The FOUR openings of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. At 189m, the Tower was the tallest building in London until 1980 and is still an iconic part of the capital’s skyline. Rather than look at the build, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT David Hay recounts the story behind its FOUR official openings and the drama that ensued.

The planning for the Tower opening ceremony, documented at BT Archives, reveals a little known story of inter departmental rivalry and public image concerns. Construction on the Tower began in 1961, and as early as 1963 thought was being given to an official opening. The Postmaster General of the time, J R Bevins, was keen for a ceremony in 1964 “as soon as the shell has been completed”. A major concern was that the project should be seen to be led by the Post Office. The actual construction was managed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and Bevins was “determined to do something about this by the start of March, without M.o.W. [Ministry of Works]” and that “there must be no question of his [MoW] minister organising shows.”


The GPO Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, had to point out that there was little point in organising an event before any equipment had been installed in the Tower, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.”

O’Brien’s preferred date for the opening ceremony was April or May 1965 with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding. In case there were delays, Bevins’ successor, Tony Benn, decided to invite Prime Minister Harold Wilson to officiate instead. In his letter, Benn asked Wilson to “draw attention to the role of the Post Office as the central nervous system of the United Kingdom dealing in the transmission of all sorts of information on which the economic life of the community depends”. Downing St was given the choice of April or October and, to O’Brien’s dismay, Wilson gave an October date as his preference. The Post Office had wanted a ceremony sooner rather than later because the physical construction of the Tower had been completed in 1964, and O’Brien was concerned that the public would be wondering why it had not been opened already.

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The October date – preferred by the GPO Engineering Department to ensure that all the latest equipment was installed – was seen to be a better option, “it would be rather unfortunate if we were to try to show the way in which the Post Office is installing the most up to date equipment in the world if we had so important a person as the Prime Minister opening the Tower when little equipment is there.”

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Ultimately, perhaps reflecting a typical British compromise, there were actually FOUR opening ceremonies:

  • The topping out ceremony on 15 July 1964 marking the formal end of the construction, where a Minister of Public Building and Works made a speech “confining himself to the building achievements.”
  • The operational opening of the Tower on 8 October 1965.
  • An official visit by HM Queen Elizabeth hosted by Tony Benn on 17 May
  • The opening of the public areas of the Tower (the restaurant and the observation floor) on 19 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Sir Billy Butlin (who had been awarded the licence to operate the restaurant).

The files also reflect a little of the characters of some of the key players in the Tower’s story. J R Bevins, who had been instrumental in the building of the Tower, declined his invitation because it had been incorrectly addressed to him as ‘Mr’ rather than “the Right Honourable J R Bevins – after all I am a Privy Councillor”. And following the ceremony Tony Benn wrote to O’Brien requesting that special arrangements be made to ensure that official drivers received refreshments at future events, “I believe there was some difficulty about this in connection with the opening of the Post Office Tower”.

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Whatever day you see as the ‘official opening’, the BT Tower (formerly the Post Office Tower) is still an iconic landmark in London today and an innovation from the General Post Office.

You can read more on the history of the BT Tower on the BT Archives website

‘Wish you were here’: 145 years since the first postcard

On this day, 145 years ago, the British public were first introduced to the postcard. As eagerly anticipated as the latest technology upgrades are today, 75 million were sent in the first year alone. 

However, they were a far cry from the ‘Wish You Were Here’ holiday scenes which primarily make up today’s postcards. Instead they were rather dull: the address was written on one side with the reverse left blank for the message. No other writing was allowed on the address side in case it obscured the address and led to the item being incorrectly delivered. Moreover, the postcard was introduced to benefit businesses as a time saving device rather than to share tales of holiday adventures. Mr Lundy of the North British Colour Company in Leith argued that a postcard:

“would save a vast amount of trouble…to the Post Office & also a large amount of valuable time which is daily wasted by large firms like ourselves who have many envelopes to open covering information which really is of no consequence as to whom it may be read by.”[1]

Original postcard design - no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post

Original postcard design – no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post!

