Tag Archives: GPO film unit

Royal Mail Archive added to UNESCO Memories of the World Register

Recently the BPMA has received some exciting news. The Royal Mail Archive, which we look after, has been added to UNESCO’s Memories of the World Register. The archive spans the years 1636 to 1969 and covers a wide range of items from promotional posters to the Penny Black and employment records to telegrams about the Titanic.

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Telegram telling of the sinking of the Titanic

UNESCO was impressed by the unique insight the archive offers into the development of communication within the UK and abroad and the way it reflects the social and personal impact that the postal service has had upon people across the country.

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GPO poster

Head of Archives Vicky Parkinson tells us about being added to this year’s list of inscriptions:

“Back in 2011 my colleagues attended that year’s inscription reception following the successful nomination of the work of the GPO film unit, which was a joint application with our colleagues in the BFI and BT. On the back of that success we felt that the Royal Mail Archive was worthy of inscription and the nomination paperwork was submitted in January of this year.

We were delighted to hear that the UNESCO committee agreed with us and on the 19 June 2014 Helen Forde, Chair of our Board of Trustees, and I travelled to Edinburgh to attend the award ceremony, along with the other successful nominees.

Vicky and Helen

Vicky and Helen at the reception. Photo by Lesley Ann Ercolano

The reception, hosted by Lloyds Banking Group at their iconic site on the Mound in Edinburgh, was about celebrating the UK’s outstanding history and raising awareness about some of the country’s documentary riches. For me it was a wonderful reminder of how the archive, and the work we do to look after it and make it available, fits into the bigger picture of how history, and more importantly the original records, still play a vital role in today’s society.

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One of the thousands of photos in the collection – women mending parcels at the Home Depot during the First World War

For those of us lucky enough to work with the archive on a day to day basis it’s easy to see just how significant the collection is, documenting the vital role the postal service has played in the UK. Having that importance recognised by schemes such as UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register and the Arts Council’s Designation scheme is a vital way of spreading awareness of the riches we have in our custody.”

It is these stories and more that will be told in The Postal Museum when it opens in 2016. To hear some of these fantastic stories, and see the wealth of objects all of our collections hold, before then keep an eye on the blog. Over the coming months BPMA staff will be telling you all their favourite stories and showing you all manner of intriguing and enticing objects.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border

On Thursday 11 July Dr Scott Anthony will give a talk here at the BPMA on the classic film Night Mail which will be accompanied by a screening. In this blog Dr Anthony talks about Night Mail‘s timeless relevance.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.

Night Mail – the 1936 cinematic account of the travelling post office, to text by WH Auden – is the most famous film from the GPO documentary unit. It’s as evocative of the 1930s as Battersea Power Station, the Shell Guides and Agatha Christie.

For much of the past 20 years Night Mail has also been deeply unfashionable. It’s liable to be seen as the kind of thing that might have starred Harry Enfield’s Mr Chumley Warner.

It’s true that, for a documentary, parts of Night Mail are not that realistic. For a start, the scenes of travelling post office workers sorting the mail were filmed on the GPO’s lot in Blackheath with the posties urged, Star Trek style, to sway gently from side to side.

Still from Night Mail.

Still from Night Mail.

Indeed, Night Mail is actually the film of a train set. The GPO had commissioned the exquisite Bassett-Lowke to produce a miniature travelling post office for display at exhibitions. The miniature proved so popular with the public that it then became a documentary. When people say that Night Mail portrays a model post office, they’re more right than they know.

However, the genesis of Night Mail – the corporate promo – was far from straightforward, and it began with the future Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee. Pressure was growing for the reform and part-privatisation of the GPO. Besieged by criticism, the then postmaster-general Attlee hired the publicity expert Sir Stephen Tallents to project an image of the GPO as the “outstanding example of collective capitalism”.

Previously, the British establishment had frowned on government advertising during peacetime; it was considered something indulged in only by dubious continental regimes. Now, though, state innovations were to be unveiled with dramatic showmanship. During 1934’s Telephone Week speakers were erected in Trafalgar Square to blare out Jack Hylton’s jazz band as they were flown over London in an Imperial Airways plane. Tallents commissioned the artist Macdonald Gill to design a new brand logo for the GPO. The introduction of the speaking clock, telephone chess and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s redesign of the Jubilee telephone kiosk followed.

The classic Night Mail poster.

The classic Night Mail poster.

Night Mail was part of Tallents’ effort to use emerging new media to promote an up-to-date concept of Britishness. Films such as Night Mail and Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time are testament to Tallents’ collective method of developing an appropriate identity for Britain’s burgeoning social democracy.

