Monthly Archives: January 2011

Architecture as Public Art: Buildings on British Stamps

St Andrew's, Greensted-juxta-Ongar, Essex stamp, 1972

St Andrew's, Greensted-juxta-Ongar, Essex stamp, part of the Village Churches issue designed by Ronald Maddox (1972). And Brian Goodey's favourite stamp.

The conclusion to our Open Day in December last year was a talk given by Professor Brian Goodey, the recently retired Chairman of our Board of Trustees. This talk is now available as a podcast.

Brian Goodey is Professor Emeritus in the Joint Centre for Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University, and his research interests include the evolution of the British townscape and the role of electronic media in re-shaping understandings of place and heritage. He writes on aspects of urban development, and on the role of the artist in public settings. In addition Professor Goodey is an “accumulator of stamps”, and an admirer of the graphic artists who make them. His (dare we call it a) collection is focused on the buildings and structures which have appeared on stamps in both Great Britain and the rest of the world.

In his talk, Professor Goodey gave a personal view on architecture as depicted on British stamps in the last few decades. Introducing the talk he said:

I maintain the belief that stamps are produced as a reflection of design and image change within society, but their appearance is in every way political, and that aside from the stamp production industry they represent a government intention to influence the thinking of, potentially, every member of that society, and the recipients of stamps mailed elsewhere. Simply stated, buildings on stamps are intended to promote the work of architects, builders and developers, and to focus society on vernacular, historic or contemporary design.

There is a caveat here, certainly policies over the period I’ve looked at, which is really to 2006, have changed considerably. Certainly, there was an interesting period of “Cool Britannia” under Mr Blair, and various periods of retrenchment to tradition to sober-up for a while – and some of these will appear.

Professor Goodey feels there is an opportunity to “nation build through the post”, which is fast diminishing as stamp use declines. Do you agree with him? Listen to or download the podcast from our website or iTunes, and leave your comments here.

Digitising the GPO Photograph Library

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

Photographs are always exciting to work with. A visual record of the past, they evoke an immediate response from viewers that written records, for the most part, cannot. Their ability to present the past visually makes them such an important part of any archive.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

BPMA holds approximately 100,000 unique photographic images across both the museum collection and the Royal Mail Archive. From postmen and women on delivery, to bombed-out sorting offices; from mail vans to air mail; from marketing material to reference photographs for sorting office equipment – the Post Office has documented its activities for the last 100 and more years.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

For the most part, these are held as part of POST 118: The GPO Photograph Library. Highlights of this POST class include:

  • Publicity photographs created for public relations activities, such as posters and, in particular, for the Post Office Magazine, from 1934 through to the 1970s. Approximately 2800 survive as part of the collection, from a series which once contained over 10,000 photographs.
  • Photographs commissioned or acquired by the GPO Photograph Library from 1964 through to the late 1990s. Approximately 3000-4000 images survive from this series which once boasted nearly 20,000 documented images.
  • Colour transparencies – mostly dating from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. These images were used mostly for advertising, marketing and communications. This series consists of approximately 30,000 individual photographs.
  • Courier prints – files of photographs used for Royal Mail’s internal staff magazine from the late 1960s through to the 1970s.

At present, only 1868 of these images are currently available for public consultation via the online catalogue, although an additional 1000 will be available shortly.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Photographs are very difficult to store and to organise. They are also particularly difficult to describe in an accurate manner. One of the barriers to the description work is the lack of context – in most cases, very little information survives about the subject, or when the photograph was taken, and by whom.  Funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has been used to develop access to the photographic material via three main activities:

