The Postman’s Snuffbox (Part 1)

While on holiday in London Kenneth Grey Wilson and his wife found a snuffbox owned by a British postman. In trying to find the relatives of this postal worker he came across a few unexpected surprises. This week (in a two-part post), Kenneth will be sharing his story and that of the snuff box owner.

We all love a good treasure-hunting story; accounts of buried pirate booty, lost gold mines, or Roman coins found in a farmer’s meadow seem to capture the attention of nearly everyone. Most of us are not fortunate enough to discover a buccaneer’s hoard behind a chimney stone, but it seems that we all in our way do a bit of treasure hunting—keeping an eye out for a Picasso at a jumble sale, searching for bargains at Debenhams, or just looking for forgotten change in vending machines.

My wife and I are both collectors and treasure-hunters of a sort, and when traveling we look for inexpensive curios in antique shops, shop windows or flea markets—objects that seem to convey history, hold a strong visual appeal, and ideally some level of mystery. The object might be a hand-made toy, a piece of jewelry, an old postcard or a faded photograph, but it must convey a human touch or story that communicates across time. On a recent trip to London we spent hours in the British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of London, but what really excited us was the prospect of discovering small treasures in the many flea markets of the city.

On a damp, grey Sunday—the kind of day that makes tourists feel that they are in the London of Sherlock Holmes or Charles Dickens—we ventured out to the Old Spitalfields Market in the East End, an area of London outside the old medieval walled city that has seen buying, selling, haggling and trading of all sorts for hundreds of years. The historic market looked promising—crowded aisles between stalls filled with bits and pieces of other times and other lives.  The odors of age and dust were greatly improved by the smells of of Cornish pasties and meat pies and we eagerly took to the hunt.

While bargaining over some small metal hooks that might find use in our bathroom, I noticed a small, nickel-plated snuffbox with the words, “A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley” marked on the lid. The letters had been stamped into the metal, one at time, with hand tools. The repetition of the letter “X” turned on its side had created a border around the words.  My wife and I immediately thought that this intriguing find had enough clues to trace it to its original owner, and that mission might serve as a fun challenge. The snuffbox would be our map. The owner would be the treasure.

Snuffbox

Snuffbox

I made a cash deal with the seller for both the bathroom hooks and the snuffbox and my wife and I went happily back to our hotel room to rest up for the next day’s adventures.  A week later, back at home in Texas, I searched the Internet for Dursley, and found that it was a small market town in Gloucestershire. A search for A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley, quickly turned up a link to an online forum for past residents of Dursley and a comment by Julie Smith from Ohio, USA, about growing up in the town, along with a mention of her late brother, Alan Whittard, who had been a Dursley postman.

Parsonage St., Dursley, circa 1910. The old post office was on this street. Postcard from Kenneth's collection.

Parsonage St., Dursley, circa 1910. The old post office was on this street. Postcard from Kenneth’s collection.

It appeared that we had a win on the first spin of the wheel, but in further investigation, we recognized that Alan was too young to be our snuffbox owner, and what’s more, no one remembered him ever using snuff. Julie offered to contact a friend in Dursley, Jennifer Rennie, known as “Paddy.” As it turned out, Paddy’s maternal grandfather was Arthur Whittard, a Dursley postman at the turn of the 20th century. So, unknown to Julie, she and her “friend” Paddy were actually distant cousins…

If this story inspired you to do some family history research of your own, or you just want to find out more about a family member who worked for the British postal service, the BPMA has range of records in its collection that may help you find out more.

Behind the scenes at the Pop-Up Field Post Office

For the next two weeks we’re busy working with Big Wheel Theatre Company to deliver a First World War project for schools and visitors at the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

This week over 300 school pupils will experience Meaning in the Mud: Letters to and from the Front Line, an immersive theatre workshop, and visit our Pop-up Field Post Office. Often little more than a table in a field, sometimes just a tent, or a temporary structure – Field Post Offices provided a vital link between the home and fighting fronts by distributing the letters and parcels sent to soldiers from loved ones.