By 1890 both publishers and the public were eager to make better use of the postcard. They suggested the introduction of a divided back, in other words, confining the address, if wished, to just a half of a side freeing up the rest of a card for a drawing or a longer message. Eventually the Post Office agreed on the condition that any extra designs or remarks did not “Lead to any practical embarrassment of the Officers of the Post Office” and so in 1894, the picture postcard was born.

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Soon cartoons and photographs adorned the fronts of postcards which were now very much the piece of social mail that we know today. With the turn of the new century in 1900 the craze for sending and collecting postcards went into overdrive. From country landscapes to cheeky seaside scenes, from political cartoons to photographs of major events the picture postcard was used the country over to share news, opinions and events, broadening people’s knowledge of the country and the world.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.  Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.
Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Whilst a picture might paint a thousand words, the messages on postcards were still an important aspect. As an open form of communication postcards can be fascinating objects. Looking back at postcards written decades ago the messages they carry can often seem cryptic if you were not the sender or receiver.  For example, one postcard in our collection sent to Miss M. Bright just says ‘How many ghosts did you meet last night. Will this do for your collection’ My imagination immediately conjures up a scene whereby Miss Bright is an Edwardian ghostbuster! The impact of the postcard as a more open form of communication is still felt today, whether we realise it or not, in the many texts and tweets we send around the world.

A very

A very spooky postcard…

But people also developed a myriad of ways to convey messages privately on postcards that the interested eye of the postman wouldn’t see.  This could be through the message itself, written perhaps in mirror writing or in a coded alphabet, or sometimes in an adaptation to the postcard itself. For example many people starting ‘tilting’ the stamp, leading to many variations known as The Language of Stamps. As with the Language of Fans the position of the stamp could convey a plethora of meanings, from ’I love you’ to ‘I don’t want to see you again’, it was adapted many times over.

Postcards showing the 'Language of Stamps'

Postcards showing the ‘Language of Stamps’

I hope this brief outline of the origins of postcards 145 years ago will inspire you to keep sending postcards to friends and family across the world and perhaps next time you send one, you’ll tilt your stamp or use your own secret message.

– Emma Harper, Curator

[1] The Royal Mail Archive, BPMA, POST 30/319A

Seals, Seas and Ancestries: A Remarkable Postal Family History

One of the things we often get asked, as keepers of the Royal Mail Archive, is what we can tell people about their relatives who worked for the Post Office.

‘What did my father do?’
‘When did my grandma work in this city?’
‘My great uncle says he whizzed around on a motorbike delivering telegrams when he was just a teenager – could this be true?’

Telegram Messenger Boy

Telegram Messenger Boy

We don’t always hold the answers, but when we do, it’s a wonderful feeling helping others to understand the lives of their loved ones.

Every so often, someone contacts us to look further back in time – to add a ‘great’ (or three) to the usual enquiries about parents or grandparents. As someone with the bug myself, I fully understand this; researching your family history can be highly addictive and it can turn up some great stories.

Section of a Post Office Appointments Book

Unfortunately the records can be difficult. We have a standard set that we search for our Family History Research Service, but the further back in time you look, the harder it can be to find particular people. So, when a request came in to research a man called Edward Randall Pascoe, born in 1779, I was worried that we wouldn’t find much to get our teeth into. As a further challenge, we were asked if we could find the cause of Edward’s death, when he was just 42 years of age. Could we help at all?

Poster of Mail for the Packet Ships

Poster showing Mails for the Packets arriving at Falmouth in 1833 by Harold Sandys Williamson

Edward Randall Pascoe, it turns out, was a packet boat captain. Our enquirer, married to one of Edward’s descendants, already knew this, as they had found a mention of him becoming Commander of a ship called the Mansfield in our Appointment records (handily digitised by By that time, April 1821, packet boats had been carrying Post Office mail across the sea for over a hundred years, and Edward’s task on the Mansfield was to see the post safely from Milford Haven, Wales, to Waterford, Ireland, and vice-versa.