But such nostalgic risks reducing Night Mail to the status of a tatty-eared Penguin classic, when those who commissioned, made, starred in and watched the film were confronting some startling contemporary dilemmas. Grappling with public service reform, technological, social and economic change, as well as the growth of internationalism, is a tricky task. Just ask the Communication Workers Union. Or Vince Cable.

Visit our website to purchase tickets for Dr Scott Anthony’s talk and the film screening of Night Mail.

Night Mail is available on DVD from our online shop.

New Lower Prices on BPMA Products

The BPMA Shop now offers new lower prices on selected products:

Original Post Office Green Papers. In the 1930s the General Post Office hosted lectures on various new or innovative aspects of its business, from engineering to public relations. The Green Papers were published versions of these lectures, and they have become an invaluable resource for information about the postal past. These are the original copies of the Green Papers from the 1930s, 40s and 50s – so numbers are strictly limited.
Was £5.00 – NOW £3.00 each – or get 5 copies for the price of 4! Enter GR33N544 discount code at the online shop checkout when ordering 5 copies of more to receive the discount.

Original GPO Green Papers

Speeding the Mail – An Oral History of the Post Office from the 1930s to 1990s Audio CD. Covering 60 years of postal history, this superb audio CD provides a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes to see how the job was done. Postal workers past and present talk about the way they used to work – recollections from the days of the GPO; stories by those who delivered letters, packets, parcels and even pairs of rabbits; stamp designers and those postal workers serving the public behind the Post Office counter.
Was £11.99 – NOW £5.99

Speeding the Mail – An Oral History of the Post Office from the 1930s to 1990s Audio CD

Postal Reform & the Penny Black – A New Appreciation. Douglas N. Muir, BPMA Curator (Philately), describes the long campaign for postal reform in this important study. He illustrates his account of the period leading to the issues of the Penny Black and the Mulready Covers with a wealth of contemporary designs, proofs and other philatelic material.
Was £5.99 – NOW £4.99

Postal Reform and The Penny Black – A New Appreciation, by BPMA Curator (Philately) Douglas N. Muir

Night Mail T-Shirt. The striking poster design of the GPO Film Unit classic Night Mail (1936) has been adapted for these shirts. Like the film itself – a classic work.
Was £9.00 – NOW £5.00

Night Mail T-Shirt

You can find all these products and more in our online shop www.postalheritage.org.uk/sale.

The BPMA Shop now also has a new postal address and phone number for shop orders and enquiries:

BPMA Product Sales
Room 309, 3rd Floor
5 Almeida Street
LONDON
N1 1AA
Tel. 0044 (0) 207 354 7272

And finally, a little reminder that Christmas is approaching fast – so ‘Post Early’ and order your Christmas cards soon from the BPMA Shop: www.postalheritage.org.uk/greetings.

Britten Films: An Exploration

The young Benjamin Britten wrote:

1936… finds me earning my living – with occasionally something to spare – at the GPO film unit… writing music and supervising sounds for film

In 1933 Britten became a member of the General Post Office film unit, which was originally set up to produce sponsored films relating to the GPO’s activities. As a result of Britten composing the music for the short films, there was a quick turnaround time and this helped Britten to refine and nurture his compositional tools.

The nine short films he worked on – covering subjects ranging from postage stamps to pacifism, the abolition of the slave trade to the electrification of the London-Portsmouth railway – are wonderfully made and fascinating historical documents. For example, Night Mail is a documentary about a London, Midland and Scottish railway mail train. The rhythm of the poem imitates the stages of the train journey, where the increasing rhythmic pace throughout the poem symbolises the acceleration of the mail train.

A still from Night Mail showing the mail train on its journey

A still from Night Mail showing the mail train on its journey

Britten’s music brilliantly reflects, amplifies and underpins the screen images with scores of rich variety and invention. It is a celebration of composer’s craft and filmmaker’s technique, an insight into 1930s Britain, and a snapshot of the art of propaganda before the term became besmirched forever by the extreme forces of political repression.

Aldeburgh Festival will be screening Britten’s nine GPO films in June with a live orchestra in the event Britten Films. Before the screening commences there will be an illustrated discussion, Britten Films: An Exploration, looking at the astonishing artistic collective which was the GPO film unit and how some of Britten’s very first professional commissions were to leave a powerful impression on his future creative life.

For more information on the events visit www.aldeburgh.co.uk or phone 01728 687100. The website’s ‘visiting us’ page helps you find out about where to eat, where to stay, and how to find us of course. Tickets can be purchased from the website and through the box office on 01728 687110.

Leanne Cox – Aldeburgh Festival

The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit is available from the BPMA Shop.

Reaching milestones in our documentation and cataloguing work

At the end of February, we reached some significant milestones in the documentation work carried out on our museum and archive collections.

Submitted design (No. 15) by G. Knipe of Harrison & Sons.

