Students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Massachusetts visit the BPMA

We are a group of four students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. At the beginning of the summer, from May 12th to June 28th, we had the privilege of working with the British Postal Museum and Archive to develop better visitor evaluation strategies. The goal of our project was to help improve visitor evaluation within their exhibitions which primarily focused on the Last Post Exhibition.

Mail Rail

WPI Students take a tour of Mail Rail

The overall experience was fantastic, filled with opportunities and memories. We were able to visit and explore some of the most popular museums in London including the Natural History, Victorian and Albert, and Science museums. At these museums, we observed visitors to identify what they enjoyed and see how the set up can affect visitor engagement.


Nysa at Last Post Coalbrookdale

We also had the pleasure of working with BPMA visitors. Getting to know those who enjoyed the BPMA’s work, and asking them for helpful insight into what they learned and what they think would improve the sites. Working at events and visiting the Last Post exhibition at Mansfield and Coalbrookdale was a thrilling experience; we not only learned about the exhibitions but also were able to test many different evaluation methods such as interview, surveys, creative writing/drawing activities and observations.


Shuyang with the postal uniform display

We gathered some informative and gratifying feedback, for example one visitor said she “…learned so much more about a city [she had] lived in for 40 years.” Others said that they “did not realize the extent of Post Office involvement in the First World War.” The feedback we gathered was helpful and greatly aided our research objectives.

Enjoying London

WPI Students enjoying London

Aside from gaining new knowledge about museum goers, as a team we were able to improve our professional writing skills, communicate with a broad range of people, and work efficiently in a group setting. This experience also enabled us to grow as young professionals; we believe this project has added to a foundation of what the working world is like.  Living in London was an experience of a lifetime; adapting and working in a different culture will enable us to adapt to all presented opportunities and continue to broaden our understanding of the world.

Thank you,

Angela, Nysa, Shuyang and George

After a break following the first trials of our 3D scanning project

After a break following the first trials of our 3D scanning project, work continued last week when Martin Devereux, Head of Digital, and Stuart, Philatelic, took three objects to UCL to be scanned by Mona Hess, our 3D specialist. 

These were no ordinary objects, however. Stuart, our philatelic archivist and I took a flintlock pistol used to guard mail coaches, a handstamp used to cancel mail carried by the first airmail trial in 1911, and an iconic plaster cast of Her Majesty the Queen, sculpted by Arnold Machin. The Machin cast is recognised around the world as it has appeared on UK stamps since 1967.

Handstamp getting scanned by the

Handstamp being scanned by the Arius 3D colour scanner.

Each of these items poses a serious challenge to current 3D digitisation techniques. Glossy surfaces and deep features mean that lasers do not work as effectively as with less shiny and less detailed subjects.

Mona spent over 3 hours scanning the plaster cast with the Arius 3D colour scanner, while Stuart and I, along with MSc student, Sarah Sifontes Duran, captured the geometry of the handstamp and flintlock pistol, using an infra-red scanner – a technique that Mona is pioneering. The aim of this work is to produce a set of techniques which can be combined quickly and at low-cost to produce accurate and detailed representations of objects in three dimensions.

Stuart carefully transporting the Machin cast.

Stuart carefully transporting the Machin cast.

Output of the Machin 3D scan.

Output of the Machin 3D scan.

Digitising the plaster cast of Her Majesty was the climax of the day and a highpoint for Mona. She has scanned many memorable objects over the years and the Machin cast is certainly a significant addition to her list.

Flintlock pistol being scanned.

Flintlock pistol being scanned.

Machin cast close-up.

Machin close-up.

Once the cast had been scanned, the remainder of the day saw the scanning of the flintlock pistol and handstamp using the Arius colour scanner.

Mona is working to refine the results of the trials and further work will be undertaken over the summer as the project moves forward.

-Martin Devereux, Head of Digital

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.


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.


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.

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

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

Cross written letter, 1827.

Cross written letter, 1827.

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

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

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

“It is certainly very well regulated.”

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

Emma Chapter XVI page 300

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the staff: Day in the life of an Archive Assistant

In this morning’s blog Penny McMahon highlights the different jobs and functions that she does as an Archives/Records Assistant.  


The day starts at 9am, I normally log the visitors and requisition forms from the day before. The visitors are logged to keep track of the different interests our users have, to spot any trends and make changes to the services we offer accordingly. The requisitions are also logged –‘requisitions’ is the term we use to describe fetching original archival items from the repository. This information is recorded so that when deciding on which material to digitise or pin point items that need preservation treatment, we can select the most frequently used items. The information is also gathered in case the item goes missing-we can look up the date it was last retrieved and who the last person to look at it was.


At 10am the search room opens to the public and our friendly postman arrives with the mail. As well as bringing us letter enquiries we also receive donations from the public and Royal Mail through the post. Giving these donations unique references to identify them and putting a basic description in our catalogue database is essential to keeping track of these. The thought donators take to send these items in is appreciated. However, it is useful to have as much background information as possible about an item and prefer it when people call us before going to the expense of posting an item to us. You can view the museum collection policies on this page on our website.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.