Since our enquirer knew this already, we agreed to work differently from our usual service, to hunt for something useful. Searching our catalogue, I was excited to learn we held a record of the Mansfield dated 1 August 1821 – only a few months after Edward gained command of the ship – in a box of ‘Bills of Sale’. I unfolded it very carefully and read that ‘Edward Randall Pascoe of Milford in the country of Pembroke, Mariner, and William Molland of Dover in the county of Kent, Gentleman,’ agreed to buy the Countess of Mansfield from the Postmaster General for ‘one thousand eight hundred and forty pounds eight shillings and six pence,’ as long as Edward still carried the mail.

It described the vessel – ‘a square sterned Cutter’, ‘British built’ – in great detail, but best of all, lying at the bottom of the page, Mr Pascoe had placed his personal seal in wax and signed his name. A trace of the man himself! A rare find indeed.

Signature and Seal belonging to Edward Randall Pascoe Crop

Signature and Seal belonging to Edward Randall Pascoe

Further appointment records showed that Mr Pascoe later captained a Steam Packet (a steam-powered, mail-carrying ship, which gradually took over the trade from 1815) at Port Patrick, Scotland. Our enquirer could fill in one blank – that business partner William Molland was in fact Edward’s father-in-law – but what about the captain’s sad death in 1827? I could not find a record of a Death Gratuity, a kind of compensation payment for those killed in service, so it seemed that his fate would remain a mystery.

As luck would have it, however, I discovered that we had been asked about Mr Pascoe a few years before by another of his descendants, who had in fact written a book about his family. I got in touch with her and she completed the story: taking a ship to Holyhead, Wales, for repair, Edward was injured at sea, and died of a fever shortly after completing the crossing.

Steam Packet

Painting of the SS Great Britain Steamship

We were able to put these two researchers (and distant relatives) in touch with each other for the first time, and they have been able to enjoy sharing their discoveries. I wonder what Edward Randall Pascoe would make of it all!

While it’s a sad truth that most of our family-history-seekers don’t find such intriguing tales – and some of them find nothing at all – we have to celebrate the success stories. It makes you wonder: who might find each other in a few hundred years’ time piecing together your own life?

Ashley March – Archives Assistant

Penny Post 175 Anniversary Event in Kidderminster

Last weekend we were invited by the Kidderminster Heritage Opportunities Group to take part in a special event celebrating the 175 anniversary of the Penny Post. Kidderminster is the home town of Sir Rowland Hill, the man who led the campaign for universal penny postage. 

The event took place at the Town Hall in the heart of Kidderminster. There were free drop-in activities, exhibitions and films for people to enjoy. I went along with an actor from Big Wheel Theatre Company who brought the story of Rowland Hill to life.

A great time was had by all. I thought I’d share some photos of the day with you.

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Sir Rowland Hill poses in front of his statue

Sir Rowland meets a local retired postie.

Sir Rowland meets a local retired postie

Young visitors make their own Rowland Hill top hats with help from the lovely Natasha from Big Wheel.

Making Rowland Hill top hats helped by Natasha from Big Wheel

Dressing up as early Victorian letter carriers.

Dressing up as early Victorian letter carriers.

A finished Penny Postage inspired Top Hat.

A finished Penny Postage inspired Top Hat


Me. Cranking the engine of a post van

If you’d like to find out more about Rowland Hill and Penny Postage –  our new learning resource Pop It In The Post tells the story of how the Penny Black stamp changed our world. The resource includes an interactive game and a film in which Rowland Hill explains his big idea.

-Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer

QEII Longest Reigning Monarch

Wednesday 9 September marked the day our Queen, Elizabeth II, became the longest ruling monarch in British history, taking the title from Queen Victoria. To commemorate this occasion Royal Mail released a new stamp issue ‘Long to Reign Over Us’.

