Monthly Archives: July 2009

BPMA launches podcast

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Yesterday I made the BPMA’s first podcast live. The BPMA podcast makes available recordings of our Talks programme, with a talk by Tony Benn being the first to be released. This entertaining and informative talk was given at the BPMA last year and celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Girobank, a project initiated during Benn’s time as Postmaster General.

Girobank extended banking services to people on low incomes and revolutionised the transfer of money in Britain. It was the first UK bank to offer free banking to personal customers and the first to develop telephone banking. Its operations are now part of the Alliance and Leicester Group.

Post Office Technology: National Giro, a stamp designed by David Gentleman and released in 1969.

Post Office Technology: National Giro, a stamp designed by David Gentleman, released in 1969.

A stamp celebrating National Giro, which was designed by David Gentleman, was released in 1969 as part of a set on Post Office Technology. This stamp can be seen if you download the enhanced version of the Tony Benn podcast, or subscribe using iTunes or your favourite aggregator.

Podcasts with a philatelic or postal history theme are pretty rare on the ground, so the BPMA podcast is an exciting initiative. The only other podcasts on this subject that I have found are Prestige Philately with Australian stamp dealer Gary Watson, APS Stamp Talk with Nancy Clark of the American Philatelic Society, and the Spink podcast, which is available in both audio and video versions. Also worth a look are the new You Tube channel from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum and the You Tube challenge from the American Philatelic Society. It’s great to see philatelists, postal historians and stamp collectors experimenting with audio and video.

Future BPMA podcasts will examine the role of the Post Office during wartime and take an in-depth look at a recent British stamp release.

To download or subscribe to our podcast please see our website, or the link to our podcast feed in the right hand column. Click here to see the podcast on iTunes.

The BPMA at Blists Hill – July update

by Alison Norris, Ironbridge Project Assistant

Following a great deal of work by BPMA staff, the contemporary BPMA museum at Blists Hill Victorian town, Shropshire is due to open in late September. Blists Hill is one of ten sites run by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust (IGMT), and receives around 200,000 visitors a year. This means that the BPMA will now be able to show parts of its unique collection to a great many more people.

The Blists Hill Post Office

The Blists Hill Post Office

The Museum of the Post Office in the Community can be found above the Blists Hill Victorian Post Office on Canal Street. Canal Street was carefully constructed earlier this year, with some buildings being moved brick by brick from original locations, others recreated using the IGMT archive, and each has been fitted out to show a selection of trades, industries and professions from the Victorian era. Many of these buildings are manned by staff in period costume that interpret the contents and demonstrate their functions.

The BPMA Museum of the Post Office in the Community

The museum will be split in to four different sections, each exploring a different theme around the Post Office in the Community.

As well as images and objects, there will also be three audio booths throughout the museum. In each booth, visitors will be able to listen to many different types of people who have either worked at, or used the Post Office, and their thoughts on how it has affected them and those around them.

Post Office Counter Services

A timeline will tell the story of the wide range of services that have been offered over the counter at the Post Office. It will cover services such as pensions, Postal Orders, National Savings Bank, telegrams, telephones and TV licences. A display case will hold objects such as home safes, Post Office Savings Bank books and an early telegram, all of which will help bring depth to the timeline.

Delivering the Mail

The story of the delivery of mail in the community will be made up of three sub-sections. These will cover the local ‘postie’ and their role in the community, delivery equipment such as carts and cycles, and the Post Bus service. 

The Letter Carrier

This section will outline the history of the delivery of letters in the community and the evolution of the letter carrier of the early 18th century to the postman / woman of today. A display of hats will demonstrate changes that took place in the uniforms of letter carriers and postmen.

Delivery Equipment

The Hen & Chicks is one of the key objects on display, and will be in this section. Visitors will also be able to see a BSA Bantam motorcycle, fondly remembered by many messenger boys that rode them. More modern electric vehicle trials by Royal Mail will also be looked at. 

Stour Valley Post Bus

Stour Valley Post Bus

The Post Bus

Introduced in 1967, the Post Bus can provide a vital service to rural communities. Here, its influence and decline will be explored.

