Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Passion for Postcards

Writer and researcher Guy Atkins explores the intrigues of old postcards and why we like collecting them.

As a boy I was keen on collecting things, old keys, coins, stamps. I loved stamps. When I was about 14 a great aunt died. Relatives knew that I collected stamps and there were four original albums from the Edwardian era in her possession, as she was very old. They gave them to me. Because of the stamps on the back. But of course, they were all ha’penny greens. They were all the same. And then I looked at the cards and thought they were interesting. They were more interesting than the stamps! And so I looked into it, really. And I sort of refined them. Took out some of the ones that I wasn’t particularly interested in, and sold them. You could get two pence each for an old card. That was about 1971. And for some reason I kept back some cards done by an artist called A. R. Quinton who died in 1934…

– Peter Cove

Forty years after having “kept back” his first cards, Peter Cove now owns one of every postcard designed by the artist A. R. Quinton, and published by Salmon’s of Sevenoaks. That’s 2,350 cards.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

This time last year, I was writing a thesis on the intrigue of old postcards. Like Peter, I’m hooked on collecting them. And having read of his odyssey in Picture Postcard Monthly, I contacted Peter to see if I could interview him. I wanted to understand what it felt like to have finished a collection.

Brilliantly, he agreed. And invited me to his home near Dorchester. With his wife Sarah chatting to a friend in the kitchen, Peter poured the tea and we set about discussing our shared passion.

The details of Peter’s hunt were extraordinary: he told me of adverts he placed in French magazines to find a card of Dover that might have been sent to France; he explained how he’d buy cards he thought people with items on his “wanted list” might accept in exchange; and, lowering his voice for fear of Sarah overhearing, he spoke of visits to London markets where he’d spend hundreds of pounds.

Towards the end of the interview, Peter laid out some of his Quinton albums. With pride, he showed me the card that had brought his quest to an end: Salmon’s card no. 2986, picturing a railway line near Rhyl. He bought it for £300.

Picking it up, Peter described the card as “most uninteresting to most people”. One might have predicted this. The final card was always likely not to have been commercially successful when first sold, making it in short supply today. I was not prepared, however, for Peter’s ambivalence towards the rest of his collection:

“It’s something I liked years ago. And I started so I’ll finish. Do you know what I mean?… Now my tastes have changed. They’ve moved on to more sophisticated artwork…”

In my thesis, I wanted to see how Peter’s experiences stacked up against the ideas of academics who have written about collecting – in particular, the work of Jean Baudrillard and Susan Stewart. For Baudrillard, Peter’s serial motivation would be of little surprise. His apparent disregard for the cards’ aesthetic appeal tallies with Baudrillard’s observation that for collectors “what motivates the purchase is the pure imperative of association”.

Likewise, for Susan Stewart, Peter’s collection is not constructed by individual cards. Rather it comes to exist by how it is arranged. Stewart would argue that Peter’s ten heavy-duty albums are a kind of “Noah’s ark”, preserving items according to criteria selected by him.

Perhaps these charges are fair. But Peter unsettles other ideas of Baudrillard and Stewart. Take Baudrillard’s psychoanalytic portrait of collectors. He sees collectors as individuals struggling to form relationships with others, and using collecting as a way to withdraw from society. It is easy to match this template for collectors against fictional characters. Think of the terrifying Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’ The Collector, or Bruce Chatwin’s porcelain-obsessed Kasper Utz. Yet for Peter, being able to build relationships is at the core of his collecting. Rather than being estranged from society, Peter needed all his social skills to complete the Quinton series. It was his good relationships with dealers that allowed him to reach his goal. And while Peter is only one collector, empirical research on collecting suggests he is not unusual; collectors are not a markedly different group from the rest of the UK population.

Another strand of both Baudrillard and Stewart’s analyses Peter confounds is that collecting somehow abolishes time, that it is ‘anti-history’. For Stewart, “a collection replaces origin with classification”. This is an important part of her criticism of collecting as the “most abstract form of all consumption”. She believes it eradicates labour, making the moment of production remote.

It is true that Peter does not greatly value the artistic merits of Quinton’s work (“he was not a great artist!”) and the driver of his collecting was undoubtedly the completion of the series. But the origins of the cards matter. Ordered according to when the originals were painted, the cards in Peter’s albums provide a history of Quinton’s journey around Britain. Far from marginalizing Quinton’s labour, Peter and fellow members of the Salmon Study Group reveal it. Each year they visit sites he painted and compare the artwork on his cards with the views today.

So where does this leave us? Well, interviewing Peter and other collectors has made me wonder whether it’s time for a reversal in the portrayal of collecting, time for collecting to edge out from the shadows. Perhaps the motivations for collecting will always be private and mysterious. Maybe collectors do use the pursuit of objects to escape into their own worlds. But this should not stop us from recognizing the communal benefits of collecting. Alongside that drive to complete, stories emerge, histories are rescued and communities form.

I’ve finished my thesis now. But I’m keen to keep investigating. So if you’re a collector, I’d be delighted if you got in touch. Especially, if you’ve a story of something that has happened as a result of your collecting. Maybe you’ve uncovered an interesting history that would have otherwise been forgotten? Or become great friends with other collectors? If anything comes to mind, please do get in touch. My email address is Or write to Guy Atkins c/o BPMA, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, LONDON WC1X 0DL. I’ve also got a blog you can follow at or @postcardese on Twitter.


Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting”, in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, (Reaktion Books, 1994)

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993)

Mail Rail Trains Conservation Project

Our project to conserve two of the Mail Rail trains in our collection is now almost complete; the photographs accompanying this blog give some idea of the work done. Today we present an interview with one of the volunteers, Don Bell, who has helped complete this work and who has been trained up by George Monger, the conservator employed to do this work.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

Why did you get involved with the BPMA as a volunteer?

I used to work for Royal Mail as a Delivery Office Manager (DOM) and originally became aware of the Museum when working as a DOM in Tottenham where the old Museum store used to be. I was asked to get some Posties together to pose with pillar boxes from the collection to promote the 2002 Pillar Box stamps issue.

As DOM at Winchmore Hill I also became involved in volunteering and charity work further, including the setting up of a local fundraising charity.

I have also always been interested in the museum and vehicles in particular.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

What does your role as a volunteer involve?

Cleaning and preparing the Mail Rail vehicles and applying a layer of wax to the trains to act as a protective barrier. I also help care for few of the other vehicles in the collection supporting the work of the BPMA curators at the Museum Store.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

Have you learnt anything particularly surprising or interesting?

It was surprising to see the different colours of paint underneath the top coat on the Mail Rail trains, these coming from different eras, including paintwork for the film Hudson Hawk on one of the trains. [Mail Rail trains were re-painted as underground Vatican mail trains for the film]

When you volunteer you go in different directions, I am interested in the vehicles and would rather get my hands dirty than volunteer in admin – with this project, anything I can learn about conservation is a plus.

George [The Conservator employed by BPMA on this project] opened my eyes – he explained that the covers over the electric units would have got very hot in the vehicles working life and the paint bubbled. My original instinct was to clean it all off but George explained that you should preserve what’s left – not everything has to be pristine but rather should reflect the vehicles as they were.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

What is your involvement in the Mail Rail story?

I can remember helping out from time to time as overtime at the W1 Delivery Office, sometimes you got called down to help out and then would get roped into helping load the trains.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

What is your favourite object?

All of the Post Office vehicles, having worked in deliveries for all of my working life starting as a Telegram Messenger and continuing for 40 years.

I think there is so much potential if you could take the vehicles out on the road! The Mobile Post Office would be great for fundraising and advertising the Museum.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA's Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

Interview by Claire English

The BPMA would like to thank The PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, administered by Arts Council England, and the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant Scheme for kindly donating towards the Mail Rail conservation project.

If you are interested in volunteering for BPMA please visit the Volunteers page on our website for further information.

Cataloguing Stamp Artwork – Phase II – 1975-1980

We have successfully applied for funding from the Aurelius Charitable Trust, the Leche Trust and the Charles Hayward Foundation to continue collection care, cataloguing and digitisation work of our collection of stamp artwork. Previous phases of the work have taken the management of the artwork from the reigns of George V to the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The second phase of work will see that cataloguing taken to 1980.

Before cataloguing and digitisation work is work carried a careful appraisal of the artwork is required to ascertain its condition, the accuracy of its caption and the security of its mount. This work is being undertaken by Richard West MBE, a respected philatelist and former editor of Stamp Magazine, in consultation with Douglas Muir, BPMA’s Curator of Philately, and Krystyna Koscia, our Conservator. This is a key process as the aim of the project is to preserve the artwork for future generations and it is reassuring to have Richard’s careful attention to detail deployed in this task.

Richard West MBE.

Richard West MBE.

Richard checks each sheet, writes and attaches the caption, before inserting it into a melinex sleeve (an inert, acid-free polyester) and placing it into an album. Richard has now completed albums up to 1979. This has been a pain-staking process and Richard has also been working backwards through the reign of Queen Elizabeth, making sure that captions written in the past are also accurate and re-writing them where necessary.

Stamp issues between 1975 and 1980 include Birth Bicentenary of JMW Turner (1975), Sailing (1975), 150th Anniversary of Public Railways (1975), Social Reformers (1976), Telephone Centenary (1976), British Cultural Traditions (1976), British Wildlife (1977), Horses (1978), Death Centenary of Sir Rowland Hill (1979) and London Landmarks (1980).

