, of a lady would be found to be very small

(POST 64/1)

Similar doubts had apparently been expressed in Liverpool initially, but it quickly transpired that the women were actually less hesitant and more willing to consult a female Medical Officer about their ailments. However in Glasgow there was a further complication of no female physician practicing in the district, and therefore it was decided not to pursue the appointment of a Female Medical Officer at that time.

The employment of ‘Lady Doctors’ within the Post Office highlights wider developments in the late nineteenth century. These include the growth in the number of women practicing medicine, although it should be noted;

at the time of the [first] female Medical Officer’s appointment members of the medical profession were adverse to women practitioners in England. Most professional men still have objections to confer with lady doctors either over their patients or in connection with candidates for employment in the service

(A Wilson, Medical Officer in Chief, 30 Dec 1897, POST 64/1)

The role of Henry Fawcett in pushing for the appointment of the first female Medical Officer should not be understated, given his wider involvement in women’s issues. Finally the need for a Female Medical Officer stemmed from the increasing numbers of women being employed by the Post Office, thus the growth and development of the medical department mirrored changes in the wider Post Office workforce.

- Helen Dafter, Archivist

More information on the employment of women in the Post Office can be found on our website.

Design: GPO Posters

Design: GPO Posters, a new book by Dr Paul Rennie, has just been published. Dr Rennie is Head of Context in Graphic Design at Central St Martins College of Art, and a past contributor to the BPMA podcast.

Design: GPO Posters

Design: GPO Posters

Featuring over 100 posters commissioned by the General Post Office (GPO) from 1930-1970, the book showcases the work of artists such as Edward McKnight Kauffer and Tom Eckersley.

The book is part of the award winning Design series produced by the Antique Collector’s Club and designed by Brian Webb, another past contributor to the BPMA podcast, and also a noted stamp designer. Other books in the Design series include Design: David Gentleman.

Design: GPO Posters and Design: David Gentleman are both available from the BPMA online shop for £12.50.

New Director for the BPMA

Dr Adrian Steel

Dr Adrian Steel

Dr Adrian Steel has been appointed as the new Director of The British Postal Museum & Archive with immediate effect. The Director will be responsible for the leadership and the strategic development and direction of the BPMA.

Brian Goodey, chairman of the Trustees of the BPMA said today “We are delighted that Adrian has taken on the role of Director. The BPMA is entering a challenging period that includes its planned move to Swindon and Adrian has very successfully led that project from the beginning.”

Dr Steel commented: “I’m delighted to be taking up the challenge of leading the BPMA in its next stage of development, building on the foundations of Tony Conder. With interest in the postal service and its heritage currently greater than ever, the next stage of our new centre’s development and fundraising to plan for, and the 2010 Festival of Stamps set to inspire the expert and the general public alike, I have plenty to do, and plenty to look forward to.”

Adrian has been with the BPMA, and its predecessor Royal Mail Heritage, since 2003. He has been Catalogue Manager, covered the post of Head of Archives and Records Management during maternity leave, and has led the BPMA’s project to create a new centre for its museum and archive collections since 2006. Following the retirement of Tony Conder in April 2009, he has been acting Chief Executive Officer.

Prior to joining BPMA, Adrian worked at the London Metropolitan Archives, Reuters Archive and the Wellcome Trust, where he was based in a project working with the archive of the Wellcome Foundation pharmaceutical firm. Adrian has a PhD in history from the University of London, where he studied party politics in the Greater London area in the 1920s. He has an MA in Archives and Records Management from University College London  and has been a Registered Member of the Society of Archivists (RMSA) since 2001.

Rockets, pigeons and helicopters

by Jenny Karlsson, PR & Communications Officer 

You are probably aware that planes are a common mode of transport for the Post Office, but did you know that rockets, helicopters and pigeons have also been used to transport mail?

Rocket mail

Rocket mail is the delivery of mail by rocket or missile. The rocket would land by deploying an internal parachute upon arrival. It has been attempted by various organisations in many different countries, with varying levels of success. Due to its cost and failures it has never become seen as a feasible way of transporting mail.

German Gerhard Zucker experimented in the 1930s with powder rockets similar to fireworks. After moving to the United Kingdom, Zucker attempted to convince the General Post Office that postal delivery by rocket was viable, and Zucker’s first attempt in Britain took place 6 June 1934 on the Sussex Downs. In July the same year he made two further attempts on Scarp, an island in the Outer Hebrides, but both of his rockets exploded. His final attempt took place on the Isle of Wight, but the rocket went off course and embedded itself in the Pennington Marshes, Hampshire.

Sketch diagram of rocket, 1934

Sketch diagram of rocket, 1934


Trials to use helicopters to deliver mail first took place from 7-12 May 1934. They were organised by John S Davis, an Aerophilatelist, and carried out in conjunction with a philatelic festival.

Experiments took place between 1948 and 1950 but did not reach a satisfactory level of regularity (especially at night when most flights would need to occur) and were deemed not to be cost effective.

