Tag Archives: Post Office

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

From research to panel: how my research made its way to the Last Post

Victoria Davis is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student who is conducting her research with the BPMA’s collections. In her first blog post for us, she talks about translating her research to two new panels for the Last Post exhibition. Last Post opens up this Friday in Ironbridge at the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

History PhDs have traditionally been non-collaborative based so the opportunity to work with the archive and gain practical experience within the heritage sector is something I relish. Moreover, given the First World War centenary fast approaching, it seemed fitting to be bringing the Post Office’s role during the war to the public eye.

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam, at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916. © IWM (Q 692)

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam,
at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916, as seen in Last Post panel. © IWM (Q 692)

The brief from the HLF was open to interpretation with the theme being stories of empire during the war to be displayed on two new pop-up exhibition panels. In an initial meeting, Sally (Learning Officer), Dominique (Exhibitions Officer) and I quickly came to the conclusion of ‘how long is a piece of string?’ The Post Office is a seemingly ubiquitous but often overlooked institution and during the war this was no different. With limited copy available – each panel containing a maximum of 300 words of text – the content would be something the general public could relate to. Panel one comprised the process of mail reaching the front lines.

Section of panel that Victoria contributed to for the Last Post.

Section of panel that Victoria contributed to for the Last Post.

Panel two considered the problems of shipping mail to the empire including the use of coded memos.

Section of panel on Delivering mail to the Empire.

Section of panel on Delivering mail to the Empire with research by Victoria.

What I love most about research is the jigsaw puzzle element, of just choosing documents to see what they offer and this project was no different. I was given free rein to find the most suitable sources for the two panels and the somewhat tricky task of finding an image that linked war, post and empire, in a timeframe of a mere six working days fitted in around my own research. The BPMA has a wealth of documents and I quickly established using the catalogue how much related to the transportation of mail. Armed with my list of catalogue references, I called up those that appeared to the most relevant. This is akin to a game of Russian roulette – you are never quite sure what will happen. Some were less than informative, the shipping contracts had little reference to the routes and problems faced. Others contained vast amounts of detailed information and statistics relating to mail services between 1914 and 1919. Whilst detailed sources are great, I did not have the space of thousands of words to do so in (unlike a thesis) and managed to contain the research to 5000 words. This may seem small – less than half a thesis chapter – but producing concise text to be used as copy with limited editing was a hard task.  Newspapers and periodicals were delivered only a mere 24 hours after publication at the height of the war!

My favourite two documents were POST 33/1211A and POST 56/5. The former contains statistic lists showing the amount of mail posted to the front lines between 1914 and 1919. Shamefully, I had never considered the volume of mail that the Army Postal Service handled. Moreover, I never thought stats would excite me but I spent one evening making a spreadsheet to show the weekly, monthly and yearly averages.

Map of Postal services in the Calais area, March 1918 (POST 56/5).

Map of Postal services in the Calais area, March 1918 (POST 56/5).

Between 1st October and 31st December of 1914, 1.2 million letters were delivered to troops (on top of the 3,477,800,000 letters and 132,700,000 parcels being handled as normal mail in 1914[1]).  POST 56/5 is a leather bound volume offering a detailed history of the Army Postal Service including hand drawn maps of how post was transferred once in France, complete with delivery times and mode of transport. Once my research had been emailed over, my part of the process had finished. I saw one version of the approved panel copy to double check facts and figures but the look, design and images used were to be a surprise. I felt quite nervous walking into the V&A that Friday evening, not knowing what to the expect. Seeing the panels and the full exhibition was a surreal moment. It was my research being read by the general public, something I will not forget. I am thankful that the BPMA gave me the opportunity and keeping me involved from start to finish. PhD students rarely see their research used publicly and it has spurred me on to widen the audience of my thesis research. -Victoria Davis, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student


[1]House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1913-1914 [Cd. 7573] Postmaster General Report of 1913-1914 p.1

Crowdsourcing IWM paintings and BPMA images

The BPMA has been active on Historypin since last year and yesterday we hosted a Putting Art on the Map event with Historypin in the Search Room. This event focused on crowdsourcing information about the selected images and paintings. The selected images depicted post and telecommunications during the First World War.

A3 copies of the paintings and images that were up for discussion.

