Tag Archives: Henry Fawcett

130 years of the parcel post

Today marks the 130th Anniversary of the Parcel Post, which began on 1st August 1883. At the time, the service was regarded as the greatest revolution in the postal system since the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage some 40 years previously.

The BPMA Archives contains a wealth of material on the Parcel Post and this blog is by no means intended to be an exhaustive account. Instead, I hope to give a brief overview of the context behind the introduction of the service and some idea of its impact.

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

The idea for a Parcel Post was suggested by Rowland Hill as early as 1842 and was raised again by Hill’s younger brother Frederick in the 1860s. In the meantime, the Post Office did go some way towards a parcels service by launching the popular Book Post service in 1848 followed by the Pattern Post (a service for posting manufacturer’s samples, a sort of early version of catalogue shopping) in 1863.

It was of course possible to send a parcel before 1883 and there were several large courier companies operating nationwide parcel services using stage coaches. By 1850, the Railway Companies had monopolised the market, making them a powerful opponent to any Post Office enterprise. The Post Office had previously tried at length to negotiate with the Railway Companies during the late 1860s, but to no avail.

The impetus for the Post Office to re-enter negotiations with the Railway Companies was provided by the Universal Postal Union Conference, held in Paris in 1880. Delegates proposed the establishment of an International Parcel Post, to commence in 1882. In order to participate, the British Post Office would first need to establish an Inland Parcel Post service.

This task fell to the then Postmaster-General Professor Henry Fawcett. Fawcett was a strong advocate for Parcel Post and in a letter to his father in April 1883, he cited the Parcel Post as top of his list of 5 things he felt needed to be done within the Post Office. His main concern was to prevent any ‘dislocation of the letter service’. Fawcett was assisted in the negotiations by Mr F.E. Baines, who was appointed the Inspector General of Mails in 1882 and had the honour of sending the first parcel by ‘Parcel Post’.

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption 'Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption ‘Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

The Railway Companies eventually agreed to terms which would give them 55% of the gross postage of all parcels carried by rail and The Post Office (Parcels) Act was passed on 18th August 1882, with nearly a full year passing until the service could be brought into operation in 1st August 1883. Given the scale of the preparations involved, it is rather remarkable that this was achieved in only a year!

The introduction of the Parcel Post meant rebuilding or adapting nearly 1,000 Head or Branch Post Offices, as well as arranging collection and distribution in more than 15,000 postal districts. It also meant an immediate change to the workload of the former letter carriers – now to be known at postmen.

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

Wicker baskets and handcarts were required for sorting and transporting parcels, each Post Office counter required scales and were issued with specifically designed cork handstamps to cancel the stamps on parcels. Every letter carrier’s walk had to be altered so they did not have too heavy a load and allowances were made for the use of a horse and cart, tricycle or pony to aid parcel delivery.

Crucially, the public had to be made aware of the new service and four-page handbills were distributed to every household in the British Isles notifying the changes.

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

The scale of the task facing the Post Office was described – rather poetically – by the Telegraph in July 1883:

Never before did any Commercial House leap all at once into so gigantic a concern, with 15,000 agencies and thirty-five million possible in these three kingdoms, never before, it is thought, was a Government department put to so severe a test as that which, twelve days hence, will await the one over which Professor Fawcett presides.

The launch attracted a significant amount of press attention, with the Daily News concluding on 2nd August 1883 that:

on the whole, the very important and very anxious experiment of yesterday seems to have passed off satisfactorily.

Fawcett himself appears to have been similarly understated in his conclusion, and his account three days after the launch of the service stated that

the only difficulty has arisen from the public inexperience in the art of packing.

Parcel Post saw the introduction of variety of carts and cycles as new ways of transporting the heavy mails had to be found. It also prompted a return to long distance haulage by road and the introduction of horse-drawn parcel mail coaches in 1887, which were operated under contract. This service carried parcels overnight along the principle routes out of London, which for such heavy mails were a cheaper alternative that the railways.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

Rather amusingly, it would appear that the public were quick to test the limits of the new service, with the Daily News reporting that:

At Leicester Square a colander was posted to a resident in the Temple, and one or two wooden spoons. At Euston, half a ham was found in one of the mails and at the Waterloo depot, cricket bats and tin kettles were among the articles dealt with.

