Tag Archives: letter box

The Great British (Letter Box) Bake Off

The recent series of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) has been something of a talking point around the BPMA offices: our staff are known for their love of cake so understandably Tuesday evenings have become sacred TV nights for a lot of us, as I’m sure they have been for you. Cake, in my opinion, forms a vital part of any museum – just think of all those museum cafes offering everything from scones to chocolate cake to fuel your visit around the galleries.

This does not mean that I was expecting to find a cake on the shelf in our Museum Store…but that’s exactly what I did find within a few months of my starting at BPMA, whilst working on the Wilkinson Collection. The Wilkinson Collection is a collection of letter box related items and this cake fitted that description as it was a Swiss roll iced and decorated in the form of a letter box.

Letter Box Cake found in the Wilkinson Collection.

Letter Box Cake found in the Wilkinson Collection.

Food of any sort, whilst welcome to feed the staff, is less welcome as part of the collection. Food encourages pests which can damage other parts of the collection, particularly the archive and textile collections which is why eating and drinking is limited to a specific area of our offices and not allowed in our Search Room. Add to this the fact that the cake was 20 years old (admittedly still in its packaging) and this one object was immediately a threat to the rest of the collection. As a result, we made the decision to dispose of this item.

However, in addition to the cake, we also found the recipe for it which you can find below! I’ve often been tempted to make this, the basic instruction of ‘Make a Swiss Roll in the usual way’ would fit nicely into any technical challenge on the GBBO, whilst the final result would, I’m sure, be a showstopper. If anyone out there would like to take up the challenge of making this letter box cake do send us your photos!

Letter Box Cake

Ingredients:
Swiss Roll
Apricot jam
Red colouring
Almond icing
Chocolate butter icing

Recipe:
Make a Swiss Roll in usual way* and brush sides with warmed jam.
Add red colouring to all but a small quantity of the almond icing and roll out thinly to a strip long enough to cover the roll, making join at back.
Mould some almond icing to form top and flap of box, and attach these with jam and butter icing.
Cut a square of the uncoloured almond icing and stick it on to the front.
Using chocolate butter cream and a plain writing nozzle, make marks to represent times of collection, etc.

*There are several on the BBC website, including a chocolate roulade by GBBO’s Mary Berry.

– Emma Harper, Curator

If you’ve been inspired to bake the cake, here are some pictures of pillar boxes to inspire you as you ice it.

Museums at Night – Stories from the Store

Venture off the beaten track on Thursday 16th May and explore the treasures of the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) Museum Store at a special after-hours event.

Behind its unassuming façade, the Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits – each with a story to tell. As part of Museums at Night 2013, come and find out about some of these stories as they are brought to life by The Big Wheel Theatre Company!

Morris van at the Museum Store.

Morris van at the Museum Store.

What can you do on the night?

Big Wheel Theatre Company

Stories will be revealed by some fascinating characters from our postal past! Through some exciting interactive performances and activities find out about the Suffragette ‘human letters’ fighting for the right to vote and see how the Post Office had to adapt to the demands of war with new services. Mingle with these characters from history to truly understand all that they went through and achieved. (You can find out more about the ‘human letters’ by listening to episode #3 of our podcast.)

Anti Suffragette postcard. (2011-0365)

Anti Suffragette postcard. (2011-0365)

Craft Guerrilla

Show your support for our resident Suffragette for the evening by making your own rosette, reminiscent of those worn by the campaigners who fought for Women’s rights. East London craft company, Craft Guerrilla, will be running the activity. All materials provided for free, just bring your creativity and enthusiasm!

Discover how the post office went to war

Explore our Second World War handling box. Dress up like a wartime post man, and write a telegram to a loved one.

Write your own Post Office Telegram.

Write your own Post Office Telegram.

Postal fun at the Museum Store!

Postal fun at the Museum Store!

Have a browse

Take a walk down ‘letter box alley’ or take a look at our fleet of postal service vehicles illustrating the long history of moving the mail in a self led exploration of the collection. BPMA staff will also be on hand to answer questions about the collection. When you leave you will be able to recognize a hen and chicks bike, a K2 telephone kiosk and an Edward VIII pillar box!

