Tag Archives: letters

Newly-catalogued oddities in WW1 postal censorship

During the First World War, the GPO handled mail sent to and from prisoners of war. These included captured soldiers and civilians who had been in the wrong place at the outbreak of hostilities. Before mail reached its recipient, it would be examined by censors on both sides of the conflict.

I’ve just catalogued a set of nearly 40 GPO files from the First World War all about the censorship of mail for POWs. Many of the files deal with really specific problems. Here are two of my favourites:

BREAD DESTRUCTION OUTRAGE:

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

POST 56/243 (1916) concerns a series of complaints from the fabulously-named Bedford Bread Fund, a charity that sent parcels of bread to British POWs in German camps. The loaves were being sawn in half by the British censors to inspect them for concealed messages, leaving them entirely inedible by the time they arrived. The file also documents the censors’ trials of loaf-prodding by bone knitting needle. While less invasive, the needles alas broke off inside the loaves.

PENMANSHIP CRITIQUE EFFRONTERY:

The GPO's reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

The GPO’s reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

POST 56/212 (1915) contains complaints forwarded by a countess from her POW husband. A concern was that mail was arriving at the camp with pencilled comments from censors, asking the prisoners to persuade their families to write shorter letters, and to write more neatly. Censors, he said, had no right to express this kind of stylistic criticism. As you can see from the GPO reply (above), the comments were apparently left by the German censors who, after all, had a job to do too.

I love these two files. They seem absurd, and yet they’re perfectly logical and justified under the circumstances. Other favourite cases include an intercepted parcel of construction textbooks sent to a French POW, and a query about whether letters to Russian POWs could be written in the Russian alphabet.

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

The censorship records are part of a collection of around 500 files that I’m cataloguing. The files document the Army Postal Service from the 1900s to the 1970s, including both World Wars, and are genuinely global in scope. Much of the material originated from the Royal Engineers Postal Section, a forerunner of today’s Royal Logistic Corps that drew many of its men from GPO staff. All these files will appear on the Archive catalogue in the next few months.

- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Charles Dickens and Postal Communication with Dr Tony Williams

Cartoon from Punch's Almanack for 1854

Cartoon from Punch’s Almanack for 1854

Charles Dickens was a prodigious letter writer as well as a writer in other forms. We now have available to us his letters, in twelve large volumes, as the Pilgrim Edition and comprising some 14,252 pieces of correspondence he wrote from the earliest known items from the 1820s through to his final letters in 1870 shortly before he died. What we don’t have, of course, is the correspondence he received from other people because he burnt it all when he moved into Gad’s Hill Place in 1860. Letters keep appearing, like the one which emerged not so long ago, falling out of the covers of a second-hand Bible, and was recently sold for £7,000. Some 300 new discoveries have been published in The Dickensian, the journal of The Dickens Fellowship. There is now also a selection of some 450 letters, edited by Jenny Hartley and published by OUP, which give an excellent flavour of the range of subjects covered. Dickens’s letters are addressed to 2500 known correspondents and 200 unknown: they cover a wide range of topics: letters of business, letters to family, friends; letters home whilst travelling; domestic letters; letters about writing novels and creating characters; about performing and charitable acts; letters in times of personal crisis, birth and bereavements, invitations. Above all they communicate an enormously vibrant sense of his colossal energy and appetite for life.

Dickens was living at a time when the postal system was reformed, especially with the introduction of a standardised penny post in 1840. This led to vast increase in letters sent – threefold in first year and by 1860s eightfold. In major towns and cities there would be ten to twelve deliveries a day: letters posted in the morning would reach their addressee by the late afternoon or evening. It was the 19th century’s new communication medium, much as for us it has been email!

In our talk Dr Tony Williams will explore some of the letters in Dickens’s fiction and his writing about developments in the postal system in his journalism, as well as sharing with the audience some examples of Dickens’s own correspondence. Dr Williams is a frequent speaker on Dickens. He is Associate Editor of The Dickensian and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham. From 1999 to 2006 he was Joint General Secretary of the International Dickens Fellowship and a Trustee of the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

Dr Williams will be preceded by Dr Adrian Steel at 6pm who will talk on “The Future of Britain’s Postal Heritage”.  Further details and tickets are available here.

Curious Addresses

Curious Addresses are the name given to envelopes where the address is presented in a different format, such as a poem or a picture. These are fascinating and beautiful works of art to view, but probably less of a joy to the poor postman or postwoman who has to decipher them!

The address has been scattered across and combined within this image. (E3243.10)

The address has been scattered across and combined within this image. (E3243.10)

To mark the release of our latest podcast The Curious Culture of Letter Writing with Emma Harper, we’ve added seven curious addresses from our collection to Flickr. Can you work out the addresses? When you think you’ve got it out, click on the image to reveal the correct answer.