  1. Research into the photographs and the context and purpose of their creation. Very early on in the cataloguing we realised that many images featured in the Post Office Magazine which ran from 1934 through to the 1960s (with a small gap during wartime). A recent partnership project with the University of the Third Age (more on this in a future blog) was an attempt to identify connections between articles featured within the Post Office Magazine and the photographs in the collections. Teams of volunteers reviewed the Post Office magazines in the Search Room and compiling a database of articles. Volunteers also searched our catalogue for photographs and, when a photograph matches those in the magazine’s articles, add the reference of the catalogued photograph to the database. It has not been an easy task and, as the online catalogue is incomplete, the fruits of this indexing labour will not be realised for a little while to come. Ultimately, the database will reveal a larger contextual picture of the Post Office and the use of photography in its public relations activities.
  2. Digitisation of glass plate negatives and other photograph material. Up until now, we have scanned only those photographs for which prints exist. Photographs that exist only as glass plate negatives or as transparencies have not been scanned as BPMA has lacked the facilities and expertise to carry this out without harm to the material. The funding from MLA has enabled us to contract the services of a reputable digitisation company to carry this out on our behalf. Over 1500 photographs are currently being scanned and processed to a high resolution and these will shortly be made available via the online catalogue.
  3. Better equipment to create and manage digital photographic images. A significant part of BPMA’s ability to make available to the public its photographic collections comes from its efficient management of digital images. Prior to funding from MLA, images have been managed in a fairly unsophisticated manner.  We now have the appropriate hardware to carry out scanning of larger photographic material and other artwork in the collection. We have also established an Image Management server. This will hold all of our digital images and allow us to search and make available images as they are created or digitised for use by members of the public and by our staff.

Help test our new website

For more than a year we have been working on plans to redevelop our website. Following a tender process which concluded last July we hired Mind Unit, a company with more than 10 years experience in designing websites and developing applications for creative organisations.

Mock-up of new BPMA website homepage

Mock-up of new BPMA website homepage

Throughout the process of building the new website we have tried to keep the needs of users in mind. To make sure we’ve got it right, we’re looking for volunteers to help us test the new website before it goes live in March.

Volunteer testers will be asked to use the new website and give their feedback, either as part of a group testing session in London or via the web from their home computer.

Anyone in the world of any age or ability can take part – you don’t even have to have heard of the BPMA – although we are particularly keen to recruit the following:

  • Philatelists and postal historians
  • Journalists
  • Teachers and educators
  • People employed in the museums and archives sector
  • Those with a general interest in history, art, design and/or culture
  • Family historians and genealogists

As a thank you, all volunteer testers will go into the draw to win one of two £50 Amazon gift vouchers.

If you would like to take part in our new website testing programme, please register you interest by e-mailing

Second Post & Go Birds of Britain Set Issued

Today Royal Mail has issued a second set of pictorial stamps for Post & Go machines. Once again they feature commonly seen British birds, illustrated by Robert Gillmor.

The second set of Post & Go stamps, issued 24 January 2011

The second set of Post & Go stamps, issued 24 January 2011

The series will continue in May with a third set featuring birds seen in or around the UK’s rivers, lakes and ponds, and in September with a fourth and final set featuring birds seen around the UK’s coast. The first set was issued in September 2009.

Birds of Britain is the first series of pictorial stamps issued by Post & Go terminals, a self service facility which allows customers to weigh their letters and packets, and pay for and print postage labels.

Post & Go machine, 2007 (Photographed by BPMA Curatorial department)

Post & Go machine, 2007 (Photographed by BPMA Curatorial department)

Initially these pictorial Post & Go stamps are available from Post & Go terminals in 30 branches with subsequent sets being available from all Post & Go terminals.

The first Post & Go machine was installed at The Galleries Post Office in Bristol in 2007; since then over 170 terminals have been installed in around 100 branches.

Two First Day of Issue postmarks are available. Royal Mail says all first day covers posted at the Post Office counter will be cancelled with the Bristol birds nest pictorial postmark regardless of where they are posted.

The first day of issue postmarks which accompany the second set of Post & Go stamps

The first day of issue postmarks which accompany the second set of Post & Go stamps

The Map of Britain postmark is only available from Tallents House (Royal Mail, Tallents House, 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh EH12 9PB).

