Tag Archives: online catalogue

Under the Bonnet of the BPMA’s Online Catalogue

Here at the BPMA we’re making major changes to the way our online catalogue looks – and works. There will be more details soon, but today I’ll show you three of our planned improvements:

1. Streamlined Catalogue Data

Matt's been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Matt’s been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Since February I’ve been fine-tuning the data and structure of the entire BPMA catalogue. I’ve refined old catalogue entries to bring them into line with our current descriptive standards. I’ve rearranged fields to free up space for exciting new content. And I’ve reformatted the way the date is written for every single record in the catalogue. That’s over 120,000 records. I had to use lots of computer tricks to make all these changes in just a few weeks, rather than editing the records one by one. A career in archives can be a really good test of your IT skills!

2. Enhanced Thumbnail Images

We're enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

We’re enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

About 25,000 entries in the catalogue have thumbnails: small photos or scans showing you what the object or record looks like. In 2014 there are more high-resolution computer screens and faster Internet speeds than even a few years ago. We want our online catalogue to have larger, brighter thumbnails than we’ve used until now. Web visitors will be able to see our collections in even more detail.

I’ve been hunting down every digital image of the BPMA’s collections, converting them into new thumbnails at a higher resolution and an increased size.  Wherever possible, our new images will be 700 pixels wide on their shorter side. In the past six weeks I’ve created thumbnails for 22,000 objects and records. Only a few thousand left to go!

3. Improved Online Experience

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

We’re currently finalising the new online catalogue interface. It’ll offer new ways to navigate our collections, including user tagging, and sorting search results by different criteria. You should also be able to browse the entire Archive by its hierarchy (example shown above), which will show how any one record relates to all the others. There’ll be all-new guidance pages for first-time users, which I’m writing this week.

This is my final blog post here, as I’m leaving the BPMA at the end of May. It’s a privilege to have been part of the BPMA’s amazing work.

-  Matt Tantony, Archivist (Catalogue Systems)

New on the online catalogue

Last week we did one of our periodic uploads of new material onto the online catalogue. More than 2,000 records went on this time.

New to the catalogue is the ‘REPS deposit’. This was a large collection of records on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and the Army Postal Service. The material dated from the 1900s to the 1980s, but it was particularly rich in information on the Army Postal Service at home and overseas during and after the Second World War.

The REPS deposit was indexed in the early 1980s by Major J G Long (retired), then archivist of the REPCS Officers’ Association. Long was commissioned c.1980 to write a history of the REPS. The project was later abandoned, and Long resigned the archivist post in 1982. He deposited his research notes and the archives at the Home Postal and Courier Communications Depot, Inglis Barracks, Mill Hill, and that’s where the trail ends. If anyone reading this knows any more about Major Long and his work, we would love to hear from you!

Social Reformers Issue 1976 – David Gentleman (QEII/119/33)

Social Reformers Issue 1976 – David Gentleman (QEII/119/33)

The REPS deposit was catalogued in January and February 2014 by Matt Tantony, our former Project Archivist. The deposit was split between three main areas of the catalogue. Public records on the Army Postal Service have been catalogued in POST 47. Records on the GPO’s actions in wartime are in POST 56. The remainder of the deposit is mostly non-public records, including Major Long’s own research notes, military publications, and reunion dinner plans. These archives are not strictly postal in relevance but will be of interest to anyone studying the history of the REPS as a military unit. They’ve been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’.

Our cataloguing archivist Anna Flood was responsible among other work for plenty more POST 72 (Post Office Headquarters files) going on, completing the catalogue for this large class.

Some small quantities of POST 22 (Counters), 63 (Staff Training) and 68 (Rules and Instructions) also went on. Additionally several sub-series from POST 153 (Mails Division) and 157 (Postal Operations Department) were added.

Stamp artwork for eight issues from 1976 Social Reformers to 1977 Silver Jubilee (POST 150) is now on the catalogue.

Racket Sports Issue 1977 – Andrew Restall (QEII/124/06)

Racket Sports Issue 1977 – Andrew Restall (QEII/124/06)

More than 50 museum objects went online. These included a set of self-designed Christmas cards by Martin Norgate from the 1970s to the present day and a World War One card on a piece of khaki, recently acquired by the BPMA.

'B.E.A. XMAS GREETINGS' Khaki Christmas Card (2013-0091)

‘B.E.A. XMAS GREETINGS’ Khaki Christmas Card (2013-0091)

This Christmas card is written on a piece of khaki, possibly from a uniform. Drawn in ink on the front cover is a cross with the words ‘B.E.A. 1915/ XMAS GREETINGS’ inside. Above the cross a thistle is drawn, whilst below the cross is a banner reading ’25 R.F.’.

Front of the card

Front of the card (2013-0091)

Finally a number of amended War Memorials records are now available.

Eagle-eyed users will notice one or two changes to the way data is represented on the online catalogue since this upload. We have switched our date format from YYYY-Mon-DD to the more conventional DD-Mon-YYYY.

Another change is in the way we arrange the archive hierarchically, we have now changed the hierarchical ‘RefNo’ field so that the whole archive now properly nests under the Collection level description for the whole of the Archive . This change has been prompted in main by our exciting plans to revamp our online catalogue. Updates and progress of this are coming soon!

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager

New year, new records on the BPMA online catalogue

In mid-January we did one of our periodic uploads of new material onto the online catalogue.  These happen, broadly speaking, every three months, and more than 4,000 records went on this time. This is the largest upload of new records and much credit is due to the cataloguers, both full time staff and volunteers.

The new records include 455 registration sheets from the Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal era.  Each entry includes a full detailed catalogue description including unique cylinder and sheet numbers, the registration date, and a scanned corner section of the sheet.  This work completes registration sheets from the pre-decimal era.

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

Artwork, including first designs, proofs, essays and first day covers, was uploaded for twelve stamp artwork issues from the period 1972-1976, including Christmas issues, the 1973 Royal Wedding, 1975 European Architectural Heritage Year, and the 1976 Telephone Centenary.

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

913 Post Office and Royal Mail Headquarters records (POST 72) were uploaded ( c.1780-2000). These include minutes, reports and correspondence of various headquarter departments and numerous reports relating to Post Office reforms from 1797 to the 1990s.

Reassigning of Post Office PR and marketing files

After four months’ work by a Project Archivist and a volunteer, we’ve completely appraised and catalogued the backlog of files assigned to POST 108 (the Post Office Public Relations Department), freeing up half a bay of our repository shelving! This great material includes Post Office PR and marketing campaigns, from the ‘Meet Your Postal Service’ campaigns of the 1970s to the controversial ‘Consignia’ rebrand in 2001, as well as promotional films, corporate design guidelines and public opinion surveys.

Many of the files assigned to POST 108 eventually found homes elsewhere in the catalogue. Substantial amounts were added to POST 63 (training guidebooks), POST 68 (staff briefing packs) and POST 109 (designs for press advertisements). We also weeded, catalogued and repackaged thousands of photographs collected during the publication of the Courier staff magazine in the 1970s and 1980s (POST 118).

Cataloguing of Photographs of Post Office facades

Our volunteer, Julian Osley, scanned, re-housed and catalogued a series of photographs showing the facades of post offices across the country from 1984. The identity of the photographer is currently unknown, as is the purpose of the photographs. They were transferred into the archive as part of the Post Office photograph library at the beginning of this century.

POST 118/PF0243 - Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

POST 118/PF0243 – Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

For each post office, there is often a photograph showing the hours of business notice and these were used by Julian to identify each location. For post offices without hours of business notices, Julian had to use his knowledge of post office architectural history and Google’s Streetview to identify locations. This series now offers a fascinating snapshot of post offices prior to the significant reduction of their network in the last thirty years.

Some of Julian’s finds have also been posted to the BPMA’s Historypin channel, giving viewers a chance to see photographs pinned against modern day Google Streetviews.

Annual opening of files under 20-year rule

I also did the annual opening of files under the 20-year rule transition timetable. More than 600 files which contain material dated up to 1984 and 1985 have become available covering a huge number of topics from Board papers to individual mechanised letter office operational efficiency audit reports.

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

The Royal Mail Archive is open to the public, find opening hours and visitor information on our website.

It’s a Project Archivist Christmas

As 2013 comes to a close, I’ve repackaged and catalogued over 1,000 files from the Archive. In this blog post, I’ll share a few of the methods I used to get this historic material processed and available for researchers as quickly as possible.

Project Archivist Matt reflects

Project Archivist Matt reflects on a year’s work.

As I wrote in my introductory post, most if not all archive services have backlogs of material that hasn’t been catalogued due to lack of time or staff. My main role as Project Archivist is to reduce the BPMA’s backlog, one section of the Archive at a time. So far I’ve eliminated four backlogs:

  • Organisation, circulation and sorting of inland mails (POST 17).
  • Post Office counter operations and services (POST 22).
  • Establishment records (POST 59).
  • Public Relations Department, predecessors and successors (POST 108).

Each backlog was composed of hundreds of individual files, ranging from administrative papers to technical plans to visual material like posters and photographs. The files had come into the Archive from many different sources over the past few decades. My task was to repackage and catalogue the files, and find places for them in the BPMA’s existing catalogue structure. I also needed to remove redundant files to free up much-needed repository space. And I wanted to make my descriptions reasonably detailed, to help people search for files in our online catalogue.

The working method I devised, therefore, was based around fast, detailed processing on a file-by-file basis. I had the opportunity to evaluate and refine the method after each backlog was finished. I also familiarised myself with More Product Less Process (MPLP) theory after recommendations from professional colleagues. While I didn’t completely embrace the MPLP approach, I adopted some of its ideas to increase efficiency.

I’m not going to hurl technical details at you, but here are some of the techniques I used to process over 1,000 wildly differing files alongside the other work I do at the BPMA.

1. Get to know the territory: Before starting, I visually inspected the entire backlog to get a rough idea of its extent and anything requiring special conservation treatment. I also collated any existing box lists and accession records, did background research, and compiled a glossary of terms used in file names.

2. Establish basic standards: I adopted a minimum standard of description and repackaging, which could be enhanced if a file warranted it. Any file containing a contents list or executive summary had it copied pretty much verbatim into the catalogue description, while files in stable ring binders were generally not repackaged.

3. Multi-task: I combined appraisal (i.e. deciding if we needed to keep the file), repackaging, physical arrangement and catalogue description into a single integrated process, performed on one file at a time. Intellectual arrangement of files into a catalogue structure was only done after all files had been processed.

4. Use simple, sensible numbering: The BPMA uses two numbering systems. Each file/item has a Finding Number, which is unique, fixed, and used by researchers and staff to retrieve archives for consultation. Files/items also have Reference Numbers, which structure the multi-level archival descriptions I described in this blog post. Reference Numbers aren’t seen by researchers and can be swapped around as often as needed. This is a really great way to do almost all the processing of files without having to worry about exactly where they’ll go in the catalogue.

Cataloguing database screen capture

A screen capture of Matt’s cataloguing database, showing some of the completed fields and the BPMA’s dual numbering system.

5. Wherever possible, get a computer to help: I designed a relational database in Access for all my project work. The database would automatically complete some catalogue fields, saving lots of time. It logged which files had been catalogued and which had been marked for disposal. I used it during processing to group files into rough subject categories, which were refined into catalogue sub-series at the end. Best of all, I could take all the descriptions I’d written in the database and import them into our catalogue software in one batch.

These are some of the techniques I’ve used in my work. Perhaps you might find them helpful if you’re working on a similar task. Of course, there are many other ways of working, and I’d be very interested to read your suggestions for how I could do things differently!

WW2 postal records

Christmas is all about opening boxes, but archivists get to do it every day! Here, Matt opens the first of several boxes of uncatalogued WW2 postal records.

My new project is to catalogue a large collection of British Army postal service records, dating from World War 2 to the 1980s. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Christmas, and see you in the New Year!

- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

2,000 new records on our online catalogue

At the start of October we did one of our periodic uploads of newly catalogued material onto the online catalogue. Over 2,000 new records went online. These include descriptions of files, stamp artwork, microfiche, museum objects and library books, a good number of which will be accompanied by images (with more to go online soon). Below is a brief summary of what has gone on.

Museum objects

These are a combination of items that have been part of the collection for some time but only fully catalogued in the past few years as well as objects newly acquired by the BPMA for its museum collection. Do browse through the records and you will see the huge variety of objects including slogan dies, which one of our volunteers, Cyril Parsons, has been working on editing; more items of uniform such as a Ministry of Civil Aviation coat made by the GPO; a group of material relating to the more modern operations of the Post Office Investigation Department; as well as several other new acquisitions featured in previous blogs, such as the Certifying Seal used by Sir Francis Freeling during his tenure as Secretary of the General Post Office.

Royal Mail Archive: Philatelic

POST 150 QEII Decimal Stamp Artwork for the following issues:

  • QEII 1971 Ulster paintings
  • QEII 1971 Literary Anniversaries
  • QEII 1971 British Anniversaries
  • QEII 1971 University Architecture
  • QEII 1971 Christmas
  • QEII 1972 General Anniversaries
  • QEII 1972 British Polar Explorers
  • QEII 1972 British Architecture, Village Churches
  • QEII 1972 Broadcasting Anniversaries
  • QEII 1972 Royal Silver Wedding
  • QEII 1973 British Trees
  • QEII 1973 European Communities
  • QEII 1973 Artistic Anniversaries
  • QEII 1973 British Explorers
  • QEII 1973 County Cricket
Stamps and first day cover for Modern University Buildings stamp issue, 1971. (QEII 96-35)

Stamps and first day cover for Modern University Buildings stamp issue, 1971. (QEII 96-35)

Royal Mail Archive: non-philatelic

Series and sub-series of records from the following POST classes have gone online:

  • POST 17 (Inland Mails, Organisation, Circulation and Sorting)
  • POST 58 (Staff Nomination and Appointment)
  • POST 59 (Establishment books, entire backlog catalogued)
  • POST 91 (Buildings, Fixtures and Fittings, c.200 from a series of site plans, elevations and sections, floor plans, proposals for renovations on microfiche)
  • POST 108 (Public Relations Department)
  • POST 113 (Information Technology, c.40 reports)
  • POST 151 (Central Headquarters)
  • POST 153 (Mails Division)
  • POST 161 (BBC/Post Office emergency arrangements)
  • POST 162 (Director of Postal Services)

Small numbers of records from individual POST classes have also gone online. Details are listed below:

  • POST 11 (Conveyance of Mail by Railways)
  • POST 22 (Counter Operations and Services)
  • POST 28 (Ancillary Services)
  • POST 61 (Uniforms and Discipline)
  • POST 62 (Staff Welfare)
  • POST 63 (Staff Training)
  • POST 65 (Staff Associations)
  • POST 68 (Rules and Instructions)
  • POST 69 (Board papers)
  • POST 115 (Staff Associations and Union Publications)
  • POST 154 (Marketing Department, postmark slogans sub-series)
  • POST 157 (Postal Operations Department, surface mail services and post minibus sub-series)

As well as staff including myself, Anna Flood, Matt Tantony and Adam Hillhouse, work has also been undertaken by volunteers Claire Wardle and Kim Noulton.

War Memorials

More than 300 new or edited records of war memorials commemorating postal staff who served or died in the world wars.

We hope you will find these records both useful and interesting. Please let us know if you spot any errors. Although we do our very best to ensure records going on are properly and accurately proof read errors do occasionally creep through.

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Search for all these new records by visiting the online catalogue.

BT Archives online

Last Wednesday BPMA’s Head of Archives Vicky Parkinson and myself were lucky enough to be invited to an opening event for BT’s new digital archives catalogue.

The new BT Archives online catalogue.

The new BT Archives online catalogue.

This involved us ascending to the 34th floor to the old revolving restaurant of the BT Tower in Fitzrovia (by the way the restaurant may have closed – in 1980 – but the viewing space still revolves, from my experience a slightly unsettling feeling). There we enjoyed fabulous views over sunny London and a series of launch speeches for the BT catalogue which has now gone live here.

Cover of Post Office Magazine from November 1965. It depicts the GPO Tower.

Cover of Post Office Magazine from November 1965. It depicts the GPO Tower.

The BT Digital Archives was developed through the New Connections project, a one million pound collaboration between Coventry University, BT and The National Archives, in order to bring an important part of this unique archive and innovations story to a much wider audience. It was funded by JISC under Strand B: Mass Digitisation of their Content programme between November 2011 and July 2013.

The project aimed to catalogue, digitise and develop a searchable online resource of almost half a million photographs, images, documents and correspondence, a core part of the overall collection assembled by BT over 165 years, including over:

  • 45,000 photographs and pictures, c1865 – 1982
  • 190,000 pages from over 13,500 research reports, 1878 – 1981
  • 230,000 documents from over 550 policy and operational files, 1851 – 1983

JISC funding ended in July 2013, but the site will continue to be maintained and developed by BT Heritage and Coventry University as part of their continuing collaboration working with Axiell.co.uk suppliers of the Arena platform.

One thing I liked was an early appearance of Tommy Flowers (who later led the team which designed Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer) from 1931. Engineering Research Report 5235 (TCB 422/5325) is co-written by Flowers and entitled ‘Key Sending from “A” Positions using a AC Signals on a Straightforward Junction Basis over Two Wire Junctions’.

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Pre-decimal QEII stamp artwork added to our online catalogue

Recently we made a substantial update to our online catalogue. Some 2,450 QEII pre-decimal stamp artwork items, complete with images, have been added to the database, along with 248 pre-decimal GB commemorative stamp registration sheets. Our online offer now provides full catalogue descriptions and digitised images for all registration sheets from the Penny Black to these most recent additions.

QEII Coronation: Submitted design by Edmund Dulac, 21 August 1952. (QEII/1/020)

QEII Coronation: Submitted design by Edmund Dulac, 21 August 1952. (QEII/1/020)

This phase of the BPMA’s stamp artwork cataloguing and scanning project is the fruition of twelve months work, and follows previous uploads of King George V and King George VI artwork. It allows access to first designs, modified designs, essays, final issued stamps, presentation packs and first day cover designs, showing the design and production process for all QEII stamp issues from beginning to end. Each catalogued artwork item is accompanied by a digital thumbnail image enabling online users to see the artwork itself.

QEII 1966 World Cup: Submitted design by William Kempster, 21 February 1966. (QEII/47/001)

QEII 1966 World Cup: Submitted design by William Kempster, 21 February 1966. (QEII/47/001)

Designs by eminent stamp designers and artists, including Jeffery Matthews, Michael Goaman, Reynolds Stone, Faith Jaques and Andrew Restall are well documented throughout the stamp issues for 1953 to 1970. Among the most prolific are the designs by David Gentleman including the 1965 Churchill Commemoration, 1966 anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and the 1969 Prince of Wales Investiture.

QEII 1966 Anniversary of Battle of Hastings: Submitted design by David Gentleman, May 1966. (QEII/53/013)

QEII 1966 Anniversary of Battle of Hastings: Submitted design by David Gentleman, May 1966. (QEII/53/013)

The registration sheets which depict the first examples of stamps in full sheet form to be printed off the press, are without perforations and include unique identifiable inscriptions and markings; including cylinder numbers, paper type(s) and information regarding the phosphors used in the production of each stamp. This information, plus more, is included in the comprehensive catalogue entry of each registration sheet, along with a scanned corner section of each sheet.

QEII 1969 Concorde: Submitted design by David Gentleman (Harrison and Sons Ltd), 9 October 1967. (QEII/65/006)

QEII 1969 Concorde: Submitted design by David Gentleman (Harrison and Sons Ltd), 9 October 1967. (QEII/65/006)

The next upload will include pre-decimal Machins, Castle High Values and pre-decimal postage due label registration sheets, meaning that all pre-decimal QEII essays and registration sheets will then be online.

Access the newly available QEII material via the British Stamps section of the BPMA website.

