Tag Archives: World War Two

The end of the horse-drawn mail van

Sixty years ago today the last horse-drawn mail van left King Edward Building in London. This photo captures the event.

Peter pulls the last horse-drawn mail van to leave King Edward Building, London.

Peter pulls the last horse-drawn mail van to leave King Edward Building, London.

If it seems strange that horse-drawn vans were still being used by the Post Office in 1949, the remnants of war-damaged London in the background provide a clue.

Petrol rationing was introduced in Britain during the Second World War to ensure that the military and other essential services were given first priority when it came to fuel supplies. Throughout the war, individuals, businesses, and organisations such as the Post Office, had to make efficient use of the limited resources to hand. This ruled out expansion of the Post Office’s growing fleet of small motor vehicles for local deliveries, meaning that horse-drawn vans stayed in service for longer than they might have.

A horse-drawn mail van circa 1935 in our collection. The design of the van enabled letter carriers to step on and off whilst the vehicle was still moving.

A horse-drawn mail van circa 1935 in our collection. The design of the van enabled letter carriers to step on and off whilst the vehicle was still moving.

By 1949 the era of rationing was starting to end, allowing the Post Office to replace all horse-drawn vans in London with their motorised equivalent. Although horse-drawn vans continued for a number of years in rural areas, Peter’s final journey can be said to mark the end of the wide-scale use of horses, the world’s oldest form mail transport, by the Post Office.

The Post Office Went to War

On 29th September Christine Earle a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London will speak at the BPMA about the Post Office during World War 2. This event year marks the 70th Anniversary of the start of the Second World War, and appropriately Christine’s talk will be preceded by a screening of The First Days, a GPO Film Unit film which documents the changes underwent by the population of London during September 1939.

A still from The First Days: nurses volunteer to fill sandbags

A still from The First Days: nurses volunteer to fill sandbags

Christine Earle has been a thematic stamp collector for over twenty years, using stamps and philatelic material to tell a story. More recently she has become interested in ‘Social Philately’, which allows the use of ephemera type material, as well as stamps and covers to be included in the collection. This has led to the ‘Post Office Went to War’ collection, which describes the effect that war had on the General Post Office during 1939-45; using a wide variety of philatelic material supported by associated items of the period including GPO notices, ration books, savings stamps, etc.

Christine has been a member, committee member and chair of many regional philatelic societies. She was Chair of the British Thematic Association until last year and is currently Honorary Secretary to the Council of the Royal Philatelic Society London. She has not only won 5 F.I.P Gold Medals for thematic collecting but is also an accredited judge for Thematic and Social Philately. Since 2003 Christine has been an F.I.P International judge for Thematic Philately. She conducts thematic judging seminars around the country as well as thematic collecting workshops nationwide.

For further information and booking details please see the Events section of our website. The First Days is available on the DVD If War Should Come.

The GPO Film Unit

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. The films produced during the relatively short existence of the Unit had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits.

Night Mail

Night Mail

Made up of a dedicated, largely youthful (Britten was only 22 when he joined in 1935), but badly paid group of individuals the creative impact of the Unit has been immense. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents who transferred it with him when moving from the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), where he had been working to modernise Britain’s image, to the General Post Office (GPO), where he set about doing the same. Tallents retained John Grierson to head up the Unit, and commissioned work from them and other artists as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. It was Grierson and later Cavalcanti who were responsible for negotiating many of the complexities of working for a government department. Budgets were small and rigorously enforced to the extent that an overspend on Night Mail (1936) nearly signalled the end of the Unit.

Today the films provide a fascinating insight into the history of communications in the 20th Century and of course, postal history. They include documentary, animation, advertising, public information films, drama-documentary and satirical comedy on a range of subjects, from postal rates to working class pastimes. Some of the films are a reminder of a bygone era and some are still strangely relevant; documenting the difficulties of delivering mail to a flooded village or promoting the Post Office Savings Bank which was secured by government backing in a money sensitive post-depression age.

The films were shown in cinemas and other venues including schools and community halls reaching a very wide audience. As a result of the popularity of stamp collecting The King’s Stamp (1935), commissioned as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V, is apparently one of the most watched films of all time alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gone with the Wind and King Kong.

There were mixed ambitions behind the unit including using film to advance PR techniques, experimenting with film and sound, and an intent to empower British Citizens with information through film. Grierson’s vision was for a documentary approach to film making where reality was key and where films had a social purpose: ‘It was something altogether new to be looking at ordinary things as if they were extraordinary’. He was later joined by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, who had a reputation for experimenting with sound and music in film and eventually moved on to work at Ealing Studios. The combined presence of Grierson and Cavalcanti led to a hugely innovative period in British film history.

Colour Box

Colour Box

Work by experimental film makers such as Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger meant that the public saw cutting edge film animation used to promote the services of the GPO. Examples include Lye’s 1936 film Rainbow Dance, a film about the Post Office Savings Bank which saw Lye experiment with new ways of using the Gasparcolour film, and Reiniger’s The Torcher (1938). Lye pioneered the technique of painting directly onto film negative in Colour Box (1935), to which he had added a sequence on the introduction of new cheap parcel rates allowing the film to be bought by Grierson for the GPO. This was at a time when colour film was still a novelty so it is hard to imagine what the films must have looked like to audiences at the time.

The influence of contemporary art, especially Surrealism, can be seen in films from the animation Love on the Wing (1938), promoting the new Air Mail service, to N or NW (1937) on the virtues of using the correct post code, although Love on the Wing was later banned by the Postmaster General, who found some of the imagery too ‘Freudian’. Rainbow Dance (1936) was even released in a programme of Surrealist and Avant-Garde films. Cubism was also an influence as was Soviet cinema, as seen in films including Coal Face (1935).

The documentary style saw its high point in the celebrated Night Mail (1936) where the journey of the overnight postal express for Euston to Glasgow is told through the eyes of those who work on the train; making the working man the screen hero. But the realism gives way to drama as the now famous lines of  W H Auden’s poem are read to Britten’s score and the story of those who will receive the mail comes into play with the words ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border….’.

Grierson’s documentary vision at the Unit gave rise to drama-documentary and the seeds of our modern day soaps can be seen in films including The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937) – seen as the first ‘story’ documentary – and Men of the Lightship (1940).

Britain Can Take It!

Britain Can Take It!

In 1939 the unit began to document and produce films to support the war effort, creating an often poignant portrait of Britain during the early years of World War Two. Films included Britain Can Take It! (1940), produced to provide US President Roosevelt with help in securing American popular opinion for Britain’s war effort, to Men of the Lightship (1940), which was a dramatic reconstruction of the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship –significant as lightships and lighthouses had previously been considered neutral. In 1940 the GPO Film Unit became part of the Ministry of Information as the Crown Film Unit and with that the GPO Film Unit was no more.

Some of the films produced by the GPO Film Unit are now available on DVD from our Shop.