Letter Boxes

In this section visitors will be able to see a number of types of letter boxes, all of which have, or still do, provide an important service to the community. When pillar boxes were introduced in 1852, they provided convenient and easy posting facilities but only served large towns and cities. In 1857 a cheaper type of box was introduced to serve more rural communities, this was called the wall box.  Lamp boxes were originally introduced in 1896 in fashionable London squares for residents who wanted late night posting facilities but are now more commonly seen in rural areas.

Pillar Box. Moor Park, Hertfordshire

Pillar Box. Moor Park, Hertfordshire

Changing Times

The final section will conclude the exhibition by telling the story of the UK postal service today and the loss of Royal Mail’s monopoly and rise of competitor mail companies.

Building the Exhibition

Following a competitive tender process, the BPMA appointed the Hub as the fit-out contractors for the Blists Hill exhibition.

Based in Birmingham, the Hub was established four years ago and has been involved in a number of well-known exhibitions and projects. Most recently they have worked on elements of the Ceramics Galleries at the V&A, which will open in September 2009.

Further information and how to get there

Blists Hill is part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust. The Ironbridge Gorge is on the River Severn, 5 miles (8km) south of Telford town centre in Shropshire.

Take junction 4 from the M54. Follow brown and white signs to Ironbridge Gorge.

Once on the A442 follow signs for Blists Hill Museums.

Please remember that the BPMA exhibition will not be opening until late September 2009.

Contact details

For more information on directions, or the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust, please go to

To find out more about the exhibition itself, please visit our website Or contact Alison Norris (Ironbridge Project Assistant) at or 020 7239 5174.

John Wornham Penfold and his pillar box

This year marks the death centenary of John Wornham Penfold, designer of probably Britain’s best loved pillar box. Penfold was born in Haslemere, Surrey on 3rd December 1828. He studied architecture and surveying, and was employed first by Charles Lee, before starting his own business.

J W Penfold

J W Penfold

Penfold rose to the top of his profession serving as President of the Architectural Association and becoming an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was also a founder member of the Institute of Surveyors, serving as its first Honourary Secretary (the Institute was later granted a Royal Charter, making it the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors).

In 1880 Penfold was appointed as a surveyor to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and re-designed the Jewin Street area in the City of London after it had been destroyed by a large fire (this area was again destroyed by bombs during World War 2 and is now the site of the Golden Lane Estate).

One of Penfold’s finest works was at the former Naval Training School in New Cross, South London. In 1890 the site was taken over by the Goldsmiths Company and was converted into a technical and recreational institute. Penfold modified the building to suit its new propose and enclosed the central courtyard to create a Great Hall. This site is now part of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Throughout his life Penfold regularly returned to his native Haslemere. He surveyed the local area when the railways came, rebuilt and expanded Haslemere parish church and surrounds, and designed other local buildings. But Penfold is best remembered for his work for the Post Office.

In 1866 Penfold submitted designs for a pillar box. The Post Office had been attempting to standardise letter boxes throughout the country for some time, and had produced a national standard, but this was found to be wanting. With Penfold’s box the Post Office again attempted to establish an enduring national standard.

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

Penfold’s box – or the Penfold, as it became known – combined simple design with functionality. Hexagonal in shape, it was adorned with acanthus leaves and balls, a far less ornate design than some of the elaborately decorative boxes which had come before it. But the cost of producing Penfolds was high, and a cheaper and plainer standard box was introduced 13 years later.

However, many of the features initiated with the Penfold boxes remain in use. Penfolds were produced in different size to accommodate different volumes of mail, as pillar boxes still are to this day, and Penfolds were also the first boxes to be manufactured in the new standard colour of red, in 1874.

Such is the popularity of Penfolds that the BPMA and Royal Mail frequently receive correspondence from members of the public who wish to see damaged boxes in their area repaired, rather than replaced with a new box. Some original Penfolds are considered so significant that they are listed, giving them special protection under the law.

