Tag Archives: British Telecom

BT Archives online

Last Wednesday BPMA’s Head of Archives Vicky Parkinson and myself were lucky enough to be invited to an opening event for BT’s new digital archives catalogue.

The new BT Archives online catalogue.

The new BT Archives online catalogue.

This involved us ascending to the 34th floor to the old revolving restaurant of the BT Tower in Fitzrovia (by the way the restaurant may have closed – in 1980 – but the viewing space still revolves, from my experience a slightly unsettling feeling). There we enjoyed fabulous views over sunny London and a series of launch speeches for the BT catalogue which has now gone live here.

Cover of Post Office Magazine from November 1965. It depicts the GPO Tower.

Cover of Post Office Magazine from November 1965. It depicts the GPO Tower.

The BT Digital Archives was developed through the New Connections project, a one million pound collaboration between Coventry University, BT and The National Archives, in order to bring an important part of this unique archive and innovations story to a much wider audience. It was funded by JISC under Strand B: Mass Digitisation of their Content programme between November 2011 and July 2013.

The project aimed to catalogue, digitise and develop a searchable online resource of almost half a million photographs, images, documents and correspondence, a core part of the overall collection assembled by BT over 165 years, including over:

  • 45,000 photographs and pictures, c1865 – 1982
  • 190,000 pages from over 13,500 research reports, 1878 – 1981
  • 230,000 documents from over 550 policy and operational files, 1851 – 1983

JISC funding ended in July 2013, but the site will continue to be maintained and developed by BT Heritage and Coventry University as part of their continuing collaboration working with Axiell.co.uk suppliers of the Arena platform.

One thing I liked was an early appearance of Tommy Flowers (who later led the team which designed Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer) from 1931. Engineering Research Report 5235 (TCB 422/5325) is co-written by Flowers and entitled ‘Key Sending from “A” Positions using a AC Signals on a Straightforward Junction Basis over Two Wire Junctions’.

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

2013 Royal Mail Archive openings: bring on the 20-year rule

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’.

Closed until various dates until 2013.

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.

Civil Disturbances Weekly Report, 20-26 April 1981. (POST 23/370)

Civil Disturbances Weekly Report, 20-26 April 1981. (POST 23/370)

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.

Telex to RRS John Bisco(e), 15 April 1982 (POD/AN/1060)

Telex to RRS John Bisco(e), 15 April 1982 (POD/AN/1060)

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.

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, cover. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, cover. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, diagram of possible extensions. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, diagram of possible extensions. (POST 119/177)

- 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.

The ringing red icon – a whistle-stop look at telephone boxes

You may wonder why a blog is being written by The British Postal Museum & Archive about telephone kiosks. The reason behind it is that 100 years ago, in 1912, the General Post Office (GPO) took over the majority of the UK’s private telephone service – and were responsible for the telephone service until responsibility for this was taken on by the newly formed British Telecom in the 1980’s.

Street furniture

With the increasing popularity of the telephone in the early 20th century, it was only a matter of time before telephones kiosks were seen in the street. Telephone kiosks based inside hotels, stations and other handy places already existed and were known as Silence cabinets.

Those placed on the streets took on various, often ornate guises. The GPO needed to develop its own street furniture in order to open up the service to the general public but also advertise the GPO simultaneously. In 1920, the first telephone kiosk under the GPO was introduced, the K1 (Kiosk 1). Whilst K1’s remained on our streets for many years they were made out of concrete, rather than the GPO’s preferred medium of cast iron. Although relatively cheap to produce they were not seen as an attractive addition to the streets. Some councils even tried putting thatched roofs on top of K1’s to improve their appearance! Though the K1 was never a permanent solution thousands were produced with a handful surviving today.

Grand style statement

K2 telephone kiosk and pillar box.

K2 telephone kiosk and pillar box.

The GPO’s quest for a telephone kiosk that was hard wearing and aesthetically pleasing was answered in 1924 when architect Giles Gilbert Scott designed the cast iron K2. GPO officials deemed that the now iconic K2 was to be red – standing proud as the colour of pillar boxes.

The K2’s domed roof was believed to echo the ornate design of the tomb of Sir John Soane, a fellow architect. The K2 was beautifully designed and functional. Rain water was directed off by vertical grooves down its sides. The ventilated crown at the top was handily placed far enough away from the speaker so that their conversation could not be heard outside, whilst still providing fresh air. Another design feature included was a sloped floor… to offset possible unsavoury use as a urinal. Many K2’s remain in the street today, predominantly in London. This was partly the downfall of the K2 – it was too expensive to produce in bulk to send out across the country. All K2’s today are listed.

