Tag Archives: sorting office

Use your postcode at Christmas

In the lead-up to Christmas we are sharing with you 12 Posters of Christmas, a dozen classic postal posters from the Royal Mail Archive. Today’s is…

Poster promoting the use of postal codes when sending Christmas mail, 1968 (POST 110/1550)

Poster promoting the use of postal codes when sending Christmas mail, 1968 (POST 110/1550)

In the 1960s when this poster was produced most mail was still sorted by hand but the Post Office was hatching an ambitious plan to reshape the entire network and it needed the public to change with them. A new breed of sorting office was being developed, filled with “coding desks” at which staff would operate keyboards in order to register the mail as it entered the system. Postcodes, which compressed the information in every address were key to making this new type of sorting office work.

A line of postmen operating coding desks at Croydon Head Post Office, 1969. (POST 118/5424)

A line of postmen operating coding desks at Croydon Head Post Office, 1969. (POST 118/5424)

Between 1966 and 1974 every address in the United Kingdom was given a postcode and this poster from 1968 was part of the accompanying publicity campaign. Royal Mail was still promoting the postcode using posters and other methods as recently as the 1990s, a reflection of how long it takes to effect major change. You can read more about postcoding in our blog post Publicising the postcode or in our article on Postcodes on our website.

New records released on our online catalogue

Thankfully, our recent problems with the online catalogue appear to be resolved. We apologise for the inconvenience you may have suffered in recent weeks.

The online catalogue service began switching itself off when we upgraded the catalogue system software. We noticed that our web server was having problems with the new software almost immediately. Although we did test the system before we installed it on our web server, a bug in the system did not become apparent until the online catalogue interface began asking for data from the system database. We’ve now reverted to a stable version of the system so hopefully we will not have any more unplanned interruptions to the online catalogue service.

On a more positive note, we can reveal that 4752 records have been added to the online catalogue and these are now available to the public. These include:

POST 91: Buildings, Furniture and Fittings – over 3000 descriptions of plans, blueprints, photographs, illustrations and documents relating to Post Office sites and installations across the United Kingdom between c.1780 and 2002. We’ve digitised a small number of these records and we hope to attach these to their descriptions in the following months.

King Edward Building - two keyboard operators at Single Position Letter Sorting Machine (SPLSM), November 1971 (POST 118/6024)

King Edward Building - two keyboard operators at Single Position Letter Sorting Machine (SPLSM), November 1971 (POST 118/6024)

POST 118: Post Office Photograph Library – 450 descriptions of photographs from 1967-1999. These images form part of a series of photographs compiled by library staff during the course of their work. They include many colour medium-format photographs of sorting offices, technical photographs of equipment and postmen and women on delivery. These records often include digital images of the photographs themselves. Further records from this series will be released in the future.

From the museum collection we have added an additional 450 detailed descriptions of textile and uniform, many of which include photographs of the uniforms. Other significant releases from the museum collection include an additional 114 prints and drawings, and a further 210 handstamps.

Coat Jacket - British Postal Agency (Tangier), c. 1950 (2011-0338)

Coat Jacket - British Postal Agency (Tangier), c. 1950 (2011-0338)

From our philatelic collections, King George VI Overprints are now available, including postage due label overprints. This collection of definitives, commemoratives, high value definitive stamps and postage due label registration sheets include overprints relating to the official use of these stamps in various territories under British control, including the Gulf and former Italian colonies in Africa, occupied by British troops during Word War II.

KGVI 6d purple, overprinted 'B.M.A. TRIPOLITANIA 12 M.A.L.', registration sheet, perforated (POST 150/KGVI/O/BRA/ICL/0008)

KGVI 6d purple, overprinted 'B.M.A. TRIPOLITANIA 12 M.A.L.', registration sheet, perforated (POST 150/KGVI/O/BRA/ICL/0008)

Holding particular political and historical significance today, registration sheets overprinted for ‘British Military Administration’ and ‘British Administration’ in ‘Tripolitania’, a historic region in the former province of Libya are included in the collection. These stamps provide a reminder of British domination of this former Italian colony, both in terms of its military administration and also on a civilian basis. Tripolitania included Tripoli in the old system and these registration sheets document the fact that Britain actually set up the combined state of Libya. The British backed King Idris to become Emir of Tripolitania who also proclaimed an independent Emirate of Cyrenaica in 1949.

