Tag Archives: Postal History

Historic Duplicate Stamp Sale to Benefit New Home for The British Postal Museum & Archive

  • Sotheby’s will stage an historic auction featuring duplicate stamps from the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA)
  • Important sale, estimated by Sotheby’s to bring in excess of £5 million, will support a spectacular new home for the British Postal Museum & Archive, set to open in early 2016
  • State-of-the-art centre will represent an exciting addition to London’s cultural landscape, showcasing the BPMA’s world-class collections and celebrating a unique aspect of British heritage
  • New museum will serve as a key cultural hub as part of a major regeneration scheme in Camden & Islington

On 11th July 2013 Sotheby’s will stage an historic auction featuring surplus duplicate stamps from the British Postal Museum & Archive. The auction will provide essential funds for a state-of-the-art new home for the BPMA, representing an exciting addition to London’s cultural landscape when it opens in 2016.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

New Home for Britain’s Postal History

Described by Mayor of London Boris Johnson as “a national treasure of global importance”, the BPMA is the leading resource for all aspects of British postal heritage. It cares for the visual and written records of 400 years of British postal, social and design history, comprising over 60,000 artefacts and 2.5 miles of archives. Together, the collections and archive tell a fascinating human story of British communication, industry and innovation, illuminating and celebrating a unique and integral part of the nation’s heritage.

Under a scheme endorsed by the Government and backed by Britain’s leading heritage organisations, the BPMA is planning a new Postal Museum and Archive to provide a first class home for its archive and collections, which are currently held in storage and largely inaccessible to the general public. The new centre will be situated in Calthorpe House, in the London Borough of Camden, adjoining the country’s oldest mail centre at Mount Pleasant.

World-class Archive and Collections

As well as featuring a purpose-built archive repository, the new Postal Museum and Archive will feature spectacular exhibition spaces to showcase the BPMA’s archive and collections, which range from postal vehicles to pillar boxes, staff records, posters, photographs, uniforms, weapons and the world’s greatest collection of British stamps.

Poster: 79,242 Postmen, Duncan Grant, 1939.

Poster: 79,242 Postmen, Duncan Grant, 1939.

Highlights include every British stamp issued from 1840 to the present day; original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial; the world’s first commercial Christmas card produced in 1843; a 1930s art-deco Mobile Post Office; Valentine’s Day cards dating from c. 1790; telegrams relating to the Titanic disaster; weapons used to protect the mail against theft or piracy; a digital Oral History collection recounting the personal stories of hundreds of current and retired postal staff from around Britain; a first edition of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, intercepted in the post for being obscene; uniforms of Victorian River Postmen; a Travelling Post Office railway coach; films produced by the iconic GPO film unit; telegrams sent by the royal family; medals awarded to Post Office Employees including a rare Victoria Cross; and posters, prints and paintings by celebrated artists including Edward Bawden, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

Understanding and celebrating Britain’s postal heritage and wider social history

The new Postal Museum and Archive will feature a state-of-the-art education centre and extensive research facilities, designed to encourage school children, students and the wider public to learn from and be inspired by postal heritage in all its depth and context. The new education space will increase the BPMA’s annual educational engagement from 2,000 to 12,000 pupils, representing a 600% increase on its current offering.

Key examples of how the BPMA’s collections reflect Britain’s social history:

  • In 1840 the launch of the Penny Black, the world’s first prepaid stamp, encouraged people to write and became a vehicle for education, friendship and commerce
  • The opening of Post Office Savings Bank backed by the Government in 1861 encouraged people of all walks of life to save money safely and to help combat debt
  • W. Reginald Bray became the first ‘human letter’ when he posted himself, later emulated by two suffragettes who attempted to have themselves delivered to Downing Street
  • During WW1 the Post Office co-ordinated all army mail and by 1918 had 22,000 pigeons carrying messages to the front
  • In 1943 the world’s first programmable electronic computer was built by the GPO’s Tommy Flowers, helping to break many German encrypted codes during WW2

Mail Rail: London’s Best Kept Secret

As an added visitor attraction, the BPMA is exploring plans to convert a section of Mail Rail, the former underground Post Office railway network. Introduced in 1927 and operational until 2003, Mail Rail was the world’s first driverless electrified railway, which revolutionised the delivery of mail in the UK. To this day it remains the world’s only dedicated underground mail transport system, representing an important and largely unseen element of Britain’s industrial heritage.