Everything to everyone

Let us pass swiftly by the K3, the cream concrete version of the K2, (although there is one still inside London Zoo), and only briefly mention the K4, designed in 1925. The K4 tried to be everything to everyone – a combination telephone kiosk, stamp vending machine and post box. Sadly, it was not practical. Making a phone call in a kiosk that was next to a noisy road (enabling a quick collection of letters by the postal worker) simply did not work. An ideal site for a kiosk was not necessarily the same for a post box. Only 50 K4’s were made.

Two views of the K4 telephone kiosk, currently on show at our Museum Store.

Two views of the K4 telephone kiosk, currently on show at our Museum Store.

Triumphant (and cheaper)

I will also miss out altogether the prototype K5 and come instead to 1935 when the now Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed the K6. The triumphant (and cheaper) alternative to the K2 had been found.

The K6, designed in King George V’s Silver Jubilee year and referred to as the Jubilee Kiosk, eventually hit our streets in 1936. At least 60,000 were produced and can still be seen up and down the country today. Many councils disliked the red colour and as long as the bars across the doors remained red, the box itself could be painted a more muted colour such as grey or green.

The K6 was a slimmer, less fancy version of the K2; and, of course, it was practical. The central horizontal panes of glass on the doors of the K6 were elongated- to allow internal advertising to be viewed through the doors. In short, the K6 was a triumph.

Reflecting a newer, post-war era

The K8 telephone kiosk.

The K8 telephone kiosk.

The K6 stood the test of time. It was not until the early 1960’s when another prototype, the K7, was introduced, and it was 1968 when a successor, the K8, was introduced as an alternative. The K8, the last of the cast iron kiosks, was designed by Bruce Martin. Glazed on 3 sides with a large single glass panel per side, it reflected a newer, post-war era. Gone is the crown, coinciding with discussions about whether the Queen’s head should be removed from stamps, and also with the crown being removed from pillar boxes.

An end to kiosks under the GPO

From 1981 BT took over the telephone communication service and the GPO’s involvement ceased. The kiosks and the telephone service still remain an important part of the BPMA’s story, however, highlighting the visible face of the GPO and its importance in the fabric of communication. The BPMA’s treasure trove Museum Store in Debden holds examples of many of the kiosks discussed in this article. The only way to easily distinguish between the kiosks is to come and view them side by side at our Store! Come and decide on your favourite- mine is the K2.

Dominique Gardner – Exhibitions Officer

See our website for the schedule and booking details for Guided Store tours, or alternatively please contact Curator Emma Harper for enquiries about bespoke tours emma.harper@postalheritage.org.uk.

The National Telephone Kiosk Collection is held at the Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove.

Archive stock-take 2012: Transfer of material to BT Archives

Our annual stock-take is a necessary period of spring-cleaning for our archive service and collections, allowing us to tackle important jobs we don’t otherwise get time for.

My task this year was to identify, pull together and check off records that have been awaiting transfer to their more rightful home at BT Archives.

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

As a consequence of the British Telecommunications Act, 1981, which transferred the responsibility for telecommunications services from the Post Office to British Telecom, a lot of material has been transferred by us to BT Archives since they were established in 1986. They have their own collecting policy, which essentially concerns historical material reflecting the development and operations of BT and its predecessors.

The records set aside for transfer to BT during stock-take clearly fall under this remit, including some wonderful posters dating from the 1930s to the 1950s promoting telephonist jobs, advising on wartime telephone usage, and advertising overseas telegrams and radiotelegrams to ships at sea. The material also includes telegraph training manuals for the early twentieth century, telephone service instructions for the 1930s, and a large number of files relating to a gas explosion in the telegram-conveying pneumatic tube line beneath Holborn in 1928. There are numerous interesting claims files submitted by local residents, plus one for Fred Astaire and his sister, who were starring in a production of Funny Face at the Princes Theatre (now Shaftesbury Theatre), which was suspended for several weeks as a result of the explosion.

Vital paperwork needs to be completed before a transfer of archive material can take place to ensure accountability and good house-keeping. A complete list of all the records was compiled on a spreadsheet, which was then approved by the BPMA’s Head of Archives and Records Management. This material can then be copied into an Exit/Receipt form, which will then be signed by myself, our Head of Archives and Records Management and the Heritage Collections Manager at BT Archives, a copy of which I will place in a registered file for safekeeping at the BPMA.

All the listing and transfer approval has been dealt with in advance of stock-take to allow sufficient time for any hitches. So what’s left to do now? Essentially carefully packaging and boxing up the material ready for a short taxi ride down to the old Holborn telephone exchange (where the BT Archives are houses), and then updating our records (including those on our catalogue where necessary) to show that the material has been transferred.

Material ready for transfer.

Material ready for transfer.

