Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Post Office and British Broadcasting

The Royal Mail Archive isn’t just about letters and stamps; recently catalogued records in the series POST 89 illustrate the part played by the Post Office in the history of British broadcasting.

The Post Office regarded telegrams as electronic letters.

Not many people would associate the Post Office with broadcasting, but until 1922 it held a monopoly on electronic mass communication. When telegraphy, and later, the telephone were developed, the Post Office argued that it controlled anything which involved delivery from a sender to a receiver. Telegraph and telephone switching stations were defined as electrical post offices, with the messages or calls regarded as electronic letters. Wireless telegraphy, originally used to send short coded messages, was also viewed in this manner, but later, when the technology started to be used for audio broadcasts, the medium, now known as radio, no longer fitted the sender/receiver definition.

In 1920 a number of commercial companies were granted licences by the Post Office to make experimental broadcasts. These were halted when the Armed Forces complained of interference with their communication systems, but as more and more radio services were beginning in many other countries, the Post Office came under pressure to reverse this decision and open up broadcasting to commercial interests.

In 1922 the Post Office was involved in the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company, a commercial radio broadcaster financed by six large electronics manufacturers. The Company began transmissions on 14 November 1922 (more details of this can be found in POST 33), but the Post Office continued its involvement in broadcasting for many years to come.

POST 89 includes the minutes and papers of some of the broadcasting committees which the Post Office contributed to – the Sykes, Crawford, Selsdon, Ullswater and Beveridge committees. These provide an insight into the development of British broadcasting and the introduction of the licence fee system. The papers cover issues such as the impact broadcasting may have on traditional newspapers, whether broadcasting sporting events would affect attendance at such events, and the benefits and drawbacks to commercial broadcasting (especially appropriate given the recent discussion of product placement).

A 1967 poster recommending the purchase of licences for televisions and radios, designed by Kenneth Bromfield

The Sykes and Crawford committees (which sat in 1923 and 1925-1926 respectively) considered the development of the British Broadcasting Company. The Crawford committee (whose members included the author Rudyard Kipling) ultimately recommended that the British Broadcasting Company be replaced by a non-commercial, Crown chartered organisation – the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The Selsdon committee (1934-1935) and Ullswater committee (1935) were concerned with the introduction of television and how this would be financed, while the Beveridge committee (1949-1950) conducted a review of broadcasting in the United Kingdom and recommended regional devolution, broadcasting of minority views, more political broadcasting and trade union recognition.

Another contribution made by the Post Office to broadcasting was that it was responsible for administering the licence fee system, and POST 89 includes various papers on this subject. These include reports on planned publicity campaigns and evasion statistics (for more on this topic see our previous blog on TV detector vans).

So the next time you think about The Royal Mail Archive remember that it is about more than letters and stamps – although we do have some very interesting stamps!

Four stamps issued in 1972 to celebrate 50 years of the BBC

Badges of the GPO

by Terry Carney, BPMA Volunteer 

Some of the many badges worn by GPO and Royal Mail employees over the years

Some of the many badges worn by GPO and Royal Mail employees over the years

Although I have been interested in Military badges for many years it was only a few years ago after being given a small collection of GPO and Royal Mail badges that I became interested in this subject. In an attempt to find out more about the badges worn with GPO uniforms, I decided to visit the British Postal Museum and Archive. Unfortunately the items I was interested in seeing are not on show at present. However there is an album of photographs which show many of the BPMA collection of badges enlarged, available to anyone wishing to do their own research. Using the research facilities I found several lists and documents referring to a large number of metal and embroidered badges worn by Postmen and Postwomen over the years.

Since then I have been making a list of as many of these items as possible, with the intention of adding illustrations to the list. One of the documents that I found most useful was the Pattern Register for the period 1948-1966, which lists most of the badges worn at the time. Each badge being given its own pattern number, many of the entries contain a brief description and details regarding who the badges were intended for, however some entries carry little or no information and require further research.

I was very fortunate in being given the opportunity of becoming a volunteer at the archives and helping staff catalogue some of the badges in the BPMA collection. While working with the badges I came across some with labels which had been attached many years ago giving details which had not been included in the pattern register enabling some of the gaps to be filled in. Apart from making badges for their own employees the GPO were also responsible for having badges made for other organisations through their suppliers. I am hoping to complete my list shortly and will be supplying a copy for the BPMA. I am sure amongst readers that there will be several including former GPO staff, who are knowledgeable on this subject who will be able to add further information and any corrections that are necessary.

To find out more about volunteering at the BPMA please see our website.

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 Big Draw at the Museum Store

by Laura Dixon, Learning Officer

BPMA will be holding a Big Draw event on Saturday 10 October at the BPMA Museum Store from 10.00am – 4.00pm to fit in with this year’s theme of Colour in the Big Draw.