192,000 postmen’s inside legs, and other measurements in the Archive

In last month’s cataloguing update I wrote about the London sub-post office record books I’d discovered in the Archive. Since then I’ve been cataloguing records from the area of our collections devoted to the sorting and circulation of inland mail (POST 17 in the catalogue). I’ve added nearly 130 files to the catalogue this month, and edited existing descriptions for hundreds more. The records cover subjects like mail sorting machinery, the development of postcodes, and all kinds of technical details – some of them slightly odd. Here are some of my favourites.

POST 17/482 is a 1969 engineer’s study entitled Measurements of Postmen. The aim was to improve sorting office machinery ergonomics by finding out the average size of a British postman. The heights, arm lengths, and outside and inside leg measurements of thousands of postmen were collected and studied – there were 192,000 measurements for the legs! Getting all those postmen to proffer their legs for the engineer would have been an impossible (and traumatic) challenge. Instead, he studied all the sizes of uniforms ordered that year, to everyone’s benefit and, one suspects, relief.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

On the subject of measurements, I spent several days cataloguing three large sets of engineering standard drawings from the 1970s and 1980s (POST 17/533-535). The drawings – over 450 in total – cover all aspects of automated mail sorting and circulation: conveyor belts, facing tables, coding desks, chutes, signage, even Morris delivery vans.

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

These standards contain the official dimensions of equipment to be manufactured for Royal Mail, including explanations of the jobs they were intended to do. In the case of postal vehicles, the standards go as far as specifying the turning circles of each model. Combined with the reports, brochures and technical specifications found elsewhere in POST 17, there’s a vast amount of information here for anyone interested in recent postal mechanisation developments.

There are also records dating back to the very early days of postal mechanisation. One of my favourite discoveries was a little book that was used between 1907 and 1930 to record staff suggestions for improving the mail handling process.

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Sometimes staff put forward inventions, and the notes include technical sketches, such as the entry above for a time-saving rolling date stamp. The entries sometimes record whether the suggestions were taken forward. Some are appealingly optimistic, such as the 1909 idea of asking the public to tie their Christmas cards into bundles of ten or more before posting them. Other innovations seem like second nature today. The example below is a 1924 suggestion: envelopes with transparent address windows.*

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

I hope my unscientific little selection of examples from a single theme shows the incredible variety of material you can consult in our Search Room. Some of the files I catalogued this month, including records from the creation of the postcode system, can’t be opened for another few years. This is due to the 20-year rule governing public records. But cataloguing them now ensures they’ll be ready and waiting in their archive boxes when the time comes to open them.

As for the Measurements of Postmen, studying 192,000 orders for trousers found the average postman’s inside leg measurement in 1969 to be 30.2 inches. The average British postman was determined to be two inches shorter than his American equivalent.

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

All these files and more will be published to our online catalogue in the coming months.

- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sadly this wasn’t an original idea, according to Wikipedia Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, received the first patent for a windowed envelope on 10 June 1902.

Discovering a Slice of London Life

After last month’s archive stocktake, I’ve returned to my ongoing cataloguing project. Today I’ll tell you about a terrific discovery I made on the repository shelves.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

This is a set of four record books. Three are from the 1930s, while the fourth covers 1941-1956. They’re not labelled with ownership details but, after studying the contents and cross-referencing with other archives in our collections, I believe they originated from the South West (SW) London District Office, which was in Victoria Street at that time.

The books were used to keep records on the sub-post offices in the SW London District. As you may already know, there are two main kinds of post offices in Britain: crown offices directly managed by the Post Office, and sub-post offices operated by independent businesspeople under contract from the Post Office.

The books are divided into many sections, headed with each sub-post office’s address. The three 1930s volumes cover the entire District between them, while the 1940s volume is a partial continuation. Confusingly, the contents aren’t all arranged alphabetically!

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

What makes these books a treasure is the staggering amount of detail. There are notes of customer complaints, audit records, specifics of equipment installed, and particulars of disciplinary cases. Every note is dated. This is what you’d expect from the central supervision of agents carrying out work for the General Post Office. But there’s so much more.

Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses often performed postal work alongside another business. The volumes record precise details of any interruptions in postal work. The main motivation was to monitor revenue, but the notes also reflect SW London’s changing streets. The record below is a good example:

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

This note states that the 412 Brixton Road office was damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941, and reopened at new premises in the local Bon Marché store. There are also records of crimes at sub-post offices, often including dates when staff were absent to attend the ensuing identity parades and police court sessions. Take a look at the note below:

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

This brief report of a foiled break-in is notable for giving the full name of the lady who was living above the office! We can glimpse here the locality that the office served. Often the addresses of customers who complained are also recorded.

Finally, there’s genealogical information. Dated records were kept of sickness absence and compassionate leave taken by sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses. Whenever an office transferred to a new sub-postmaster, the exact handover date and the departing sub-postmaster’s new home address were recorded. There are also family stories:

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster's death. (POST 22/386)

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. (POST 22/386)

This note records the date (and time!) of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. His son was acting sub-postmaster for a few months, then his widow took over the business. All these records were kept for purely business reasons, but the research uses are so much wider than that.

Hopefully, similar records for other areas will be discovered. As I catalogued the record books, I wrote a searchable index of all the sub-offices listed in the notes, with their respective sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. This will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

Museum Store audit: objects, boxes and pink tape

As many of our readers may already know, our large object Museum Store in Essex holds many fascinating items in the BPMA’s collection, including items such as pillar boxes, telephone kiosks and vehicles. Over the past 6 months or so I have been working out at our store carrying out an audit of the collections, focussing mostly on those stored on the mobile shelving.

The BPMA Museum Store in Debden

The BPMA Museum Store in Debden

The audit of the material held at the store is a necessary exercise and a vital part of good collections management. As part of the audit, I have been systematically cross-checking items on the shelves with the listings on the BPMA’s collections database, checking that the recorded details and locations are correct.

Sarah unwrapping a Post Bus ticket machine for auditing and carefully re-packing the ticket machine ready for re-boxing

Sarah unwrapping a Post Bus ticket machine for auditing and carefully re-packing the ticket machine ready for re-boxing

At the same time I have been assessing the storage and packing of each item, replacing any packing materials which are no longer suitable (often due to age, which can mean they are no longer effectively protecting the object from the external environment). This can be a time-consuming task but planning for the long-term, sympathetic storage of an object means that the collection  can be kept stable and in the best condition for future audiences and researchers  to access and enjoy in years to come.

As you might imagine, the auditing and repacking project is no small undertaking so a methodical approach is essential – which is handy, because I’m rather fond of a good process! In summary, each box is given a unique ‘Mus’ number (printed on green labels) and following completion of the repacking , the database records for each object in that box are updated to include this new box reference. This allows a list to be produced of all the items found in a particular box, a copy of which is included with the contents. To provide a good visual marker, each box (or indeed large item) is tied with pink cotton tape to indicate that it has been audited and repacked.  If anyone had told me at the start of the project that I would find the sight of rows of shelves filled with pink tape heartening, I wouldn’t have believed them – but it’s true!

A view from inside the mobile shelving, showing shelves containing audited objects with lots of lovely pink tape….

A view from inside the mobile shelving, showing shelves containing audited objects with lots of lovely pink tape….

It is not possible for me to talk about the store audit without a special mention for two wonderful BPMA volunteers, Don and Barry who both give their time to assist with the project and have been invaluable, not least because they are a bit taller – I am rather vertically challenged – and can therefore help me reach the higher shelves! With our combined efforts we have recently reached our latest milestone of over 100 audited shelves.

‘And here’s some I did earlier…’ Audited items neatly packed and tied (with even more pink tape) ready to return to the racking.

‘And here’s some I did earlier…’ Audited items neatly packed and tied (with even more pink tape) ready to return to the racking.

Another very enjoyable element of the project is that during the audit I have been able to gather information on items being considered for display at the new postal museum at Calthorpe House which has been great – and provides an excellent excuse to follow up on research for an intriguing item.

There is still a lot of work to do as part of the audit, but much has been achieved in six months and the increasing number of shelves, stacked with boxes tied with pink tape continues to bring a smile to my face on a rainy Monday!

If you are interested in getting involved with this or similar work please contact Sarah Jenkins on sarah.jenkins@postalheritage.org.uk or call 020 8502 2673.

Sarah Jenkins – Curatorial Assistant