A3 copies of the paintings and images that were up for discussion.

After Dr Alice Strickland introduced the IWM paintings and the artists behind them, Gavin McGuffie (Archive Catalogue and Project Manager at the BPMA) introduced the primary resources on offer from the archive for participants to use. This was the first event of its kind to have primary sources on offer for participants.

Even us 'non-experts' jumped in. Alex, Project Officer at Historypin, looks through a resource from our archive. Photo credit: Historypin

Even us ‘non-experts’ jumped in. Alex, Project Officer at Historypin, looks through a resource from our archive. Photo credit: Historypin

Participants were then let loose on the A3 copies of the paintings and images, and zoom-able digital images of the IWM paintings to see what they could come up with. Over the next two hours, participants worked feverishly to find out detailed facts about these pieces. Using Ancestry.co.uk one participant was even able to identify the woman seated on the far right of the below painting!

Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen : Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope. Copyright Imperial War Museum.

Despite this brilliant session, there is still plenty to discover about these artworks and images, both on the Putting Art on the Map project and our Historypin channel. You don’t need to be an expert to do so; as we proved in this event, sometimes all you need is a good eye for detail, adequate search skills and, of course, determination.

Wrap-up discussion of all the images and paintings.

Wrap-up discussion of all the images and paintings. Photo credit: Historypin

Historypin will  be adding all the information, data, comments and questions collected to the artworks on Putting Art on the Map and our Historypin channel. You can then continue the conversation and help discover the story behind the places and people in these pieces.

Do you have an interest in aviation and want to participate in an event like this? Then join Historypin at the next event at Imperial War Museum Duxford on the 22 February.

-Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media 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.

Postmarketing: slogans from the seventies

Kim Noulton who has been volunteering with the BPMA blogs about what she has found among a series of Post Office registered files in the Royal Mail Archive which were created by the Marketing Department in the 1970s.

Since August I have been cataloguing second review material; this means that the files have undergone a decision-making process in which they have been selected for permanent preservation. Topics that I have catalogued so far, which are now available to search on the BPMA online catalogue, include files pertaining to strategies conceived by the BBC and GPO on broadcasting capabilities in the event of nuclear fallout from the 1950s; the creation of the postal minibus service, which includes photographs; and postmark slogans from the 1960s to 1980s. It is the last topic that I will be discussing in this post.

At first sight, postmark slogans seem an inoffensive form of marketing; a tool for the Post Office to promote its new postcode system to the public or advertising events on a wide scale. However, one such campaign led to worries about causing offence to the highest office in Britain; the Crown.

File POST 154/3 details how Chessington Zoo, an establishment housing exotic animals since the 1930s, commissioned designs for a postmark in 1972. The result was the slogan ‘Chessington Zoo Open Every Day of the Year’ and a rather harmless-looking monkey which however, when stamped over the Queen’s head, created an outrageously unflattering image. Such was the outcry that the Lord Chamberlain’s office became involved, to which the Post Office responded promptly by creating new designs for the Zoo. Disaster was thankfully averted with the help of an elephant.

The monkey slogan overprinted on a stamp. (POST 154/3)

The monkey slogan overprinted on a stamp. (POST 154/3)

The revised Chessington Zoo slogan featuring an elephant. (POST 154/3)

The revised Chessington Zoo slogan featuring an elephant. (POST 154/3)

The material in the file takes a different perspective when it is revealed that a woman made a complaint to the Post Office about the nature of the postmark. Her concern was that the postmark was forced upon her when receiving a letter, despite her dislike for zoos, circuses and any other institution keeping wild animals in captivity. This raises questions about advertisements in general being forced upon people in receipt of their post without their consent.

One other controversy revealed in this section of Marketing Department files (POST 154, the first part of this series to be available online) concerns the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland  in the early 1970s. The file (POST 154/1) documents the unlawful overprinting of stamps with politically motivated messages, including ‘Support Sinn Fein’ and ‘Dail Uladh 1971′. The file itself shows how something as simple as postmark slogans can create a political storm.