Hen and chicks cigarette card.

Hen and chicks cigarette card.

Refreshments

At an event celebrating stories from our past it only seemed right to have a vintage themed refreshment stand! Help yourself to a selection of home made cakes and finger sandwiches, cloudy lemonade or a hot drink - all absolutely free.

Date and Time

Thursday 16th May, 6.00pm-9.00pm.

Cost and Booking

Free - no booking necessary

Visit our website to find out more about our Museums at Night event.

Pillar Box Perfection – Open Day at the Museum Store

Here at the British Postal Museum and Archive we are firm believers in hugging pillar boxes. Why, you ask? Because not only does it show your love for their intriguing history and vast variation in design of course, but it can reveal something very important about their story…

Join us on Saturday 6th April, 10am-4pm as we open the doors of our museum store to reveal some of these fascinating tales. There will be a range of activities for all ages to celebrate this British icon – the pillar box.

Pillar boxes at the Museum Store.

Pillar boxes at the Museum Store.

What can you do on the day?

Talks

We will be running a series of ‘spotlight’ talks, where you can hear about the stories behind some of our favourite pillar boxes. Highlights include one of the earliest boxes trialled on the Channel Islands and the ‘Penfold’. Why did Liverpool request a ‘special’ box? What indeed will you learn from hugging a pillar box? Come and find out more, with our staff on hand to introduce you to the wonderful world of pillar boxes!

Our curators will give you a quick introduction to pillar boxes.

Our curators will give you a quick introduction to pillar boxes.

Have a browse

Take a walk down ‘pillar box alley’ or take a look at our fleet of postal service vehicles illustrating the long history of moving the mail in a self led exploration of the collection. BPMA staff will also be on hand to answer questions.

Postal vehicles at the Museum Store.

Postal vehicles at the Museum Store.

Especially for families….

Trail

Past and present, the pillar box has played an important role in a process which has had a remarkable impact on the lives of many – communicating through letters! But what journey does a letter take from it leaving the hands of the sender to it being popped on the door mat of the receiver? Find out by having a go at our trail around the store! Hunt for objects and solve puzzles to reveal this amazing journey.

Here is a teaser from the trail – but you’ll have to come to the store to find out the mystery object!

Can you identify the mystery object?

Can you identify the mystery object?

Craft Activity

Get creative by designing and making your own pillar box! Celebrate the important role it played in the letter sending journey by designing it to hold your important letters – maybe it could store your post cards or letters from pen pals!

What will your pillar box hold? What about your post cards?

This post card from our collection was never delivered, perhaps the rather upset writer of the card received their trotters just before feeling the need to send it!

Tripe but but no trotters - an everyday postcard from the 1890s.(2010-0426/27)

Tripe but but no trotters – an everyday postcard from the 1890s.(2010-0426/27)

We look forward to seeing you on Saturday 6th April at the museum store!

Pillar Box Perfection is a free event taking place at The British Postal Museum Store, Essex, on 6 April 2013. See our website for more information and travel advice.

‘Well adapted for the purpose…’

In November 1840 Rowland Hill proposed an experiment whereby letter boxes would be erected throughout London and other towns. He felt that this would “add greatly to the public convenience”, however little came of his proposal beyond the use of sacks and baskets being placed at letter receiving houses and main railway stations.

Following Postal Reform there was an explosion in the use of the Post Office. The volume of letters rose as did the complaints of a populace starved of an efficient system of collecting letters now prepaid by the sender. The 1850s was a decade where the Rural Letter Post System underwent radical change. It was Rowland Hills’s wish that the free delivery of letters be extended to all villages and hamlets where it could be justified. Post Office Surveyors were instructed that any place that received 100 letters each day should be awarded a delivery. However the revision did not proceed as fast as Headquarters wished and one particularly resourceful and efficient Surveyor’s Clerk, Anthony Trollope, was given the job of speeding things up in several districts.

In 1851, Trollope was heavily involved with his review of the postal services of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, and the six southern Welsh counties, as well as the Channel Islands. In November 1851 Trollope was sent to the Channel Islands to make recommendations on how to improve their postal service. His reports were then assessed by his superior George Creswell, the Surveyor for the Western District of England and passed to postal headquarters in London.