Accounts also include a coffin shaped package sent from a Poplar undertaker to a workhouse master in Norfolk… Perhaps my favourite ‘strange enclosure’ tale is that of a gentleman who requested that the Post Office deliver a snake! After an initial refusal, the customer explained that the snake was in fact a pet ‘who had been on a visit’ (sadly the account does not specify where it had been!) and it was subsequently delivered by special messenger.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Parcel Post was not a financial success at first. The estimates for both the number of parcels sent and the average weight  – estimated by Baines at 7d a parcel, but on average only 5½d – were higher than those realised. By 1885, the Post Office was handling 26.5 million parcels per annum, increasing to 50 million by the 1890s.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the now Royal Mail were still the number one parcel carrier, processing and delivering 175 million packages annually, using 30 special parcel sorting centres and a fleet of 27,000 vehicles. Competition from private competitors has had a significant impact on parcel services, but many the innovations brought about by the introduction of the Parcel Post helped to shape the modern Post Office and the organisation which most of us are familiar with today.

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce's major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce’s major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

- Sarah Jenkins, Curatorial Assistant

Visit us on Flickr to see images of the Parcel Post dating from the 1880s to the 1980s.

Maejima Hisoka, The First Postmaster General of Japan

We recently had a film crew in the search room from the production company, Freepit Inc, who are making a documentary about Maejima Hisoka, the first Postmaster General of Japan. Mr Maejima visited Britain in 1870. He went on a fact finding mission to study the workings of the British General Post Office. Because of this the Japanese postal system was similar to the British postal system in the Victorian times. According to our curators it was not uncommon for civil servants from other countries to visit Britain to observe how things were done, then report back and vice versa.

The film crew were interested in interviewing our Philatelic Curator, Douglas Muir, and filming records and artefacts that the BPMA has connected with the postal reforms from around the 1840s. This included one of our sheets of Penny Blacks and the pamphlet that Rowland Hill wrote in 1837 titled, ‘Post Office Reform its Importance and Practicability’ , a copy of which is available in the search room reference library and the Archive.

Philatelic Curator Douglas Muir (right) with the Japanese film crew.

Philatelic Curator Douglas Muir (right) with the Japanese film crew.

They were also interested in what the exterior and interior of Post Offices would have looked like at the time of Mr Maejima’s visit. As 1870 is still very early days in terms of photography we provided them with a coloured print c. 1890 ‘Familiar Scenes for Object Lessons. A Post Office’ by W & A K Johnston and a drawing of the Post Office building, G.P.O. West.

Familiar Scenes for Object Lessons. A Post Office by W & A K Johnston

Familiar Scenes for Object Lessons. A Post Office by W & A K Johnston

As well as the postal system Mr Maejima also observed the Post Office Savings Bank and Money Order services and took some of these ideas back to Japan.

We also carried out some research on Freepic Inc’s behalf looking for a record of Mr Maejima’s visit to the UK in the archive. Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful, however, we did find copies of correspondence from Mr Maejima and a speech written by Mr Maejima from when he became Postmaster General of Japan. The spelling of his name is slightly different but it is definitely the same man.

Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 46/28)

Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 46/28)

Proposed Postal Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 29/231)

Proposed Postal Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 29/231)

We’ll let you know when the documentary is released.

Postmasters General

The head of the Post Office has been known by many different titles, but from 1657 to 1969 the holder of this position was called the Postmaster General. Postmasters General were Cabinet-level ministers, selected by the Prime Minister from amongst the members of Parliament or the House of Lords.