The transfer of material to BT is by no means a finite process, as our uncatalogued records may well contain telecoms material that will only appear as we work through our backlog. However, as we attempt to get our house in order prior to our big move to Calthorpe House, this upcoming transfer will help to make sure we only take with us material designated for long-term preservation at the BPMA, whilst clearing some much needed space in our repository.

Although I’m sorry to see those lovely telephonist and telegram posters go, at least they will be going to a very good home! Keep your eyes peeled for them on the BT catalogue!

The telephonist has an interesting job - poster by Dorrit Dekk

The telephonist has an interesting job – poster by Dorrit Dekk

Anna Flood – Archivist (Cataloguing)

For an overview of Telecommunications in our collection please visit our website.

Greetings Telegrams

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist

Greetings telegrams were introduced in Great Britain on 24 July 1935; for the payment of an extra 3d (three pence) people could have their telegrams delivered on a specially illustrated form complete with a golden envelope.

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service: "A new way of saying Many Happy Returns"

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service (POST 104/15).

Greetings telegrams had already proved popular in other countries and they were an instant hit with the British public with nearly 25,000 telegrams being sent in the first week.

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service: "Send a Greetings Telegram"

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service (POST 104/15).

For the Post Office, greetings telegrams were a means of revitalising the telegraph service; according to E T Crutchley in his book ‘GPO’ (p140), it gave the service ‘a chance to play its part in the joyful occasions of life’, helping it to ‘dispel that atmosphere of dread and sorrow with which the telegram was so often surrounded in the past’.

In 1935 George V sent a message to the Postmaster General congratulating him on the 300th anniversary of the Post Office, he chose to send his message via the recently launched Greetings Telegram service on a form designed by Margaret Calkin James.  This message was reproduced and displayed in post offices around the country in order to advertise the service.

A reproduction of the greetings telegram sent by George V to the Postmaster General used as advertising in post offices.

A reproduction of the greetings telegram sent by George V to the Postmaster General used as advertising in post offices (POST 104/14).

The Post Office employed several key artists to produce telegrams; these included Frank Newbould, Claudia Freedman, Edward Ardizzone and Rex Whistler. Whistler designed the very first St Valentine’s day greetings telegram in February 1936; it proved popular and thereafter St Valentine’s day greetings telegrams were issued annually.

The St Valentine's day telegram is bordered with cherubs holding arrangements of leaves and fruits.

St Valentine’s day greetings telegram form 1936 designed by Rex Whistler (POST 104).

The Post Office also issued exhibition souvenir greetings telegrams.

A souvineer telegram from the Post Office Exhibition, Portsmouth & Southsea, 1936. The telegram has a thick blue border and a drawing of a telegram messanger boy aboard a motorcycle.

Souvenir greetings telegram from the Post Office Exhibition, Portsmouth & Southsea, 1936 (POST 104/26).

The telegram has a blue and red border featuring a Christmas tree and an image of a telegram messenger boy.

Souvenir greetings telegram from the Young People’s Post Office Exhibition (POST 104/26).

In 1937, Macdonald Gill was commissioned to produce a special telegram to celebrate the coronation of George VI. In 1953, this idea was used again when Harold Lynton Lamb designed a telegram to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II.

The telegram is bordered by the monarch's coat of arms, surrounded by official flowers of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland

George VI coronation telegram designed by Macdonald Gill, 1937 (POST 104).

Up until December 1940, greetings telegrams were delivered in a distinctive golden envelope, this colour was intended to emphasise the special nature of their contents. The outbreak of war necessitated the introduction of a new envelope, which was printed on white paper in blue to enable telegram delivery boys to read the addresses more easily during blackout periods.

Wartime exigencies brought about the suspension of the Greetings Telegram service on 30 April 1943; prior to this, economies had been made, with telegrams being issued in a more basic format to save on ink and paper.

The service was not reintroduced until November 1950 when the end of paper rationing saw the launch of a new greetings telegram form, designed by Claudia Freedman, together with a new yellow envelope, printed with red and black.

The return of the Greetings Telegram service was welcomed and the ensuing years saw designs by eminent artists such as, Eric Fraser, Balint Stephen Biro and John Strickland Goodall.

On 1 March 1957, in an attempt to boost usage of the service, a special ‘deluxe’ style of greetings telegram was introduced; this was a large folded card which came with a matching envelope, similar to a greetings card. The first of these, designed by Elizabeth Corsellis, was a wedding congratulations telegram, this was the first in a range of telegrams intended for specific occasions including birthdays and new births.

In 1982 the Inland Telegram service was axed by BT, although the Telemessaging service, which involved the sending of special occasion cards containing telephoned or telexed messages, continued to fulfil a similar function to the greetings telegram.

The book Bringers of Good Tidings by Ruth Artmonsky explores the Greetings Telegram is more detail. It is available now from our online shop.