Location of Post & Go machines selling Birds of Britain pictorial stamps

East of England
Stevenage – 22-23 Westgate, Stevenage, SG1 1QR
Cambridge – 9-11 St Andrew Street, Cambridge, CB2 3AA
Southend-on-Sea – 199-201 High Street, Southend-On-Sea, SS1 1LL
Colchester – 68-70 North Hill, Colchester, CO1 1PX
Castle Mall, Norwich – 84-85 Castle Meadow Walk, Castle Mall, Norwich, NR1 3DD
Milton Keynes – 17-19 Crown Walk, Milton Keynes, MK9 3AH
Luton – The Arndale Centre, 42-44 Smith Lane, Luton, LU1 2LP

Old St – 205 Old Street, London, EC1V 9QN
Trafalgar Sq – 24-28 William IV Street, London, WC2N 4DL
Croydon – 10 High Street, Croydon, CR9 1HT
City of London – 12 Eastcheap, London, EC3M 1AJ
Baker St – 111 Baker Street, London, W1U 6SG
Paddington Quay – Unit 6, West End Quay, 4 Praed Street, London, W2 1JE

Nottingham – Queen Street, Nottingham, NG1 2BN
Walsall – Darwall Street, Walsall, WS1 1AA
Birmingham – 1 Pinfold Street, Birmingham, B2 4AA

Durham – 33 Silver Street, Durham, DH1 3RE
York – 22 Lendal, York, YO1 8DA
Grimsby – 67-71 Victoria Street, Grimsby, DN31 1AA
Harrogate – 11 Cambridge Road, Harrogate, HG1 1AA
Corn Exchange, Liverpool – India Building, ‘Water Street, Liverpool, L2 0RR

Northern Ireland
Belfast – 12 – 16 Bridge Street, Belfast  BT1 1LT

Glasgow – 47 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, G2 5QX
Edinburgh – 8-10 St James Centre, Edinburgh, EH1 3SR

South West
Portsmouth – Slindon Street, Portsmouth, PO1 1AB
Truro – High Cross, Truro, TR1 2AP
Plymouth – 5 St Andrews Cross, St Andrews Cross, Plymouth, PL1 1AB
The Galleries, Bristol – Castle Gallery, Broadmead, Bristol, BS1 3XX
Exeter – 28 Bedford Street, Exeter, EX1 1GJ

Cardiff – 45-46 Queens Arcade, Queen Street, Cardiff, CF10 2BY

The Post & Go stamps are also available from the Royal Mail website.

Stocktaking at the archive

Regular visitors to the BPMA’s search room will notice that we have been closed for ‘stock take’ since the start of last week and won’t be reopening until next Monday, 24th January.

Why does the BPMA close for stock take and what happens during this period? Stock take gives BPMA staff both the time and almost as importantly the space to concentrate on large sorting or repackaging tasks that would be very difficult to progress otherwise. Up until this year stock take has taken place for two weeks in December; this year we’ve moved it to January but we’re always open to suggestions as to the most sensible time to hold it and haven’t decided for certain when to schedule it into 2012.

Re-housing film stills and checking duplicate posters

Re-housing film stills and checking duplicate posters.

It involves almost all the archivists among the BPMA’s staff, both in the archive and records management and cataloguing teams (about ten staff in all), working on a number of projects.

What tasks have we been doing? This year’s stock take has concentrated on three main activities: the sorting of Second Review registered files from the 1970s and 1980s into an order that reflects the alpha-numeric code on them prior to cataloguing this material; the repackaging of POST 118 film stills into appropriate preservation housing; listing the contents of boxes from the old National Postal Museum library to fill gaps in the BPMA Library and identify duplicates and redundant material. We have also been sorting and identifying duplicate posters, weeding ‘portfolio’ files (files of secondary non-archive information on various subjects held in the search room), taking photographs of large plans using a rostrum camera and a couple of activities involving our philatelic material.

Photographing a large rolled building plan using a rostrum camera.

Photographing a large rolled building plan using a rostrum camera.

One major benefit of many of these activities is that they will create some badly needed space in our very full repository. They should also speed up the process by which we can make archival material available to the public. So far the activities have been going well though as expected they are taking plenty of time and will generally not be complete at the end of the two weeks.

To anyone who has had to postpone a visit to the search room thank you for your patience and we hope you’ll appreciate the importance of this work.

