Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Post Office in Pictures

In October our new exhibition, The Post Office in Pictures, will open in Swindon. The exhibition will showcase a selection of inspiring images sourced from our vast collections.

In 1933 Sir Stephen Tallents was appointed Public Relations Officer to the General Post Office (GPO), and so began a major project to promote the range of postal services to the British public. One initiative was the establishment of The Post Office Magazine, intended to give a sense of shared community, camaraderie and endeavour. In order to do this, the GPO employed photographers to create beautiful, informative and often humorous photographs of the Post Office at work.

From strange creatures sent through the post, to the daily deliveries by land, sea
and air to every corner of the country, the photos featured in The Post Office in Pictures offer a fascinating set of windows on Britain from the 1930s to 80s – including some of the more unusual, unexpected and unseen activities of The Post Office and its people.

One of the images to be featured is ‘Basket Delivery’, a striking image from 1938 showing a postman at Greenock Promenade in Scotland. The postman’s basket contained mail from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner, the Duchess of Bedford. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, the mail once unloaded was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. We love the composition of the image and the beautiful cloudy sky.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, Greenock.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, Greenock. (POST 118/851)

To accompany the exhibition, the BPMA has produced a fantastic range of greetings cards featuring iconic black and white photographs from our archives, including ‘Basket Delivery’. The cards are now available from our online shop.

The Post Office in Pictures exhibition is open at the Post Modern in Swindon between 6 October and 5 November 2011. Find out more on our website.

What would you do with £1,053,090?

… Buy a stamp, of course! This phenomenal price tag is how much an anonymous telephone bidder paid on June 28, 2011 for the coveted ‘Post Office Mauritius’ two penny blue stamp during a sale at Spink Auctioneers, making it the most valuable stamp ever sold in the UK. The stamp hails from the impressive Chartwell Collection, which contains over 80 stamp albums, collected by Sir Cyril Humphrey Cripps.

Example of the 'Post Office' Mauritius in the Royal Philatelic Collection

Example of the 'Post Office' Mauritius in the Royal Philatelic Collection

Sir Humphrey (1915-2000) was a successful English businessman and philanthropist. He began collecting stamps almost by chance in the 1950’s, picking the hobby up from his son, Robert. Robert eventually lost interest in stamp collecting as he returned to school, but his son’s fleeting interest in the hobby transformed itself into a life-long passion for Sir Humphrey. He studied philately and the existing marketplace, focusing on Great Britain and the British
Empire. In 1972, he purchased the ‘Post Office Mauritius’ 2d. blue for £29,000, which was quite expensive at the time. He was later offered an even greater sum for the stamp, but Sir Humphrey rejected it—proving that his love was the act of collecting and the collection itself, rather than the monetary value of what it contained. This extraordinary stamp became a part of his British Empire Collection, which contained stamps from primarily Bermuda, Mauritius, the Virgin Islands, as well as Canada, New Zealand and theTurks Islands.

The stamp collection also included the Great Britain Collection, from which hails other big items in Spink’s ongoing auction of Sir Humphrey’s stamps, which included several examples of 1840 Penny Black plates and an accepted die proof for the ‘One Penny Stamp’. You can see some related items from the BPMA collection: lantern slides of a proof sheet of the 1840 Penny Black and the original die used for the 1840 Penny Black’s production.

‘Proof Sheet of the 1840 Penny Black’ – Lantern Slide (2010-0411)

‘Proof Sheet of the 1840 Penny Black’ – Lantern Slide (2010-0411)

The Original Die Used For Production of the 1840 Penny Black (BPMA collection)

The Original Die Used For Production of the 1840 Penny Black (BPMA collection)

Sir Humphrey’s collection is said to be one of the finest British stamp collections in private hands, a statement only reinforced by the estimated £20 million that the collection is expected to bring in over the course of its auction within the next 18 months. But what is possibly more fascinating than the price that the Mauritius stamp fetched and the value of the objects within the collection is Sir Humphrey’s evident love of stamp collecting, a passion that has assisted with the preservation of Britain’s postal heritage.

If you’d like to have a further look at the above items from the BPMA Collection, feel free to have a look at our website or catalogue. For Spink Auctioneers and Daily Mail articles on the sale of the Mauritius stamp, you can find them here and here.

– Sarah Cooper, Intern

Retrieval of Post Office underground railway cars

by Chris Taft, Curator

After 85 years underground in a now closed workshop Friday 27May 2011 saw the only known surviving example from the original rolling stock used on the Post Office Railway see the light of day. Shackled to a mini crane and hoisted vertical from the car depot of Royal Mail’s underground railway network the dark green metal rail car was brought to the surface ready to enter the BPMA collection. After much planning, coordinating of dates and a few logistical nightmares the day had finally arrived when two train units were to be removed from the railway.

Chris Taft with the car in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London.

Chris Taft with the car in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London.

The now closed underground railway, officially known as Mail Rail, first opened in 1927 to move mail between central London sorting offices and two mainline railway stations, Liverpool Street and Paddington. The line finally ceased operation in 2003 when the levels of use had declined, in part due to the closure of some of the offices and in part also as the mainline stations aboveground were no longer being used as termini of the mainline mail carrying trains.

Since its closure the BPMA have been working closely with Royal Mail to ensure the important aspects of its history are collected and that its story can be told through the BPMA’s collection. The BPMA’s collection relating to Mail Rail was always reasonable, but a notable gap was the original mail carrying vehicle from 1927, which was preserved in the network after some restoration in the 1970s, and a decent example of a 1930 train that replaced this first type of unit.