One notable Postmaster General was Henry Fawcett, Member of Parliament for Hackney under Prime Minister William Gladstone. Although only Postmaster General for four and half years (1880-1884), Fawcett was responsible for introducing the Post Office Savings Bank savings stamp, the Parcel Post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, amongst other things. A Liberal, Fawcett was also Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University, an early supporter of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and the husband of suffragist and political activist Millicent Garrett Fawcett. In 2009 Philip Jeffs of the Royal National Institute of the Blind blogged for us on Fawcett’s disability; having been blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25 Fawcett reportedly told his father: “Well, it shan’t make any difference in my plans of life!”

Henry Fawcett, Postmaster General 1880-1884. (2012/0129-02)

Henry Fawcett, Postmaster General 1880-1884. (2012/0129-02)

Other famous Postmasters General include Neville Chamberlain, Postmaster General 1922-1923 and Prime Minister 1937-1940, Clement Attlee, Postmaster General 1931 and Prime Minister 1945-1951, and Tony Benn, who was Postmaster General from 1964-1966 and later held a number of other cabinet positions including Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in 1974. Tony Benn’s tenure as Postmaster General is remembered as being a time of change, when the portrait of the monarch was removed from stamps in favour of the cameo head.

Tony Benn, Postmaster General 1964-1966. (P9183)

Tony Benn, Postmaster General 1964-1966. (P9183)

In 1969 the Post Office became a Corporation headed by a Chairman, and government responsibility for the organisation came under the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. When that ministerial position was abolished in 1974 postal services came under the Department of Industry. Today Royal Mail Group is overseen by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, and headed by Chairman Donald Brydon and Chief Executive Moya Greene.

For a complete list Postmasters General and the holders of other senior positions see our webpage on Leadership of the Post Office. Photographs of a number of Postmasters General and Assistant Postmasters General can be viewed on Flickr. For more on 20th Century Postmaster General see Adrian Steel’s blog post The Office of Postmaster General: Its holders in the Twentieth Century.

Employment of Disabled People

With the Paralympic Games taking place in London right now there has been considerable interest in the history of the event, and the way in which it and other initiatives have challenged prejudice towards disabled people.

The First and Second World Wars saw large numbers return home with severe physical injuries, and within both government and the medical profession there was a drive to offer these veterans the best care and opportunities. Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist who worked at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, where military personnel with spinal injuries were treated, had observed that his patients benefitted from physical activity and in order to encourage this he organised the first International Wheelchair Games (IWG).

The IWG was held parallel to the 1948 London Olympic Games, and was so successful that it was held again, at the same venue in Stoke Mandeville, in 1952. By 1960 the Games had become known as the Paralympics, and were being held in the same host cities as the Olympic Games. An increasing number of athletes from around the world were taking part, and the Games were no longer open solely to war veterans.

The aftermath of war also saw concerted efforts by government to advance employment opportunities for disabled people and within the Royal Mail Archive are records showing how the Post Office responded to this challenge. One interesting item in the Archive is this design for a stool enabling disabled veterans to undertake postal duties.

Part of a design for a special stool for disabled soldiers, circa 1919. (POST 30/4652c)

Part of a design for a special stool for disabled soldiers, circa 1919. (POST 30/4652c)

Employment of disabled people by the Post Office pre-dated World Wars 1 and 2, and included the blind Postmaster General Henry Fawcett, but attitudes to disabled employment have been difficult to change.

Henry Fawcett was accidentally blinded by a shotgun at the age of 25, but did not let his disability deter him. He became a Professor and a Member of Parliament, and served as Postmaster General from 1880 until his death in1884. (Image from BPMA Portfolio Collection)

Henry Fawcett was accidentally blinded by a shotgun at the age of 25, but did not let his disability deter him. He became a Professor and a Member of Parliament, and served as Postmaster General from 1880 until his death in1884. (Image from BPMA Portfolio Collection)

A report produced by the Post Office in 1946 found that many ex-servicemen had been employed to perform duties which were often monotonous and had little prospect of promotion. The report recommended that disabled persons should be encouraged to undertake as wide a range of duties as possible.