Photo of a Field Post Office in the BPMA collection.

Photo of a Field Post Office from the BPMA collection.

Here are  a few photos of us building the set to show you more about what the pupils can expect to find out.

Hannah from the BPMA and Maureen from the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust hard at work.

Hannah (BPMA) and Maureen (Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust) working hard to build the set.

During the Meaning in the Mud workshop actors from Big Wheel will show how the war affected the people of Shropshire through an interactive performance using objects, archival sources, poems and photographs from the BPMA collection.

Field Post Office 1

The finished Field Post Office.

After the performance pupils will write their own letters from the Front Line and step into the Field Post Office to send them to their schools.

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Ta Dah! The finished set.

You can follow this project on Twitter #PopUpPost

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This project supports the BPMA’s Last Post: Remembering the First World War exhibition on display in Coalbrookdale until April 2015.

-Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer

Meaning in the Mud and the Pop-Up Post Office are generously supported by a grant from the First World War: Then and Now Heritage Lottery Fund.

October uploads to the online catalogue

With almost 120,000 records now available on our online catalogue our Archive Catalogue & Project Manager Gavin McGuffie tells us about some of these exciting documents.

Last Thursday we uploaded nearly 2,500 new records to our online catalogue, mostly publicity posters (POST 110) and legal cases and opinions (POST 74).

We now have images of almost 2,500 GPO posters available to view on our online catalogue [since there are about 6,000 poster descriptions on the catalogue] spanning the advent of Post Office Poster design, through the golden age of the GPO Public relations department from 1933-1960, right through to the present day Over the years the GPO commissioned some of the biggest names in graphic design to produce work for them including Edward McKnight Kauffer, Barnett Freedman, Frank Newbould, Austin Cooper and the partnership Lewitt-Him.

The posters cover a whole range of subjects including the Post Early campaign, the sending of airgraphs during the Second World War, the Post Office Savings Bank, airmail, and a number of internal staff advisory posters.

 

POST 110/3215 Tom Eckersley, 1952 (PRD 0675)

POST 110/3215 Tom Eckersley, 1952 (PRD 0675)

 

POST 110/1310 George Brzezinski Karo, 1954 (PRD 0731)

POST 110/1310 George Brzezinski Karo, 1954 (PRD 0731)

The Cases and Opinions also provide a fascinating insight into the history of the Post Office. “Cases” were requests for legal advice written by members of the General Post Office’s Solicitor’s Department to external legal chambers and the “opinions” were the advice provided. The contents of these correspondences include road tolls, franking, explosive articles contained in letters, and bankrupts’ letters, giving us a window into the types of legal matters the Post Office was concerned with at various periods during its history, which very often reflected greater social issues.

The upload completes the cataloguing of Cases and Opinions, which was begun in 2012 by a University College London student. This work has been made possible by our volunteers who have listed record titles, which form the basis of the catalogue entries, while cleaning, repacking and re-housing materials for our forthcoming move.

A re-housed POST 74 box

A re-housed POST 74 box

The online catalogue is now fully up and running, but we will continue to add new records and amend existing ones over the coming months to ensure that it is as easy as possible to use. However if you spot any problems whilst using it please let us know by emailing catalogue@postalheritage.org.uk

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager

A War of Letters: Understanding WWI through letters

On Thursday 16th October Curator Emma Harper is giving a talk at the Guildhall Library entitled ‘A War of Letters’, here’s a little preview of what you can expect. 

Every aspect of the war was communicated by letter and, for many, letters were a way of maintaining some semblance of normality. Whilst accurate figures for the amounts of mail sent during the war are hard to pin point, we know that at its peak over 12 million letters a week passed through the Post Office’s temporary sorting office – the Home Depot.