Long to Reign Over Us

Long to Reign Over Us, Miniature Sheet 2015

Above you can see the Miniature Sheet, issued with images of both the Wyon Medal, on which the original Penny Black was based, and the three-quarter portrait of the Queen by Dorothy Wilding. The Amethyst Machin definitive in the centre includes the words ‘Long to Reign Over Us’ in the background of the stamp.

Long to Reign Over Us 1st Stamp (2015) Machin Definitive

Long to Reign Over Us 1st Stamp (2015) Machin Definitive

To mark this momentous occasion I thought we should take a moment to look at some stamps that document milestones of the Queen and her predecessors. Queen Elizabeth is the 40th monarch since William the Conqueror and will become the longest ruling by surpassing the 63 years and 216 days amounted by Queen Victoria.  

Kings & Queens, House of Hannover £1.10 Stamp (2011)

Kings & Queens, House of Hannover £1.10 Stamp (2011)

Kings & Queens, House of Hannover £1.00 Stamp (2011) Queen Victoria 1897 Diamond Jubilee

Kings & Queens, House of Hannover £1.00 Stamp (2011)

In 1952 Elizabeth inherited the throne from her father, King George VI, who became King in 1936 as the result of his brother’s abdication to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson. We can see the family  line of succession in the stamp issue of 2012 depicting the House of Windsor and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. 

The House of Windsor - (2012) Presentation Pack

The House of Windsor – (2012) Presentation Pack

During the Second World War Elizabeth trained as a driver in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (WATS) to serve her country. It was here she learnt to change tyres, rebuild engines and drive heavy vehicles. We can see an image of her during this period in the centre of the below stamp.

60th Birthday of Queen Elizabeth II 17p Stamp (1986) Queen Elizabeth II in 1928, 1942 and 1952

60th Birthday of Queen Elizabeth II 17p Stamp (1986)

Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten in 1947 and had two of her four children before her coronation; Charles in 1948 and Anne in 1950. It was on a trip to Kenya in 1952 that she became Queen, though she was not officially crowned until a year later. It was the first time the ceremony was broadcasted to the nation, allowing everyone to celebrate the event.

50th Anniversary of Coronation 1st Stamp (2003) Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes

50th Anniversary of Coronation 1st Stamp (2003)

During her reign the Queen has had two children, eight grandchildren and now five great grandchildren. As monarch, much of her life, and that of her children, has been spent in the public eye and over the years we have seen stamps document the marriages of all the Queen’s children, most recently her grandson Prince William.

Royal Wedding of His Royal Highness Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton £1.10 Stamp (2011)

Royal Wedding of His Royal Highness Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton £1.10 Stamp (2011)

The Queen has ruled through difficult times; with social unrest, conflict and the possibility of a split nation. During this time she has also made numerous changes to the monarchy; from opening up her residences to the public to supporting the end of male primogeniture. She has presided over 12 Prime Ministers including Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and has visited countries across the world.

Prime Ministers 1st Stamp (2014) Margaret Thatcher

Prime Ministers 1st Stamp (2014) Margaret Thatcher

Prime Ministers 1st Stamp (2014) Winston Churchill

Prime Ministers 1st Stamp (2014) Winston Churchill







Her Royal Highness has devoted her life to her country, performing over 60 years of service. It is through the commemorative stamps of her reign that we can see the development of her life and that of her decedents. In a time when the popularity of the monarchy is suffering, one must acknowledge her dedication and continued love of her country and through ‘Long to Reign Over Us’ we celebrate this.

-Georgina Tomlinson, Philatelic Assistant

Miniature Posters: the stamp designs of Abram Games

This Thursday (17 September) Naomi Games, daughter of designer Abram Games (1914-1996), will be joining us to talk about her father’s stamp designs, his working process and show progressive sketches from his archive. Here she gives us some background on her father and a taste of what to expect.

Abram Games with his controversial ATS poster, which was later withdrawn.