By 11am we normally have several researchers in the search room. The exciting thing about working in the search room team is the variety of interests that researchers have. We don’t know who is going to walk through the door.  Family historians are a significant portion of the archives users; this is because the General Post Office was one of the biggest employers in Great Britain and these employee records can be hugely insightful. As family historians normally use the archive once or twice and the records they are interested in are so specific, they require quite a lot of help to guide them through the archives. I find family historians are some of the most rewarding users to help, I think because of their personal connection to the records.

The BPMA also attracts a number of academic researchers, including PhD students that use our archives to gather insight into the social history of Great Britain. As the Post Office is a national and international network, the records in the archives document the social and technological changes across the centuries. The BPMA has a number of partnerships with different universities supporting these students. These students know the collections and catalogue well and require little help, but they get through the records fast, so we spend a lot of time retrieving records from the repository for them.

Remote Enquiries

The info mailbox receives around 160 email enquiries a month; we also receive enquiries by phone and by letter. Some of these are straightforward and can be answered in minutes. For example, often authors want to know how much it would cost to send a letter in a different era (World War I is particularly popular just now), or how long it would take for the letter to arrive. Some require a lot more work and often we rely on the specialist knowledge of our Philatelic and Museum Curators to point us in the right direction. These enquiries we do throughout the day whenever we are not directly helping an onsite visitor or carrying out other projects, such as research or cataloguing projects.

Retrieved archive items.

Retrieved archive items.


Normally lasts around an hour and I am spoilt for choice with all the delicious markets around Freeling House.

Museum Visitors

Towards the end of the day we normally have a few visitors who, when they visit us, expect to see a national museum. Sadly at the moment the archive search room only has 4 display cases and although the Mail Rail photographic exhibition currently on display is very interesting, it is impossible to exhibit in such a small space the breadth of the museum, philatelic and archive collections. Luckily The Postal Museum will have much more room to better display the collections.


Our public behind the scenes archive tours normally kick off at around 3pm. I really enjoy the opportunity these tours give to show off the variety of our collection from the beautifully written 17th century account books to a first edition Ulysses to original telegram artwork by designers such Rex Whistler. The interaction that the different members of the public have with the items is always different, meaning that every tour is different. Public tours can be booked online, we also organise ad hoc tours to groups.

Set-up for a tour.

Set-up for a tour.

At the end of the day…

I need to put away all the original archival material that I have been using to answer enquiries and the archival material that visitors have been using. If the search room has been quiet and the enquiries are finished this is normally a good time to update our reference library with any new books or journals that have come in.

The search room closes at 5pm and I head home soon after to have a glass of wine.

-Penny McMahon, Archivist/Records Assistant

New online catalogue released

I’m pleased to announce the launch of the beta version of our new online catalogue. With over a year’s development behind it, and with more to come over the next year, we’re happy to open the new catalogue for use. You can try it by visiting

New description.

New description.

A beta version is not a finished product, but it is at a stage where we want our users to have the opportunity to try it out and to let us know what they think about it. What works and what doesn’t work? What do you really like? What would you change? How can it be improved? These are questions only our users can really answer. We’ve done user-testing amongst our staff and our volunteers, and we’ll be asking visitors to our search room to try it out and tell us what they think – but we’d like your thoughts on how it works both as a research tool and as a way to find out more about our collections.

So let’s outline the key features:

  • New search engine – already tried in a number of archive, museum and gallery catalogues. It returns results based on relevancy, but can also be sorted by title, date and level.
  • Bigger images – over 22,000 images are available and we’ve increased their size so that they’re easier to see. Searches can also be restricted to show only those records which contain images.
New image.

New image.

Old image.

Old image.

  • Faceted categories – the catalogue automatically indexes terms within the records to create categories for results. We can also add specific terms and keywords for indexing purposes.
  • Tags – users can contribute their own keywords to records. We will review these regularly and may add them to the keyword lists in the catalogue.
  • Better tools for navigating archive records – a hierarchical tree which can be navigated at ease, opening up the archive so that viewers can easily see how it is organised.
New hierarchy.

New hierarchy.

Old hierarchy.

Old hierarchy.

There is still work to be done on the beta catalogue before it can replace our existing catalogue. Images for some records are missing, and the advanced search tools need further work to make them function fully. We also need to develop the supporting pages that show how the catalogue works and those which highlight aspects of the collection.

There may also be other problems that our testing has yet to uncover, which is where your use of the catalogue can help us. You can report any problems you may find, or suggest improvements to the way it works and looks. Any comments, suggestions or issues about the beta catalogue can be sent to me at

We will be running the new beta catalogue alongside the current catalogue, allowing users to try both and provide feedback. We will be retiring the old catalogue in July. Over the course of July, we’ll be renewing the links in our website that take viewers to our old catalogue so that they’ll be taken to the new one instead. Please bear with us while this work is undertaken.