Poster design: Post Office Tube Railway, Edward Bawden, c. 1935.

Poster design: Post Office Tube Railway, Edward Bawden, c. 1935.

Subject to sufficient funding, the Mail Rail depot at Mount Pleasant will be transformed into an immersive visitor centre, introducing a fascinating 15 minute ride on the Mail Rail network on newly-designed trains through the existing tunnels.

Benefitting the local area and contributing to an improved sense of community

Bridging the boroughs of Camden and Islington, the new Postal Museum and Archive will serve as an important cultural hub and community resource. As well as offering cultural and training opportunities for young people, the BPMA will organise out-of-school cultural opportunities and strong community outreach programmes, contributing to a vibrant Camden and Islington.

Historic Stamp Sale

The project to develop the new Postal Museum and Archive will cost approximately £22 million and a fundraising campaign is currently underway, with considerable support from Royal Mail and Post Office Limited. Other funding is in place from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from the BPMA itself.

As part of the fundraising campaign, the BPMA is pursuing two sales of surplus duplicate philatelic material currently held in its custody though not part of its accessioned collections. The historic auctions will take place at Sotheby’s, which held the first ever stamp auction in Europe in 1872. The first sale, held on 11th July 2013, will comprise 191 lots and is estimated by Sotheby’s to bring in excess of £5 million.

One of the duplicate items for sale: Seahorse ‘Registration’ sheets, 1923, one of only two such sheets in existence.

One of the duplicate items for sale: Seahorse ‘Registration’ sheets, 1923, one of only two such sheets in existence.

Adrian Steel, Director of the BPMA, said:

Since we first announced our project to open a new first class home for Britain’s postal heritage in London last year we have received widespread support, and following last month’s announcement of this sale it has been great to receive encouragement from those who want to play their part in our fundraising campaign by participating in the auction. The BPMA’s collections are of the utmost richness in iconic British heritage and engaging personal stories, and from family historians to families who want to immerse themselves in something new as part of a day out in London, our new centre offers something sparkling with fascination and enjoyment for everyone. It will safeguard all our collections into the future, and by taking up the chance to own the rare philatelic specimens on offer at Sotheby’s, all potential buyers can feel proud that they are helping to safeguard the originals, and all our world class collections, from Penny Blacks to packet ship records, for the nation and the world to enjoy.

Making our stamp collection more accessible

We care for a unique and precious collection of stamps and philatelic material which includes registration sheets, essays (trial stamps) and proofs of all stages of British stamp production from 1840 to the present day, and all artwork, adopted and unadopted, for all issued and some un-issued British stamps from 1924. Material is constantly added to the collections as we receive around 500 pieces of stamp artwork from Royal Mail every year.

A lot of this material has already been available online, through our website, online catalogue and the project to digitise the R M Phillips Collection, but we are always looking for new ways to make our collections accessible.

Would you like our stamps on your mobile device? Fill in the survey and give us your views.

Would you like our stamps on your mobile device? Fill in the survey and give us your views.

Recently a group of students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts have been working with us on a research project to look at new ways to make our philatelic collections more accessible. The students have put together a short online survey to determine interest among stamp enthusiasts in a mobile or tablet app displaying our collection. If you have any interest in stamps, either as a collector, a philatelist, or a postal or design enthusiast, then we would like to hear your views on this project. Click here to complete the survey.

The Great Train Robbery – The untold story from the closed investigation files

2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Train Robbery – one of the most notorious robberies of the 20th century, which has proved to have enduring public appeal, particularly via books, films and documentaries. On this blog, we have previously published articles on this criminal coup and the number of working files detailing its investigation that are held in our Archive. Author and historian Andrew Cook has now published a new book on this event and describes the fascination this infamous crime and its background have exerted over the decades.

The bulk of the money stolen during The Great Train Robbery has never been recovered. On 15 August 1963, four bags containing £100,900 were found in woods near Dorking.