Read Emma Harper’s blog previewing The Curious Culture of Letter Writing.

Postal Mischief podcast

In April we invited the writer, broadcaster, artist and musician David Bramwell to the BPMA to give a talk on the history of postal mischief. This turned out to be a fascinating and highly entertaining event, looking at the work of key players in this field including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson, Victorian prankster Reginald Bray and musician Genesis P.Orridge, who inadvertently changed the postal laws (owing to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards).

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell's talk.

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell’s talk.

David also shared his own exploits in mail art, which saw him and a friend post unusual objects to each other – much to the amusement of local Post Office and Royal Mail staff.

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

You can now listen to or download David Bramwell’s talk as a podcast via our website, iTunes or SoundCloud. And if David has inspired you to engage in some postal mischief do let us know about it!

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

Find out about our upcoming talks and other public events on the Events page of our website.

A Curious Culture of Letter Writing

In December 2011, as some of you may remember, BPMA and the BBC produced a collaborative radio series entitled the People’s Post. One episode of that series focussed on the culture of letter writing. Ever since this episode I have been intrigued by this subject and the many different forms letters have taken, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Century. As a result I decided to delve into the BPMA collection to see whether a culture of letter writing was reflected in the objects and files in the collection.

On Thursday 20th June at 7pm I’ll be giving a talk in which I use objects from our collection as a basis to explore how postal reform helped the development of this culture of letter writing and sharing some of the weird and wonderful things I’ve discovered.

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Some of the broader themes I’ll be looking at are the introduction of the penny post, the development of envelopes and postcards, as well as the sending of cards for special occasions such as Christmas. I am by no means a postal historian and this is much more an introduction to some of the main changes in the 19th Century postal system and how these are reflected in the objects I’ve found within the BPMA’s collection and the social history they tell.

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

These objects range from various Curious Addresses – the name given to envelopes where the address is presented in a different format such as a poem or a picture; Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; the Express Delivery form used by suffragettes to post themselves as ‘human letters‘ and an account of a kitten being sent through the post as well as numerous postcards and letters.

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

Come along to the Phoenix Centre, London, on Thursday 20th June at 7pm to find out more…

- Emma Harper, Curator

See images from the Curious Culture of Letter Writing on Flickr.

The Last Straw: a brief look at complaints

Whilst I was working on some uncatalogued documents, I came across a file regarding the gumming of postage stamps. Not necessarily the most engaging of topics, you might think, but what attracted my interest was a number of letters to the General Post Office (GPO) dating from the 1950s to the 1970s. These were written by customers complaining about the poor quality of the gum used to affix stamps to mail. Some were very entertaining, and got me thinking about the nature of complaint. It’s a commonly-held belief that modern life in Britain isn’t a patch on “the good old days”, but as these letters show, the people of the past often held the same view.

Complaint: Postmaster General, G.P.O., London.

In the early 1970s, the Post Office decided to switch the adhesive used on stamps from gum Arabic to Polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. However, this didn’t go down well with the public, as it appeared that the glue was not the best quality, and often came loose from the paper. In 1973, complaints ranged from the light-hearted (“do you think you may spare a lick more glue on 3p stamps?”) to the exasperated (“it is not a habit of mine to write and complain – but this is the last straw!”). A confused postal sorter asked “is it the gum or the lack of spit?” One customer was enraged by the GPO’s reply stating that as 7,000 million stamps were produced per year, some defective ones were bound to “slip through”, and huffily replied that as he had experienced this problem constantly for the past 8 weeks, it seemed rather to be the general standard. It wasn’t just the gum that was causing annoyance; the perforations came in for criticism too: “until now I had been disturbed by the feeling that lavatorial jokes based on the line ‘nothing tears along the dotted edge’ were founded in myth”.

Dear Sirs, General complaint about stamps. What's happened to the glue?

I found it interesting to see how complaints can be timeless; one dissatisfied customer lamented that “the Britain of the past seems to have gone, everything is inferior, most of the employees have no time for doing a proper job for having strikes”. Going back further in time, to the First World War, I discovered a letter from a union of discharged soldiers complaining that men were being refused postal employment in favour of women, who the writer believed were being hired because their wages were cheaper. You can well imagine someone making a similar complaint today.

Dear Sirs, I am writing to complain about the quality of the 2 1/2p and 3p stamps. I find repeatedly that the gum is inadequate and the stamps will not stick to good quality cream wove envelopes. Also the paper or perforation is not what it used to be, and I am frequetnly damaging stamps in tearing them off from sheets. Whilst I realise that the Post Office must make all reasonable economies, any economies effected in this direction must be very small indeed, and give trouble to the user.