Stamp Artwork design for the Olympic Games 1948, submitted by G. Knipe of Harrison & Sons Oct. 1947. (POST 150/GVI/11/018) It was one of the five designs selected by the Council of Industrial Design and was held as a reserve for the 2 1/2d stamp. In preparing essays Harrisons were to be told "to make sure that the features of the jumper ... cannot be recognised."

The first milestone reached was the completion of an audit of material contained within the museum collection. What this means is that we have entry and location data for every object inherited by BPMA when it was formed in 2004 and for every object subsequently deposited with us. This includes objects held in our Freeling House repository and in our stores in Debden and at Christie’s.

Documentation of collections is a core part of any museum’s activity. Without details such as provenance, custodial history, physical condition and the terms and conditions relating to deposit, a museum cannot be assured of its responsibility and rights to preserve, display, digitise or even dispose (should the item not meet the museum’s collecting policy) of objects in its custody. Furthermore, precise information about an object’s location in our repository and stores means that we can carry out collections review work more efficiently and better prepare for our forthcoming move from our site here at Freeling House to the new postal museum.

This has been a significant amount of work and has taken seven years to complete. Very few museums have achieved a full audit of their holdings and it means that we can now concentrate our efforts in reviewing object collections, creating descriptive catalogues for the online catalogue and also plan our digitisation programmes accordingly. The completion of this work is due to the hard work and discipline of our museum cataloguers past and present, and we congratulate them all for doing such a great job!

Stamp Artwork, Olympic Games 1948, submitted on 29 July 1948 (POST 150/GVI/11/037)

The second milestone is that we’ve passed the 100,000 mark of records available to view on our online catalogue. We now have 100,703 records published. Our most recently published records include:
King George VI London Olympic Games 1948 stamp artwork
• Uniforms
• Handstamps
• Posters
Photographic stills from Post Office films, c.1969-1986
Finally, at the beginning of each year, we also open files that have been closed for 30 years. You can read in the blog by my colleague Gavin McGuffie how we process these. This year, we’ve opened approximately 100 files and the descriptions of these can be viewed via our online catalogue here.

Martin Devereux – Acting Catalogue Manager

Family Fun Day

On Saturday 31 March our Museum Store in Loughton, Essex will host a day of activities especially for families. This free event will include short tours of our collections of vintage postal vehicles and post boxes, film screenings, craft sessions, and the chance to handle some original objects and try on postmen’s uniforms.

Postal vehicles at our Museum Store

Postal vehicles at our Museum Store

Our collection of vehicles and post boxes includes the London Ornate pillar box, which has a compass on top in case you get lost whilst posting your letter, and the Inspector’s Bicycle, which has the letters GPO (General Post Office) in the chain wheel. Take a tour with our curators to learn even more about our holdings.

Artist Michelle Reader will be on hand throughout the day to help you make mini sculptures using recycled materials like cardboard, old CDs, plastic objects and buttons. Be inspired by our vehicles and see what you can create.

Try on a postman's hat at our Family Fun Day

Try on a postman's hat at our Family Fun Day

We will also screen films made by the GPO Film Unit, who documented the General Post Office’s work in the 1930s and 1940s. Of particular interest is A Job In A Million which followed John Truman, as he joined the Post Office as a trainee messenger boy.

The Family Fun Day runs from 10am-4pm on 31 March at the BPMA Museum Store, Loughton. The event is free and there is no need to book. Visit our website for full details and travel directions.

The Family Fun Day is part of the 2012 Loughton Festival. The Festival is raising money for Haven House Children’s Hospice. A collection will take place during the event, with all proceeds to this worthy cause.

Get 10% off at our new online shop

We have just launched our new and improved online shop.

New BPMA online shop

Visit the shop at www.postalheritage.org.uk/shop before 10 April and get a 10% discount off all your purchases. To obtain the discount enter the code BPMAW3BS1TE when you make your payment.

What we sell

The BPMA shop sells a range of products including greetings cards, postcards, publications, philatelic products, DVDs & CDs, models & keyrings, homewares and stationery. New products on offer include Gift Republic’s “Stamp Collection” mug, notebooks and greetings cards featuring the Machin design, and the publications The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit and Mail Trains.

Gift Republic's "Stamp Collection" Machin greetings card

Gift Republic's "Stamp Collection" Machin greetings card

Events booking

You can also book for our paid events through the shop. Book online now for the upcoming talks Disaster at Sea! and The Penn-Gaskell Collection of Aeronautica.

Night Mail: a classic?

Night Mail holds an iconic place in British culture. Say the words ‘this is the Night Mail crossing the border’ and you’ll likely get the response, ‘bringing the cheque and the postal order.’ But critics haven’t always been so impressed. There’s a strand of thinking that says Night Mail is a classic of British documentary by virtue of being the one that everyone knows. This is a critical assessment worth picking apart, because Night Mail is far more than the film of the poem.