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

 

Some survive in the BPMA’s collection and reflect the range of subjects that were written about. The weather, health and letter writing itself, or lack of it, were spoken about rather than the war itself, the effects of which were often played down as in this postcard from ‘Fred’ to his mother:

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

‘Just a few lines hoping that you are in the very best of health Dear. I hope that you are not offended with me for not writing to you before now, but I knowed the one letter would do for the two of you. I am not very sound myself but you need not worry over me.’

Receipt of a letter was a huge boost to morale both for those at home and at the Front, the maintenance of that link was of vital importance and recognised as such by the Post Office. By writing ‘On Active Service’ at the top of their correspondence soldiers could write home for free.

One of the most common ‘letters’ received from the Front was the Field Service Postcard. These postcards only allowed soldiers to give basic details to family back home as rather than writing their own sentiments they had to pick from a list, deleting those that didn’t apply. This was a form of censorship as the limited space for personal expression meant that there was less risk of divulging confidential information or of tales that may reduce morale reaching the Home Front. Despite the fact that nothing else was meant to be written on the postcard there were always exceptions and some of them did get through the censor, such as this harmless Christmas message [also 2014-0062].

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. 2014-0062)

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. (2014-0062)

Many of the letters received however did not bring such happy messages and some of the most poignant of the war are those last letters ever written, a selection of which I’ll be sharing in my talk. One of the letters in BPMA’s collection informs Mrs Peel of the death of her husband, Captain Home Peel of the Post Office’s own regiment, the Post Office Rifles [OB1997.212/46]. Unusually it was written by a German soldier, E.F. Gaylor [OB1997.212/37]. He writes: Although enemy and sometimes deeply hurt by the ridiculous tone of your horrid press, I feel it as a human duty to communicate you these sad news. Capt Peel was killed in action near Longueval & died, as it seems by the wounds received, without suffering.’

Captain Home Peel. OB1997.212/46)

Captain Home Peel. (OB1997.212/46)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. OB1997.212/37)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. (OB1997.212/37)

The fact that Peel carried his letters round with him and that Gaylor still felt it his duty to communicate the news to Peel’s loved ones, his enemies, shows the strength of feeling and importance given to letter writing in the war. These letters now also play a vital role in deepening our understanding and remembrance of the war.

To find out more please do come along to Guildhall Library on Thursday 16th October at 6pm. You can still book your tickets online!

NEW STAMPS: Influential Prime Ministers

Today Royal Mail launched eight new stamps showing key British Prime Ministers of the past 200 years. This is the first set first dedicated to Prime Ministers and features some of the most influential office holders.

The Prime Minster is the head of the British Government. The official title is ‘First Lord of the Treasury’. It was around 200 years ago that the term ‘Prime Minister’ was first used.

Prime Ministers Pres Pack Visual

PM Charles Grey, £0.97

PM Charles Grey, £0.97.

PM Clement Attlee, £0.97

PM Clement Attlee, 1st class.

PM Harold Wilson, £0.97

PM Harold Wilson, 1st class.

PM Margaret Thatcher, £0.97

PM Margaret Thatcher, 1st class.

PM Robert Peel, £0.97

PM Robert Peel, £0.97.

PM William Gladstone, £0.97

PM William Gladstone, £0.97.

PM William Gladstone, £0.97

PM Winston Churchill, 1st class.

PM William Pitt the Younger, £0.97

PM William Pitt the Younger, £0.97.

This isn’t Churchill first appearance on a UK stamp. Only his death cleared the path to the production of a commemorative stamp: in 1965 the idea of showing any eminent person on a stamp, even former monarchs, was unprecedented. It was felt that the importance of the occasion, and the inevitable stamp issues from other countries, meant that a stamp should be commissioned.

Winston Churchill memorial stamp, 4d.

Winston Churchill memorial stamp, 4d.

The final design chosen was by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease, from a photograph by Karsh. The stamp was issued in values of 4d and 1s 3d.

The stamps are available online at www.royalmail.com/primeministers, by phone on 03457 641 641 and in 8,000 Post Offices throughout the UK. Stamps can be bought individually or as a set in a Presentation Pack for £6.90.

