Tag Archives: telegrams

Museums at Night – Stories from the Store

Venture off the beaten track on Thursday 16th May and explore the treasures of the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) Museum Store at a special after-hours event.

Behind its unassuming façade, the Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits – each with a story to tell. As part of Museums at Night 2013, come and find out about some of these stories as they are brought to life by The Big Wheel Theatre Company!

Morris van at the Museum Store.

Morris van at the Museum Store.

What can you do on the night?

Big Wheel Theatre Company

Stories will be revealed by some fascinating characters from our postal past! Through some exciting interactive performances and activities find out about the Suffragette ‘human letters’ fighting for the right to vote and see how the Post Office had to adapt to the demands of war with new services. Mingle with these characters from history to truly understand all that they went through and achieved. (You can find out more about the ‘human letters’ by listening to episode #3 of our podcast.)

Anti Suffragette postcard. (2011-0365)

Anti Suffragette postcard. (2011-0365)

Craft Guerrilla

Show your support for our resident Suffragette for the evening by making your own rosette, reminiscent of those worn by the campaigners who fought for Women’s rights. East London craft company, Craft Guerrilla, will be running the activity. All materials provided for free, just bring your creativity and enthusiasm!

Discover how the post office went to war

Explore our Second World War handling box. Dress up like a wartime post man, and write a telegram to a loved one.

Write your own Post Office Telegram.

Write your own Post Office Telegram.

Postal fun at the Museum Store!

Postal fun at the Museum Store!

Have a browse

Take a walk down ‘letter box alley’ or take a look at our fleet of postal service vehicles illustrating the long history of moving the mail in a self led exploration of the collection. BPMA staff will also be on hand to answer questions about the collection. When you leave you will be able to recognize a hen and chicks bike, a K2 telephone kiosk and an Edward VIII pillar box!

Hen and chicks cigarette card.

Hen and chicks cigarette card.

Refreshments

At an event celebrating stories from our past it only seemed right to have a vintage themed refreshment stand! Help yourself to a selection of home made cakes and finger sandwiches, cloudy lemonade or a hot drink – all absolutely free.

Date and Time

Thursday 16th May, 6.00pm-9.00pm.

Cost and Booking

Free – no booking necessary

Visit our website to find out more about our Museums at Night event.

2013 Royal Mail Archive openings: bring on the 20-year rule

The start of the year has traditionally been the time we’ve made batches of material available to public research for the first time based on the long-standing ’30-year rule’. This year things are slightly different since the ’30 year rule’ is no more and we (along with The National Archives and some other holders of public record material) are starting a ten year transitional period to a ’20-year rule’.

Closed until various dates until 2013.

In the past we opened files that had reached the thirtieth anniversary of the latest document in them over the previous year on the 1 January of the subsequent year. So on 1 January 2012 we opened all files that had documents from 1981 in them.

Material at the BPMA will now generally be available to researchers according to the 20-year rule transitional timetable which like transfer to The National Archives will deal with two years’ worth of files each year until 2023.

This is set out below:

1 Jan 2013 – Files from 1982 and 1983 will become open

1 Jan 2014 – Files from 1984 and 1985 will become open

1 Jan 2015 – Files from 1986 and 1987 will become open

1 Jan 2016 – Files from 1988 and 1989 will become open

1 Jan 2017 – Files from 1990 and 1991 will become open

1 Jan 2018 – Files from 1992 and 1993 will become open

1 Jan 2019 – Files from 1994 and 1995 will become open

1 Jan 2020 – Files from 1996 and 1997 will become open

1 Jan 2021 – Files from 1998 and 1999 will become open

1 Jan 2022 – Files from 2000 and 2001 will become open

1 Jan 2023 – Files from 2002 will become open (end of transition phase)

N.B. A very small number of files (or parts of files) in The Royal Mail Archive have extended closure periods generally under Freedom of Information Act personal information exemptions; these will be unaffected by this change.

This process has applied to more than 500 files this January, particularly material from the following POST classes: POST 19 (Postal Business Statistics), POST 52 (Stamp Depot), POST 69 (Royal Mail Board and its Predecessors) and POST 73 (Regional Administration and Operations).

Below I’ll tell you about some of the files that have interested me the most. A few of them focus on two of the major issues affecting UK politics in the early 1980s, Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands.

POST 23/219 relates to the operation of a rival postal service in Derry/ Londonderry.

William Ross MP had complained in December 1978 about Sinn Fein Christmas mail (which would deliver Christmas cards in the city at a lower rate than the Post Office) and whether it infringed the Post Office monopoly. A letter from Danny Carty, PO Northern Ireland head, to Minister of State Adam Butler discusses the issue. Press releases had been sent out every year since 1975. Stamp Collecting magazine had ‘issued the Sinn Fein press release without really understanding the issues involved’. On the issue of the monopoly Carty wrote about the dangers of going to court:

Goliath might slew David on this occasion, but at what price to the Post Office in Northern Ireland.

Following up in December 1982 Carty informed PO Chairman Ron Dearing:

Sinn Fein Christmas Post is not going to go away…I have discussed this issue at my executive meeting today and the view, with no voice of dissent, was we should do nothing. I realise this is the soft option, pragmatist that I am, but feel this is the sensible approach to take at this time.

Ron Dearing wrote to Philip Cooper, Under Secretary, Department of Industry, 1 December 1982:

I want to avoid being drawn into a position of taking legal proceedings against Sinn Fein for two reasons:-

1). part of their objective will be to promote confrontation wherever they can, and the Post Office has particular value to them in this context because it is seen as representing the UK Government and because the Post Office in Dublin is perhaps the best remembered point in the fighting that took place before the establishment of the Irish Republic.

2). risk of violence to postmen on their walks (part of the time in the dark)….For if our postmen became the centre of a campaign and were subject to threats of violence, and some actual violence, we might find that staff were understandably unwilling to make deliveries in Roman Catholic areas or indeed more widely. Then the Sinn Fein would really have won the battle.

This service was still in operation at Christmas 2012.

The context in which these developments were occurring can be seen in the contents to POST 23/370. This covers civil disturbances at the time of the IRA hunger strikes and their impact on postal services. In a memorandum covering the week 20-26 April 1981 (hunger striker and MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Bobby Sands had died on 9 April) it lists 14 serious incidents including attacks on sorting offices, vehicles and post boxes. On 17 April…

Rioters attacked Londonderry HO Sorting Office with petrol bombs, bricks and iron bars. Staff on duty managed to extinguish petrol bombs which landed on roof of building and in the yard. No injuries.

Other memos put the events into context detailing deaths of hunger strikers and other political events.

Civil Disturbances Weekly Report, 20-26 April 1981. (POST 23/370)

Civil Disturbances Weekly Report, 20-26 April 1981. (POST 23/370)

POD/AN/1060 (yet to be assigned a finding number but available) contains material on mail to the Falkland Islands in the run up to, during and following the Falklands War. A telex to Royal Research Ship John Biscoe just after the Argentinian invasion reads:

Did you hand the mail over to anyone in Port Stanley? If so who? Or have you still got it on board your ship? An urgent reply would be appreciated.

Telex to RRS John Bisco(e), 15 April 1982 (POD/AN/1060)

Telex to RRS John Bisco(e), 15 April 1982 (POD/AN/1060)

The cost of contacting members of the British Task Force sent to recapture the Islands became a subject of public interest. In response the Post Office introduced free aerogrammes.

Towards the end of the file there is an interesting set of questions and answers, particularly on the issue of mail during the Argentinian occupation. In response to ‘Why did you handle this mail when we were at war with Argentina’ this sheet states:

It is our responsibility to carry out a postal service whenever and wherever possible. It is for the Government to decide whether this service should be terminated.

POST 104/33 concerns the end of the telegram service from the Queen (the means by which congratulatory messages marking 100th birthdays and 60th wedding anniversaries had been sent since 1917). With the switch to British Telecom’s telemessage the issue of delivery time from the sorting office where it was picked up through the post to the recipient became significant. This file contains correspondence between Ron Dearing and Royal Private Secretaries. In response William Heseltine wrote on 25 September 1982:

It will be interesting to see how the new system works and I will certainly take advantage of your offer of further assistance if the new system does not come up to Her Majesty’s expectations.

Unfortunately on the first day BT had equipment failure and five of the messages did not arrive. According to a memo of 12 October 1982:

It will be wise for us to start thinking of a wholly PO service eg Intelpost, Datapost.

Today these messages are sent on cards by Royal Mail Special Delivery.

POST 108/80 is a MORI report on ‘The Reputation of the Post Office’ which highlights:

The split of the Post Office into separate postal and telecommunications entities is now firmly established in the people’s mind. The split (and the creation of British Telecom) is the dominant theme of ‘recent changes’ associated with the Post Office. The ending of the telegram scheme is the second most common theme; few are aware of new services such as Intelpost…Few spontaneously mentioned the freezing of prices – price increases appear to be more memorable.

POST 119/177 is a Plessey report looking into the possibility of extending the Post Office Underground Railway (Mail Rail) to other main London railway stations including Marylebone, Kings Cross and Waterloo. An unextended Mail Rail closed in 2003.

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, cover. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, cover. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, diagram of possible extensions. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, diagram of possible extensions. (POST 119/177)

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

The Royal Mail Archive is open to the public, find opening hours and visitor information on our website.

Seasons greetings by radio

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 advertising radio telegram service; featuring a ship and the radio mast, November 1960. (POST 110/1406)

Poster advertising radio telegram service; featuring a ship and the radio mast, November 1960. (POST 110/1406)

Wireless or radio telegraphy was pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi and General Post Office (GPO) at the end of the 19th Century; we have previously blogged on its important role in saving lives after the Titanic disaster. While Marconi’s invention was originally implemented to transmit messages where a wired telegraph network did not exist (i.e. to ships at sea), radio was, of course, later used to broadcast information and entertainment (we have also previously blogged on the GPO’s involvement with the BBC and early broadcasting).

The above poster from 1960 advertises the GPO’s radio telegram service, where telegrams were sent overseas via a relay of on-shore transmitting stations and ships. International telephone calls were still prohibitively expensive in this period and telegrams were the most affordable option for anyone needing to send a quick message over long distances. This poster, which would have been a common site at local post offices, uses simple, stylish graphics to encourage the public to use this service at Christmas.

The Central Telegraph Office as I knew it

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In this, his final article, he tells us what he remembers of the Central Telegraph Office.

The Central Telegraph Office (CTO) was located on the corner of Newgate Street and St Martin’s Le Grand. It was originally five stories high but was reduced to one as a result of the bombing during the 1940 blitz. A second, brick built, story was added in 1946/7. This floor was used to re-house much of the admin staff such as the typing pool, Chief Inspector of Messengers, etc.

Central Telegraph Office - bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

Central Telegraph Office – bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The function of the CTO was to act as a clearing house for both inland and overseas telegrams. It was connected to most major cities in the world by teleprinter (the forerunner of the fax machine). It was also linked to almost all of the central London post offices by a pneumatic tube. By placing a telegram awaiting despatch into a container, that resembled a 25lb shell case covered in felt like material, it was possible to send the telegram via an underground tube direct to the CTO or the smaller tube officer located in the basement of King Edward Building, for despatch. Alas most of this system was destroyed during the war, although a large part was reinstated when the roads were repaired during the rebuilding of inner London.

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Just across the road from the CTO was another building. This building was almost as big as the CTO and was known as Angel Street. This building was connected to the CTO by a bridge built at the second floor level. The function of this building was to provide rest rooms, locker rooms and a restaurant for the many staff employed at the CTO. These facilities were needed as many of the staff worked split shifts and were required to work, say, from 7am to 11am, then they would be required again until 2pm when they would work until 6pm. This building was also badly damaged at the same time as the CTO. The surviving part was used to provide a ground floor restaurant whilst the upper two floors were used as locker/rest rooms for the messengers and girl probationers (the equivalent of the boy messengers). The remaining areas, because it contained undamaged basements and sub basements was asphalted over and used as air raid shelters. It was locked-up when the war ended and never re-opened.

The CTO was connected to the other three local buildings by underground passages and despite the damage suffered during the war it was still possible to use this method of contact.