By the 1980s Girobank, then still a part of the Post Office, won awards for its role in employing disabled people. There were even Paralympic athletes employed by Royal Mail during this time, such as five-time medal winner Ian Hayden who worked as an Equal Opportunities Officer at Royal Mail Oxford.

Visit our website to find out more about the history of disabled employees in the Post Office, or read other articles on this blog about the Paralympic Games.

Ladies of Medicine

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a good opportunity for us to look at the role of women in the Post Office. As this is such a diverse subject we will focus on the Medical Department and the appointment of the first ‘Lady Doctor’, or Female Medical Officer.

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

The origins of the medical department date back to 1855 when the first full time (male) Medical Officer was appointed. His duties included inspecting candidates for appointment to the Post Office, providing medical care and assistance to staff on lower pay grades, and investigating cases of sick absence. It was not until 1883 that the first Female Medical Officer was appointed. This appointment was made on the recommendation of the Postmaster General at the time, Henry Fawcett, who argued:

Without depreciating in any degree the value of the services of the Male Medical Staff, I am convinced, from consideration of a general character, that the peculiar nature of ailments from which women suffer renders them in a special manner susceptible of treatments by duly qualified female practitioners

(POST 64/1)

The number of women employed in the Post Office Headquarters at this time was 1150, compared to 7250 men. Initially the Treasury rejected Fawcett’s request for this new role, on the grounds that the number of women employed was too low. However Fawcett persevered, claiming that the number of women employed was likely to increase, and eventually the Treasury accepted his recommendations.

Miss Shove was appointed the first Female Medical Officer in the Post Office in March 1883. She was entitled to one month’s leave each year (the same as the male Medical Officer), but had to provide a substitute to cover her absence. In contrast the male Medical Officer had a deputy and they covered each other’s leave. Her salary was £300 a year, increasing by £20 a year to a maximum of £450. This was lower than the salary of £400-£600 recommended by Fawcett, and considerably lower than the £800-£1000 paid to the male Medical Officer. Regulations established at this time stated that;

the female Medical Officer will, in ordinary cases, address her reports direct to the Secretary, but will confer with the Chief Medical Officer on all occasions when it may be necessary.

(POST 64/1)

By 1894 the number of women employed at the Headquarters had increased to 2807 (the number of men stood at 10345). Spencer Walpole, the Secretary to the Postmaster General, applied to the Treasury to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, and to appoint an Assistant Female Medical Officer. The Treasury approved the appointment of the Assistant Female Medical Officer, but refused to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, on the grounds that the appointment of an assistant would ease her workload. Miss Madgshon was appointed Assistant Female Medical Officer in October 1895.

As the role of the Medical Department began to extend to other major cities, further Female Medical Officers were appointed. Almost immediately after the appointment of Miss Shove in London, a Female Medical Officer was appointed in Liverpool. By 1892 a female Medical Officer had also been appointed in Manchester, and consideration was being given to the issue in Glasgow. However, after consulting with the Supervisor of Female Telegraphists and her 4 Assistant Supervisors, it was felt that this would not be popular among the female staff;

from what she tells me, it appears that none of themselves viewed the suggestion with much favour, and the belief of all was, that of the female staff generally, the number who would prefer to be under the care, medically, of a lady would be found to be very small

(POST 64/1)

Similar doubts had apparently been expressed in Liverpool initially, but it quickly transpired that the women were actually less hesitant and more willing to consult a female Medical Officer about their ailments. However in Glasgow there was a further complication of no female physician practicing in the district, and therefore it was decided not to pursue the appointment of a Female Medical Officer at that time.

The employment of ‘Lady Doctors’ within the Post Office highlights wider developments in the late nineteenth century. These include the growth in the number of women practicing medicine, although it should be noted;

at the time of the [first] female Medical Officer’s appointment members of the medical profession were adverse to women practitioners in England. Most professional men still have objections to confer with lady doctors either over their patients or in connection with candidates for employment in the service

(A Wilson, Medical Officer in Chief, 30 Dec 1897, POST 64/1)

The role of Henry Fawcett in pushing for the appointment of the first female Medical Officer should not be understated, given his wider involvement in women’s issues. Finally the need for a Female Medical Officer stemmed from the increasing numbers of women being employed by the Post Office, thus the growth and development of the medical department mirrored changes in the wider Post Office workforce.

