Tag Archives: Postal History

Guest blog: Communicating Conflict Arts Award students

Meet guest bloggers Samiah and Shaima. Two of our Communicating Conflict Arts Award students from Haverstock School.

Meet Samiah and Shaima - two students from Haverstock School.

Meet Samiah and Shaima – two students from Haverstock School.

The Arts Award students recently participated in two workshops with Big Wheel Theatre Company. Here’s what Samiah and Shaima had to say about their experiences.

We are extremely lucky to be taking part in this Arts Award. Last week we were very fortunate to take part in a theatre workshop called ‘Meaning in the Mud’ about poems that were written during the First World War.

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Arts Award students with Roland and George from the Big Wheel Theatre Company.

After the poetry workshop, Roland and George visited us in class to develop our knowledge of the Post Office Rifles. We learnt about three soldiers named Sergeant Alfred Knight, Captain Home Peel and Rifleman Harry Brown. We looked at letters that were sent to Harry Brown’s mother.

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Students discover the story of Post Office Rifle, Harry Brown.

Harry Brown was a Rifleman who was involved in a fierce, bloody, brutal battle at Nieuport Les Bains. When his mother asked to know what happened to her son she received a letter from the Red Cross stating they did not know the whereabouts of her dear son. We later found out, after reading another letter, that he was captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp. This letter was the last letter she ever received from her son. He died at the prisoner of war camp from “inflammation of the lungs”.

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Original letter from the Central Prisoners of War Committee to Harry Brown’s mother.

Roland spoke to us in character about the battlefield and all the tactics used during this horrendous time. We were told about the battle of Wurst Farm Ridge. In this battle we learnt that Post Office Rifle Sergeant Alfred Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership and bravery.

We wrote messages of remembrance for the Post Office Rifles.

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Roland and George from Big Wheel Theatre Company took these messages to Ypres and left them at the Post Office Rifles memorial. They are performing their Meaning in the Mud workshop in Belgian schools.

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Thanks to Samiah and Shaima for this fantastic blog. Keep an eye out for more from our Haverstock School Arts Award students as the project progresses.

What the privatisation of Royal Mail means to us

Our Director Adrian Steel gives a historical perspective on today’s announcement that Royal Mail will soon be privatised.

The human need to communicate is ever present. But to give a historical perspective on the British postal service – details of the sale of which have been announced today – the usual starting point is the creation of the office of ‘Master of the Posts’ in 1512, its endorsement in 1517, or the Royal Proclamation of 31 July 1635 which effectively saw the opening of the ‘Royal Mail’ to public use. The last of these is most frequently given as the start of what is now the Royal Mail business.

The King's Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail's origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

The King’s Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail’s origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

Throughout most of its existence the service has been the subject of public and political debate. The tension between the need for it to run as a business and turn a profit (which at times in the 17th century was paid to those who bought what was effectively the ‘farm’ of revenue for a part of the service – we have the accounts in the Royal Mail Archive), and the need for it to provide a socially necessary service, is ongoing and – as underpins Duncan Campbell-Smith’s authoritative 2011 history Masters of the Post – recurrent.

The political importance of the postal service is by and large a constant. For a good part of its early history there were two Postmasters General – (usually) one Whig and one Tory – as shown by our POST 67 archive series containing appointment Letters Patent. The 19th century expansion as a result of postal reform was a transformative national event, one that saw what had by then become known as the Post Office permeate literature from Dickens to Trollope (who was himself a Surveyor for the Post Office and credited with the creation of the pillar box). In the early 20th century the service grew to encompass the infant telephone system, saw politicians such as Austen and Neville Chamberlain and Clement Attlee cut their teeth in government as Postmaster General, and the first extended thought on whether a government department really was the right vehicle for what the Post Office did. Harold Wilson’s government – whose Postmaster Generals include the only surviving holder of this office, Roy Mason and Tony Benn – converted the Post Office into a state-owned corporation via the 1969 Post Office Act. After that, the telephone service was separated and later sold as British Telecom, and in the past 15 years two Postal Services Acts have again changed the status of the organisation. The most recent, that of 2011, is the legislation that has led to today’s announcement.

Central Telephone Exchange - telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

Central Telephone Exchange – telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

During the debates on the 2011 Act, concern was expressed across the political spectrum that Britain’s postal heritage, as cared for by the BPMA, should be safeguarded. At the time I took part in correspondence with a number of interested politicians and Ministers and we had visits from All-Party Groups, individual Peers and MPs from all parties (and none), and from Coalition ministers. Amendments were tabled and discussed and eventually a clause added to what was already in the then Bill, ensuring that the heritage of the postal service was properly cared for and reported to Parliament upon even after a privatisation such as was announced today. With this protection and support behind us, plans for our new home well advanced, and ongoing support from politicians, Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, BPMA looks forward to providing a first class home for this great service’s history for generations to come.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

For more on the history of the Royal Mail see our online exhibition The Peoples Post.

Duncan Campbell-Smith, author of Masters of the Post – The Authorized History of the Royal Mail will speak on The Royal Mail Past and Present at the Guildhall Library on 24 October 2013.

Of even more boxes and reams of pink tape…

Some of our regular blog readers may remember my previous blog post on the Museum Store audit. Since a year has passed since the start of the project, I thought I would add a quick update and share a few of the items that I have uncovered along the way.

During my first few weeks on the project, I worked on a number of shelves containing mailbags; a seemingly endless number of bags… of all shapes and sizes from small orange ones to large hessian sacks with bold, black stencilling. Among them were several bags commemorating notable dates, including this example marking a Coronation Day flight from Sydney to London on 2nd June 1953.

Coronation Day Flight Mailbag. (2007-0057/9)

Coronation Day Flight Mailbag. (2007-0057/9)

As with any new subject, when I first started at the BPMA back in 2011 there were many terms that meant very little to me – one example was the phrase ‘dead letters’. So you can imagine my amusement when the shelf I was auditing one afternoon held a real ‘Dead Letter’ box, which had come from a Post Office in Walton on the Naze. For me, one of the wonderful things about working directly with the collection is being able to tie elements of postal history to ‘real’ objects that can add that extra level of understanding.

Dead Letters Box from Walton on the Naze Post Office. (2002-572/3)

Dead Letters Box from Walton on the Naze Post Office. (2002-572/3)

I was particularly taken with this illuminated badge, partly because I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. That it had once lit up was clear – you could see the connecting wires at the end – but exactly how it would have been used had myself and Barry – one of the BPMA volunteers – puzzled.

Illuminated Badge. (E6709)

Illuminated Badge. (E6709)

We speculated whether it might have been attached to the front of a telegram messenger’s motorcycle, but that’s didn’t feel quite right. Duly audited, repacked and the badge returned to its shelf, I made a mental note to try and find out more. One of my colleagues in the Curatorial team said that he had previously seen a photograph with someone wearing a similar badge in the Archive. It was shortly after that I realised the answer was – quite literally – in front of me, as we have an enlarged version of the photograph on display at the Museum Store that I had been walking past each morning!

Telegram Messenger wearing an illuminated badge. (POST 118/0424)

Telegram Messenger wearing an illuminated badge. (POST 118/0424)

The badge was used by telegram messengers at mainline train termini, presumably to help you spot one on a crowded platform if you wished to send that last-minute telegram. It was great to see the item in use and even more satisfying to – at least partially – answer the question ‘What was this used for?’

Telephone sign. (OB2001.39/2)

Telephone sign. (OB2001.39/2)

A similar thing occurred when auditing a ‘TELEPHONE’ sign and metal bracket. That it was a rather lovely item was certain, but I did wonder what one might have looked like when it was in active use.

Whilst preparing a short talk for a local Rotary club in June, I came across my answer – a lantern slide image of a postman entering a K2 telephone kiosk, with a ‘TELEPHONE’ sign, like the one I had wrapped a few months previously, attached to a post on the left hand side. It can be easy to forget that museum objects had a working life, particularly if they are removed from their original context, so it was nice to have a visual clue as to how these signs would have been used.

Lantern slide with postman, kiosk and sign. (2011-0443/6)

Lantern slide with postman, kiosk and sign. (2011-0443/6)

A year on from the start of the project, I am delighted to report that the number of shelves audited and repacked has steadily increased to 290 shelves (or 57%) of our small mobile racking. This has been due in no small part to the assistance of volunteers Don and Barry, as well as the further help of my colleague Emma and the efforts of placement student Flora, who spent some time working at the Store during her student placement in April 2013.

Given the scale of the project, progress could occasionally feel misleadingly slow but the sight of steadily multiplying bays filled with pink tape shows that all that effort has produced a tangible result. More importantly, by assessing the condition of items and ensuring their packaging materials are suitable, we are ensuring that they are protected from their environment and remain in a stable condition to be enjoyed by visitors and researchers in years to come.

- Sarah Jenkins, Project Coordinator

Introducing our new cataloguing updates

I’m Matt Tantony, and I joined the BPMA as Project Archivist in February this year. Since then, I’ve been spending almost every day underground in our repository, delving into boxes to uncover records that may have been unseen for years. Most archives have backlogs of material that, due to time constraints, is uncatalogued. In my year-long post I’ll be roaming The Royal Mail Archive, cataloguing the unseen records one section at a time.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

Each section’s cataloguing backlog lies in alluringly blank boxes in the repository. Every time I open a new box, I have no idea what I’ll find inside. It could be bound volumes, photographs, or a mountain of papers. It could even be computer data! My first task is to identify what each individual record actually is, when and where it originated, and what it can tell us. It’s rather like archaeology, although there’s usually documentation from the original transfer to the Archive to help me.

This randomly-selected box from the backlog contains over a dozen letter sorting manuals from different eras:

A box of letter sorting manuals.

A box of letter sorting manuals.

A month later, I’ve surveyed every box, and I’ve generated a vast database containing several hundred records’ details. Next, I puzzle out how to combine the newly-catalogued records and the existing ones into an easily navigable order in the catalogue. Archivists are trained to work to a single international standard that groups related records together into a kind of tree structure, often based on the structure of the organisation that produced them. I give each record a unique finding number, which is what our visitors use to request items for consultation in the Search Room.

I also need to repackage the records. We use specialist packaging materials, including those ever-present acid-free folders tied up with tape, to prolong the lifespan of archives. After my database is uploaded to our collections software, my colleagues and I spend several coffee-fuelled days proof-reading every word, before it’s published to the online catalogue for everyone to use. Then it’s onto the next section of the Archive and the process starts again!

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

The BPMA is working to tackle its cataloguing backlog, bringing thousands of records into the light, and making even more of our nation’s postal history available to everyone. I’ll be blogging here every few weeks, to keep you updated on my progress and to share the records I’ve uncovered.

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).