The launch of the beta catalogue is only the first phase of a larger development of the catalogue. The next phase will see the testing of document ordering facilities, meaning researchers will be able to request material to the search room in advance of their visit. We’ll also be looking at ways for users to order and receive digitised documents directly from the catalogue. Alongside these major developments we’ll look to enrich the ways in which records are viewed. In particular, we’ll look at how many objects and documents from the collection are related to specific locations (including plans, photographs, objects and other documents) and test ways of placing them on maps. We’ll also test the delivery of ultra-high resolution images of the best items from our collections and ways of delivering the models of objects created by our 3D scanning project.

-Martin Devereux, Head of Digital

Davy Byrne’s Ulysses for Bloomsday

One of the more unusual items we have in The Royal Mail Archive stored here at the BPMA is a first edition copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. Joyce wrote the novel between 1919 and 1920 and when it was published in 1922 it was soon banned in the UK for obscene content.

It was illegal to send these sorts of publications through the post, and this became one of the many publications that the Post Office was instructed to intercept if they came across them. Here the Post Office was acting under section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 which directed: such goods shall be forfeited, and may be destroyed or otherwise disposed of as the Commissioners of Customs may direct.

A warrant issued to detain and open packages containing Ulysses was in force from 27 March 1933 to 13 November 1936, over which time a fair few copies were intercepted. A note from early 1934 in a file (POST 23/9, ‘Seditious, obscene and libellous publications sent through the post’) suggests ‘no more than 50’ copies had been stopped since the warrant came into force (as against a newspaper suggestion that 2,000 copies had been seized and destroyed). In particular, efforts were being made to stop the importation of Ulysses into the country from publishers abroad.

Ulysses first edition in its original box, POST 23/220.

Ulysses first edition in its original box, POST 23/220.

Our edition is one of 1,000 numbered editions produced by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. 100 were produced using Dutch handmade paper signed by the author, a further 150 on Vergé d’Arches paper. The remainder on handmade paper were numbered, 251 to 1000. Our copy is numbered 895.

Inside page of Ulysses in The Royal Mail Archive.

Inside page of Ulysses in The Royal Mail Archive.

As well as the book itself we have a small number of items accompanying it. There is a printed business card for a David Byrne of 21 Duke Street, Dublin and a handwritten note which reads:

Jacob Schwartz, Bookseller, 20 Bloomsbury St.
Sold to Ulysses Bookshop
James Joyce – Ulysses – 1922
Price £3 – 0 – 0.

Business card and note accompanying Ulysses.

Business card and note accompanying Ulysses.

These introduce two interesting historical figures.

On a recent visit to the BPMA Dan Mulhall, Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, pointed out that the David Byrne on the card would have been the proprietor of Davy Byrne’s pub at that address on Duke Street and furthermore features in Ulysses, in the pub, something we were alas not aware of (I have to admit here that my two attempts at reading Joyce’s wonderful but exacting work have failed around page 100). Davy Byrne’s pub also features in Joyce’s short story Counterparts which was published in his collection Dubliners.

The pub and Byrne come into Ulysses from page 163:

He [protagonist Leopold Bloom] entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.


—Have you a cheese sandwich?

—Yes, sir.

Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber, Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.

—Wife well?

—Quite well, thanks … A cheese sandwich, then. Gorgonzola, have you?

—Yes, sir.

Davy Byrne came forward from the hindbar in tuckstitched shirtsleeves, cleaning his lips with two wipes of his napkin. Herring’s blush. Whose smile upon each feature plays with such and such replete. Too much fat on the parsnips.

—And here’s himself and pepper on him, Nosey Flynn said. Can you give us a good one for the Gold cup?

—I’m off that, Mr Flynn, Davy Byrne answered. I never put anything on a horse.

—You’re right there, Nosey Flynn said.

Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate. Not logwood that. Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off.

Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves there.


The pub is now part of the route followed by those re-enacting Bloom’s journey each year on 16 June (Bloomsday).

Davy Byrne, originally from County Wicklow, bought the pub at 21 Duke Street, Dublin in 1889. Coincidentally Joyce had previously been granted leasehold interest in the lodging rooms above 20 and 21 Duke Street. The pub has been famously visited by many literary and political figures including Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Byrne retired in 1939 but the pub goes strong to this day.

Jacob Schwartz is also a very interesting character. He practiced as a dentist in New York in the 1920s. By the 1930s he had established Ulysses Bookshop in Bloomsbury, London. He later worked in Paris, London and Brighton. Later among others he acquired manuscripts from Samuel Beckett who referred to the ex-dentist Schwartz as ‘The Great Extractor’.

So it looks like Davy Byrne attempted to sell his book to Bernard Schwartz in London presumably in the early to mid 1930s. Unlike in the UK and the US, Ulysses was never banned in Ireland. It has even been suggested that the copy could have come to Byrne directly from Joyce. Unfortunately we have nothing further material in our collection to tell us more.

So Jake the Dentist didn’t get the copy of the book he paid three pounds for. Or Byrne didn’t get payment for the book if this is an unpaid invoice. The mystery continues but one thing is for sure. It will move to a new and prestigious home when The Postal Museum opens in 2016.

Further sources for this blog:

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager