Tag Archives: Post Office Rifles

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. To mark the year of the centenary, our First World War exhibition, Last Post, is now open at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group.

The exhibition explores the contribution of millions of people to wartime communication and the far reaching role of thePost Office on both the battlefield and the home front.

Field Post Office

Field Post Office

An Oxo tin among other things

Demonstrating the huge variety of items that could be sent through the post in wartime, you can see on display an OXO tin posted home from the fighting front by William Cox, a former Post Office worker. He posted the OXO tin back to his brother and sister, containing a button from the tunic of a fallen soldier and a piece of shrapnel.

Cox's OXO Tin

OXO tin sent home by Cox

Battlefield will and a favourite plant

You can also view the story of Private Leonard Eldridge of the 8th London Regiment (The Post Office Rifles). Soldiers were encouraged to write battlefield wills whilst on the Front. Private Eldridge’s will is on display in the exhibition.

Eldridge writes: ‘everything I possess except the aspadastras plant of mine, I give to you. The plant, I, with my last wish, leave it, and must be given to, Miss Florence Smith… She must be treated in my absence as my lover with every respect.’

Post Office Rifles

8th London Regiment – The Post Office Rifles

Wilfred Owen

Also on display in the exhibition are two original poems written by local Shropshire-born First World War officer and poet Wilfred Owen, kindly lent to us for the exhibition by The British Library.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, perhaps Owen’s most iconic poem, is on display. The poem was written in October 1917 and revised a few months later, in early 1918. Owen sent the poem to his mother, Susan Owen, with the message: ‘Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final).’

Field Post Box

Soldiers waiting for post

We also fittingly have on display Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Letter’. The poem depicts a soldier writing a letter to his wife back home. Whilst writing the letter, the soldier is fatally hit, and a comrade finishes the letter off for him.

The poem highlights the importance of letter writing to soldiers and also the danger present at all times in the trenches. It also illustrates that the contents of letters home may not have accurately depicted the conditions of everyday life for soldiers.

 

The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, until 27th March 2015 and entrance is free.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition in person, we have launched a simultaneous online exhibition in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.

Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

New acquisitions

A few weeks ago we were very fortunate to have a visit from someone wishing to donate a group of material to the BPMA museum collection. The group of material related to a Thomas William Ernest May, the donor’s father. We have subsequently been able to trace something of his Post office service through the Archive records. May joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman and just a couple of years later, in 1913, was appointed as a Sorter at North District Office in Islington, very quickly transferring back to his old role as postman but at the North West District Office. Just one year later with the outbreak of the Great War as it was known, Thomas, like many other Post Office workers, joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles at the age of 20. He later returned to work at the Post Office, rising to the rank of Assistant Superintendent by the time of his death in 1953.

The objects donated to the BPMA relate both to May’s time in France with the Post Office Rifles as well as his Post Office work. Amongst these are several very personal objects, including a green leather bound pocket journal given to May before he embarked for France in 1915. It includes a map of Flanders, various helpful French and German phrases, a calendar for 1915 and different methods of working out your position in day and night: all to aid the soldier should he get lost or separated from his battalion. The journal itself is written by Thomas in pencil and covers his posting to France as well as his thoughts and feelings in the midst of campaigns on the front line. We are hoping to work on a project to scan and transcribe this journal to chart May’s time during the war, so do look out for that on this blog in the coming years, as well as many other items relating to the Centenary of the Great War.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

There are also photographs of May with other members of the Post Office Rifles, both in official uniformed shots as well as more informal photos of them with their brooms and rifles. May received the 1914-1915 Star Medal and the British War Medal, both campaign medals routinely given to those who served and they are also included within the collection as is the slightly more unusual Silver War Badge. The Silver War Badge was given to soldiers who had to return from the war due to injuries, the badge states ‘FOR KING AND EMPIRE SERVICES RENDERED’. It was to be worn on civilian clothing and was proof that they had been honourably discharged and meant they could avoid being given a white feather for supposedly shirking their duty.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

As previously mentioned, May returned work at the Post Office following his experiences in the war and the final object of this blog dates from 14 March 1929 when he was still at the North District Office. It is a large hand-illustrated card in the form of a postcard and shows a man pushing a child in a pram on the front in a street scene with a cinema and dancing hall in the background. The caption reads ‘You will have to cut all that out now! Daddy’ and features ‘Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes from NDO’ on the birth of his daughter, who has now generously donated these objects to BPMA.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

This is such a wonderful group of personal items relating to Thomas Ernest William May and we are very grateful to his daughter for donating them so that Thomas’ story can be added to the others told through our collection.

- Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

Stories from the Store

Last week we invited the public to venture off the beaten track and explore the treasures of our Museum Store at a special after-hours event as part of Museums at Night 2013.

Our Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits including vehicles and letter boxes. These objects and the stories they tell were brought to life by the Big Wheel Theatre Company in the guise of a suffragette “human letter” and a World War I soldier postman.

Visitors also had the chance to get crafty in workshops with Craft Guerrilla, see our new “Blitz Hill Box”, which contains artefacts from World War II, and indulge in some tea-party style refreshments. Scroll down to view photos from the night.

Before Museums at Night we asked you to guess ‘What’s in the suitcase?’ All was revealed at our Stories from the Store event on Thursday 16 May.

Before Museums at Night we asked you to guess ‘What’s in the suitcase?’ All was revealed at our Stories from the Store event on Thursday 16 May.

The suitcase opened to reveal the story of how the post office went to war. In 1939 the General Post Office was the biggest employer in the country. It played a vital role to keep communication going on the home front and abroad.

The suitcase opened to reveal the story of how the post office went to war. In 1939 the General Post Office was the biggest employer in the country. It played a vital role to keep communication going on the home front and abroad.

Two visitors explore the suitcase, and share their memories of the ‘Save for Victory’ campaign. This public appeal encouraged people to save for the war effort.

Two visitors explore the suitcase, and share their memories of the ‘Save for Victory’ campaign. This public appeal encouraged people to save for the war effort.

Throughout the event stories from the postal past were brought to life by Roland and George from the Big Wheel Theatre Company.

Throughout the event stories from the postal past were brought to life by Roland and George from the Big Wheel Theatre Company.

Roland and George enlisted help from the audience to tell the story of the ‘human letter’. In 1909 two suffragettes ‘posted’ themselves to 10 Downing Street.

Roland and George enlisted help from the audience to tell the story of the ‘human letter’. In 1909 two suffragettes ‘posted’ themselves to 10 Downing Street.

The suffragettes took advantage of a clause in the postal regulations which allowed an individual to be delivered by express delivery. Their aim was to gain publicity for the campaign to gain the vote for women.

The suffragettes took advantage of a clause in the postal regulations which allowed an individual to be delivered by express delivery. Their aim was to gain publicity for the campaign to gain the vote for women.

An audience member takes on the role of the unwitting post boy charged with delivering his human letters to the prime minster.

An audience member takes on the role of the unwitting post boy charged with delivering his human letters to the prime minster.

The suffragettes were intercepted by a police constable who insisted the ‘letter’ had to be returned to the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

The suffragettes were intercepted by a police constable who insisted the ‘letter’ had to be returned to the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

After all that acting, our visitors were invited to a tea party, with complimentary refreshments served by Hannah, our glamorous Community Learning Officer.

After all that acting, our visitors were invited to a tea party, with complimentary refreshments served by Hannah, our glamorous Community Learning Officer.

Craft Guerilla were also on hand stitching up a storm, helping visitors sew their own suffragette rosette.

Craft Guerilla were also on hand stitching up a storm, helping visitors sew their own suffragette rosette.

Visitors could also wander amongst our collection and discover more stories from the store.

Visitors could also wander amongst our collection and discover more stories from the store.

Before home time there was one more performance from Roland, telling the story of the Post Office Rifles regiment in the First World War.

Before home time there was one more performance from Roland, telling the story of the Post Office Rifles regiment in the First World War.

We run regular tours of the Museum Store but these sell out quickly. More tickets will be available next week so keep checking our website for details.

From Pillar to Post: GPO London Walking tour

From Pillar to Post is a London walking tour centred on the history of the GPO (General Post Office), specifically its early presence and impact in central London. It is a brilliant way to spend a weekend morning, discovering the fascinating history hidden within London’s streets. The two hour tour starts in Farringdon and ends in Bank, uncovering along the way the rich postal heritage of London’s roads and buildings, interwoven with the City’s wider history.

The tour began outside the old Metropolitan Railway Parcels office at Farringdon station. Like today, there was no monopoly on the parcel post and you could pay many different companies to deliver your parcel for you. The various disparate railway companies provided a regular, well honed parcel service, if a little complicated and expensive when utilising more than one company at a time. In an endeavour to create a nationwide service the GPO commenced its own Parcels Post in 1883. They initially made a loss having overestimated the number of parcels that would be delivered.

The Metropolitan Railway Parcels Office is still part of Farringdon station.

The Metropolitan Railway Parcels Office is still part of Farringdon station.

The telephone kiosks introduced by the GPO are well illustrated in Smithfield meat market, with an eye-catching row of the iconic K2 and K6 red kiosks. Both were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (later Sir). Sir Gilbert Scott also designed Battersea power station and Bankside Power station, now Tate Modern. The K2 kiosk is almost certainly based on the tomb of Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect. Sir John Soane’s tomb is one of only two grade one listed tombs in London – the other tomb is that of Karl Marx.

K2 and K6 telephone kiosks in Smithfield's Market.

K2 and K6 telephone kiosks in Smithfield’s Market.

Next stop on the tour was St Bart’s Hospital, West Smithfield, where we passed an old and inconspicuous wall box. Companies would often have their own wall box for their mail that they would then pay the GPO to collect from. The large ‘A’ sized example at Bart’s not only incorporates two peculiar angled apertures, but also a door situated outside the hospital so that may can be collected even if the gates are shut.

Wall box front, St Barts Hospital.

Wall box front, St Barts Hospital.

We then came across the four huge buildings that formerly made up a GPO empire. The King Edward building, former GPO headquarters and previously a home to the National Postal Museum, is now owned by Merrill Lynch. A hint of its former GPO importance is indicated by a sculpture in the wall of the building depicting a Caduceus; a Staff with two entwined snakes, belonging to Mercury/ Hermes, messenger to the Gods. Around the corner stands the statue of a hero of the GPO, Rowland Hill – the creator of the Uniform Penny Post. This is known to most as that which gave us the 1d black postage stamp, the first in the World, helping to open the postal service to all.

Statue of Rowland Hill.

Statue of Rowland Hill.

The tour continued on the other side of the road with a walk through Postman’s Park, adjacent to another former GPO Head office – GPO North. The park has a rich history of its own but it was so called because of its proximity to the former GPO buildings and the popularity of the park with GPO workers resting there between duties. In the park is also sited a memorial established by the painter George Frederick Watts. This consists of a series of plaques that commemorate those often unheralded elsewhere, who had performed heroic deeds (some of whom were children) and all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. As you exit the park be sure to notice the bench dedicated to ‘the Central Telegraph Office female staff who helped keep communications open during two world wars’.

We then passed close by St Paul’s station, previously called simply Post Office. Opened in 1900, this station was named Post Office because of its close proximity to the number of large, important and impressive GPO buildings in that area. At the time, another station nearby was known as St Paul’s, and has since been renamed Blackfriars.

The guide continued with stories of the days when the mail was carried by mail coaches across the country, revolutionising mail delivery and the speed at which it travelled and could be received. John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, conducted a successful trial run of a mail coach travelling from Bath to London in 13 hours (with the usual time taken being nearly triple this). From then on the time gained by delivering mail by mail coaches was clear and postal delivery was revolutionised. Many of the mail coaches set off from London along the Great Roads from The General Post Office. Just prior to the First World War this office was pulled down to widespread public outcry. Already proving too small for the increase in mail volume, it had earlier proved popular as a gathering point for the public who would assemble to observe the spectacle of the departing mail coaches. Smaller mail vans were hazardous to the unwary; Charles Dickens recorded the death of a pedestrian under the wheels of a galloping mail van in a neighbouring street in Little Dorritt.

The tour also touched on the Post Office Underground Railway that runs underneath some of the areas traversed on the tour. Work on the Railway began prior to the First World War, and was then halted due to the War – with the underground tunnels used to store artworks from museums and galleries such as the National Gallery. The railway opened in 1927. It was used to transport mail using driverless trains, underneath London, to the mainline stations which provided access across the country. Built partially to avoid the traffic congestion overhead, some might argue that little has changed in London today. However, with the closure of most of the large sorting and distribution offices, routing of mail outside London and cessation of use of the London railway termini for mail purposes meant that the requirement for a bespoke underground railway, by now renamed Mail Rail, was no more.

By the time of Mail Rail, the transport revolution had been going for many years with the GPO availing themselves of the opportunities available. Mail was first carried on overland trains in 1830. Again the innovation of the GPO is evident; mail carried by trains was instituted soon after experimentation with the railways and train travel first began.

We came across quite a few pillar boxes on our journey around London. The well known novelist, Anthony Trollope, is credited with the introduction of the first British pillar box, when working as a Surveyors Clerk for the GPO. The pillar box was trialled in the Channel Islands in 1852 and similar boxes were introduced to the streets of the UK mainland by 1853. The first pillar boxes appeared in London in 1855 though no examples of these survive today. Possibly one of the most popular of all the pillar boxes is the Penfold, the only pillar box named after its designer and famously used as the name of Dangermouse’s sidekick.

Towards the end of our tour we came across Post Office Court EC3 near to where the former Lloyds coffee house is situated. Lloyds coffee house provided the shipping news and therefore was very popular with those travelling overseas. Some of the many Coffee Houses in the area acted as Letter Receiving Houses for a burgeoning postal service, though there were many accusations of improper payments and favouritism.

Post Office Court EC3 street sign.

Post Office Court EC3 street sign.

The tour ends outside the National Exchange and the imposing Bank of England, by Bank station. Here stands a First World War memorial that also commemorates the role of the London Regiment, City of London Battalions and the 8th Battalion (Post Office Rifles), providing a fitting and sombre end to the tour.

War Memorial outside the Bank of England.

War Memorial outside the Bank of England.

I would very much recommend the walking tour for its fascinating overview of the City’s streets, buildings and secret histories. I have only touched on some of the subjects and sights experienced. A subsequent visit to our museum store in Debden is a great way to complement the tour and see the actual objects that are part of this rich tapestry of postal history.

The walking tours are run in conjunction with the BPMA, and led by Cityguides. The next tour is on Saturday 26 January at 11am. There’s no need to book, just turn up on the day. For more information please see our website.

- Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Remembering the Post Office Rifles

On Saturday 3rd November 2012, I was fortunate enough to attend a reunion event at the home of the British Forces Post Office (BFPO). This was held to commemorate the organisation as a whole but specifically the Battle for Wurst Farm Ridge, Ypres, Belgium, in which the 2nd/8th Battalion London Regiment, known as the Post Office Rifles took part. Many serving members of the modern day BFPO and Postal and Courier Services Officers’ Association were also present to remember their predecessors’ actions.

In 1917 the company was sent to Ypres and in September they began training for what was to be the Battle for Menin Road Ridge. Their objective was to capture a portion of this ridge, known as Wurst Farm in attempt to cut the Germans off and force a surrender. One of the prominent individuals in this battle was Sergeant Alfred Knight, from the Engineers Department of the Post Office. Knight had joined the Post Office Rifles at the outbreak of World War One in 1914 and served throughout the war along with other Post Office volunteers.

Sergeant Alfred Knight

Sergeant Alfred Knight

Mrs Ann Turrell, granddaughter of Alfred Knight, was also present at the lunch and gave a vivid and detailed account of his actions that day. There was also a reading from Charles Messenger’s book Terriers in the Trenches:

He rushed through our own barrage, bayoneted the enemy gunner, and captured the position single handedly. Later, twelve of the enemy with a machine gun were encountered in a shell-hole. He again rushed forward by himself, bayoneted two and shot a third, causing the remainder to scatter. Subsequently, during an attack on a fortified farm, when entangled up to the waist in mud, and seeing a number of the enemy firing on our troops, he immediately opened fire on them without waiting to extricate himself from the mud, killing six of the enemy.

It was these actions that earned Sergeant Knight the Victoria Cross, the only Post Office rifleman to achieve this, the highest British Decoration for Gallantry. The medal is now in the BPMA’s collection along with other medals won by Knight throughout his service. As part of the day, the BPMA arranged for the Victoria Cross to be displayed alongside BFPO’s painting by Terence Cuneo, showing Knight in action at the battle. These, coupled with Ann’s account of her grandfather really made the day a very special one and many thanks to both her and Major Chris Violet at the BFPO for making it so.

BPMA Curator Emma Harper prepares Sergeant Alfred Knight’s Victoria Cross for transport to the event.

BPMA Curator Emma Harper prepares Sergeant Alfred Knight’s Victoria Cross for transport to the event.

Amongst those posing with the Victoria Cross are (left to right) Anne Walsh (Sgt Knight's grand-daughter), Ann Turrell (Post Office) and Col Stephen Heron (BFPO).

Amongst those posing with the Victoria Cross are (left to right) Anne Walsh (Sgt Knight’s grand-daughter), Ann Turrell (Post Office) and Col Stephen Heron (BFPO).

The Post Office Rifles were a remarkable unit and it is important that their role, and stories such as Alfred Knight’s, are remembered. It is perhaps one of the lesser known aspects of the history of the postal service and really highlights the breadth and depth of BPMA’s collection. It is treasures such as these that we hope to be able to share with the public in our new home in Calthorpe House.

- Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

The exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War can be viewed online, and will be on display at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire from 25 March – 27 September 2013, and Aysgarth Station Heritage Site, North Yorkshire 4 – 8 May 2013.

Empire Mail: George V and the GPO

by Jennifer Flippance, 2010 Exhibitions & Project Manager

Empire Mail: George V and the GPO, hosted by Guildhall Art Gallery, in the heart of the City of London, is the BPMA’s flagship exhibition for the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, produced in conjunction with the Royal Philatelic Collection.

King George V riding his horse, Anzac

King George V riding his horse, Anzac, a gift from the Australian government. This photograph was later used as the basis for the Australian Silver Jubilee stamps, issued in 1935.

The exhibition explores the reign of King George V (1910 – 1936), an era of conflict, change and innovation. Investigate the passions of the ‘philatelist king’, alongside the extraordinary period of design and creativity in the General Post Office during the period.

Displays include some of the rarest and most valuable stamps in the world alongside vehicles, pillar boxes, posters and pioneering works from the GPO Film Unit. Empire Mail: George V and The GPO will explore themes from the King’s reign such as innovations in mail transportation, the first Atlantic air crossing, the rise of graphic design in the 1920s and 1930s, and the impact of conflict.

The items on display are sourced from the unique and complementary collections of the BPMA and the Royal Philatelic Collection. These include a sheet of unused Edward VII Tyrian Plum stamps plus the only one known to have been used – sent on an envelope to George V on 5 May 1910 when he was Prince of Wales and arriving the day he became King following the death of his father.

'Post Office' Mauritius: The most famous stamps in the world?

'Post Office' Mauritius: The most famous stamps in the world?

There are many gems from King George V’s own collection, including two examples of the famous Post Office Mauritius stamp, among them an unused 2d, bought by the King when Prince of Wales in 1904 for the then record sum of £1,450.