Abram Games is best known for his posters. He was the official war poster artist during WW2, and during his sixty year career he designed three hundred posters, notably for London Transport, Guinness, the Financial Times and BOAC. He also designed the first animated ident for BBC television, the covers of Penguin Books, and the emblems for the Festival of Britain and the Queen’s Award to Industry. Less is known of his numerous award-winning stamp designs for Britain, Jersey and Israel. In 2014, his centenary year, he was included in the ‘Remarkable Lives’ issue. Royal Mail also issued a special Abram Games postmark to celebrate his 100th birthday. Always an obsessive letter writer, he would have been delighted!

Poster advising on the best time to post mail. Poster artist: Games, Abram

Poster advising on the best time to post mail. Poster artist: Games, Abram

His first published stamp was for the 1948 Olympic Games and he was nicknamed ‘Olympic Games’ thereafter. He boasted that he was the only artist to have his name on a British stamp, as designers were not allowed to sign their work.  After winning the competition to design the Festival of Britain symbol, he  also won the stamp competition and his ubiquitous Britannia appeared alongside side the head of King George V1. His involvement in the Festival of Britain was a great boost to his career and he continued to secure many prestigious commissions throughout his life.

KGVI, 1949 Universal Postal Union: Submitted design by Abram Games

KGVI, 1949 Universal Postal Union: Submitted design by Abram Games

Games was a self-taught designer. His only formal training was two terms at St Martin’s College of Art but he continued to study life drawing and anatomy. He believed drawing would be the key to becoming a successful designer. He faithfully followed his axiom ‘maximum meaning, minimum means’, always keeping all his designs as simple as possible. When creating a poster or stamp, he filled a layout pad with several ideas. He wasted no time covering large areas and avoided detail. Once he had selected his thumbnail design, he circled it with red pencil. He said, ‘I never work large because posters, seen from a distance are small. If ideas don’t work an inch high, they will never work.’ Thus the design of stamps – his ‘miniature posters’ – was second nature to him.

The event will take place on Thursday 17 September 18.30-19.30 at The Phoenix Centre, Phoenix Place, London, WC1X 0DL.

To book tickets please visit or telephone 020 7239 2570.

Autumn 2015 Stampex is coming!

How time flies…Autumn Stampex 2015 is just around the corner and will return to the Business Design Centre on Wednesday 16th September. Admission is FREE and we are delighted to once again have a stand at the show.

You can find us at stand 118A on the Village Green at Ground Floor level, listed as ‘The BPMA & Friends’ and under ‘S’ in the exhibition guide.

The opening times are:

Wednesday 16th September 11.30 to 19.00
Thursday 17th September 10.00 to 18.00
Friday 18th September 10.00 to 18.00
Saturday 19th September 10.00 to 17.00

View of the Village Green. London 2015 Europhilex

View of the Village Green. London 2015 Europhilex

We will be giving away a limited number of FREE goodie bags to visitors, including a one-off postcard on the theme of Sea Transport produced especially for Stampex, so you’ll have to be quick!

Map of the world with lines running from the British Isles, showing steamship routes. Illustration by Macdonald Gill

Map of the world with lines running from the British Isles, showing steamship routes. Illustration by Macdonald Gill

We will also be available to answer questions and provide updates on the development of The Postal Museum, as well as share news about our upcoming events and activities.

On Thursday 17th September, Naomi Games, daughter of designer Abram Games, will be giving a talk about her father’s stamp designs. So, if you are coming to the show, round of your trip by joining us for what promises to be fascinating talk!

As usual, there will be a great selection of BPMA shop stock to purchase such as items from our popular homeware range. There will also be Post & Go products coinciding with the introduction of the new Heraldic Lion Post & Go stamp to the BPMA Post & Go+ machine.

Please note that some Post & Go products may not be available for sale at the stand until late morning on Weds 16th.

We look forward to seeing you at Stampex!

Sarah Jenkins – Fundraising Events Officer