Tag Archives: letters

A War of Letters: Understanding WWI through letters

On Thursday 16th October Curator Emma Harper is giving a talk at the Guildhall Library entitled ‘A War of Letters’, here’s a little preview of what you can expect. 

Every aspect of the war was communicated by letter and, for many, letters were a way of maintaining some semblance of normality. Whilst accurate figures for the amounts of mail sent during the war are hard to pin point, we know that at its peak over 12 million letters a week passed through the Post Office’s temporary sorting office – the Home Depot.

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

 

Some survive in the BPMA’s collection and reflect the range of subjects that were written about. The weather, health and letter writing itself, or lack of it, were spoken about rather than the war itself, the effects of which were often played down as in this postcard from ‘Fred’ to his mother:

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

‘Just a few lines hoping that you are in the very best of health Dear. I hope that you are not offended with me for not writing to you before now, but I knowed the one letter would do for the two of you. I am not very sound myself but you need not worry over me.’

Receipt of a letter was a huge boost to morale both for those at home and at the Front, the maintenance of that link was of vital importance and recognised as such by the Post Office. By writing ‘On Active Service’ at the top of their correspondence soldiers could write home for free.

One of the most common ‘letters’ received from the Front was the Field Service Postcard. These postcards only allowed soldiers to give basic details to family back home as rather than writing their own sentiments they had to pick from a list, deleting those that didn’t apply. This was a form of censorship as the limited space for personal expression meant that there was less risk of divulging confidential information or of tales that may reduce morale reaching the Home Front. Despite the fact that nothing else was meant to be written on the postcard there were always exceptions and some of them did get through the censor, such as this harmless Christmas message [also 2014-0062].

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. 2014-0062)

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. (2014-0062)

Many of the letters received however did not bring such happy messages and some of the most poignant of the war are those last letters ever written, a selection of which I’ll be sharing in my talk. One of the letters in BPMA’s collection informs Mrs Peel of the death of her husband, Captain Home Peel of the Post Office’s own regiment, the Post Office Rifles [OB1997.212/46]. Unusually it was written by a German soldier, E.F. Gaylor [OB1997.212/37]. He writes: Although enemy and sometimes deeply hurt by the ridiculous tone of your horrid press, I feel it as a human duty to communicate you these sad news. Capt Peel was killed in action near Longueval & died, as it seems by the wounds received, without suffering.’

Captain Home Peel. OB1997.212/46)

Captain Home Peel. (OB1997.212/46)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. OB1997.212/37)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. (OB1997.212/37)

The fact that Peel carried his letters round with him and that Gaylor still felt it his duty to communicate the news to Peel’s loved ones, his enemies, shows the strength of feeling and importance given to letter writing in the war. These letters now also play a vital role in deepening our understanding and remembrance of the war.

To find out more please do come along to Guildhall Library on Thursday 16th October at 6pm. You can still book your tickets online!

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.