- Helen Dafter, Archivist

More information on the employment of women in the Post Office can be found on our website.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. The theme for IWD 2010 is “Equal rights, equal opportunities, progress for all”, so in celebration here’s a look at how female equality campaigners have been represented on British stamps. 

50th anniversary of Votes for Women stamp (1968)

50th anniversary of Votes for Women stamp (1968)

Fittingly, the first woman commemorated on a British stamp was suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, as part of a 1968 commemorative celebrating the 50th anniversary of Votes for Women.

Within our Archive we hold all artwork submitted for the 1968 Votes for Women stamp. The issued stamp was designed by Clive Abbot, and is based on a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst which was erected in Victoria Tower Gardens, near the Palace of Westminster. However, the instructions to the artists invited to submit designs for this stamp (Abbott, M.C. Farrar-Bell, David Gentleman and Jeffrey Matthews of Harrison & Sons) had something very different in mind.

It was suggested that the stamp have “a shadowy background of the House of Commons with a pictorial representation of two women, one in 1918 dress, the other in 1968 dress, dropping their votes in a ballot box”. Two designs along these lines were submitted by M.C. Farrar-Bell, but were rejected.

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by M.C. Farrar-Bell

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by M.C. Farrar-Bell

Jeffrey Matthews submitted a design which differed slightly from the instructions, incorporating the House of Commons and a ballot box, but also a laurel wreath, a symbol of the Women’s Social & Political Union and of victory, and a scroll motif suggestive of the banners, flags, and sashes of the suffragettes.

Clive Abbott and David Gentleman both submitted designs based on this famous photograph showing Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest at a protest. Gentleman also submitted another design, based on a photograph such as this (there are many similar photographs showing suffragettes with sandwich boards), but this was also rejected. (We’ll be making more of the artwork from this issue available in the future as part of the Stamp Artwork Project.)

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by David Gentleman

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by David Gentleman

Emmeline Pankhurst and the theme of women’s rights have been celebrated several times more on British stamps, in 1999, as part of The Citizen’s Tale issue, in 2006, when a portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst was used as part of the National Portrait Gallery issue, and, as long time readers of this blog will remember, in 2008 when Millicent Garrett Fawcett, suffragist and wife of former Postmaster General Henry Fawcett, appeared on the Women of Distinction issue.

A trio of women's suffrage stamps

A trio of women's suffrage stamps: Votes for Women stamp (1999), Emmeline Pankhurst portrait (2006) and Millicent Garrett Fawcett stamp (2008)

The Women of Distinction issue also featured Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to become a Doctor in Britain and the first female Mayor in England, family planning pioneer Marie Stopes, Member of Parliament and women’s rights campaigner Eleanor Rathbone, black political activist Claudia Jones, who organised the first Notting Hill Carnival, and Barbara Castle who piloted the equal pay act.

Women of Distinction presentation pack (2008)

Women of Distinction presentation pack (2008)

Elizabeth Fry stamp from the Social Reformers issue (1976)

Elizabeth Fry stamp from the Social Reformers issue (1976)

Hannah More stamp from Aboltion of the Slave Trade issue (2007)

Hannah More stamp from Aboltion of the Slave Trade issue (2007)

Other female equality campaigners who have been represented on stamps include the champion of women prisoners Elizabeth Fry, whose work was commemorated as part of the Social Reformers issue of 1976 (designed by David Gentleman), and poet and campaigner Hannah More, who appeared on a stamp released in 2007 as part of the Abolition of the Slave Trade issue. More’s anti-slavery poems are considered to some of the most important written during the abolitionist period, and part of one of them, The Sorrows of Yamba, can be seen in the background of the Hannah More commemorative stamp.