Helicopter mail trials in Norfolk, 1949

Helicopter mail trials in Norfolk, 1949

After this, commercial flights were occasionally used to transport mail.

Pigeon post

Clear and correct circulation details save time: an internal GPO poster promoting clear and correct detailing on telegrams. Circa 1950.

Clear and correct circulation details save time: an internal GPO poster promoting clear and correct detailing on telegrams. Circa 1950.

Throughout history, pigeons have also been used as a means of getting messages between parties. Pigeon post offered a fast and reliable service and became a vital means of communication during the First World War; by the end of the war there were 22,000 Pigeons in service.

BPMA Open Day

The BPMA holds a large number of records relating to all of these subjects, such as posters, artwork, reports, press cuttings, maps, papers and photographs. You have a unique opportunity to see these at our Archive Open Day on 12 September on the theme ‘Take Flight!’ The Archive Open Day is a drop-in event, offering behind-the-scenes tours, and is part of the Archive Awareness Campaign 2009.

‘Take Flight!’ – The British Postal Museum & Archive Open Day
Saturday 12 September 10.00am – 5.00pm
The British Postal Museum & Archive, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, London WC1X 0DL
Phone: 020 7239 2570

The BPMA at Blists Hill, Shropshire

by Alison Norris, Ironbridge Project Assistant
Canal Street

Canal Street

Over the last year the BPMA has been working with the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust (IGMT) on developing a replica Victorian Post Office and contemporary exhibition, The Post Office in the Community, at the Blists Hill Victorian Town site in Shropshire.

In 2008 the BPMA and IGMT were awarded a £126k grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Wolfson Foundation to help fund the joint venture.

Blists Hill Post Office

Blists Hill Post Office

Blists Hill is a popular visitor attraction set in the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage site, the birth place of the Industrial Revolution. It is one of ten sites run by the IGMT, and over the past few months has undertaken a huge new development project, building an entire new street from scratch. This street, Canal Street, opened to the public on 4th April 2009 and features a Drapers, Fried Fish Dealers (they were not called Fish & Chip shops until later!), Sweet Shop, Photographers and the Blists Hill Post Office. A new artisans’ quarter has also been recreated with a Plasterer, Tinsmith and Plumber all practising traditional ways of working. Other streets and shops already existed on the site, and include a Bakers, Bank, Chemist and Printers. Each of the businesses are reconstructed to appear as they might have done in the late Victorian or Edwardian period, and traditional goods are sold by costumed staff from the premises. These demonstrators are also able to answer any questions visitors may have both about the various shops and life between 1890 and 1910.

Goods for sale in the stationers

Goods for sale in the stationers

All of the buildings and shop interiors on Canal Street have been carefully researched to ensure that they represent authentic buildings from the local area. The Royal Mail Archive holds a file on the Post Office that was once in Shifnal, a nearby market town. This file has been used to help recreate the Blists Hill Post Office, which will also share its premises with a stationers, as was common practice for the time .

Attention to detail has been paramount throughout the Canal Street project, and has been enthusiastically undertaken by Michael Vanns, Interpretation Project Manager. Bricks have been specially made, as have window frames and other architectural features. Period shop fittings have been sourced from around the country, and the Post Office sorting office will soon have a de-accessioned sorting frame, donated from the BPMA museum collection.

The Blists Hill Postmaster

The Blists Hill Postmaster

As well as the new Postmaster, a Postman will also be welcomed to Blists Hill. This ‘postie’ will be based on a real worker identified from the records of The Royal Mail Archive, and his uniform will be created using references from both the Archive and the BPMA museum collection.

The Post Office in the Community

Above the Blists Hill Post Office there will be a contemporary exhibition produced by the BPMA, which will examine the role of the Post Office in the community. Moving away from the Victorian era, this will be a contemporary exhibition looking at all periods of history, and will use many objects from the extensive BPMA collection. This exhibition will broadly look at four different areas: Counter Services Over Time, Delivering the Mail, Letter Boxes and Changing Times. The exhibition will open later in 2009.

Hen & Chicks, circa 1882

Hen & Chicks, circa 1882

This will be a unique opportunity to see so many pieces from the BPMA collection in one place. These will include a Hen & Chicks centre-cycle, originally invented and patented by Edward Burstow, an architect from Horsham, Sussex in 1882. Postal officials at Horsham tried out these cycles for both postal and telegraph delivery work. Although the centre-cycle did not prove popular elsewhere, the Horsham postal workers wrote a letter of appreciation to Mr Burstow, praising the cycle.

The exhibition promises to be a unique addition to Canal Street, offering visitors a greater insight to the effect the Post Office has had on our communities during its history.

Further information

If you would like any further information about the Blists Hill Post Office or the forthcoming BPMA exhibition, please contact Alison Norris, Ironbridge Project Assistant, on 0207 239 5174 or