One of the best things about working at the BPMA is that you can get the chance to see little snippets of human life such as these, as well as the records of policy and administration we hold. It’s a great way of seeing how society has progressed, or, in some cases, has remained exactly the same.

- Robin Sampson, Archives/Records Assistant

Archive material used:

POST 52/1052 - “Complaints about PVA Gum on stamps”

POST 47/64 - “Complaint that Men have been Refused Employment at the Home Depot in Favour of Women”

This blog was researched at the Royal Mail Archive, located at BPMA’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. There are millions of stories to uncover at the Royal Mail Archive, see our website for Archive opening hours and visitor information.

Postal Mischief

On Thursday 18th April we will be welcoming writer and performer David Bramwell as he presents a talk exploring the curious history of postal mischief.

Using a slide show of fascinating images and video clips David will discuss the key mischief makers, including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson and Victorian prankster Reginald Bray. In addition, the musician Genesis P. Orridge who inadvertently changed the postal laws thanks to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards!

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

When you leave, indulge in your own postal mischief too – David will be hoping to inspire you to ‘post a flip-flop to someone you love’ by sharing his own exploits in mail art.

David has won a Sony Award for his work on Radio 3 and spoken at TED, Idler Academy and Alain de Botton’s School of Life. He runs the Catalyst Club in Brighton where everyday people talk about their passions in front of a live audience.

Visit our website to book for Postal Mischief.

Christmas cards in bundles

In the lead-up to Christmas we are sharing with you 12 Posters of Christmas, a dozen classic postal posters from the Royal Mail Archive. Today’s is…

Poster recommending that mail be tied in bundles to assist with the Christmas mail, designed by Kenneth Bromfield, c. 1967. (POST 110/2581)

Poster recommending that mail be tied in bundles to assist with the Christmas mail, designed by Kenneth Bromfield, c. 1967. (POST 110/2581)

Until as recently as the 1990s it was common for the Post Office to request that large numbers of letters or cards be posted in bundles. Assuming the public bundled the letters and cards correctly, this assisted greatly with mail sorting during the busy Christmas period.

Royal Mail no longer asks that you bundle your letters and cards as a great deal of mail is now sorted by machines which electronically read the address and postcode on each item of mail.

Christmas Airgraphs

In the lead-up to Christmas we are sharing with you 12 Posters of Christmas, a dozen classic postal posters from the Royal Mail Archive. Today’s is…

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, 1944 poster by Leonard Beaumont. (PRD0392)

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, 1944 poster by Leonard Beaumont. (PRD0392)

This poster designed by Leonard Beaumont in 1944 promotes the airgraph service, a method of sending messages to servicemen by airmail during the Second World War. Messages were written onto a special form that was then given an identification number and photographed onto microfilm. The microfilm was flown to its destination, developed into a full size print, and posted to the recipient.

Airgraph form, Christmas 1943 (POST 52/692)

Airgraph form, Christmas 1943 (POST 52/692)

Sending 1600 airgraphs on microfilm weighed just 5oz compared to 50lbs for the same number of letters. Copies of the microfilm were kept so that if they were shot down the messages could be re-sent.

Christmas time is often the most difficult for serving military personnel and airgraphs were eagerly anticipated by troops. Today, the British Forces Post Office (BFPO) uses an electronic system called eBlueys – read more about it in this blog about our visit to the BFPO in 2009.

Visit our website for more on the Airgraph Service – did you know that Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother) sent the first airgraph?

Queen Elizabeth taking a look at an airgraph film. The Queen sent the first airgraph to launch the service in 1941.

Queen Elizabeth taking a look at an airgraph film. The Queen sent the first airgraph to launch the service in 1941.

Mail to troops fighting the First World War

In wartime one of the most important means of maintaining troops’ morale is provision of an efficient mail service. Letters from family and loved ones are eagerly awaited, as is news from the front to those at home.

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

300 members of the Army Postal Service travelled with the British Expeditionary Force to France in August 1914, but by the end of the war this had grown to nearly 4,000 across all spheres of conflict.

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Lantern slides, recently catalogued by our curatorial team and volunteers, show some of these personnel at work. A field post office established at the side of a road in France is typical of the makeshift facilities employed to run the service.

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

Other images show foreign troops receiving their mail.

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

As artefacts, these lantern slides are fascinating for many reasons. The crude colourisation of some of them tells us about the technology of the time, and the desire of the image-makers must have had to show us the world as it is – in colour. But more interesting are the glimpses of the conditions endured by the troops, even when they weren’t fighting at the front, and the expressions on their faces, showing obvious delight at receiving news from home.

Visit Flickr to see more of our First World War lantern slides.