The CTO was finally demolished in 1967. When the site was being prepared for redevelopment a large Roman mosaic floor was discovered. During the subsequent excavation a Roman burial ground was also uncovered. The Romans wrapped the bodies in a form of straw matting and placed them into slots in the wall as their final resting place…

I thought at the time how ironical it was that people should shelter from the bombs in a burial ground.

Memories of a boy messenger – Part 3

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In Part 3 he tells us his progression as a Messenger.

I started delivering telegrams by easy stages firstly by delivering the addresses close to the office then as my confidence and knowledge grew to addresses further away. On occasions we were sent to more outlying places to help build up our knowledge. Not only did I have to cope with learning the area but all of us had to get used to the consequences of power cuts. (All power was cut off between 2pm and 4pm each working day.) Normal deliveries still had to be made during the period, so if you arrived at an office and the delivery had to be made to the sixth floor, you just had to walk up. I continued to learn the area until one I was asked whether I would like to become a cycling messenger. I immediately agreed and was told that I would have to pass a test first. This entailed cycling up the narrow road at the rear of the CTO and turning round without falling off. A senior messenger watched and he decided whether you had passed or failed.

Central Telegraph Office delivery room, 1947. Jim (Dusty) Miller pictured on the right. (POST 118/1788)

Central Telegraph Office delivery room, 1947. Jim (Dusty) Miller pictured on the right. (POST 118/1788)

So, I started life as a cycling messenger, we were rewarded the daily sum of 6p (2½p) for keeping our bicycles clean and “ship shape”. We had various adventures including the very bad winter of 1947. I remember when the snow started, I had just returned from my tea break and was the only messenger in the delivery room. A very apologetic Inspector explained that he had four “Death Telegrams” which had to be delivered and as I had to go out I might as well take the remainder of the telegrams for the places en route. I remember cycling along Aldersgate Street and wondering what all the fuss was about. I eventually reached Torrence Stret (the furthest point in our delivery). As I turned into St Johns Street to come back the full force of the storm hit me and I realised then that I had been cycling with the wind behind me. I delivered the remainder of the telegrams and returned to the CTO about 7.30pm. To my surprise the other boys on my shift were waiting for me. They had refused to go home until they were sure I was safe. In order to remove my overcoat they had to chip the ice away from the button holes with a bicycle spanner and when I removed the coat it was frozen it stood up in the centre of the room unaided. For almost a week after the snow fell we had to deliver all telegrams by foot as it was decided that it was too dangerous to allow us to cycle.

Messenger Boy with cycle, 1930s (2011-0443/02)

Messenger Boy with cycle, 1930s (2011-0443/02)

Although I was unaware of it at the time the Post Office was very much in a transitional period. I remember coming back from a take and was told by a variety of messengers that we were being given a rise of 18/- (90p) and we would be given our arrears before Christmas. What we didn’t know at the time was how this rise would effect our conditions of service. The first thing was that there would be no more General Exams (these exams were designed to help messengers and girl probationers decide their futures). The next exam was due to be taken in a few months time and would be the last one. It would be open to all staff below the age of 18, however only 5 telegraph operator places would be available. In future Messengers would be known as Young Postmen and would progress within the service by various exams open to all grades. Our uniforms and hats changed to that of a postman and our cap badges were altered but other than this it had little on us at this stage.

The biggest upset was when the school leaving age was raised to 15 years. We lost a steady stream of messengers either to promotion or entering the forces to complete their National Services, our complement dwindled to 11 messengers (8 on delivery duties and 3 on indoor work). This compared to the 40 plus who were available when I first arrived. Instead of taking out 10 or 12 telegrams per “take” we now had to take out between 30 and 40 messages. Apart from the strain it put on the messengers it caused unacceptable delays to the telegrams. The GPO solved the problem by diverting ex-forces personnel awaiting training as telephonists to the CTO to act as male messengers and here they remained until the GPO was able to recruit boy messengers again. In total the telephonists stayed at the CTO for about eighteen months.

I remained an outdoor Messenger until I was about 16½ (by this time I was 6ft tall) when I was given an indoor job helping mainly in the typing pool. Just before by 18th birthday I was summoned to the Chief Inspectors room and told that the day after my birthday I was to report to Eastern District Office where I would start life as a Postman. So my life as a Boy Messenger came to a rather abrupt and somewhat unexpected end.

