Monthly Archives: November 2009

History of the Great Western Railway site – BPMA’s future new home

Swindon is largest town in Wiltshire with a population over 170,000.  However, before 1840 Swindon was a market town serving the surrounding dairy farms with fewer than 2500 inhabitants.  Its growth and population boom can be seen as a direct result of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s decision to choose Swindon as the site for the railway works of the Great Western Railway (GWR).

At its peak in the mid 20th the railway works were employing over 14, 000 and the works stretched for 2.4 km.  The railways were nationalised in 1948, and GWR became British Rail Western Region and the works became part of British Rail Engineering under the 1960 Transport Act.  In 1960 the Evening Star became the last steam locomotive built for British Rail. The site closed on 27th March 1986.  In the 1984 the historic parts of the site were designated Grade 2* or Grade 2.   There was redevelopment of the site in the 1990’s and English Heritage was the first new tenant in 1994.

An aerial view of the former Chain Testing House, Swindon - soon to be home to the BPMA

An aerial view of the former Chain Testing House, Swindon - soon to be home to the BPMA

Early History

By the end of 1832, there was commercial pressure for a rail link from Bristol (and the Atlantics) to London and a committee to investigate the matter was formed of prominent Bristol merchants.  The ‘Committee of Deputies’ met in July 1833 and agreed that the way forward was to form a company and obtain and Act of Parliament.   However, the GWR Railway Bill took some further two years to pass due to the opposition of some local landowners on the route.

The reason why Swindon was chosen to be the heart of the mid 19th railway expansion was actually a simple matter of geography. The line passing through Swindon was seen as ideal due to the lie of the land and it was the straightest route. The railway works were located in the Vale of the White Horse to the north of the old market town.  It is still often referred to as Swindon New Town.

It was Daniel Gooch, GWR’s first chief engineer and later Chairman, who was instrumental in the decision to select Swindon as the site. In 1840 Gooch wrote to Brunel suggesting Swindon as the most suitable site for the engine shed.  It was agreed in 1840.  Works began on the building of the site in 1841 which opened in January 1843. There were three building stages and work continued until 1849 with only minor additions to the site made thereafter.

More than just a job

Swindon had no history of heavy industrial labour, and so the workforce would need to be imported.  This meant that one of the first requirements of the site was accommodation for the workforce.  Brunel was responsible for the design of the railway village.  Most of the terraced stone houses built to the south of the site still stand today. They are perceived as excellent early example of a model village development for an industrial workforce.  They were planned as a self-contained community; the intention was to provide all the necessary facilities for what the Victorians perceived a ‘decent’ life.  The Swindon Mechanics Institute, set up for the purpose of offering an educational and social outlet for the railway workers had already outgrown the use of the rooms within the factories and in 1855 the Swindon Mechanics Institution opened in the heart of the railway village.

 In fact, the late 1860s and early 1870s saw many progressive actions that would help improve the lives of the workers on site including a hospital and from 1868 there was fresh drinking water from the Swindon Water Company and sewage disposal in 1872.

The BPMA in Swindon

Chain testing equipment, which will be a feature of the BPMA's new home

Chain testing equipment, which will be a feature of the BPMA's new home

The Chain Testing House was built in 1873.  The Testing house – or Shop 17 as it was known – tested iron, steel, copper and rope for use on the railways.  At its peak in the 1950’s around 57 miles of chain and rope were being dealt with annually.

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is the custodian for the visual, written and physical records of 400 years of postal development. In telling the story of communication, industry, and innovation of the British postal services, many parallels can be drawn with the Great Western Railway site.

‘Post early for Christmas’ a publicity campaign that was ‘too successful’

‘Notice intended for display on a pillar box, 1931’ (POST 33/3169)

Even prior to the creation of the Public Relations Department in 1934, there was a vast amount of publicity generated with regard to ‘Christmas arrangements’ for the postal service. This included leaflets, press advertisements and notices in several different sizes, meant for display in post offices, on pillar boxes and on mail vans.

From its creation the Public Relations Department assumed responsibility for the Christmas campaign, adopting the slogan: ‘Post early for Christmas’. In addition to the traditional means of advertising, they commissioned famous artists to produce eye catching posters for display in post offices, on pillar boxes and telephone kiosks, on mail vans and in shop windows.