There had been many complaints from the islanders regarding the delay to their mail and the efficiency of the clerks charged with sorting the mail for delivery on Jersey quickly came under Trollope’s scrutiny, he was scathing in his assessment of their work. They were advised that if a great improvement in their work did not take place then they may be discharged. Each of the five letter carriers was receiving 8/- per week for an average walk of between 30 and 40 miles. If the amount of mail delivered was particularly large following the arrival of a packet boat, they could not complete their delivery on the same day and a reply via the same packet was impossible. Trollope’s proposals originally centred on keeping the same number of delivery staff but pre-sorting correspondence at the head office and then despatching it to rural offices where each messenger would collect it. As part of the revision, horses were provided to the five letter carriers, the workforce was increased to eight and the walks sub-divided. Unfortunately this also meant a reduction in their pay to 7/- per week.

However, it was another of Trollope’s proposals to his superior Creswell that is of particular interest to anyone with an interest in street furniture:

There is at present no receiving office in St. Helier, and persons living in the distant parts of the town have to send nearly a mile to the principal office. I believe that a plan has obtained in France of fitting up letter boxes in posts fixed at the road side, and it may perhaps be thought advisable to try the operation of their system in St. Helier – postage stamps are sold in every street, and therefore all that is wanted is a safe receptacle for letters, which shall be cleared on the morning of the despatch of the London Mails, and at such times as may be requisite. Iron posts suited for the purpose may be erected at the corners of streets in such situations as may be desirable, or probably it may be found more serviceable to fix iron letter boxes about 5 feet from the ground, wherever permanently built walls, fit for the purpose, can be found, and I think that the public may safely be invited to use such boxes for depositing their letters.

Pillar boxes had been in use on the continent for just a few years previous. It is fairly obvious from the surviving correspondence that the use of pillar boxes by the British Post Office was already being considered within the upper echelons of postal headquarters. However, beyond a few wooden boxes or bags hung in railway stations and apertures in windows, the introduction of anything more substantial had not occurred in Britain. Trollope recommended the experimental use of pillar boxes at four sites in St. Helier in Jersey

John Tilley (also Trollope’s brother-in-law) who was to later succeed Rowland Hill as Secretary to the Post Office, stated that their use on Jersey would be a “good opportunity to try the system. Creswell also agreed with Trollope’s proposal, adding that – “… no better opportunity of trying the experiment of ‘roadside’ letter boxes could be selected”. Within the month, the Postmaster General had approved the experimental introduction of the pillar boxes. Trollope immediately followed this up with a request to extend the trial to St. Peter Port on neighbouring Guernsey and another three boxes were approved.

I beg to recommend that similar road side letter boxes may also be trialled at St. Peter Port in that island

Introduction of pillar boxes. (POST 14/35)

Introduction of pillar boxes. (POST 14/35)

In December 1851, Tilley wrote to the Postmaster General regarding Trollope’s findings and proposals in Jersey, he finished his letter:

Mr. Trollope appears to have given much attention to the subject and your Lordship may perhaps think it right to inform him that you are much satisfied with the manner in which it has been treated

The Postmaster General agreed. Certainly, it was Trollope that aside from revising rural posts and pushing for efficiency also had the vision to see the potential for the first use of pillar boxes by the British Post Office and actually recommend and see through their introduction.

In a letter to the Postmaster General, Tilley referred to the proposed pillar boxes as being “well adapted for the purpose”. A local contractor – John Vaudin was engaged in July 1852 to construct the boxes for both Jersey and Guernsey at a cost of £7 each. Trollope’s roadside letter boxes, referred to as ‘assistant post offices’ by the Jersey Times, came into use on 23rd November 1852.

Post Office notice: Letter Boxes, Jersey, 1852.

Post Office notice: Letter Boxes, Jersey, 1852.