Keep visiting this blog for more of Jim (Dusty) Miller’s memories.

Telegraphs and mass communication

Barely a day goes by when we do not see more evidence of the way in which mass communications can quickly bring together a group of like-minded people for a common purpose. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Movember and Talk Like a Pirate Day all have Facebook, Twitter and other communications networks to thank for their success.

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explained how businesses and individuals in the Victorian era benefited from the telegraph. But the speed with which information could be distributed by this early form of mass communication may surprise you.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

In early December 1871 The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) contracted typhoid whilst staying at Londesborough Lodge, Yorkshire, and there was considerable public concern about the heir apparent’s welfare. A friend of the Prince’s, Lord Chesterfield, who had also been staying at Londesborough Lodge, succumbed to the disease, and the Prince’s plight brought to mind Prince Albert, his father, who had died of typhoid a decade earlier.

The Privy Council asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to prepare prayers for the Prince’s recovery for distribution to churches and chapels throughout England and Wales. These were printed on Saturday 9th December, and the Post Office was asked to deliver them by the following morning. Unfortunately, this was not possible by “ordinary channels”.

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

It was only thanks to the quick action of the telegraph department that they were distributed in time.

… great credit is due to a gentleman of the name of Irvine of the telegraph department of the Post Office for his thoughtfulness in suggesting that the physical difficulties in the way of the distribution of the prayers in time for use on Sunday might be obviated by the use of the telegraph, and for the zeal and energy with which, after personal communications with this office twice during the evening of Saturday, he collected all the addresses of the Clergy, and aided in supplying them by telegraph with copies of the Prayers…
(POST 30/213c)

This example of speedy mass distribution of information was important for the Post Office, who had taken over the privately-owned telegraph network the year before. As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, nationalisation of this network was controversial and expensive, but this example and many others like it were a feather in the Post Office’s cap.

Indeed, this proof of concept laid the groundwork for future successes. Within 30 years messages were being transmitted over the Atlantic using wireless telegraphy, thanks not only to Marconi but also the Post Office. News of the sinking of the Titanic, for example, was spread quickly thanks to the wireless, saving many lives.

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster General at the time of the Titanic disaster, said:

Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.

Later, wireless telegraphy was refined further enabling mass broadcasting, which has provided information, prompted mass action and allowed you to listen to The Peoples Post today.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

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

2010 Partner exhibitions

by Alison Norris, 2010 Exhibition & Festival Officer 

Last week I took the chance to visit some of our London 2010: Festival of Stamps partner exhibitions and displays. It was a chance to meet the different people involved, and see the many different stories that stamps can tell.

My first stop was Room 69a at the British Museum, to see Impressions of Africa: Money, Medals and Stamps.

Impressions of Africa: Money, Medals and Stamps, an exhibition in Room 69a at the British Museum

Impressions of Africa: Money, Medals and Stamps, situated in Room 69a at the British Museum

The exhibition shows how money and stamps have been used as symbols of power, vision, freedom and pride in the fight for independence in Africa.

A stamp celebrating independence for the Republic of Biafra

A stamp celebrating independence for the Republic of Biafra

Although sophisticated systems using items such as salt, cloth and beads had existed for thousands of years, coins and stamps were produced in Africa by European colonial powers as a way of asserting their authority.

Following from that, many of the items on display (a number of which are on loan from the BPMA) show how African countries have since used imagery to construct their own national identities. Images of national heroes, industry and the peaceful coexistence of diverse groups have been used to evoke unity and strength.

My next visit was to the Women’s Library to see Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post.

Cut out stamp card made using second hand postage stamps.

Cut out stamp card made using second hand postage stamps.

This fascinating display examines how the suffragettes used the post to further their campaign for the vote, often going to extreme and violent lengths.

The postal service played a crucial role in the suffragette campaign as it was a tool for mass communication and propaganda. Postcards helped to make the public aware of the movement, and helped to bring pressure on Parliament through public opinion. The women used images on postcards to portray themselves as citizens who not only deserved the vote on moral and democratic grounds, but who would also use their vote carefully and objectively.