World Post Day: the impact of infection and civil unrest in mail delivery

Many factors can affect the collection and delivery of mail in the UK and across the world. Throughout history, postal services have had to cope with obstacles including weather, industrial action, infection, and civil and military unrest.

POST 122_3535 International Sanitary Regulations-topimage

International mail is particularly subject to disruption due to the distances involved and the modes of transport used. While, for example, in the event of industrial action it  is usually relatively straightforward to shift inland mail from one form of transport to another i.e. rail to road, there are less options available for overseas mail. In particular, moving mail from air to sea could result in significant delays.

International Sanitary Regulations (POST 122/3535)

International Sanitary Regulations (POST 122/3535)

This is still true today. Royal Mail’s  incident report for international mail shows that, at present, one of the key causes of disruption is the Ebola outbreak, which has resulted in the suspension of all mail services to and from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Libya. Delays delivering mail as the result of infection are nothing new. In the early Twentieth Century outbreaks of cholera in regions such as Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan were a cause for concern. Questions were raised as to whether mail from these regions should be disinfected. Though not thought necessary as ‘cholera germs have a very short life… even air mail sufficient to avoid danger of infection’ (POST 122/3523). Despite this, in some cases mail was disinfected or quarantined to meet the concerns of local health boards and to avoid the Post Office being considered a scapegoat should an outbreak occur in a previously unaffected area.

India Pakistan mails (POST 122/10945)

India Pakistan mails (POST 122/10945)

India Pakistan surface mails (POST 122/10946)

India Pakistan surface mails (POST 122/10946)

War and civil unrest are currently causing disruption to mail services in Syria, and Crimea and Sevastopol in the Ukraine. Military conflict has historically had an impact on international postal services, even in cases where Britain is not directly involved. For example the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan in 1965 disrupted mail to and from these countries. India refused access to its airspace to planes which had taken off from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Ships were also rerouted, but in many cases it was difficult to identify and separate mails for India and Pakistan and to establish independent postal services.

-Helen Dafter, Archivist

New objects at Last Post exhibition!

Our year-long exhibition, Last Post, is currently at Coalbrookdale Gallery, one of the museums at Ironbridge Gorge. Many of the paper items that have been shown over the last six months have been removed and replaced with other items that have never before been displayed.

The two original manuscript poems- ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, and ‘The Letter’, written by Wilfred Owen, that were on loan from the British Library have been taken off display and replaced by identical facsimile versions. The continued display of these ground breaking poems in facsimile form will enable the story of Shropshire-born Wilfred Owen to remain central to  the exhibition, until it closes on 30 March 2015.

For the first time ever, we will be displaying a Princess Mary tin, sent through the post as a Christmas gift to all serving soldiers during Christmas 1914. This was the initiative of the then 17 year old Princess Mary, daughter of King George V. A public appeal was launched to raise the money for the manufacture the tins and to buy the contents which included items such as tobacco or chocolate inside. Over 426,000 Princess Mary tins were posted to those serving on Christmas Day 1914.

Princess Mary tin

Princess Mary tin

We are also delighted to be displaying a First World War diary, recently acquired by the BPMA. The diary was written by a Post Office Rifle, Sergeant Thomas May, in 1915. Thomas May entered the Post Office as a Telegram Messenger Boy aged 14. His diary details his time in the Post Office Rifles  as he made his way to the Fighting Front in France. May was badly wounded during the War, but survived, and returned to work at the Post Office. A full transcription of the diary will be available in the exhibition for visitors to read.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Three embroidered cards rounded up the changes to the exhibition. Embroidered cards were made by French women on the front for soldiers to send back to loved ones as momentos. The often contained a little message hidden inside an embroidered flap.

Three of the embroidered cards on display.

Three of the embroidered cards on display.

You can find out more by visiting Last Post or viewing our online exhibition.

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer