A Culture of Letters

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looked at the culture of letters that had arisen in Great Britain by the end of the 18th Century, with people from many different backgrounds writing letters for a variety of reasons. In this blog I hope to show how this culture continued to grow throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, illustrated by items from BPMA’s museum collection.

Quite a lot of letters in our collection are written by the Post Office rather than individuals; these deal with official matters such as examinations and appointments however even these still had a personal touch such as this letter informing Claude Kirby that:

it is practically certain you will be offered appointment as SC&T [Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist], as a result of the position which you took in the November 1935 examination.

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

It is often this type of letter that fulfils an official purpose which survive; however, the BPMA also has examples of the more personal, individual letters through which show how people began to share their observations with each other, and which marked the beginning of the instant communication revolution that has emerged in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Many of these more personal letters are love letters: this example is written by a Robert Abbott to his sweetheart Mary.

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

The hand drawn flower in the top left corner sets the scene as he goes on to talk tenderly about a number of things, including the approaching birthday of his sister who

had she been in this world, she would have been thirty-three. But she is more blessed in that state where ‘there is Time no longer’

The culture of letter writing allowed people to express their feelings in a more personal way than ever before; another letter from our collection is from a sailor serving on the HMS Grampus in 1846 to his father, in it he describes the funeral of a colleague.

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

For many, letter writing became more than just a method of communicating information, events or feelings; it was also a way of displaying their creativity as shown by the emergence of what is known as ‘curious addresses’.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

These are envelopes decorated by the sender with pictures, or short verses, often incorporating the address within the picture rather than writing it out in full and testing the knowledge of the postal staff in the process!

BPMA has quite a few curious addresses in the collection, including this particular example which was sent to a Vera Tolhurst on 11/11/1918 in honour of Armistice Day.

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Prior to the introduction of uniform penny postage in 1840 hardly any letters were sent in envelopes as they counted as an additional sheet and were charged as such. By 1855 however, it was estimated that 93% of domestic letters were sent in envelopes, allowing the development of curious addresses along with it. This is just one of many ways in which people across the country began to engage and react to changes in the postal service creating a real culture of letters.

There are many more items in the BPMA collection that show this culture of letters; see our Flickr set for larger versions of the items in this article, and look out for more blogs on this subject in the future.

– Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage A Culture of Letters. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

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