List of stamps on sale from the Irish Republican Philatelic Office, Dublin. (POST 154/1)

List of stamps on sale from the Irish Republican Philatelic Office, Dublin. (POST 154/1)

With the Irish Republican Army (IRA) upping the intensity of their attacks during 1971, such messages caused alarm and great offence, especially to those who had suffered fatal casualties at the hands of the IRA. One serving officer of the Queen’s Regiment explains his view in a letter, stating very clearly that he believes the Irish government knew about the overprinting and was therefore ‘wilfully supporting terrorism’.

An interesting feature of this particular file is that the Post Office’s policy, available to view within the files, was to reject all manner of political statements, with their standpoint to remain unbiased in its place as a public service.

Search for these files on our online catalogue.

The Royal Mail – Past and Present

Join me, Duncan Campbell-Smith, on the 24th October at the Guildhall Library where I will be giving a fascinating talk addressing some of the great innovations of the past that have reshaped the Royal Mail. Reviewing the origins of the post as a state-owned service and subsequent moves to reform it from time to time, I will show why some of the most important postal reformers – from Ralph Allen and John Palmer to Rowland Hill himself – might have identified strongly with the logic behind this month’s privatisation.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

Turning to the 20th century, I will look at the attempts to launch a privatisation of the Mail and examine some of the reasons why it did not come sooner. The demands of the Second World War and the security of the state postponed serious consideration of any sale until the 1960s, but it then became a recurring theme of the postal story for more than a half-century.

The talk will use the ups and downs of the privatisation debate as a way of surveying the broad trends in postal history over the centuries. As the author of the Royal Mail’s official history, Masters of the Post, I will also be sure to include some of my favourite anecdotes from the book.

- Duncan Campbell-Smith

Book for Duncan’s talk The Royal Mail – Past and Present via EventBrite. There will be a drinks reception from 6pm, following by the talk from 7pm.

World War I exhibition on tour

Last Post: Remembering the First World War, an exhibition curated by the BPMA and the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms, is once again on tour. The exhibition explores the vital role played by the Post Office during the First World War, telling the stories of postal workers at war and on the Home Front, and examining the essential role played by postal communications.

Last Post is currently on display at two venues, the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire, and the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Fife, Scotland. Later this year it will travel to the Guildhall Library, London, and Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum is a particularly apt venue for this exhibition on wartime communications. While Andrew Carnegie is best known for using his huge fortune to build libraries and cultural venues, and found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his early years he worked as a telegraph messenger.

At the aged of 13 Carnegie emigrated from Scotland to Pennsylvania with his family, securing a job two years later as a telegraph messenger boy at the Ohio Telegraph Company. Carnegie was quickly promoted to telegraph operator, but left aged 18 to work at the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company. By the time he was 20 Carnegie was investing in railway companies and learning about how they were managed; he was later to become rich through investments in the oil and steel industries.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries telegraphy was an important – and the fastest – means of communication, and Post Office telegraphists were vital to wartime communications. Last Post: Remembering the First World War examines the impact of telegraphy on the war, and includes rarely-seen images of frontline telecommunications from the BPMA and Imperial War Museum’s collections.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Visit our website to see the tour dates for Last Post: Remembering the First World War.

Andrew Carnegie’s life was commemorated on a United States postage stamp in 1960 – see it on Flickr.

130 years of the parcel post

Today marks the 130th Anniversary of the Parcel Post, which began on 1st August 1883. At the time, the service was regarded as the greatest revolution in the postal system since the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage some 40 years previously.

The BPMA Archives contains a wealth of material on the Parcel Post and this blog is by no means intended to be an exhaustive account. Instead, I hope to give a brief overview of the context behind the introduction of the service and some idea of its impact.

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

The idea for a Parcel Post was suggested by Rowland Hill as early as 1842 and was raised again by Hill’s younger brother Frederick in the 1860s. In the meantime, the Post Office did go some way towards a parcels service by launching the popular Book Post service in 1848 followed by the Pattern Post (a service for posting manufacturer’s samples, a sort of early version of catalogue shopping) in 1863.

It was of course possible to send a parcel before 1883 and there were several large courier companies operating nationwide parcel services using stage coaches. By 1850, the Railway Companies had monopolised the market, making them a powerful opponent to any Post Office enterprise. The Post Office had previously tried at length to negotiate with the Railway Companies during the late 1860s, but to no avail.