What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote / What a Man may have been, & yet not lose the Vote

What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote / What a Man may have been, & yet not lose the Vote

The stamp below is known as a Cinderella stamp. It has no postal validity, but was usually placed on an envelope alongside official stamps. This example was published for the 1915 woman’s suffrage amendment campaign in Washington.

A "Cinderella" published for the 1915 woman’s suffrage amendment campaign in Washington

A "Cinderella" published for the 1915 woman’s suffrage amendment campaign in Washington

My last visit of the day was to Twickenham World Rugby Museum to see the display of rugby related letters, postcards, telegrams and stamps from their collection.

The rugby stamps display at Twickenham World Rugby Museum

The rugby stamps display at Twickenham World Rugby Museum

The display offers an interesting glimpse into how both rugby and correspondence have changed through the years, and includes a telegram to the RFU President from his French counterpart congratulating him on England’s win in 1953.

A telegram to the RFU President from his French counterpart congratulating him on England’s win in 1953

A telegram to the RFU President from his French counterpart congratulating him on England’s win in 1953

The full programme of events for London 2010: Festival of Stamps can be found at http://www.london2010.org.uk/.

International Archives Day 2010

In celebration of International Archives Day, Archivist Helen Dafter looks at our international collection.

The name British Postal Museum & Archive may not initially suggest an internationally focused collection, yet the British Post Office has a long history of transmitting and receiving mail from overseas. The records in our archive shed light on the development of international mail services and the British Post Office’s involvement with them.

A report to the Postmaster General on smuggling on packet boats

A report to the Postmaster General on smuggling on packet boats

An overseas mail service has been in operation in Britain since 1580 – pre dating the inception of Royal Mail as a public service – and in 1619 the position of Postmaster General for Foreign Parts was established, however the foreign mail service was fairly small in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At this time the only way of sending mail abroad was by ship.

By 1840 commercial shipping companies had begun to be contracted to carry post. The archive holds copies of the contracts awarded to these shipping companies in POST 51. We also hold a range of reports and minutes relating to the operation of packet ships. These include reports on smuggling (POST 39/2), and quarantine regulations (POST 29/264a). One of the ships licensed to carry mail was RMS Titanic, and the archive also holds blueprints of the ship, and telegrams relating to its sinking. These records reflect the conditions under which packet ships operated and how long it took for mail to reach foreign countries.

Poster: South and East African Air Mail - Make every day posting day

South and East African Air Mail - Make every day posting day, poster advertising airmail from 1937

In the twentieth century packet ships have gradually been replaced by airmail. The first overseas airmail was in 1918 and operated from Folkestone to Boulogne. In April 1924 Imperial Airways was established, initially handling air mail for Europe it later expanded to cover destinations further afield such as India, Singapore and Australia. Many of the destinations for airmail were countries within the British Empire and with this in mind the Empire Air Mail Scheme was established in 1937. This scheme aimed to carry all first class mail throughout the British Empire for 1½d per ½ ounce, with a charge of 1d for postcards. (More information about the history of airmail can be found in our information sheet. Records of the development and operation of overseas airmail can be found in POST 50.)

Clearly the operation of an international mail service involves many factors outside the control of the British Post Office. The effective transmission of mail overseas involves close cooperation with other postal administrations. POST 46 consists of Conventions and Articles of Agreement for overseas mail. It includes conventions for the execution of the treaty concerning the formation of The General Postal Union, or Universal Postal Union as it was later known (POST 46/57).

One difficulty with operating an international postal system is that events in other countries can significantly impact on the transmission of mail. The greatest disruption in often caused by war – the outbreak of hostilities can result in well established mail routes needing to be revised at short notice. Evidence of this can be seen in POST 56 (War and Civil Emergencies) as well as the registered files in POST 33 and POST 122.

Political difficulties can also disrupt the circulation of mail, for example in the 1960s the deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan resulted in difficulties with transmitting mail via these countries. The natural environment may also impact on the international postal system. Most recently this has been seen in the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, which in addition to stranding many holidaymakers also disrupted airmail services.

This gives just a taster of the international nature of the records held by The British Postal Museum & Archive. To find out more please consult our online catalogue: www.postalheritage.org.uk/catalogue.

Join us on Twitter to tweet about International Archives Day 2010 by using the hashtag #IAD10.