The pillar boxes were hexagonal, cast-iron, about four feet high and red in colour (though red as a standardised colour for post boxes was not settled on until 1874). The Royal Arms appeared on three sides, the words ‘Post Office’ on two sides, and on the remaining face, the words ‘Letter Box’ beside the vertical aperture. Boxes were mounted on a granite block, two feet deep and raised four inches from the ground. The boxes were “very favourably received by the public”. One box at the head of Bath Street in St. Helier was found to be too small for the amount of correspondence posted and was resited in Five Oaks, to the North-East of St. Helier. A replacement larger box was authorised in July 1853 but was too large and would have caused too much of an obstruction. Not to be put off, the Post Office simply arranged for a wall to be knocked down and rebuilt to make room for it. In 1853, Creswell was already proposing another eight boxes for rural districts on Jersey.

Trollope also carried out similar revision of the rural posts on Guernsey and Alderney. On 8th February 1853, the boxes on Guernsey opened for business. The authorities in St. Peter Port had been so approving of the new pillar boxes that they had agreed that if the Post Office provided another box then they would meet the cost of construction of another two, making six in total.

1853 Guernsey pillar box, still in use today. (P5856)

1853 Guernsey pillar box, still in use today. (P5856)

Sadly, none of the boxes erected in Jersey in 1852 survive today, however one of those on Guernsey, first erected in 1853, is still receiving mail today. Another of the 1853 boxes originally in use on Guernsey survives in the BPMA collection as does one of the first mainland boxes erected the same year.

Pillar box errected on Guernsey, Channel Islands, 1853. (OB1996.653)

Pillar box errected on Guernsey, Channel Islands, 1853. (OB1996.653)

The first box on mainland Britain was manufactured by Abbott and Company and was erected at Botchergate, Carlisle around September 1853. That box too, has not survived the intervening years. Soon after, approval was given for Trollope’s proposed installation of pillar boxes in Gloucester while he was revising the rural posts there. It appears to be the case that each District Surveyor then became responsible for the establishment of pillar boxes in his district, sourcing not only the manufacturer but also frequently being responsible for the design. A National Standard design of pillar box was approved in 1859 but development in design carries on to this day.

Julian Stray – Curator

Visit our website to read more about the history of Letter Boxes, or go to Flickr to see images of some interesting pillar boxes.

The BPMA Shop is celebrating the 160th anniversary of the pillar box with a special offer on our Pillar Box Postcard set (set of 4 cards, £2.50) and Museum Collection Guide booklet & postcard set (1 guidebook and 1 set of 6 postcards, £7.00) – with images and information of the historic letter boxes from the BPMA Museum Collection. They are available online at www.postalheritage.org.uk/postcards and you can get them with FREE Postage & Packaging until 30 Nov 2012 – just enter the discount code L3TT3RBOX at checkout.

Pillar box gold

Team GB’s gold medal winning athletes are not only finding themselves appearing on stamps within 24 hours of their victory, they are also being honoured with a gold letter box in their hometown.

One of the gold letter boxes (image from Royal Mail Stamps & Collectables Facebook page)

One of the gold letter boxes (image from Royal Mail Stamps & Collectables Facebook page)

As with the Gold Medal Winner stamps Royal Mail are dispatching staff to re-paint the letter boxes within a day of each athlete’s victory. There are now gold letter boxes from Penzance to Lossiemouth, with (hopefully) lots more to come.

The gold letter boxes are getting a lot of attention in the media and many people have asked us whether it is unusual to see letter boxes in colours other than the traditional red. In fact it isn’t. When letter boxes first appeared in the British Isles they were painted green so as not to intrude on the landscape.

One of the first pillar boxes to be used in the British Isles, introduced in the Channel Islands circa 1852-1853 (OB1996.653)

One of the first pillar boxes to be used in the British Isles, introduced in the Channel Islands circa 1852-1853 (OB1996.653)

Unfortunately the colour green proved too unobtrusive and people were unable to find them. After experimenting with a chocolate brown colour, the Post Office finally settled on the bright red we know today.

The familiar red pillar box, a rare example of one produced during the reign of Edward VIII, 1936 (OB1994.45)

The familiar red pillar box, a rare example of one produced during the reign of Edward VIII, 1936 (OB1994.45)

In the 1930s some boxes were also painted bright blue to promote the new Air Mail service. Our curator Julian Stray restored one of these rare blue boxes several years ago and you can read all about that on this blog.