The operation to hoist the two trains from underground went very smoothly. Professional art freight movers Mtec were employed to carry out the uplift, assisted by the Royal Mail engineers who maintain the network, and me on behalf of the BPMA. The trains were pushed along tracks to the bottom of a shaft providing the only access above ground for any sizable equipment. They were then shackled to a mini crane brought onto site especially for the job and hoisted to the yard at Mount Pleasant. The 1930 train was lifted first, being taken up in three parts and placed on the ground. This was followed by the 1927 car which lifted straight up the access shaft where it would have descended 85 years previously.

The first of two 1930 motive units being lowered in to the yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London

The first of two 1930 motive units being lowered in to the yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London

From there the two trains, one still in three parts were lifted over a storage building and onto a waiting lorry. This last stage caused a little disruption within the Mail Centre while 40 tonne lorry blocked one of the access roads in Mount Pleasant but the job was quickly accomplished. Everything was then secured in place ready for the journey to the BPMA Museum Store.

Upon arrival at the Museum Store in Debden a HIAB crane was then used lift the trains directly into the store. The 1930 train was then coupled back together with the help of a pallet truck, machine skates and the obligatory couple of bits of wood and was pushed into position within the store. The rigid bodied 1927 car was pushed much more easily into position.

The two trains now join the rest of the BPMA’s collection, including the 1980 stock train which the BPMA now intend to have conserved. It is very important that these important pieces are stabilised to prevent deterioration and allow them to be used and displayed in the future. Our next job is to have a full survey completed. From there we shall have a much better idea of the costs involved and will be able to launch a fundraising campaign to raise the funds necessary to have this important conservation work complete. As this project progresses those interested will be able to monitor progress online, and by visiting the Store will even have opportunity of seeing the trains and any subsequent conservation work.

You can see more images of the Mail Rail retrieval on Flickr.


by Julian Stray, Assistant Curator

As telephones became increasingly available to the public in the late 19th
century there was a growing need for ‘kiosks’ in which to house them.

‘Public call offices’ were authorised by the Postmaster General in 1884. There were a number of suppliers and designs varied. Indoor versions had flat roofs while those outside were usually given pitched roofs, the better to withstand the weather.

The wooden kiosks did not stand up to the elements well and it is not surprising that once most responsibility for the telephone network passed to the Post Office in 1912, cast iron and the occasional flirtation with concrete were the preferred materials for manufacturing telephone kiosks.

Few wooden ‘silence cabinets’ survive today and if encountered it is normally the indoor variant that has had a more sheltered existence.

The BPMA hold four cast iron telephone kiosks from the period when the majority of the telephone systems fell under the auspices of the Post Office, these are the K2, K4, K6 and K8.

One of the BPMA’s most recent acquisitions is a ‘Silence Cabinet’. This rare survivor from between the wars was in use until quite recently in a hotel in North Norfolk.

While the modern internal telephone equipment had been removed prior to the
kiosk being acquired by the BPMA, much survives in original condition. The panelled dark wood and cream coloured interior is typical of this style of kiosk.

Arrival of the Silence Cabinet

Arrival of the Silence Cabinet. The new acquisition was carefully lowered onto a new pallet so that it could be easily moved by museum curators. We were pleased to see the delivery occurring via one of the rare surviving kiosk trailers originally used by Post Office Telephones, sadly, not part of the BPMA collection!

Most were installed in high status shops, railway stations, hotels and some post offices.

Crown glass is for the most part double glazed for privacy and the legend ‘PUBLIC TELEPHONE’ on the glass in the door would have announced its purpose to any passer by. A special handle pulls the door tightly closed when shut, compressing the rubberised seal round the edge. Faint marks on the rear of the kiosk suggest that the kiosk may have been supplied by Siemens in 1923.

The Silence Cabinet joins the other kiosks in the Museum Store. Now dwarfed by its larger cousin, the K4, or Vermillion Giant.

The Silence Cabinet joins the other kiosks in the Museum Store. Now dwarfed by its larger cousin, the K4, or Vermillion Giant.

BPMA also visited Le Strange Arms Hotel at Old Hunstanton where Robert Wyllie, the hotel manager, was interviewed for the BPMA Oral History collection.

Consequently now hold a rarely obtained complementary history from someone who knew the object well.

Are we your Archive of the Year?

Here at the BPMA we are constantly striving to improve our services to our customers. We like to think we already do pretty well and the feedback you give us supports this. In the 2011 Public Services Quality Group Survey of Visitors to British Archives, 65% of our visitors rated our overall service provision as ‘very good’. This is backed up in our ongoing feedback, over the last quarter 100% of users have rated our services ‘very good’ or ‘good’.

BPMA Archive Search Room

BPMA Archive Search Room

It seems that our users are generally happy with the service we provide, and are good at telling us how pleased they are. Now we want you to tell other people how happy you are with the service we provide. We are participating in the Archive of the Year awards run by ‘Your Family History’ and we need as many of our users as possible to nominate us for the award. Nominations can be made at, full details of the award are also available there. Nominations are open until December 2011 and the award will be made at Who Do You Think You Are Live in February 2012 (which we will be attending).

We would like to thank all our users in advance for their support. Equally if there is anything you think we could do better please let us know via