The Big Draw aims to get everyone drawing – adults and children alike. BPMA is delighted to be working with designer and illustrator Izzy Jaffer, who will be helping visitors create their own detailed colour drawings of objects on display. If you think you can’t draw, Izzy will show you otherwise. She says “…anyone can draw anything by simply breaking down the subject into simple shapes and adding in the detail once the shape and proportion are right.”

Drawing sessions will be drop in from 10.15am – 12.30pm and 1.30pm -3.30pm. All are welcome at this free, day long event, but please book (see details below).

As well as the drawing workshops, this open day will also feature tours of the Store with our Curator, films, worksheets and quizzes and the chance to win special BPMA prizes!

A selection of GPO Film Unit films will be chosen to fit in with the theme of Colour – such as Night Mail 2, an updated version of the classic 1936 Night Mail, made in 1986 in colour with poetry by Blake Morrison.

We will also show some of the pioneering colour films made for the GPO in the 1930s by experimental director and artist Len Lye. One of Lye’s films, A Colour Box (1935), was made without a camera; Lye painted directly onto the celluloid and in doing so created a film which divided audience opinion at the time between adulation and derision.

Other Lye films to be shown include Rainbow Dance (1936), a 5 minute ‘film ballet’, and Trade Tattoo (1937), which uses some leftover footage from other GPO films (such as the first Night Mail) to make a short film about the British working day, whilst also encouraging viewers to Post Early.

The open day offers an exciting opportunity to see many of the BPMA’s collection of objects on display in a working store.

What is a Store?

Visitors should be prepared for something different from a traditional museum when coming to the Store. Because the BPMA does not currently have the space to display all of its larger objects on a permanent basis, they are kept safely in the Store at Debden. There aren’t the usual interpretive panels you would see in a museum, and there may be some items that are undergoing repairs, as well as some new acquisitions.

The BPMA Store contains objects ranging from the desk of Rowland Hill (founder of the Penny Post), to a carriage from Post Office Underground Railway, letter boxes, bicycles, motorcycles and more.

To book your place, please contact or phone 020 7239 2570 and state whether you would like to com in the morning or afternoon.

Conducting Family History Research at the BPMA

by Richard Wade, Archives Assistant

As Royal Mail or the GPO, as it was known, was at one time the largest employer in the country, many people find they have a relative that was employed in some regard by them. Luckily, the GPO kept records of its staff which were organised centrally, and consequently the majority have survived. This means that they are a great resource for researching the lives of past family members, at least as far as their employment was concerned.

There are records of most staff from postmen and sorters to the Postmaster General, as well as the various clerks and officers in between. There are also records of telegraph staff as it would not have been possible to separate these out from those for postal staff. All of these records are held here at Freeling House.

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestors career

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestor's career

The most important and informative of the staff records are the pension records. We have these for the majority of staff from 1859 to 1959. You can usually find out from these the places people worked, the job they did and a brief history of their employment, including their various positions throughout their careers and the associated salaries. There will also be information about any particularly good conduct and any notable events or actions made during their careers, for example, if they went to fight with the Post Office Rifles (the Post Office’s own battalion) in the Great War, or work related achievements, such as gaining a long service award. Conversely, the records will also mention any black marks gained or anything they did they could be less proud of, such as drinking on the job. What you won’t find out from them are any personal details such as private addresses or information about their next of kin.

People received pensions at the age of 60 in the Post Office, unless they retired early for ill health. Where women were concerned, they could not work once they were married, so we have marriage gratuities for them from the year in which they got married. If people died whilst they were still employed then there would have been a death gratuity. However, the death gratuity and marriage gratuity records are often only indexes, so you may not get as much information as what you would for ordinary pension records.

We also have appointment records for the vast majority of employees, but these are nowhere near as informative as the pension records, as they generally only give the name of the employee and the date of the appointment. In some cases, the position they were appointed to is given, but even this is not guaranteed.

Another resource that can be used is our collection of minute books, which have information about certain offices, arranged either by place or by department. There are also records within the minute books of dismissals, where you may find people you can not find elsewhere.

Another option is the Establishment books, which list some of the more senior staff by department. They were produced each year, so you can trace people through the years to try and work out when they left if you do not know already. Some of the later books also contain lists of Postmasters.

Establishment books list key members of GPO staff

Establishment books list senior members of GPO staff

Finally, it is sometimes worth looking in the Post Office magazines; unfortunately, these are not indexed in any way so it is a question of just trawling through them. They mention people who had gone over and above their duty, comic and bizarre requests from customers, staff who have done particularly long service, and sometimes list staff who have retired recently. It will be especially worthwhile looking at the staff magazines if you know of an ancestor being involved in any of the sports teams, or playing in one of the Post Office bands or something similar, as these feature heavily in the magazines and will tell you about a side of a person that you wouldn’t find out about from the more formal records.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

We also have a huge selection of photographs here, so if you wanted to find out about the type of clothing your relatives wore, or the type of places they worked in, you can do this too.