A rare blue Air Mail pillar box

A rare blue Air Mail pillar box

Visit http://www.goldpostboxes.com/ to see the locations of all the gold boxes, or read our article on Letter Boxes to find out more about their history.

Museum Store Tours

Ever wanted to see behind the scenes of a museum, and get up close to some fascinating objects? Then book now to join one of our free Museum Store tours.

Postal vehicles at the Museum Store

Postal vehicles at the Museum Store

These tours take place once a month, with extra evening tours added during the summer months. During each tour our curators will be your guide on a journey through several hundred years of postal history. Highlights include a fleet of postal service vehicles illustrating the long history of moving the mail, and over 50 pillar boxes of different types, from one of the first boxes trialled in the UK to modern designs and prototypes.

Pillar boxes at the Museum Store

Pillar boxes at the Museum Store

Also of interest is the Museum Store itself, a working storage facility for our collection, not often experienced by members of the public.

Visit our website to find out more about our Museum Store tours, including dates and booking details.

Restoration of a story…

Julian Stray, Assistant Curator, details the process followed by the BPMA Curatorial Department during the restoration of a blue airmail pillar box from the 1930s

Leaflet advertising the airmail service

Leaflet advertising the airmail service

Special post boxes for the collection of airmail were on British streets for less than nine years yet they continue to fascinate. Originally intended to be placed in prominent positions in London, by 1936, there were 139 in London and 174 in the provinces. Much of the interest in these boxes comes from the colour that they were painted: blue. This advertised the special facilities that they offered such as exceptionally late clearances.

For this reason and due to the general condition of the BPMA’s airmail pillar box (whilst on loan for an extended period it had been exhibited outdoors which caused its condition to deteriorate; some parts of the box were also missing and the box had been re-painted the incorrect colour a number of times) the exceptional decision was made by BPMA to restore it to an appearance contemporary to when it was in use during the mid 1930s. This would enable us to restore not only the pillar box, but also the story…

Airmail box being collected from its outdoor display area prior to restoration

Airmail box being collected from its outdoor display area prior to restoration

The first step was to assess the extent of the damage to the box and undertake preliminary work. WD40 and Duck Oil were used to loosen bolts, screws and hinges in order to remove them. Wherever possible these were retained for later re-use.

The box was then stripped and shot blasted with aluminium oxide. Care was taken to preserve the sharpness of such features as the maker’s name (Carron), and the George V crown and cipher. Nitromors was used when necessary on some brass work.

The base of the box was bolted to a specially constructed steel pallet. This enables future safe storage, transport and exhibition and is a preferred option frequently employed by BPMA with other boxes in the collection.

Stripped, shot-blasted box painted with red oxide primer

Stripped, shot-blasted box painted with red oxide primer

Some original blow holes from the day the box was cast were smoothed out with filler, replicating a practice originally carried out in the foundry. The box was then carefully rubbed down to enable red-oxide primer to be applied. The box and cap were painted separately.

Filler applied to some parts of the pillar box where blow holes were most prevalent

Filler applied to some parts of the pillar box where blow holes were most prevalent

Both the oval, enamel airmail sign on the cap, and the enamel ‘flag’ beneath the aperture were in quite poor condition. It was decided to conserve these in as original condition as possible and commission replicas to be fixed to the restored box. Restoration of the signs would have removed much that is original, and it is highly unlikely that more than a handful of original examples survive today. Such a curatorial decision permits the original signs to be available for research in their original and preserved condition.

Oval sign in original poor and damaged condition prior to return to the BPMA

Oval sign in original poor and damaged condition prior to return to the BPMA

Stocksigns, based at Redhill were engaged for the work of replicating the airmail signs. Founded in 1955, the company had purchased Burnham Signs (founded 1877) who, in turn, incorporated Garnier & Co. (established 1891). Garnier had been the original supplier of the small airmail signs to the Post Office in the 1930s. This commissioning was an attempt to preserve some continuity of provenance in the restoration.

The original mounting frame for the sign on the cap was also retained to preserve its provenance and act as a record of the colouration of the box for much of its recent time while on display. A contemporary and identical duplicate was located within the BPMA collection. This had been painted red for its working life. This was stripped of paint prior to application of primer.

Determining the original colour of the pillar box proved a challenge. Files relating to the commission and installation of the boxes in the 1930s survive within the Royal Mail archive maintained by BPMA. From these it was established that the blue colour was based on the airmail etiquettes (labels) attached to airmail correspondence at the time. The Technical Advisory Department of PPG Architectural Coatings worked with the BPMA on analysing the colour of a contemporary label. Additionally, paint flecks had been retrieved from the original layer applied to the pillar box and these were also analysed.

Flecks retrieved from the first layer of paint applied to the pillar box

Flecks retrieved from the first layer of paint applied to the pillar box

Thankfully, results from both proved identical and a correct shade was established from the Johnstones Natural Colour System. This was S-3050-R90B – a bright and vibrant blue that must have proved extremely eye catching when the boxes were first installed on British streets. It is interesting to note that subsequent re-paints of the airmail boxes in the 1930s frequently employed locally sourced paint and variations in shade would have occurred.

Jonhstones Professional undercoat and Professional gloss paint in the established shade were applied using good quality ½” and 2” brushes. This work was spread over five days. This permitted fine work to be painted, followed by large areas. A 36 hour hardening period was timetabled midway prior to similar applications of top coat. The cap and frame were painted separately and attached to the box once dry.

Julian Stray applies blue undercoat to some of the ‘fine work’ of the prepared pillar box

Julian Stray applies blue undercoat to some of the ‘fine work’ of the prepared pillar box

The base of the box was painted with standard Post Office letter box gloss black: 222T9000, Cromadex, whilst the interior of the pillar box was painted with the correct lead colour: S-7500-N Johnstones durable matt. The steel pallet to which the box was bolted was also similarly painted for a muted appearance during display.

Black paint is applied to the base

Black paint is applied to the base

Contemporary internal cage and chute were sourced from Romec, the engineering wing of Royal Mail. Bolts for attaching the cap and a new Chubbs lock and four keys were supplied by Goldcrest Extol Ltd. Where possible, original screws and bolts were retained and re-used, however many of these proved to be already damaged or wanting. Correct brass replacements were obtained from Clerkenwell Screws Ltd.

The box is starting to come together

The box is starting to come together

The Royal Mail archive also proved indispensible when researching the collection plate to be replicated and installed in the exhibited box. Research revealed that most current thinking revolving around two enamel collection plates being installed in a dual or double plate holder was incorrect. During the time that these boxes were in use for airmails, Post Office officials understood that such an experimental service would entail frequent alteration of displayed collection times – not least because flight times altered between summer and winter.

Because of the high cost of production of enamel collection plates, it had been decided at the time that simple card plates would be printed by the National Savings Bank. These were eventually produced in a large, landscape format that included detail on both postage and air fees on the right, and times of collection on the left. These notices (P.A.4) were protected from the weather by a thin sheet of celluloid. To reduce the risk of theft or defacement, a thin, central crosspiece was included in a new design of collection plate holder.

An original proof for the collection plate produced for the box installed outside London G.P.O. EC.1 was found in the archive; this was chosen for the reproduced design. (Some readers will recall this site as being outside the original National Postal Museum in King Edward Street, London.) A good match for the off-white card of the original collection plates was sourced from The Paper Mill Shop. This was printed in the correct blue print that again reflected the adoption of the colour blue for much of the advertising material associated with the airmail service in the 1930s.

Collection plate

Collection plate

About this time, problems arose with the production of the replica enamel signs. Stocksigns admitted defeat with the curved sign as the necessary skills for producing such times has sadly declined in recent times. Difficulty was also experienced by their graphics team tasked with replicating the font used on the original design. This was based on Trajan Roman characters. Additional photographs and advice was provided by BPMA and a good match was subsequently produced. Text was in bright white and an accurate colour match for the base colour of the sign was found within the Stocksigns portfolio: Pantone Blue 072C (reference 93.SC.451/263B). This is somewhat darker than the paint applied to the pillar box but remains correct for the time.