The BPMA Search Room has new opening times in 2011. In response to a survey carried out in 2010 we will be increasing our Saturday openings to one a month. In order to staff our Saturday openings adequately we will be closed on the Mondays following our Saturday openings. Our next Saturday opening will be 12th February. Full details of our new opening hours  can be found our website.

All-Party Group visit the BPMA

by Adrian Steel, Director

Today we were pleased to welcome members of the All-Party Parliamentry Arts and Heritage Group, led by Lord Crathorne (Chair). The attendees were: Lord Crathorne, Lord Boswell, Lord Selkirk, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, Hugh Bayley MP, Andrew Dismore and Tom Levitt (former MPs). 

Adrian Steel welcomes the All-Party Group to the BPMA

Adrian Steel welcomes the All-Party Group to the BPMA

The group’s visit coincides with the discussion of the Postal Services Bill in Parliament. This Bill has cleared its Commons stages and has now moved on to the Lords.

The group spoke to staff and trustees, were given a tour of the archive search room and repository, and saw some of the philatelic gems including Penny Blacks, and work done preparing for Edward VIII’s coronation stamp issue that was never completed.

The group tours the repository

The group tours the repository

Curator of Philately Douglas Muir shows the group some stamp artwork.

Curator of Philately Douglas Muir shows the group some stamp artwork.

Among other items in the collection the group saw were Ulysses, Sergeant Knight‘s VC, and some posters, as well as some of our education packs and material from the handling collection. 

Viewing items from the handling collection.

Viewing items from the handling collection.

The group were particularly pleased to hear we passed 3000 annual search room visitors for the first time in 2010.

New Wilkinson Collection Records: Cigarette Cards

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

Amongst the records recently added to our online catalogue were groups of cigarette cards that are part of the Wilkinson Collection. These had previously been kept as part of the Secondary Collection however, after doing a bit more research it was decided that they would be a welcome addition to the catalogue. Whilst the quality of the images on these cards is, inevitably, not always the best, they are often very interesting, giving a flavour of life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Cigarette cards are trading cards introduced by tobacco companies to stiffen cigarette packaging as well as to advertise different brands of tobacco. On one side of the cards would be a picture, ranging from the famous actors or sports personalities of the day, through to city views and landscapes. Cards were normally produced in sets of 25 or 50 for customers to collect and you could also buy albums to put the cards in. These cost just a shilling, which would have been viable at least for the middle classes, and possibly for some of the working class as well.

It may surprise some readers to learn that quite a few of the sets released had postal themes. These cards showed a range of subjects relating to the postal service both in Britain and across the British Empire, including historical events or figures, stamps from different countries, as well as technological advances in delivering the mail. This range can be shown in the following cards from our collection.

Number 31 of a series of 50 Wills cigarette cards, entitled ‘English Military Post Office (Foreign Service)’

Number 31 of a series of 50 Wills cigarette cards, entitled ‘English Military Post Office (Foreign Service)’ (2010-0383/31)

The first card shows a Foreign Service Post Office with men dressed in khaki military uniform opening mail bags in front of their tents. This is probably a depiction of a Post Office from either the Boer or First World War. On the back of each card there is always some information about the subject depicted and I think this one speaks for itself:

No one realizes the benefit and blessing of Post Office activity and resource more than the soldier and his relatives in war time. The Post Office enables him to keep in touch with the old home…the postal officials share the hardships, inconveniences and dangers of the campaign.

Number 16 of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series entitled ‘An Early Mail Van’

Number 16 of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series entitled ‘An Early Mail Van’ (2010-0384/16)

The second card I’ve chosen is part of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series produced jointly by Royal Mail and W.H. & J. Woods Ltd which shows an early motorised mail van. The Post Office was among the first of the public services to take advantage of motor transport. In 1898 motor vans were tried on the London to Brighton services and by 1911 had superseded horse vehicles on all the Parcel Coach Services between London and provincial towns. They also enabled longer distances to be covered.

These are just two from almost 190 cigarette cards in the Wilkinson Collection so please do take a look at some of our others on the online catalogue – pictures to be uploaded soon!