Various postal agencies in the Gulf used British overprinted stamps after 1948, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Muscat and Qatar.

- Martin Devereux, Acting Catalogue Manager

Search our online catalogue at www.postalheritage.org.uk/catalogue.

Phoenix Place – the last undeveloped WW2 bomb site?

by Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

Opposite the BPMA’s entrance in Phoenix Place is a rundown area of open space currently used as a car park for employees of the Mount Pleasant sorting office. This is how it looks on Google Street View.

There is some speculation, including on Flickr, about the car park’s significance as one of the last undeveloped World War II bomb sites in central London. Since we have lots of plans, maps and photographs in our collections relating to Post Office and Royal Mail property in London, I wanted to see if I could find any evidence that the rumour is actually true.

Immediately I discovered it isn’t. You can see from the photograph below that pre-war buildings were still standing in Phoenix Place in the 1960s.

Photograph of Phoenix Place, looking south towards what is now the BPMA on the left, c.1960

Photograph of Phoenix Place, looking south towards what is now the BPMA on the left, c.1960

The area shown is almost opposite what is now the BPMA (our Archive Search Room and Main Office are located where the tower is in the photograph). The remains of a building are also visible, and this may have been the ‘bombed site’ at No. 4 Mount Pleasant referred to in a meeting held in 1956 to discuss the possible extension of the sorting office into Phoenix Place. Google Street View shows how that area looks now.

The size, location and function of Mount Pleasant sorting office made it a likely target for German bombers, and it was struck numerous times. On 16 September 1940 Mount Pleasant was hit for the first time by incendiary bombs. The Parcel Office received further direct raids from incendiaries and high explosives in October and November 1940, and again in January and April 1941.

Surrounding areas, including Eyre Street Hill, Farringdon Road, the Daily Sketch garage at the corner of Mount Pleasant and Gough Street, and Bideford Mansions in Mount Pleasant, were bombed, causing damage to the sorting office.

Several houses in what is now the car park suffered serious damage, including those owned by the Post Office at 34-40 Gough Street. Numbers 12-26 Mount Pleasant were also bombed and subsequently cleared.

Before the war, there were two additional pubs to the current generous supply of watering holes in the Mount Pleasant area. The Two Blue Posts at 79 Mount Pleasant, and the buildings running to Laystall Street on its left, suffered extensive bomb-damage. They were replaced by the block of flats we see now.

The Two Brewers at 32 Gough Street also suffered considerable damage during the war, but was still standing in 1947 as it received a special licence for the Royal Wedding. You can see from the photograph below that the bomb-damaged neighbouring building had been cleared.

Gough Street, looking south towards Mount Pleasant, c.1960

Gough Street, looking south towards Mount Pleasant, c.1960

References on Flickr suggesting the car park area was home to the Parcel Office during the war are incorrect. The Parcel Office was actually located on the current Mount Pleasant site, and was moved to the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington after a direct hit on 18 June 1943. This created a ‘raging inferno’ that left the building a ‘shapeless mass of twisted girders and smouldering ruins’ (see photograph below) and resulted in two fatalities.

Photograph of the bomb damaged Parcel Office at Mount Pleasant, 1943 (POST 118 -1448)

Photograph of the bomb damaged Parcel Office at Mount Pleasant, 1943 (POST 118 -1448)

After the war, discussions were held about the possible rebuilding and extension of the Parcel Office on the site now occupied by the car park. The area still contained a number of properties, despite being damaged during the war. The map below, from 1952, shows the layout of buildings in the area bordered by Mount Pleasant, Phoenix Place, Gough Street and Calthorpe Street (the red area was Post Office property).

Map showing ownership of property in Phoenix Place c.1952 (POST 122-222)

Map showing ownership of property in Phoenix Place c.1952 (POST 122-222)

In 1956, the Planning Authorities recommended that the Post Office acquire the land now occupied by the car park. The London Postal Region was intending to use this site to provide a new Parcel Section, and the map below shows the dates for the proposed acquisition of the remaining properties. The yellow area was already Post Office freehold whilst the red area, incorporating a food suppliers, and Kemsleys Newspapers, which owned the Sunday Times, The Daily Sketch and The Sunday Graphic, was to be acquired in 1958.

Map showing proposed Post Office acquisition of Phoenix Place properties c.1958 (POST 122-222)

Map showing proposed Post Office acquisition of Phoenix Place properties c.1958 (POST 122-222)

However, the Parcel Section was never rebuilt on this land and it seems that it has remained empty since, with the crumbling remnants of buildings giving the impression that the whole area has remained a bomb-site.

Sources:

POST 122/222 – ‘Buildings: rebuilding/extension of Mt Pleasant Parcel Office’,
(1950-56)

POST
56/175
– ‘ARP arrangements and incidents at Mt Pleasant during the Second World War, 1939-1945’

POST
102/50
– ‘Mount Pleasant Parcels Office, air raid damage’ (1943-1946)

http://pubsinuk.com/LondonPubs/Holborn/TwoBluePosts.shtml (24/05/11)

Designing the postcode: a complex history for a simple purpose

In this series of blog posts, Peter Sutton, PhD candidate researching the post-war history of technology and industrial relations in the British Postal Service, offers some reflections on the history of the modern postcode. The significance of the postcode and its origins in the post-1945 era are considered followed by some archival examples tracing different aspects of its design along its journey from a specialised engineering concept to a universally recognised geographical referencing tool.

Royal Mail poster Poster relating to service standards (1983)

Royal Mail poster Poster relating to service standards (1983)

In some ways the postcode is simple, an intentional characteristic that was given priority during its design in the post-war era. It needed to be quickly understood by postmen and easily remembered by the public. Its function as an abbreviator of addresses made it simple almost by definition. Equally, the business strategy behind the postcode project was at its core straightforward. In 1968 a manual sorting system prevailed in which, it was estimated, letters were sorted on average 3.2 times during their journey. A letter finding itself on a more tortuous routing might be handled five or six times before delivery. With almost 30 million letters handled at the sorting frame every working day, and as wages rose steadily in real terms in the post-war era, this was an increasingly expensive arrangement. After a string of successful trials in the 50s and 60s, sorting machines capable of “reading” a series of phosphor dots offered a partial solution. If a letter, upon entering the system, could first be marked with the machine readable dots containing sorting instructions then, officials at GPO Headquarters reasoned, all subsequent stages of sorting could be automated. In this scenario, human labour in the sorting process would be mostly confined to making an initial imprint on each envelope by a human operator reading the postcode at a “coding desk” and punching the information into a keyboard. Subsequent re-sorting could then be done by machine, eliminating much duplication of effort. The modern postcode, from this perspective, began life as a crucial component of what was hoped would one day become an all-encompassing system of integrated, automated sorting offices equipped with “robot sorters”.

TV and radio personality Tony Blackburn helps to promote postcodes (c. 1980)

TV and radio personality Tony Blackburn helps to promote postcodes (c. 1980)

If the underlying economics of the postcode are simple, the course of its design was not. This was a long-term and highly complex process which encompassed, among other things, the design of a binary machine language, basic research in chemistry, the mathematics of code theory, field trials in which sorting staff and psychologists had their input, and considerable research into the needs of businesses. The likely response of the public was analysed as were many elements of the postal service itself and the entire effort was also seen in an international context as an interest in code-sorting was taken up in Europe, America and Japan. Reflecting on the origins of the code, the PO explained during a 1976 parliamentary inquiry that strict parameters were established upon its design in the 1950s. The public needed something memorable and uniform and compatible with the old city district codes. Operationally, the code needed flexibility to accommodate variations and ad hoc revisions to circulation and delivery, and would have to form two parts reflecting the outward and inward phases of sorting. (Outward sorting directs mail to a different city or region, while inward sorting directs mail to a particular address.) The characteristics required of the code therefore had to mesh with the demands of various economic and psychological aspects of letter writing. This was not forgotten by Post Office officials when asked to reflect on the origins of the code during a 1970s Parliamentary Inquiry into the Postal Service. “This financial requirement” they remembered, “was a major factor in determining the type of equipment developed which affected the shape of the postcode. For example, the method envisaged for imprinting the codes in machine language was by means of an operator using a keyboard; and there was a limit to the capacity of the code ‘translator’ device [the “brain” of a mechanised sorting suite] that could be developed at economic cost.” (Cmnd. 6954, Appendix to the Carter Report (Post Office Review), 1977.)

Think, therefore, of your own postcode. As I have mentioned, it will have two parts. There will be a maximum of seven characters. The first part – the “outward” part – will specify a district within your wider mail delivery area. (For instance a house in York’s third delivery district becomes “YO3”.) This part was designed for long-term flexibility in an evolving mail circulation system and might have three or four characters. However the second part – the “inward” part – is a standardised allocation allowing for local, computerised delivery scheduling. It will have one numeral followed by two alpha characters, representing the sub-district, street and group of houses for your address. All of these features were deliberately chosen and could have been different but for historic decisions taken in light of the geography, transport distribution and population density of 1960s Britain. This, by the way, is one reason why Australian, Japanese and American postcodes all differ in their format. All were created for the same simple purpose of making addresses easier to read by machines. But equally, for each, design requirements and restrictions have differed from country to country in quite complex ways.

Poster promoting postcode usage (c. 1980)

Poster promoting postcode usage (c. 1980)

This and the previous post have very briefly outlined some of the general principals and historic background which have helped shape the design of modern postcodes. In the next post we go back to the 1950s to look a bit closer at the early history of sorting machines and how engineers helped create the code.

Morten Collection Object of the Month: January 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

This month’s object: Travelling Post Office Mail Bag Apparatus

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

The Travelling Post Office (TPO) was first introduced in January 1838, travelling on the Grand Junction between Birmingham and Liverpool. The TPO is closely linked with Rowland Hill’s penny postage, which led to an increase in letter writing and the need to transport more mail at speed. The TPO ceased operation in 2004 as more and more people used emails rather than letter writing to communicate.

Travelling Post Offices functioned as mobile sorting offices, allowing post officers to sort up to 2000 mails an hour while on the move. In its heyday there were some 77 services from London to Plymouth, Bristol, Newcastle and others.

In 1936 the GPO Film unit produced a film about the TPO entitled Night Mail that contained a poem by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten.

The picture featured here shows a wooden and metal model of a mail bag exchange apparatus and forms part of a set consisting of track, carriages, a hut and smaller items relating to the Travelling Post Office.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses like this were used between 1852–1971 on Travelling Post Offices to pick up and put down mails without the need for trains to stop. The concept of exchanging mail whilst in transit is nothing new to railways and was used before where mail bags were often thrown onto and off coaches while in motion.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses operated in the following way: Mail was simply put into leather pouches weighing between 20lb and 60lb that were attached to an arm which would suspend it 5ft above the ground and 3ft away from the carriage side. The carriage was equipped with an extendable net, fitted to the body side, with an opening into the carriage behind it to catch incoming pouches.

It is alleged that the duty of putting the bags on poles was so unpopular that some postmen paid others to do the duty for them.

For more on TPO’s see the BPMA’s online exhibition The Travelling Post Office.

New podcast goes online: The Post Office during the Second World War

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Earlier this year several talks were given at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms to tie-in with the exhibition Last Post – Remembering the First World War. These covered various wartime and postal history topics, including talks on the Post Office during the First and Second World Wars. The talk The Post Office during the Second World War, given by Mark Crowley, is now available to download as a podcast.