The bulk of the money stolen during The Great Train Robbery has never been recovered. On 15 August 1963, four bags containing £100,900 were found in woods near Dorking. (Thames Valley Police)

The term ‘The Great Train Robbery’ was neither born as a result of the 1963 mail train hold up, nor indeed the 1855 train robbery later immortalised by Michael Crichton in his 1975 novel ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (which was later filmed by MGM in 1978 as ‘The First Great Train Robbery’ starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland).

While Crichton’s book was a work of fiction, it drew heavily upon real life events which took place on the night of 15 May 1855 when the London Bridge to Paris mail train was robbed of 200 lbs of gold bars. Crichton took somewhat of a historical liberty by retrospectively re-christening it the Great Train Robbery. At the time, and for over a century afterwards, it was commonly known as the ‘Great Gold Robbery.’

The term ‘The Great Train Robbery’ has in fact no basis at all in any real life event; it is instead the title of a 1903 American action Western movie written, produced and directed by Edwin S Porter.  Lasting only 12 minutes it is still regarded by film historians as a milestone in movie making. When, in 1963, the British press frantically searched for a suitable iconic headline, Edwin Porter’s 60 year old movie title fitted the bill perfectly.

Bridego Bridge, half a mile down the line from where the train was ambushed. It was here the robbers unloaded the HVP (High Value Packet) coach and passed the mailbags down the embankment by human chain. (Thames Valley Police)

Bridego Bridge, half a mile down the line from where the train was ambushed. It was here the robbers unloaded the HVP (High Value Packet) coach and passed the mailbags down the embankment by human chain. (Thames Valley Police)

Mail was first carried in Britain by train in November 1830, following an agreement between the General Post Office and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. In 1838 Parliament passed the Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act which required railway companies to carry mail as and when demanded by the Postmaster General. Trains carrying mail eventually became known as TPO’s (Travelling Post Offices).

133 years later, just after 3am on Thursday 8th August 1963 a gang of professional thieves made history when they held up the Glasgow to London Travelling Post Office train and seized a record breaking haul of £2.6 million (just over £50 million in today’s money).

Much has been written over the past five decades, in books, magazines and newspapers. A host of films and television documentaries have also ensured that not one year since 1963 has passed without coverage of the story and the characters involved.

Discovered five days after the robbery, Leatherslade farm was dubbed "Robbers' Roost" by BBC TV News reporters. The police referred to it as "one big clue". (Thames Valley Police)

Discovered five days after the robbery, Leatherslade farm was dubbed “Robbers’ Roost” by BBC TV News reporters. The police referred to it as “one big clue”. (Thames Valley Police)

However, despite the wealth and extent of coverage, a host of questions have remained unanswered about the Great Train Robbery: Who was behind it, was it an inside job and who got away with the crime of the century?  Fifty years of selective falsehood and fantasy, both deliberate and unintentional, has obscured the reality of the story behind the robbery. The fact that a good many files on the investigation and prosecution of those involved, and alleged to have been involved, were closed in many cases until 2045 has only served to muddy the waters still further.

To piece together an accurate picture of the crime and those surrounding it, I endeavoured to return to square one, so to speak, and some four years ago began to gather together as many primary sources as possible. These undoubtedly give a totally new ‘feel’ for the case and indeed the social attitudes of the time. The sheer volume of material also brought home just how easy it can be to overlook certain details and key links without the ability to cross reference other sources and investigations. Through Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation and other FOI routes I was able to access Director of Public Prosecuations (DPP) and Metropolitan Police records. With the assistance of the BPMA I was equally able to navigate the Post Office’s extensive records of the robbery and those suspected of involvement.

Andrew Cook's new book The Great Train Robbery - The untold story from the closed investigation files has now been published.

Andrew Cook’s new book The Great Train Robbery – The untold story from the closed investigation files has now been published.

The finished book is effectively a ‘real time’ account of the police and Post Office investigations and for the very first time allows the reader a unique fly-on-the-wall opportunity to discover for themselves the untold story from the close investigation files.

- Andrew Cook -

The book ‘The Great Train Robbery – The untold story from the closed investigation files‘  can now be purchased from the BPMA Shop for £18.99 (plus P&P).

First Class: A History of Britain Told Through 36 Postage Stamps

On Thursday 21 February Chris West, author of First Class – a History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps, will give a talk at the BPMA in London. Chris’s book explores British history as illustrated by our most expressive, quirky, beautiful and sometimes baffling stamps.

Chris West

Chris West

Drawing on his book, Chris will tell the story of how the Penny Lilac united a nation in 1881 and examine the controversy surrounding the Edward VIII stamp of 1936. More recent history such as the punk era and the Prime Ministership of Margaret Thatcher will also be explored.

First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps by Chris West (cover)

Tickets to the talk First Class: A History of Britain Told Through 36 Postage Stamps can be purchased through our website at the cost of £3 per head, £2.50 for concessions.

Read Chris West’s blog A Cup of Tea and its consequences, or purchase First Class – a History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps through our online shop.

The inaugural regular air mail service from England to Australia, December 1934

The following article was written by John Crowe, who recently visited the Royal Mail Archive to research the inaugural regular weekly service from England to Australia, and in particular the ceremony which took place at Croydon Aerodrome on Saturday 8th December 1934…

The ceremony took place in front of the HP 42 “Hengist” and was presided over by the Secretary of State for Air, Lord Londonderry. He had received mail for despatch to Australia from their majesties the King and Queen and HRH the Prince of Wales. He handed the mail to the Postmaster General, Sir Kingsley Wood, who stamped it with a special Croydon Aerodrome steel date stamp with an ivory and silver handle. This special date-stamp is slightly smaller than the normal Croydon Aerodrome cancel with a diameter of 24 mm, compared with 26 mm for the normal date-stamp. The royal letters were then put in a blue silk bag which was handed to Sir Eric Geddes, the chairman of Imperial Airways, and he in turn handed it to the pilot of the aircraft.

Tractors towing Hengist out of the Imperial Airways’ hangar at Croydon, prior to the first service to Australia. (POST 118/201)

Tractors towing Hengist out of the Imperial Airways’ hangar at Croydon, prior to the first service to Australia. (POST 118/201)

A cover addressed to the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, the Rt. Hon. J.A. Lyons, received the same treatment as the royal letters with the special date-stamp. The cover has an Air Ministry cachet and beneath it the cachet PRIME MINISTER.

Another cover which received the royal treatment together with the letter which was enclosed, are below. The letter is from the Postmaster General, Sir Kingsley Wood, to his opposite number in Australia. The Commonwealth Postmaster General at the time was Senator the Hon. Alexander John McLachlan.

Cover addressed to The Postmaster General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Cover addressed to The Postmaster General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Letter addressed to The Postmaster General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Letter addressed to The Postmaster General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

I purchased the letter and cover in 2002 from Maurice Porter. I do not know how it first came into the public domain. Presumably, the Commonwealth Postmaster retained it as a personal item and disposed of it at some later date. Maurice has told me that he purchased it in the Harmer’s sale of the late Alex Newall’s collection. He thinks Alex might have acquired it through one of his FISA connections.

Below is a cover which was carried on the inaugural flight and which was cancelled with the normal Croydon Aerodrome date-stamp. It was signed later (January 1935) by the Postmaster General, Sir Kingsley Wood.

A cover carried on the inaugural flight.

A cover carried on the inaugural flight.

This is the special steel, Croydon Aerodrome datestamp with an ivory and silver handle.

Special Croydon Aerodrome datestamp.

Special Croydon Aerodrome datestamp.

The story of the ivory and silver hand-stamp is an interesting one. It appears that after Sir Kingsley Wood had stamped the VIP mail the hand-stamp was sent with the mail to the Postmaster General of Australia, probably in the blue silk bag, to be retained as a souvenir.

First Australian Air Mail Bag, Dec 1934 (POST 118/205)

First Australian Air Mail Bag, Dec 1934 (POST 118/205)

The hand-stamp remained in Australia, presumably in the possession of the Australian postal archive in Melbourne, until 1984. In that year the curator of the National Postal Museum, as it then was, visited Melbourne to attend the philatelic exhibition known as “Ausipex”. As a result of his visit the hand-stamp was returned to the UK where it can be viewed, by appointment, at the Royal Mail Archive. The silver band around the middle of the hand-stamp reads “First England to Australia/ Air Mail/ 8th Dec 1934” and the metal plate on the top of the box reads “FIRST/ENGLAND TO AUSTRALIA/AIR MAIL/ 8TH DECEMBER 1934”.