If you want to find out more about researching family history at the British Postal Museum & Archive, please see the Family History Pages of our website, which can be found in the visiting section – and while you’re there you can download our updated Family History Research Guide. If you wish to visit us and search our records, please do drop in and we’ll be happy to help.

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 Battle of Britain stamps controversy

David Gentleman, whose many British stamp designs are currently being exhibited in our Search Room, is no stranger to controversy. In 1965 he wrote to Postmaster General Tony Benn (who had announced a new policy for stamp issues in late 1964 and was seeking suggestions) and requested that the design limitations of having to include the monarch’s head on stamps be addressed. Benn, a republican, was keen to remove the monarch’s head, and saw Gentleman’s design limitations argument as an excellent – and non-political – way to achieve this objective. 

Gentleman, and his wife Rosalind Dease, had already been commissioned to design stamps commemorating the death of Winston Churchill and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and supplied Benn with versions of the designs without the Queen’s head. Ultimately, it was decided that the monarch’s head should remain on British stamps (you can read the full story by downloading the PDF The David Gentleman Album from our website), but this was not the end of the controversy as far as the Battle of Britain stamps were concerned.

More than a month before their release date a number of newspapers published images of the stamps, with several tabloids highlighting two of the eight stamps, which showed German aircraft. The first of the two stamps in question showed the wing-tip of a Messerschmitt fighter overshadowed by the wing-tip of a Spitfire; the other stamp showed a Dornier bomber sinking into the sea while Hawker Hurricanes flew above it. The reason for the focus on these stamps was that the German aircraft pictured featured German military emblems, the Balkenkreuz (cross) on the Messerschmitt and the swastika on the Dornier.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The inclusion of these emblems, particularly the swastika, caused great concern, with several Members of Parliament and the House of Lords speaking against the stamps. At the same time, representatives of a number of organisations, and many members of the public wrote letters to The Queen, the Prime Minister and Tony Benn, requesting that the Battle of Britain stamps be withdrawn.

A London Rabbi, writing to Benn on behalf of 775 families of his congregation, wrote “Please don’t allow swastika on our stamps. They are the 20th Century symbol of persecution, oppression, suffering and all that is evil”. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr S. Teff, also expressed his concerns in writing to Benn: “The Board has already received numerous complaints from members of the Jewish community to whom the sight of the swastika in any form is offensive in the extreme.”

A common theme amongst many of the complainants, in particular those who had served in the war, was that issuing a stamp bearing the swastika was an insult to the war dead. Others objected to the swastika appearing alongside the Queen’s head.

Withdrawing the stamps would have been very difficult for the Post Office as the Battle of Britain issue was the first set of stamps to be commissioned since Benn had changed the policy to include stamps commemorating important anniversaries. Indeed, the Battle of Britain stamps had come about partly due to lobbying from the Royal Air Forces Association and a number of Members of Parliament. The issue was also the largest issue of commemorative stamps to date.

Benn and his department took the view that the reason for the objections to the stamps was that the tabloid press articles which had highlighted the stamps featuring German aircraft, had not made clear the purpose of the stamps, and that black and white images of the stamps which appeared in various publications did not effectively convey the subtlety of the designs.

“The purpose of the stamp is to commemorate the victory over Nazism and I am sure that when the stamp is seen in colour it will be quite apparent that the swastika on the tail of the Dornier bomber is both split and half covered by water; the shattered Dornier is sinking in the English Channel and high above four RAF fighters, objective achieved, are flying back to base” wrote one official, in reply to a member of the public.

“In effect, the stamp is meant to be symbolic of the crushing of the Nazis and all that they stood for. We hope you will agree that within the limits of stamp design, it is difficult to do justice to a subject without introducing features of this kind into a series illustrating the Battle of Britain…”

Benn himself said in one letter “I feel that the stamp is a true reflection of that period in our history and…will be seen as a reminder of a great victory over the evil of Nazism. Because of this I do not propose to withdraw it.” He also argued that no objections were raised to the swastika being seen in newsreel footage of German planes, and that the RAF had displayed and flown captured Nazi aircraft on numerous occasions.

Eventually criticism died down, and despite threats to boycott the stamps sales were healthy, although the GPO arranged for adequate stocks of ordinary small size stamps to be available for those who did not wish to purchase the Battle of Britain issue.

Writing in his 2002 book Design, David Gentleman reflected “the tabloids [made] a great furore over the inclusion of a swastika and an iron cross. But without an enemy there would have been no battle and, as the stamps showed the Germans getting the worst of it anyway, the whole manufactured fuss quickly died down.”

The British Postal Museum & Archive holds many files relating to the Battle of Britain stamp issue. Details of these can be found on our online catalogue.