The most recent female equality campaigners to appear on British stamps were pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Judy Fryd, founder of Mencap and campaigner for mentally handicapped children, who both appeared in last year’s Eminent Britons issue.

From the Eminent Britons stamp issue (2009): Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd

From the Eminent Britons stamp issue (2009): Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd

Human Letters: The Post Office and women’s suffrage

Earlier this year Dr Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society spoke at the BPMA about women’s suffrage and other equality campaigns. This talk is now available through our podcast. But if the connection between the women’s suffrage movement and the British postal service doesn’t seem immediately obvious, all will be explained. 

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street, in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the West Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Another connection to both the Post Office and women’s suffrage was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the wife of the political economist, suffrage campaigner, Liberal MP and Postmaster General (1880-1884) Henry Fawcett. At the time of the human letters incident Millicent was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She and her organisation were more moderate campaigners than the Women’s Social and Political Union, but eventually they achieved their goal.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Achievement series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Distinction series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett is regarded as having been instrumental in the campaign for votes for women, in particular the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed women over 30 the right to vote if they were married to a member of the Local Government Register, as well as women to enter parliament on an equal basis with men.

Garrett Fawcett’s work and that of the NUWSS lives on in the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. In her talk, Dr Katherine Rake outlines the Society’s work, giving both a sobering and optimistic appraisal of what has been achieved.

To find out more about this and our other podcasts visit www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

The education pack Messages Through Time (suitable for Key Stage 3 history students) contains colour facsimile archive documents related to the human letters and can be downloaded from our website.

The Postal Service and the Blind Community

2009 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille, inventor of the Braille system of reading and writing. To celebrate, guest blogger Philip Jeffs of Royal National Institute of the Blind writes on the long connection between the Postal service in Britain and the Blind Community.

A little girl receives a copy of a Braille book through the post from the National Library for the Blind, now part of RNIB. Very few places in the country offer, or ever have offered Braille books to be borrowed by the public. This has meant that charities such as RNIB have from our earliest days offered books for loan through the post.

The postal service and blind charities felt that blind people were put at a disadvantage within the postal system because Braille items were particularly large, heavy and expensive to send. In 1906 the Post Office (Literature for the Blind) Act was passed stating that books in raised text could be sent through the post at reduced costs. This meant that correspondence and parcel post were now accessible to the blind.

The latest legislation covering postage for the blind is the Postal Services Act 2000, which includes large print material and talking books, and now covers any material for use by the blind. This Act ensures that postage is provided entirely free of charge.

The first two images show a little girl receiving a copy of a Braille book through the post from the National Library for the Blind, now part of RNIB, and then reading the book out loud to her younger brothers.

The second two show Henry Fawcett, a blind man who was made Postmaster General in 1880, one being a photograph from the official biography written on his death and one taken from Punch magazine showing, as you would expect, a slightly less respectful and more satirical view.

Henry Fawcett was born in Salisbury in 1833. At the age of 25 he was accidentally blinded by a shot from his father’s gun whilst the two were out hunting. When told that his blindness would be permanent Fawcett told his father “Well, it shan’t make any difference in my plans of life!”. That certainly seems to have been the case as despite his blindness Fawcett continued to study at Cambridge and in 1863 was appointed Professor of Political Economy at the University. Two years later he was elected Liberal MP for Brighton. As a Liberal, Fawcett campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in the House of Commons.

In 1880 prime-minister William Gladstone appointed Fawcett as his Postmaster General. Whilst at the Post Office Fawcett introduced the parcel post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, he also worked actively to employ more women in the service.

In the summer of 1882 Fawcett was taken seriously ill with diphtheria and although he gradually recovered, his political career had come to an end. Henry Fawcett, severely weakened by his illness, died of pleurisy in 1884.

The images in this post are provided courtesy of the RNIB Archive and may not to be reproduced without permission. Contact the RNIB Archive.

The Post Office (Literature for Blind) Act 1906 on the BPMA’s online catalogue.

Henry Fawcett on the BPMA’s online catalogue.