The biggest story in the British press 100 years ago today centred on a High Court case brought by the family of George Archer-Shee, a teenage naval cadet who had been expelled from Osborn Naval College two years previously for stealing a postal order valued at 5 shillings.
The grounds for George Archer-Shee’s expulsion were largely circumstantial. On 7th October 1908 he was granted permission to leave the grounds of the College and visit the local Post Office in order to purchase a postal order and a stamp, with which to buy a model train costing 15/6. Upon his return it was reported that a postal order for 5 shillings, which had been received earlier that day by fellow cadet Terence Back, had been stolen.
Local Post Office clerk Annie Tucker was summoned, and she produced the cashed postal order in Back’s name and stated that only two cadets had visited the Post Office that afternoon – and that the same cadet who had purchased the 15/6 postal order had cashed the 5 shilling order. On that basis Archer-Shee was expelled.
Martin Archer-Shee, George’s father, did not believe that his son had stolen Back’s postal order and began a defence of his honour. Prominent barrister Sir Edward Carson was engaged, and on 26th July 1910 the case finally came to the High Court.
Within the Royal Mail Archive we hold papers relating to the Archer-Shee case in POST 30/1652B. Amongst these papers are records of all postal orders purchased and cashed at Osborn Post Office on 7th October, and the 15/6 and 5 shilling postal orders, which were saved from destruction in order to be presented as evidence in court.
Also in the file are records of interviews with Post Office staff, and correspondence between Martin Archer-Shee and the Post Office, in which Archer-Shee asks permission to view the original postal orders.
Martin Archer-Shee’s determination to clear his son’s name was characterised in the press as a David and Goliath battle, in which a small boy of good reputation was unfairly expelled from the College by the Naval establishment. It is a story which has remained in the public memory, largely due to Terrence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy, which was inspired by the Archer-Shee case.
The Winslow Boy has been filmed twice, in 1948 and 1999, and is regularly performed on the stage. Several years ago the BPMA was asked to assist some theatre producers by providing a facsimile of a postal order of the period; we went one better – we sent them a facsimile of the original.