Replica Penfolds, bearing the cipher of Queen Victoria, have also been produced. The first replica was produced in 1988 and was placed in the heritage era of Windsor. Another, installed in about 1990, is sited outside Penfold’s former home in Haslemere. Penfolds are the only letter boxes which Royal Mail has produced replicas of in this way.

J W Penfold also gave his name to the sidekick of 1980s cartoon character Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse and Penfold even lived in a pillar box on Baker Street, London, although their home was an ‘Anonymous’ Pillar Box, rather than a Penfold.

The BPMA holds four examples of Penfolds, three originals (two red, one green) and a replica. These can be inspected on our Museum Store Open Days.

J W Penfold died on 5th July 1909 and is buried in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere, which he designed. He remains the only British pillar box designer to have his box named after him.

Guglielmo Marconi and the Post Office

Previously on this blog we wrote about the connection between the Post Office aboard the Titanic, and the telegrams held in our collection concerning the sunken ship. Also on the Titanic was wireless equipment and two operators supplied by the Marconi company, which proved important in getting word to nearby vessels – and beyond – that the ship was sinking. The Post Office was a pioneer of telegraphic technology and had become interested in Marconi’s experimentation at a key point in the development of wireless telegraphy, so it could be argued that thanks to the Post Office many of the Titanic’s passengers were saved.

Guglielmo Marconi, who died on this day in 1937, was born near Bologna in 1874 of an Italian father and Irish mother. He did not do well at school, but nevertheless had an interest in science and was fortunate to have as a neighbour Augusto Righi, a physicist who had worked with Heinrich Hertz, discoverer of radio waves.

A stamp commemorating Marconis first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

A stamp commemorating Marconi's first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

At the age of 20, Marconi began experimenting with radio waves, hoping to create a wireless telegraphy system. By 1895 he had achieved a range of two kilometres, but needed investment to continue development. When the Italian Ministry of Posts & Telegraphs showed no interest in the system, Marconi travelled to London and through his mother’s family connections received a letter of introduction to William Preece, Engineer-in-Chief to the Post Office.

Preece was impressed by Marconi and provided him with an assistant, George Kemp. On 27th July 1896 Marconi and Kemp successfully demonstrated the wireless telegraphy system between two Post Office buildings. A transmitter was placed on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office (located on Newgate Street/St Martin’s Le Grand, where the BT Centre now stands) and a receiver on the roof of GPO South (Carter Lane). The distance between the two buildings was 300 metres. Later that year the Post Office provided funding for Marconi to conduct further experiments on Salisbury Plain.

But despite the potential of the system and Marconi’s growing international reputation, the Post Office did not make any formal arrangements with Marconi, leaving him free to establish a private company, The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd, in London in 1897. Marconi and his company went from strength to strength, transmitting across the English Channel in 1899 and across the Atlantic in 1901.

Marconi’s company also provided wireless equipment and operators for shipping lines, enabling them to communicate with ports and each other for the first time. As a thank you for supplying this equipment for the Titanic, Marconi and his family were invited to sail on the ship’s maiden voyage. Fortunately they were unable to take the fated journey.

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

The wireless operators aboard the Titanic were Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. 25 minutes after the ship struck an iceberg, Captain Smith instructed Phillips to send an all stations distress call. Phillips then continued to communicate with ships in the area even after Smith had ordered that he and Bride stand down and save themselves. Phillips eventually went down with the ship, although Bride survived and was picked-up by the SS Carpathia. Together with the Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam, Bride transmitted the names of the survivors to shore.

Following the disaster, enquiries were held and Marconi was called as an expert witness. New safety procedures were put in place such as sufficient lifeboats for all passengers, lifeboat drills aboard ships and 24 hour wireless cover. An iceberg patrol was set up too, and began to patrol the North Atlantic in early 1913 with Marconi equipment on board.

Herbert Samuel, Postmaster General at the time, said of the Titanic disaster “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.”

Two stamps released by Royal Mail in 1995 as part of the Pioneers of Communication series commemorate Marconi, his invention, and its role in the Titanic disaster.

BT Archive – Events in Telecommunications History
Connected Earth – The Origins of Radio
Marconi Calling
Wikipedia: Guglielmo Marconi

Midpex 09

by Jennifer Flippance, London 2010 Project Officer

Last Saturday I went to Midpex 09, a two-yearly stamp show, held just outside Coventry. Midpex is one of the largest UK stamp shows and attracts 600 visitors and 50 stamp dealers.

One of the things that makes Midpex different to many other shows is the large number of specialist societies represented (40 this year) for whom the show acts as a place to meet fellow enthusiasts, showcase their activities and recruit new members.

One of the Polar Explorers stamps from 1972, featuring Robert Falcon Scott.

One of the Polar Explorers stamps from 1972, featuring Robert Falcon Scott.

Whatever your collecting interest there will be a society where you can meet like minded people, share your interests and learn. Some of those present at Midpex included: the Aden and Somaliland Study Group; the Cinderella Stamp Club; the Forces Postal History Society; the Pacific Islands Study Circle; and the Polar Postal History Society of Great Britain.

As I waited for the shuttle bus to collect me from a rather rain-drenched Canley rail station, I took the opportunity to talk to some collectors about their involvement in philately and what brings them to Midpex.

Eric was stationed in Gibraltar with the RAF and this led to an interest in the stamps of the island later in life. He had collected as a child and then returned to philately about 30 years ago when he joined the Gibraltar Study Circle. He now has a very respectable collection of material from Gibraltar, is active in a number of societies and exhibits competitively at a national level. He will be entering one of the classes at the London 2010 International Stamp Exhibition.

Eric now sources most new acquisitions for his Gibraltar collection from specialist auctions so at Midpex he was on the look out for material for his secondary collecting interests of Madeira and the Ionian Islands. He attends about half a dozen stamp shows a year.

Similarly to Eric, David collects stamps from an area he has a strong connection to – the Isle of Man. He has been visiting since 1934. He has many friends there and his parents retired to, and were later buried, on the island.

Not so much a Snaefell cachet, more a stamp which may have been cancelled by one: John Nicholsons regional definitive for the Isle of Man, 1958.

Not so much a Snaefell cachet, more a stamp which may have been cancelled by one: John Nicholson's regional definitive for the Isle of Man, 1958.

David’s collecting passion is the Snaefell Summit cachets. Snaefell is the only mountain on the Isle of Man and has been a popular tourist destination since the mountain railway opened in 1895. Letters and souvenir postcards can be posted on the summit during the summer months. Since 1904, these have been marked by a special diamond-shaped hand-stamp. His ambition is to collect an example of every cachet issued and he is already a good way there. Considered to be one of the world’s two foremost experts on the cachets, David gives talks on the subject to societies. He visits each Midpex and always attends the London International Stamp Exhibitions that take place every ten years.

And in case you’re wondering why so many stamp shows end with ‘PEX’, it’s a shortening of ‘Philatelic EXhibition’.

Third London 2010 postcard coming soon

We will soon be publishing the third in a series of postcards raising awareness of London 2010: Festival of Stamps. The postcard is a limited edition of 5,000 and will be released at this year’s Autumn Stampex (16-19 September 2009).

The image on the postcard consists of a relief of the head of King George VI by Edmund Dulac, which was the basis of the effigy on all his definitives. In the right-hand corner is an essay dated 27th November 1937 of Eric Gill’s unadopted “Heraldic Lions and Dragon” design, incorporating Dulac’s effigy.

London 2010 postcard #3: A relief of George VI by Edmund Dulac

London 2010 postcard #3: A relief of George VI by Edmund Dulac

Artist Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) came to London from France in 1904. He was mainly known as a book illustrator, but had a successful period of designing coins, banknotes and stamps from the mid 1930s, and his designs for the British Post Office span a period of 20 years. One of his greatest achievements was his work on the definitive series for King George VI. He created the portrait as a plaster cast used thereafter throughout the reign (apart from the Royal Silver Wedding issue of 1948), working from photographs rather than from life, and the border designs used for the low values from 7d to 1/-. He also created the designs for the 2/6 and 5/- high values issued in 1939.