John Crowe examines the handstamp during his visit to the Royal Mail Archive.

John Crowe examines the handstamp during his visit to the Royal Mail Archive.

The handstamp.

The handstamp.

Go to Flickr to see images of the First Australian Air Mail.

Acknowledgements

John Crowe thanks Julian Stray (Curator) and Barry Attoe (Search Room Manager) of the BPMA for their help in viewing the hand-stamp; also Stan Wheatcroft whose earlier work is the basis for much of this article.

BPMA thanks John Crowe and Peter Winget for allowing us to publish this article on our blog.

Initial HLF support for new Postal Museum & Archive secured

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is delighted to announce that the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has confirmed a first-round pass as part of a two stage application process to help move its world-class collections into a new, accessible and permanent home. Initial HLF support has been awarded for an application of £4.25m and development funding of £250,000 has been awarded. The new Postal Museum & Archive will be situated in Calthorpe House on London’s Mount Pleasant site, where the country’s oldest mail centre is located.

Visualisation of Calthorpe House (Feildon Clegg Bradley Studios).

Visualisation of Calthorpe House (Feildon Clegg Bradley Studios).

The first-round pass means that the BPMA can now progress to the feasibility stage of its development and work up detailed proposals ahead of a round two application in 2013 to secure the remaining £4m. Further activities to generate funding to create a state of the art museum and visitor facility are taking place throughout 2012-13. The opening of the new museum is planned for late 2014.

The new Postal Museum will provide access to the BPMA’s unique collections of 400 years of postal, social and design history. The collections, which include iconic objects such as red pillar boxes and postal vehicles, as well as every British stamp issued since the Penny Black, original design artwork, posters and photographs, are currently stored in cramped and inaccessible conditions. The new centre will also enable a vast expansion of its educational programme and engagement with young visitors.

Visualisation of exhibition space.

Visualisation of exhibition space.

The fascinating story of the Post Office Underground Railway will form part of the exhibition, together with other captivating stories from social, postal and design history.

Sue Bowers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said:

The British Postal Museum and Archive’s collection gives us a fascinating insight into 400 years of postal history and how it has shaped our world today. We’re pleased to be giving initial support for this exciting project to regenerate the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant site and give an internationally important collection a permanent home in the heart of London. We will be working closely with the Postal Heritage Trust over the coming months as they progress plans to secure a full Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said:

The British Postal Museum & Archive is a national treasure of global importance. London plays a central role in its rich history so it is entirely fitting that this city would house a suitable showcase for the collection, creating a fantastic new visitor attraction to boot. I am thrilled that money from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been awarded to enable this exciting project to progress to the next important stage.

Adrian Steel, Director of the BPMA commented:

We are delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund has given such a strong indication of its support for a new Postal Museum & Archive. HLF initial investment of £250,000, together with public recognition from such a prestigious funder, is a ringing endorsement of our work to preserve Britain’s postal heritage. It allows us to embark on the next stage of this exciting project to bring the human story of communication, industry and innovation to everyone.

Join The British Postal Museum & Archive mailing list to receive updates on our New Centre project and other activities.

BPMA Summer Sale

The BPMA Shop summer sale starts today: It’s 20% off all orders! But hurry – this amazing offer only lasts for one week. Enter SUMM3R2012 in the appropriate field at checkout (excludes P&P) and place your order by 31 July 2012.

Savings Greetings Card Set

Savings Greetings Card Set

Choose from our range of unique postal heritage gifts: Learn more about our postal history and design with our publications, let someone know they’re the best with our First Class Greetings Card, get through this British Summer with our big BPMA Umbrella, or simply smarten up your standard business dress with a Penny Black Tie.

And just in time for “the greatest show on earth” the new book by the President of the Society of Olympic Collectors, Bob Wilcock, The London 1948 Olympic Games: A Collectors’ Guide is now also available.

Visit the BPMA show at http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/shop.

Free post

From the early part of the 17th century through until 1840 when Rowland Hill’s new reforms turned the postal world on its head with cheap Universal Penny Postage, the Post Office had been blighted by a constant battle against people that strove to find ways and means by which they could send their mail “free of charge”.

As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, the root of the problem lay in the fact that in 1652, Members of Parliament granted themselves the right to send and receive their letters free.