In 1938 Barnett Freedman was commissioned to produce a poster for the Christmas campaign; in addition to encouraging the public to ‘post early’, it also advocated early shopping so that all parcels would be ready to send off on time. This poster design was adapted slightly for display on the London Underground where it also incorporated a message encouraging the public to: ‘travel early’.

‘Shop early, travel early, post early’ by Barnett Freedman, 1938 (London Transport reference number: 1983/4/10354. Image © London Transport Museum).

‘Shop early, travel early, post early’ by Barnett Freedman, 1938 (London Transport reference number: 1983/4/10354. Image © London Transport Museum)

Insert image 2: ‘Shop now and post early in Christmas week. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday’ by Barnett Freedman, 1938 (POST 110/1165).

‘Shop now and post early in Christmas week. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday’ by Barnett Freedman, 1938 (POST 110/1165)

During the war years, it became vitally important for people to post their mail early as postal services were over stretched. From 1942 up until 1944, the slogan was amended slightly to reflect this; encouraging the public to ‘Post even earlier this Christmas’.

‘Post much earlier this Christmas’ by Lewitt and Him, 1942 (POST 110/1171)

‘Christmas 1943. Post earlier than you did last year’ by Leonard Beaumont, 1943 (POST 110/4155)

‘Post even earlier this Christmas and not later than 18th December’ by Hans Schleger (Zero), 1944 (POST 110/4158)

The Post Office also employed trailer films as a means of propaganda for their Christmas campaign. During the war they produced a number of short films that were shown for free in picture houses, the last of these was ‘Post Haste’ in 1946.

page from draft script of Post office publicity film 1955, featuring Bob Monkhouse (POST 122/556)

With the arrival of television in the 1950s the Post Office found a new means of delivering their Christmas message and in 1953 and 1954 the BBC showed a short trailer encouraging the public to post their mail in a timely fashion, featuring Tommy Cooper. In December 1955, the Post Office produced a two minute film featuring Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin; it was estimated (based on the number of television licences sold that year) that it would be watched by nearly a quarter of the population.

In a Regional Director’s Conference paper of 1966 (RD (66) 2, POST 73/122) we hear of the success of the ‘Post early for Christmas’ campaign; it states: ‘the public not only posts by the latest recommended date but, if anything, in front of it’, it concludes that the campaign has proved to be ‘somewhat of an embarrassment since it produces a large volume of traffic before we are ready for it’.

It seems that the campaign headed with the slogan ‘Post early for Christmas’ had become a victim of its own success; over the years the volume of Christmas mail had increased until it reached a point where sorting office staff could not cope when the public actually obeyed the directive.

It was suggested that it would be beneficial if the emphasis of future Christmas campaigns could be changed and in 1969 the famous slogan was phased out in favour of a less proactive one stating simply: ‘Don’t miss the Christmas post’.

New BPMA Christmas cards

New BPMA Christmas Cards!

A new Christmas card pack featuring two designs from the Post Early for Christmas poster campaign from the 1950s are now available from the BPMA shop or by calling 020 7239 5125. You will get 8 cards + envelopes for £3.95 (4 of each of the designs pictured)

BPMA wins Visit London award

Visit London Bronze Award

On 5 November, BPMA scooped the BT Visit London Bronze Award for Accessible Tourism 2009.

Particular focus of our entry was online provision (such as the Blog and Flickr), Search Room user support, and steps taken to develop accessible events in the Museum Store.

Deborah Turton and Helen Dafter from the BPAM receiving the award

Deborah Turton and Helen Dafter from the BPMA receiving the award

We are very proud to have beaten the likes of Arsenal Football Stadium and Southbank Centre to the prize, which is a testimony to our ongoing work to provide the best possible service for all our users.

 For more information on the BT Visit London Award, please go to the Visit London website

The Accession Stamp issue of Edward VIII

by Adam Reynolds, Project Archivist (Stamp Artwork)

Recent months have seen the online publication of all philatelic artwork relating to the reign of King Edward VIII, as part of the ongoing Stamp Artwork Project at the BPMA. Despite the brevity of Edward VIII’s reign, there was a substantial amount of stamp artwork produced, for both the unreleased Coronation issue, and the Accession issue.

The stamps for the Accession issue are particularly striking in their break from the ornamentation characterising the stamps of George V. It was agreed at an early stage that there would be no invitation to artists to submit designs. With the adoption of the photogravure production process, it was possible to produce a portrait more successfully; with this process specifically in mind, the first essential was an acceptable photographic portrait of the King.