The impetus for the Post Office to re-enter negotiations with the Railway Companies was provided by the Universal Postal Union Conference, held in Paris in 1880. Delegates proposed the establishment of an International Parcel Post, to commence in 1882. In order to participate, the British Post Office would first need to establish an Inland Parcel Post service.

This task fell to the then Postmaster-General Professor Henry Fawcett. Fawcett was a strong advocate for Parcel Post and in a letter to his father in April 1883, he cited the Parcel Post as top of his list of 5 things he felt needed to be done within the Post Office. His main concern was to prevent any ‘dislocation of the letter service’. Fawcett was assisted in the negotiations by Mr F.E. Baines, who was appointed the Inspector General of Mails in 1882 and had the honour of sending the first parcel by ‘Parcel Post’.

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption 'Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption ‘Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

The Railway Companies eventually agreed to terms which would give them 55% of the gross postage of all parcels carried by rail and The Post Office (Parcels) Act was passed on 18th August 1882, with nearly a full year passing until the service could be brought into operation in 1st August 1883. Given the scale of the preparations involved, it is rather remarkable that this was achieved in only a year!

The introduction of the Parcel Post meant rebuilding or adapting nearly 1,000 Head or Branch Post Offices, as well as arranging collection and distribution in more than 15,000 postal districts. It also meant an immediate change to the workload of the former letter carriers – now to be known at postmen.

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

Wicker baskets and handcarts were required for sorting and transporting parcels, each Post Office counter required scales and were issued with specifically designed cork handstamps to cancel the stamps on parcels. Every letter carrier’s walk had to be altered so they did not have too heavy a load and allowances were made for the use of a horse and cart, tricycle or pony to aid parcel delivery.

Crucially, the public had to be made aware of the new service and four-page handbills were distributed to every household in the British Isles notifying the changes.

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

The scale of the task facing the Post Office was described – rather poetically – by the Telegraph in July 1883:

Never before did any Commercial House leap all at once into so gigantic a concern, with 15,000 agencies and thirty-five million possible in these three kingdoms, never before, it is thought, was a Government department put to so severe a test as that which, twelve days hence, will await the one over which Professor Fawcett presides.

The launch attracted a significant amount of press attention, with the Daily News concluding on 2nd August 1883 that:

on the whole, the very important and very anxious experiment of yesterday seems to have passed off satisfactorily.

Fawcett himself appears to have been similarly understated in his conclusion, and his account three days after the launch of the service stated that

the only difficulty has arisen from the public inexperience in the art of packing.

Parcel Post saw the introduction of variety of carts and cycles as new ways of transporting the heavy mails had to be found. It also prompted a return to long distance haulage by road and the introduction of horse-drawn parcel mail coaches in 1887, which were operated under contract. This service carried parcels overnight along the principle routes out of London, which for such heavy mails were a cheaper alternative that the railways.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

Rather amusingly, it would appear that the public were quick to test the limits of the new service, with the Daily News reporting that:

At Leicester Square a colander was posted to a resident in the Temple, and one or two wooden spoons. At Euston, half a ham was found in one of the mails and at the Waterloo depot, cricket bats and tin kettles were among the articles dealt with.

Accounts also include a coffin shaped package sent from a Poplar undertaker to a workhouse master in Norfolk… Perhaps my favourite ‘strange enclosure’ tale is that of a gentleman who requested that the Post Office deliver a snake! After an initial refusal, the customer explained that the snake was in fact a pet ‘who had been on a visit’ (sadly the account does not specify where it had been!) and it was subsequently delivered by special messenger.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Parcel Post was not a financial success at first. The estimates for both the number of parcels sent and the average weight  – estimated by Baines at 7d a parcel, but on average only 5½d – were higher than those realised. By 1885, the Post Office was handling 26.5 million parcels per annum, increasing to 50 million by the 1890s.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the now Royal Mail were still the number one parcel carrier, processing and delivering 175 million packages annually, using 30 special parcel sorting centres and a fleet of 27,000 vehicles. Competition from private competitors has had a significant impact on parcel services, but many the innovations brought about by the introduction of the Parcel Post helped to shape the modern Post Office and the organisation which most of us are familiar with today.

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce's major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce’s major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

- Sarah Jenkins, Curatorial Assistant

Visit us on Flickr to see images of the Parcel Post dating from the 1880s to the 1980s.