Mark Crowley is a PhD student conducting research at the BPMA, who has previously written for this blog on The Post Office Home Guard. His talk presented a number of interesting insights into Post Office operations during World War 2.

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The Post Office played a vital communications role during the War, providing both postal and telegram deliveries, and telephone services. With many Post Office workers now in the forces, women were employed in large numbers to deliver and sort mail, drive Royal Mail vans and maintain the telephone network. Mark’s talk is peppered with stories of the bravery of some of these workers, who managed to keep telephone exchanges and sorting offices running even as the enemy bombs rained down.

Vital infrastructure such as post offices, sorting offices and telephone exchanges were often targets for enemy bombers, and many suffered bomb damage. Mobile Post Offices, offering telephone and counter services were set up in effected areas.

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

Unfortunately, many of the archive images referred to in the talk cannot be included with the podcast due to copyright reasons, but we hope to make some of these available in the future.

The British Postal Museum & Archive Podcast can be downloaded through iTunes or from our website. Last Post – Remembering the First World War is currently on a national tour.

The Post Office Home Guard in the Second World War

To mark VE Day Ph.D Research Student Mark J Crowley looks at The Post Office Home Guard.

The Post Office Home Guard was created in 1939 under the instruction of the Postmaster General. Its purpose was to defend the Post Office from enemy attack. Whilst its initial membership predominantly comprised men, it also accepted women, but their roles initially were confined to duties such as fire-watching. This was to change by the end of 1940, when women performed all of the duties previously undertaken by men. Considerable enthusiasm was expressed by Post Office staff for this initiative. They could volunteer their services to the Post Office Home Guard provided that they did not spend more than 40 hours per month performing these duties.

Post Office Home Guard

Post Office Home Guard

The Post Office Home Guard formed part of what became known as the ‘Factory Home Guard’. They were created as a ‘spin off’ to the National Home Guard. For the Post Office, and for the nation, the defence of communications, essential services and industry were covered by this group. The best defence would be achieved with cooperation between the Factory Home Guard units and the national Home Guard.[1]

Five major roles and responsibilities were identified for the Post Office Home Guard.[2] First, they would work to defend their local Post Office. A small proportion of Telephonists in the exchanges classified as ‘vulnerable’ by a government-appointed Vulnerable Points Officer would then be recruited to the Post Office Home Guard, and trained to operate selected exchanges in the event of an invasion. Second, the Post Office Home Guard would be responsible for providing telecommunications for the Army, Navy, air force as well as civil defence, government and industry. Its main task was to protect vital communications. Third, the POHG members would be exempt from the fire watching duties covered under separate arrangements within the Essential Work Order. Fourth, there were three classifications to Post Office premises, and members of the POHG were expected to defend all three, but the priorities attached to all three were different. Buildings were classified as: key points of national importance; important centres; and finally, premises of lesser importance. Also the POHG were given points in which a constant presence should be maintained. Areas with large sorting offices and telephone exchanges (major cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester) were afforded the highest level of protection by both the National Home Guard and the Post Office Home Guard, in the interest of protecting and maintaining their services in the event of an enemy attack. 

Towards the end of the war, senior Post Office managers and Treasury officials claimed that men over 60 were not fit for Home Guard duties, and neither should they be expected to perform these or any other duties involving defending the country.[3] Others on the committee argued that the biggest problem for the Post Office was that it had its own Home Guard. They believed that if its staff joined the outside Home Guard, then their claims of irksome duties and hours would receive more attention from the government. However, the Post Office Management assured the staff that if there was evidence that their duties in the Post Office Home Guard was detrimentally affecting their Post Office duties, then they would be relieved of this.[4] This possibly explains why all Post Office Home Guard sections had been disbanded by 1946.


[1] BPMA, Post 56/108, Letter from P J Grigg, War Office, July 1941

[2] BPMA, Post 56/108,  F Reid POHG commander to regional directors, 18 April, 1941

[3] Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick (hereafter MRC), MSS.148/UCW/2/1/28, Quarterly Meeting the Executive Council, 12-14 July, 1944, p. 34.

[4] Ibid, p. 34.