An alternative approach was taken with the curved enamel notice. Despite some deterioration having occurred to the notice over the years, this was by no means as extensive as that which had occurred to the oval sign above the box. Therefore the decision was taken to bring forward the conservation of the original curved sign. It would be protected from future decay and refitted to the box. It was retrieved and a specialised enamels conservator from Plowden & Smith Ltd. was engaged to carry out conservation work. Friable corrosion was removed with a scalpel, glass brush and fine garriflex. Curator antiquing liquid was applied to even out the colour and a layer of microcrystalline wax was applied.

SP171 Airmail 'flag'. Images show condition prior to, the second following, conservation work.

SP171 Airmail 'flag'. Images show condition prior to, the second following, conservation work. (Images: Plowden and Smith Limited)

Cleaned and original escutcheon and collection tablet holders were refitted together with a contemporary enamel tablet from the BPMA collection. Hinges were oiled and the cap re-fitted. Finally, the completed oval sign and its newly painted frame were bolted to the cap. This completed our restoration of the airmail pillar box. It will be on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London until 25th July as part of the exhibition Empire Mail: George V and the GPO.

Box on display at Guildhall Art Gallery

Box on display at Guildhall Art Gallery

In addition to those companies mentioned above, BPMA were also pleased to receive advice and assistance from Brian Nicks, Arthur Reeder, Nigel Slater and Robert Waite.

The Wilkinson Collection on Flickr

Model letter box cigarette holder

A model letter box made of metal and brown leather. Quite decorative in style, it may well have been used to hold cigarettes.

Today we added some photos of items from the Wilkinson Collection to Flickr. The Wilkinson Collection is named after the late Ian Wilkinson, who collected over 3000 objects related to post boxes and the postal service. Amongst the items are money boxes, model letter boxes and model vehicles; some feature characters such as Snoopy, Mickey Mouse or Postman Pat, or were manufactured by companies such as Lego, Fisher Price or Dinky.

The BPMA’s predecessor, the National Postal Museum, received the Wilkinson Collection in 1989, but it is only in the past year that it has been catalogued by Collections Cataloguer Emma Harper, and made available on our online catalogue (read more about this in Emma’s blogs).

The photos we’ve put on Flickr today show some of the Collection’s highlights and oddities, from a Mickey Mouse money box to a letter box cigarette holder. There really is something for everyone in the Wilkinson Collection!

Wilkinson Secondary Collection and Issues of Disposal

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections) 

You may have noticed that since my last blog around 850 objects from the Wilkinson Collection have been added to our online catalogue. These are the objects that I have been cataloguing in the past months; however, these are not the full extent of the collection. In the case of the Wilkinson collection we thought that the sheer size of the collection meant that it was unlikely we would catalogue every single object. Moreover, as I have stressed throughout my blogs, the collection is very diverse and contains things that were often not directly relevant to our collecting policy. For this reason we decided to catalogue what we saw as the core of the Wilkinson collection, the model letter boxes and vehicles, which could also include some of the more ‘popular’ items such as the Postman Pat objects. Which begs the question, what have we done with the rest?

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

Over 1000 objects have been kept at what we are calling a ‘Secondary Collection’ level. These are objects which we do not consider are the ‘core’ of the collection, things that Ian Wilkinson began to collect later on in his life, rather than those objects that were the original inspiration for the collection. These include items such as mugs, plates, books, badges, key-rings, and ephemera such as birthday and greeting cards. All of these objects have some reference to the postal world on them, even if it was sometimes a challenge to find them!

Information is still recorded about these objects, such as a description of the object (including any defining features), measurements and their present location. However, instead of cataloguing them on the database, this material is kept in the object history file and electronically on our computer system. As a result, if anyone does want to see any of the objects in the secondary collection we can initially provide them with information about the object and, if they want to, arrange for them to view the object itself. This system gives us as a museum much more flexibility. Whilst we will obviously still care for the objects to the same standard as if they were catalogued, we can be a little freer with their use. They can, and hopefully will, be used as a handling collection, and in education sessions, to give people a wider experience of museum objects without them or us worrying as much about damage or breakages.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

As a result, the Secondary Collection not only includes those items that are less relevant but also some objects that fall into the core groups but are not in quite as good condition. Condition of an object is an important issue to consider when cataloguing objects. Some materials can deteriorate quickly and actually affect the condition of other objects as they do so. As a result, some objects, if they were severely damaged, or deteriorating and would continue to do so at a rapid pace, would not be catalogued and would instead be disposed of.

