The start of the year has traditionally been the time we’ve made batches of material available to public research for the first time based on the long-standing ’30-year rule’. This year things are slightly different since the ’30 year rule’ is no more and we (along with The National Archives and some other holders of public record material) are starting a ten year transitional period to a ’20-year rule’.
In the past we opened files that had reached the thirtieth anniversary of the latest document in them over the previous year on the 1 January of the subsequent year. So on 1 January 2012 we opened all files that had documents from 1981 in them.
Material at the BPMA will now generally be available to researchers according to the 20-year rule transitional timetable which like transfer to The National Archives will deal with two years’ worth of files each year until 2023.
This is set out below:
1 Jan 2013 – Files from 1982 and 1983 will become open
1 Jan 2014 – Files from 1984 and 1985 will become open
1 Jan 2015 – Files from 1986 and 1987 will become open
1 Jan 2016 – Files from 1988 and 1989 will become open
1 Jan 2017 – Files from 1990 and 1991 will become open
1 Jan 2018 – Files from 1992 and 1993 will become open
1 Jan 2019 – Files from 1994 and 1995 will become open
1 Jan 2020 – Files from 1996 and 1997 will become open
1 Jan 2021 – Files from 1998 and 1999 will become open
1 Jan 2022 – Files from 2000 and 2001 will become open
1 Jan 2023 – Files from 2002 will become open (end of transition phase)
N.B. A very small number of files (or parts of files) in The Royal Mail Archive have extended closure periods generally under Freedom of Information Act personal information exemptions; these will be unaffected by this change.
This process has applied to more than 500 files this January, particularly material from the following POST classes: POST 19 (Postal Business Statistics), POST 52 (Stamp Depot), POST 69 (Royal Mail Board and its Predecessors) and POST 73 (Regional Administration and Operations).
Below I’ll tell you about some of the files that have interested me the most. A few of them focus on two of the major issues affecting UK politics in the early 1980s, Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands.
POST 23/219 relates to the operation of a rival postal service in Derry/ Londonderry.
William Ross MP had complained in December 1978 about Sinn Fein Christmas mail (which would deliver Christmas cards in the city at a lower rate than the Post Office) and whether it infringed the Post Office monopoly. A letter from Danny Carty, PO Northern Ireland head, to Minister of State Adam Butler discusses the issue. Press releases had been sent out every year since 1975. Stamp Collecting magazine had ‘issued the Sinn Fein press release without really understanding the issues involved’. On the issue of the monopoly Carty wrote about the dangers of going to court:
Goliath might slew David on this occasion, but at what price to the Post Office in Northern Ireland.
Following up in December 1982 Carty informed PO Chairman Ron Dearing:
Sinn Fein Christmas Post is not going to go away…I have discussed this issue at my executive meeting today and the view, with no voice of dissent, was we should do nothing. I realise this is the soft option, pragmatist that I am, but feel this is the sensible approach to take at this time.
Ron Dearing wrote to Philip Cooper, Under Secretary, Department of Industry, 1 December 1982:
I want to avoid being drawn into a position of taking legal proceedings against Sinn Fein for two reasons:-
1). part of their objective will be to promote confrontation wherever they can, and the Post Office has particular value to them in this context because it is seen as representing the UK Government and because the Post Office in Dublin is perhaps the best remembered point in the fighting that took place before the establishment of the Irish Republic.
2). risk of violence to postmen on their walks (part of the time in the dark)….For if our postmen became the centre of a campaign and were subject to threats of violence, and some actual violence, we might find that staff were understandably unwilling to make deliveries in Roman Catholic areas or indeed more widely. Then the Sinn Fein would really have won the battle.
This service was still in operation at Christmas 2012.
The context in which these developments were occurring can be seen in the contents to POST 23/370. This covers civil disturbances at the time of the IRA hunger strikes and their impact on postal services. In a memorandum covering the week 20-26 April 1981 (hunger striker and MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Bobby Sands had died on 9 April) it lists 14 serious incidents including attacks on sorting offices, vehicles and post boxes. On 17 April…
Rioters attacked Londonderry HO Sorting Office with petrol bombs, bricks and iron bars. Staff on duty managed to extinguish petrol bombs which landed on roof of building and in the yard. No injuries.
Other memos put the events into context detailing deaths of hunger strikers and other political events.
POD/AN/1060 (yet to be assigned a finding number but available) contains material on mail to the Falkland Islands in the run up to, during and following the Falklands War. A telex to Royal Research Ship John Biscoe just after the Argentinian invasion reads:
Did you hand the mail over to anyone in Port Stanley? If so who? Or have you still got it on board your ship? An urgent reply would be appreciated.
The cost of contacting members of the British Task Force sent to recapture the Islands became a subject of public interest. In response the Post Office introduced free aerogrammes.
Towards the end of the file there is an interesting set of questions and answers, particularly on the issue of mail during the Argentinian occupation. In response to ‘Why did you handle this mail when we were at war with Argentina’ this sheet states:
It is our responsibility to carry out a postal service whenever and wherever possible. It is for the Government to decide whether this service should be terminated.
POST 104/33 concerns the end of the telegram service from the Queen (the means by which congratulatory messages marking 100th birthdays and 60th wedding anniversaries had been sent since 1917). With the switch to British Telecom’s telemessage the issue of delivery time from the sorting office where it was picked up through the post to the recipient became significant. This file contains correspondence between Ron Dearing and Royal Private Secretaries. In response William Heseltine wrote on 25 September 1982:
It will be interesting to see how the new system works and I will certainly take advantage of your offer of further assistance if the new system does not come up to Her Majesty’s expectations.
Unfortunately on the first day BT had equipment failure and five of the messages did not arrive. According to a memo of 12 October 1982:
It will be wise for us to start thinking of a wholly PO service eg Intelpost, Datapost.
Today these messages are sent on cards by Royal Mail Special Delivery.
POST 108/80 is a MORI report on ‘The Reputation of the Post Office’ which highlights:
The split of the Post Office into separate postal and telecommunications entities is now firmly established in the people’s mind. The split (and the creation of British Telecom) is the dominant theme of ‘recent changes’ associated with the Post Office. The ending of the telegram scheme is the second most common theme; few are aware of new services such as Intelpost…Few spontaneously mentioned the freezing of prices – price increases appear to be more memorable.
POST 119/177 is a Plessey report looking into the possibility of extending the Post Office Underground Railway (Mail Rail) to other main London railway stations including Marylebone, Kings Cross and Waterloo. An unextended Mail Rail closed in 2003.
- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager
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