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment, 1911-36 (2010-0383/19)

The abuse of this privilege grew at such an enormous pace it was soon totally out of control. By the early 1830’s it was estimated to cost the Post Office over £36,000 per annum but 30 years later the Surveyor’s report shows the annual cost of the frank to have risen to £140,000 per annum.

Many Acts of Parliament and proclamations were issued over the years to try and stem the abuse of the franking system but no sooner that one loophole was blocked, a way would be found around it. There were 4 main weaknesses:-

1) The need of an M.P.’s signature on the front of free letters, encouraged unscrupulous people to forge the signature if a genuine one was unobtainable.

This situation was allowed to continue until 1764 when the first Act of Parliament was issued to penalise those who carried out this offence. From now on, those found guilty were transported for a term of 7 years.

One such case is well documented in the BPMA Archives when in 1818, the Rev. Laurence Halloran D.D. was found guilty of forging the signature of William Garrow M.P. and was duly sentenced to 7 years transportation. William Garrow of course is the principal character in BBC 1’s current T.V. programme Garrow’s Law which features this brilliant Lawyer, Judge and M.P. of the 18th/19th century.

Whilst awaiting transportation in Newgate prison, Halloran wrote a book of poems claiming his innocence and in which he published memorials that he claimed were received from many illustrious persons who supported him in his distress.

Mr. Parkin, the Post Office Solicitor’s case papers are held in the Royal Mail Archive and make fascinating reading. They include copies taken from several dies that Halloran had forged of ordination certificates including his own. Halloran was obviously a clever and well-educated man but also a man that was capable of forging a signature to avoid the postage on a letter.

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

2) M.P.’s sold on their privilege to Companies that paid them handsomely for their postage rights.

They also handed out huge quantities of franked (signed) letter sheets to family and friends or to anyone from whom they needed a favour such as a vote. Instances are recorded where servant’s wages had been part-paid in franked letter-sheets, which when the recipient was unable to write, would be sold-on in the local tavern. It is known that some of these finished up in the hands of criminals and were converted into I.O.U.’s.

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

3) In 1712 Newspapers were taxed and later were allowed to travel free in the post, providing they bore the newspaper tax stamp.

This was a massive burden to the Post Office – newspapers were bulky and heavy and by the late 1830’s it was estimated that some 70% by weight of all mail was going “free”.

For many ordinary folk (maybe illiterate), just to receive a newspaper in a familiar hand was comforting and sufficient. It told them that loved ones were alive and thinking of them. Others (those that could read), would perhaps require a bit more news and might be disposed to conceal their letter within the newsprint. This was generally done by “ringing the letters” in pencil or “pricking out the letters” with a pin. The recipient, by writing down the letters as they appeared in sequence in the newsprint, could easily decipher the message. To write a letter within a newspaper was an unforgivable crime subject to the most severe penalty, but did a series of pin-pricks made in a newspaper, constitute writing a letter? A tricky job for the legal profession.

, 1839. (Postal History Series)”]Letter sent free to the Commander in Chief of the forces [he was allowed to receive all letters free], 1839. (Postal History Series)

Letter sent free to the Commander in Chief of the forces [he was allowed to receive all letters free

4). As with a newspaper, receipt of a letter was welcomed whether it could be afforded or not.

Some families that were parted had simple pre-arranged codes that they would build into the address panels of their letters. Perhaps a “doubled-crossed” tee would mean that all the family were well; perhaps an “under-lined” word or an extra name slipped into the address would impart some meaningful piece of news to the person reading the address panel. Having gleaned those little scraps of news about their loved ones, the recipient would simply hand back the letter to the carrier saying “Sorry, but I can’t afford it” and the long process of another “dead-letter” would begin. Dead-letters were both cumbersome and expensive to the Post Office.

- Mike Bament, Postal Historian

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage Freepost. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

William Dockwra, The Penny Post and Coffee Houses

In today’s episode of the BBC Radio 4 series The Peoples Post the role of the Penny Post and the part played in its establishment by William Dockwra was rightly highlighted. This very early penny post system is sometimes neglected but this new cheaper and faster postal system, that was affordable by almost all, predated the much better recorded universal penny post by 160 years. The Penny Post, which was set up independently of the state run Royal Mail began in the City of London, then as today the centre of business and finance in the country. It was business and enterprise that helped it grow and develop, and very quickly it became a commercial success, so much so that it threatened the monopoly of the Royal Mail. William Dockwra opened the penny post in 1680, with its first office in the heart of what is still today the financial district of London. Within a year the number of receiving houses being used by the system had risen to between 4 and 500.