Other highlights include: items and original film footage from the 1911 Coronation Aerial Post; original stamp artwork for the first ever UK commemorative stamp produced for the 1924/5 Wembley Empire Exhibition; the only Victoria Cross won by the Post Office Rifles during the First World War; mail carried on pioneering (successful and unsuccessful) transatlantic air crossings; and objects and images from the Post Office Underground Railway.

The BPMA’s fully restored blue airmail pillar box will be seen in public for the first time, alongside other pillar boxes of the period and vehicles, including a 1945 Morris “Red Van” in George V livery and a 1933 BSA motorcycle.

As an added attraction, between 8–15 May, there will be regular demonstrations by staff from the security printers Enschedé, who will be printing reproductions of the 1929 PUC £1 on an intaglio press.

A series of free lunchtime talks will also take during the exhibition’s run.

For further information on Empire Mail: George V and the GPO please see the BPMA website. An online taster of the exhibition has also been produced.

Conducting Family History Research at the BPMA

by Richard Wade, Archives Assistant

As Royal Mail or the GPO, as it was known, was at one time the largest employer in the country, many people find they have a relative that was employed in some regard by them. Luckily, the GPO kept records of its staff which were organised centrally, and consequently the majority have survived. This means that they are a great resource for researching the lives of past family members, at least as far as their employment was concerned.

There are records of most staff from postmen and sorters to the Postmaster General, as well as the various clerks and officers in between. There are also records of telegraph staff as it would not have been possible to separate these out from those for postal staff. All of these records are held here at Freeling House.

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestors career

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestor's career

The most important and informative of the staff records are the pension records. We have these for the majority of staff from 1859 to 1959. You can usually find out from these the places people worked, the job they did and a brief history of their employment, including their various positions throughout their careers and the associated salaries. There will also be information about any particularly good conduct and any notable events or actions made during their careers, for example, if they went to fight with the Post Office Rifles (the Post Office’s own battalion) in the Great War, or work related achievements, such as gaining a long service award. Conversely, the records will also mention any black marks gained or anything they did they could be less proud of, such as drinking on the job. What you won’t find out from them are any personal details such as private addresses or information about their next of kin.

People received pensions at the age of 60 in the Post Office, unless they retired early for ill health. Where women were concerned, they could not work once they were married, so we have marriage gratuities for them from the year in which they got married. If people died whilst they were still employed then there would have been a death gratuity. However, the death gratuity and marriage gratuity records are often only indexes, so you may not get as much information as what you would for ordinary pension records.

We also have appointment records for the vast majority of employees, but these are nowhere near as informative as the pension records, as they generally only give the name of the employee and the date of the appointment. In some cases, the position they were appointed to is given, but even this is not guaranteed.

Another resource that can be used is our collection of minute books, which have information about certain offices, arranged either by place or by department. There are also records within the minute books of dismissals, where you may find people you can not find elsewhere.

Another option is the Establishment books, which list some of the more senior staff by department. They were produced each year, so you can trace people through the years to try and work out when they left if you do not know already. Some of the later books also contain lists of Postmasters.

Establishment books list key members of GPO staff

Establishment books list senior members of GPO staff

Finally, it is sometimes worth looking in the Post Office magazines; unfortunately, these are not indexed in any way so it is a question of just trawling through them. They mention people who had gone over and above their duty, comic and bizarre requests from customers, staff who have done particularly long service, and sometimes list staff who have retired recently. It will be especially worthwhile looking at the staff magazines if you know of an ancestor being involved in any of the sports teams, or playing in one of the Post Office bands or something similar, as these feature heavily in the magazines and will tell you about a side of a person that you wouldn’t find out about from the more formal records.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

We also have a huge selection of photographs here, so if you wanted to find out about the type of clothing your relatives wore, or the type of places they worked in, you can do this too.

If you want to find out more about researching family history at the British Postal Museum & Archive, please see the Family History Pages of our website, which can be found in the visiting section – and while you’re there you can download our updated Family History Research Guide. If you wish to visit us and search our records, please do drop in and we’ll be happy to help.