The first postcard in our London 2010 series was issued at Autumn Stampex 2008. It features the 1984 Mailcoach Bicentenary stamp issue, an initial engraving by Czeslaw Slania based on a James Pollard print of the 1816 attack by an escaping lioness on the leading horse of the Exeter mailcoach passing The Pheasant Inn near Stockbridge.

London 2010 postcard #1: An attack on the Exeter Mail in 1816

London 2010 postcard #1: An attack on the Exeter Mail in 1816

The second postcard issued depicts an essay of a 1s pictorial stamp for the coronation of Edward VIII, showing St James’s Palace and the photograph (taken by the GPO Film Unit) on which it was based, and is currently available from selected shows organised by member federations of the Association of British Philatelic Societies (ABPS).

London 2010 postcard #2: St Jamess Palace and the coronation of Edward VIII

London 2010 postcard #2: St James's Palace and the coronation of Edward VIII

Please go to for further information about London 2010: Festival of Stamps.

For more information on stamps from the era of George VI please visit our website.

James Pollard and The Age of the Coach

by Freya Folåsen, Cataloguer (Collections)

James Pollard was an artist and engraver working during the first half of the 19th Century. Pollard created prints of various sporting events such as fishing and racing, but he is perhaps best remembered for his many wonderful coaching prints, several of which are held in the BPMA’s prints and engravings collection. Pollard’s artistic career and the great coaching era coincided nearly perfectly and resulted in some of the finest depictions of that time in history.

The Bedford Times. Changing of Horses at the Old White Lion (1830)

The Bedford Times. Changing of Horses at the Old White Lion (1830)

The great coaching era lasted only a short time, from the early days of the 1800s until around 1840, but the history of travel by coach and of the mail coach in England goes back much further. In 1580 the first coaches were introduced to England from abroad. These coaches were without springs and made travel both slow and uncomfortable. The poor condition of the roads further reduced the comfort and speed, so in 1685 toll-gates appeared on English roads. These were to raise funds for road improvements and although they were an annoyance to coaching proprietors they were a necessary step in setting the stage for faster and more efficient road travel. Another 100 years passed before, in 1784, the first mail coaches were put on the road, an initiative started by John Palmer, Member of Parliament for Bath. Still, travel by coach would be tedious and tiresome for a few more decades, but by 1825 road improvements had made it possible for lighter and faster coaches to be made, significantly increasing the speed of coach travel. To fully take advantage of the new, faster coaches, mail terminals and coaching stations grew and needed to be tightly organised. Some terminals grew to resemble small towns, with coaching inns accommodating several 100 horses at one time. Important coaching inns sprang up in and around London, including the ‘Gloucester Coffee House’ in Piccadilly, portrayed by Pollard in ‘West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly’ from 1828.

West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly

West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly

It was during these thriving years Pollard made his most famous prints. He travelled along the routes of the mail coaches and showed both the dangers of the countryside and the hustle and bustle of the London mail coaches.

The Mail Coach in a Thunder Storm on Newmarket Heath

The Mail Coach in a Thunder Storm on Newmarket Heath

In ‘The Elephant and Castle on the Brighton Road’ he shows what was probably the busiest calling point for coaches in England.

The Elephant and Castle on the Brighton Road

The Elephant and Castle on the Brighton Road

The 1820s can be regarded as the high point for both James Pollard’s career and for the coaching days, but it would be short lived. The 1830s saw the introduction of the railway and with it, the decline of the stage coaches. For the mail it was the 1838 Act of Parliament authorizing the conveyance of mails by rail that ended the reign of the mail coach. In Pollard’s case, after the death of his wife and daughter in 1840 only one important print of his work was published and he spent the latter part of his life in relative obscurity. Regardless of this, Pollard and his coaching prints show us many different aspects of how the coaching and mail system once worked, and brings to life an era gone by.

Sources: Selway, N. C., 1957. The Regency Road: The Coaching Prints of James Pollard. London: Faber and Faber Limited.