Dockwra Penny Post triangular marking, this letter was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 series (PH (L) 3/07)

Dockwra Penny Post triangular marking, this letter was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 series (PH (L) 3/07)

At the heart of this network of receiving houses was the London coffee house, then as today instrumental in business. The coffee houses of London were a place of business, a place where business meetings would take place and where many businessmen would establish themselves as regulars, making particular coffee houses the place where people could expect to find them. For this reason many of the London coffee houses were an ideal place for the letters of the penny post to be sent to and collected from.

Within the collections of the BPMA there are a number of examples of letters addressed to businessmen via their regular coffee house. A prolific user of this system was James Gordon, a wine merchant and here we see an examples of two letter addressed to Gordon, sent to two separate London coffee house, one is the Lloyds Coffee House which was situated in Lombard Street, close to where the General Post Office itself was situated at the time.

Letter addressed to James Gordon Esq. at the New Lloyds Coffee House London (Postal History Series)

Letter addressed to James Gordon Esq. at the New Lloyds Coffee House London (Postal History Series)

Letter also addressed to James Gordon but this one is stated, ‘to be left at the Jamaica Coffee House London’ (Postal History Series)

Letter also addressed to James Gordon but this one is stated, ‘to be left at the Jamaica Coffee House London’ (Postal History Series)

Both these items were sent via Dockwra’s Penny Post and carry the now faded triangular mark of this system. It was also within this same coffee house that the Lloyd’s Insurance market was first established that is today one of the world’s largest insurance markets and still based just down the road from this coffee house.

Today, just yards from the blue plaque marking the site of the Lloyds coffee house is one of London’s many modern coffee houses, still a place of business meetings to this day.

- Chris Taft, Curator

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The London Penny Post. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The Peoples Post

Monday 5th December sees the launch of an exciting new series on BBC Radio 4. The Peoples Post is a 15 part series exploring the history of the postal service through the people that use and work for it. The series begins in the 16th century in the reign of Henry VIII and explores some of the key moments in the nearly 500 years since then. Each weekday there will be a new 15 minute episode touching on a different part of this fascinating and evolving story.

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

The first five episodes, during the first week, will look at the early history of the postal service. It will cover the days of the postal service as an instrument of state and consider the expansion of the system, first under Charles I and then later in the 18th century with the post being used increasingly to assist trade. The final episode in week one will look at a postal system that was becoming ripe for improvement and this episode will link to week two where we see the postal service undergoing its most important change, postal reform.

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

Week two opens with the story of the Penny Black and how postal reform changed the world. Throughout the week the massive expansion of the Royal Mail will be explored and the effect it had on the lives of people. From the expansion into the parcels posts in the 1880s through the development of social post and the part the post office played in the community, to the industrial unrest in the 1890s with the first postal workers’ strike.

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The final week looks at some of the innovations and changes that were to impact on the industry. The rise of new technologies such as the telegraphs and later developments such as the introduction by Royal Mail of the postcode, and the way that system evolved to form a part of everyone’s life. This week will also consider the post office in the First World War, the impact of the loss of male workers and the employment of women, and also the massive new role of delivering mail to a world at war and managing censorship.

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

The series is supported throughout by the BPMA. With each episode there will be new content loaded onto the website, Flickr and this blog, exploring some of the issues in more detail. Links to these will be provided via Facebook, Twitter and Google+ - and you can live tweet the show on the hashtag #PeoplesPost. Much of the research for the series has also been drawn from the Royal Mail Archive, which is managed by the BPMA. Images and details from the BPMA’s rich collections will illustrate each episode.

The BPMA were involved with the series from the very beginning and a number of members of BPMA staff were involved in developing the links with the series producers and the BBC. Most particularly the BPMA would like to thank Peter Sutton for his role of researcher, helping to find the links within the collection, and Jenny Karlsson and Alison Bean for helping to build the links and develop the online content.

- Chris Taft, Curator