Commissioned in 1935 to commemorate the centenary of the travelling post office, Basil Wright sought to apply the lessons of silent Soviet cinema to inter-war Britain. Viktor Turin’s Turksib was an important model. Borrowing techniques from Hollywood (Turin was obsessed by Westerns) Turksib tried to turn social, political and technological exposition into an exciting tale of progress. He cast the train between Turkestan and Siberia in the role of the lone gunslinger bringing order to the frontier. Night Mail apes this approach, albeit modestly, it illustrates how Britain is socially, economically and technologically bound together.

However, Wright’s love of the expressive grammar of silent cinema was disrupted by co-director Harry Watt, who wanted to focus on the life of the postal workers. It is creative tension in the best sense of the term. Interestingly, Watt’s eagerness to get across a flavour of the workers’ lives meant that the train interior had to be shot in a studio. Night Mail’s ‘realism’ was achieved by building a set of the travelling post office and scripting the workers’ dialogue.

Night Mail was also funded by the GPO to help improve morale. Beset by the industrial disputes of the slump era, the film was supposed to help staff understand how even the most humdrum of jobs could be of crucial importance. Not only is Night Mail probably the greatest train film of all time then, it’s also possibly also the greatest training film.

Night Mail’s unique sensibility remains key to its appeal. The dialogue may be flat, and the acting might be wooden, but the film retains a whiff of authenticity. ‘There’s something in these bags all right, Bert’, a postman says at one point, to which the sparring reply is, ‘must be old Fred’s coupon night’. There is something about the dialogue that makes you believe it, and more than that, makes you trust the sentiment that underpins it. Then again, Myles Burnyeat has argued that the meaning of great works changes over time. The fact that every time you watch Night Mail it says something different might be what, in the end, makes it a classic.

- Scott Anthony

Dr Scott Anthony is a Fellow of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, and co-editor of a new book The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit.

The BFI have produced a new DVD The Soviet influence: From Turksib to Night Mail, featuring GPO films.

Job in a Million

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post focused on the life of postal workers in the 1930s. Included were extracts from the film Job in a Million, made in 1937 by the GPO Film Unit.

The paternalist air of Job in a Million seems patronising to us today, but it reflected the public service ethos of the time. As well as boys and men, girls, women and disabled people were all employed in large numbers by the Post Office, particularly during and after the First and Second World Wars.

At the start of the First World War the Post Office was once of the largest employers in the world (employing 249,606 people), and in 1934 it was the second largest employer in Britain (employing 227,882 people). Even today Royal Mail Group employs 185,602 people, putting it amongst the UK’s largest employers.

With this history it unsurprising that the majority of the UK population have either worked for or have an ancestor who worked for the Post Office or Royal Mail. Here at the BPMA we receive enquiries every day from family historians wanting information on the working lives of their ancestors. Find out how we can help with your search at www.postalheritage.org.uk/genealogy, or for information on working lives in the Post Office see www.postalheritage.org.uk/history.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage A Job in a Million. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The distinctive films of Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950), is widely considered to be one of Britain’s greatest documentary filmmakers, with a distinctive style much admired by cinema-goers and critics alike. Born in Suffolk to a painter mother and architect father, he was creative in a number of fields before working in film: after attending the Perse School, he studied English literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where in his spare time he painted, designed sets, and also managed to find time to co-found the literary periodical ‘Experiment’, with William Empson and Jacob Bronowski (later to become well-known figures themselves).

A still from "London can Take It!", Jenning's documentary made in the early days of World War 2.

In 1934, Jennings joined the GPO film unit, where he worked with colleagues such as John Grierson and particularly Alberto Cavalcanti, and developed an experimental style that became instantly recognisable. Having helped to organise the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 it’s no surprise that the movement influenced his work: he strove to see the extraordinary in the everyday, stating that ‘to the real poet the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea’. This sensibility was perfect for his work for the General Post Office, and is evidenced in films like ‘Penny Journey’, where the seemingly simple journey of a postcard is followed with a focus on the behind-the-scenes processes that enable its arrival, and, most famously, ‘London can Take It!’, a film that celebrates London’s enduring spirit, resilient even during the Blitz.

GPO Public Relations Department poster - "Visit the Post Office film display - Free" - a projector is projecting an image of a GPO badge. (POST 118/506)

Many of Humphrey Jennings’s films (alongside other GPO classics) feature on the compilation GPO Film Unit DVDS ‘Addressing The Nation’, ‘We Live In Two Worlds’, and ‘If War Should Come’, available from the BPMA shop.

Or if you want to see even more of his work, a brand new compilation released by the BFI features some of his GPO work as well as his other films. ‘The Complete Humphrey Jennings: Volume 1’ is available from the BFI shop.