Throughout the museum sector there is a strong presumption against disposal. However, it is recognised that in some circumstances disposal is the sensible option for the benefit of the museum collection as a whole, as well as the individual object. In the past museums have often collected anything and everything without any clear idea of why or how they can benefit the museum. This has often led to problems of space and stretched resources. Nowadays, museums are much more aware of these problems and put in place measures to ensure that nothing is collected or kept that cannot be properly cared for, or might damage other objects in the collection.

The BPMA’s ‘Acquisition and Disposal’ policy states that ‘Material will not usually be acquired if identical, or significantly similar, items already exist in the Collections’ and that ‘Existing collections [eg. Wilkinson collection] will be subject to regular professional reviews to ensure they are in line with [this] current collecting policy.’

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

It is this review process that I have been carrying out as I have catalogued the Wilkinson Collection. Many of the objects in the collection were duplicated either within the Wilkinson Collection itself, or occasionally in the wider BPMA collection. When I found a duplicated object I would get both objects out of the store to compare their condition. If one was in a worse condition than the other, for example, in the case of the model letter boxes, if one was more scratched or the paint work was peeling, then I would put that object to one side to consult with the curator what the next step should be.

Once a decision had been made as to whether an object should be disposed of, all relevant information about the item is recorded: this includes a description of the object, whether copyright is known; measurements are taken and the object is photographed. All of this information is stored physically in the Wilkinson collection’s history file, and electronically on our computers, like the Secondary Collection. As you can see, the disposal process is very similar to the cataloguing one. This way, we still have a lot of the information about the object but the condition and/or material of the object is not a threat to the collection.

The Big Draw at the Museum Store

by Laura Dixon, Learning Officer

BPMA will be holding a Big Draw event on Saturday 10 October at the BPMA Museum Store from 10.00am – 4.00pm to fit in with this year’s theme of Colour in the Big Draw.

The Big Draw aims to get everyone drawing – adults and children alike. BPMA is delighted to be working with designer and illustrator Izzy Jaffer, who will be helping visitors create their own detailed colour drawings of objects on display. If you think you can’t draw, Izzy will show you otherwise. She says “…anyone can draw anything by simply breaking down the subject into simple shapes and adding in the detail once the shape and proportion are right.”

Drawing sessions will be drop in from 10.15am – 12.30pm and 1.30pm -3.30pm. All are welcome at this free, day long event, but please book (see details below).

As well as the drawing workshops, this open day will also feature tours of the Store with our Curator, films, worksheets and quizzes and the chance to win special BPMA prizes!

A selection of GPO Film Unit films will be chosen to fit in with the theme of Colour – such as Night Mail 2, an updated version of the classic 1936 Night Mail, made in 1986 in colour with poetry by Blake Morrison.

We will also show some of the pioneering colour films made for the GPO in the 1930s by experimental director and artist Len Lye. One of Lye’s films, A Colour Box (1935), was made without a camera; Lye painted directly onto the celluloid and in doing so created a film which divided audience opinion at the time between adulation and derision.

Other Lye films to be shown include Rainbow Dance (1936), a 5 minute ‘film ballet’, and Trade Tattoo (1937), which uses some leftover footage from other GPO films (such as the first Night Mail) to make a short film about the British working day, whilst also encouraging viewers to Post Early.

The open day offers an exciting opportunity to see many of the BPMA’s collection of objects on display in a working store.

What is a Store?

Visitors should be prepared for something different from a traditional museum when coming to the Store. Because the BPMA does not currently have the space to display all of its larger objects on a permanent basis, they are kept safely in the Store at Debden. There aren’t the usual interpretive panels you would see in a museum, and there may be some items that are undergoing repairs, as well as some new acquisitions.

The BPMA Store contains objects ranging from the desk of Rowland Hill (founder of the Penny Post), to a carriage from Post Office Underground Railway, letter boxes, bicycles, motorcycles and more.

To book your place, please contact info@postalheritage.org.uk or phone 020 7239 2570 and state whether you would like to com in the morning or afternoon.