H J Brown's pencil drawing

H J Brown's pencil drawing

Profile pictures by Hugh Cecil were specifically taken for the stamp issue in March 1936. H.J. Brown, then only 17, submitted an unsolicited pencil drawing in April; this formed the basis of the design, along with the Cecil head.

The decision to use a photographic portrait was a cause of controversy to some, with one member of the public commenting that “the Post Office is content to produce these highly important exports without calling in the advice on the real expert – in other words, the artist. As well rebuild Whitehall without an architect!”

As issued in September 1936 the four stamps of King Edward VIII were very simple in format, quite different from anything that had gone before. The design reflected the new King’s desire for simplicity and change. Public reaction to the stamps was generally very positive, in particular praising their simplicity.

Edward VIII Accession issue, 1d

Edward VIII Accession issue, 1d

Despite this there were still reactionary grumbles to the issue; as one member of the public writing to the Daily Express exclaimed:

“Can anything be done to prevent the new stamp? The crown appears to have nothing to do with the head of the King (which looks as though he has been beheaded). As for the word ‘postage’ – words fail me. In short, it is a horrible production.”

The criticism took on a more apocalyptic tone from James Marchant of Poole, in his letter to The Times on 4th September 1936:

“It so happened that soon after I purchased one of the new stamps I walked into a typical Protestant Church of the Reformation period, with its shivering bareness of brick and whitewash. The new stamp expresses the same spirit which erected that stark abomination. It is the same spirit which is covering the land with iron and concrete barrack-flats in the design of which the artist has been forthright cast out”.

Readers can judge for themselves in viewing all the material related to the design process of the Accession issue on the BPMA’s online catalogue, and can also read more about other stamp issues from the reigns of Edward VIII and George V, at the home of the Stamp Artwork Project.

2009 Christmas Stamps

Royal Mail has today released this year’s Christmas stamps, a set of seven adhesive stamps designed by Andrew Ross, featuring stained-glass windows produced in the 19th Century. It has generally been the tradition for British Christmas stamps to alternate between religious and more secular themes, and these stamps come on the back of last year’s Christmas pantomime stamps.

2009 Christmas stamps

2009 Christmas stamps

Perhaps surprisingly, stained-glass windows have only appeared on Christmas stamps twice before, in 1971 and 1992. The 1971 stamps were designed by Collis Clements who had submitted his original designs to the Stamp Advisory Committee for the 1970 Christmas stamps.

Collis Clement's 1970 Christmas stamp designs

Collis Clement's 1970 Christmas stamp designs

While designs by Sally Stiff were chosen in 1970, Clement’s were held over for 1971 and were judged to be better than those submitted by other designers in that year.

Collis Clement's 1971 Christmas stamps

Collis Clement's 1971 Christmas stamps

As Clement’s stamps depicted scenes from a 12th century stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral the Post Office decided to provide a special pictorial postmark at Canterbury. It was circular, 15/16 inches in diameter, with the Cathedral as a central motif.

2009 Christmas postmark from Bethlehem

2009 Christmas postmark from Bethlehem

First day of issue (FDI) postmarks for ‘Bethlehem, Llandeilo, Carms’ had become popular with collectors since the first British Christmas stamps were issued in 1966 and for the Christmas 1970 stamps the Post Office provided a pictorial FDI postmark at this location. The pictorial postmark had been considered a success by the Post Office and was repeated in 1971 with a different design, this time showing a star-shaped snowflake motif to the left of a circular datestamp, 2¾ inches by 15/16 inches. The tradition of a FDI postmark for Bethlehem continues to this day, with a stained-glass window-style “praying hands” design available this year.

The 1992 stained glass Christmas stamps were designed by Carroll, Dempsey and Thirkell who have worked on a number of projects for Royal Mail including the Millennium series (1999-2000), Machin stamp books, the Microcosmos Prestige Stamp Book (2003) and Sounds of Britain (2006). Like this year’s Christmas stamps, the 1992 issue featured stained-glass windows from a variety of churches around Britain.

1992 Christmas stamps by Carroll, Dempsey and Thirkell

1992 Christmas stamps by Carroll, Dempsey and Thirkell

The 2009 Christmas stamps are now available from