Here Richard West captions and sleeves artwork relating to the 1979 stamp issue Dogs.

Here Richard West captions and sleeves artwork relating to the 1979 stamp issue Dogs.

Anna Flood, one of our archivists, has been editing stamp artwork catalogue descriptions for the reigns of King George V and King George VI and is now preparing the artwork for Queen Elizabeth II for release in the near future.

Now that Richard has prepared a substantial number of artwork albums from 1975, Anna will create catalogue descriptions for these. Anna will use the captions written by Richard as the basis for each artwork description, noting particular features and the name of the contributing artist. This is time consuming work, requiring Anna to liaise between Richard and Douglas to ensure that the appropriate detail is captured.

Digitisation of the artwork will begin towards the end of the year as the cataloguing descriptions are formed. Again, digitisation is laborious work – artwork needs careful handling at this stage too, and the scanning equipment has to be calibrated to ensure that the resulting digital images match as closely the colour and detail of the original piece of artwork.

Finally, once the digital images have been processed, the masters carefully stored away and the digital surrogates attached to the relevant record, the descriptions will be proof-read first by Anna and Douglas, and then a second archivist will carry out a final read. This quality control minimises the risk of errors but, inevitably, they do occasionally slip through. The catalogue records, along with digital images of each piece of artwork, will be available for consultation in the first quarter of 2013.

PSQG Survey of Visitors to British Archives

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the findings of the survey of distance users which we participated in earlier this year. I also promised to provide more information about the forthcoming PSQG (Public Sector Quality Group) Survey of Visitors to British Archives.

The PSQG Survey of Visitors to British Archives is carried out approximately every 18 months. It provides a detailed insight into the views of users about our service provision and the value of archives generally. It also provides a base to benchmark against other similar services, as the survey is carried out on a national basis.

The BPMA will be participating in the survey from 29 October-10 November inclusive. During this time all visitors to our Search Room will be asked to complete a survey. Participation is completely voluntary but all responses help us assess where we are doing well, and how we can continue to improve the services we offer to you. All responses are anonymous and a box will be provided to enable completed surveys to be returned discretely.

The last PSQG Survey of Visitors to British Archives was conducted in March 2011 and responses were generally very positive. At that time 100% of users rated our overall service as very good or good.

Areas highlighted for improvement in 2011 included the website, visitor facilities, catalogues and guides, onsite computer facilities, copy services, and pre visit information. Since then we have launched a new website which has received very positive feedback. The new website includes more detailed information to assist users with preparing for their visits, as well as a number of completely new pages. We have also introduced public wifi access in our Search Room, and have upgraded our public computer terminals. We have invested in a new book scanner which produces high quality images which can be saved, avoiding the need to scan the material again. In July 2011 our appointment records went online with, improving access to the collection and enabling users to confirm their ancestor’s employment with the Post Office before visiting. We have also continued our programme of cataloguing both the archive and museum collections.

BPMA Archive Search Room - Areas for improvement

BPMA Archive Search Room – Areas for improvement

Visitor facilities are an area where we always have slightly lower scores. We are aware that many of our users would like more refreshment facilities. Unfortunately in our current location we simply do not have sufficient space or footfall to accommodate these facilities. However we have taken this feedback on board and hope to incorporate improved refreshment facilities in our new centre.

Having worked hard over the past 18 months to respond to your feedback last time round, we are now keen to know if you like the changes we have made, and what else you would like to see improved. If you do visit our Search Room during the survey period (29 October-10 November) please do take the time to complete one of our surveys. If you are unable to visit during this period, but have any feedback please do feel free to use the feedback option on our website.

Helen Dafter – Archivist

Put Your Stamp on the New Centre Exhibition Space

We have been working hard with our appointed creative designers Haley Sharpe Design on early plans for the main exhibition space of the Calthorpe House New Centre. The 500m2 gallery will be split into five zones, each covering an era of postal history.

Zone 1 will look at the early days of the Royal Mail, with the BPMA’s 18th Century Mail Coach as its centrepiece, whilst in Zone 2 visitors will meet Rowland Hill – a visionary Victorian, who devised solutions to the short-comings of the postal service in its early days. On display visitors will find a variety of objects and records related to the design of the Penny Black, the world’s first postage, as well as other examples of great Victorian inventions that facilitated the sending and receiving of mail.

Visualisation of Zone 2: "Reform and Innovation".

Visualisation of Zone 2: “Reform and Innovation”.

Between Zones 2 and 3, visitors can read profound and moving stories reflecting events from postal history during the early 20th Century, such as the story of the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, the suffragettes who posted themselves to the Prime Minister, and the role of the Post Office during WWI.

Visualisation of Zone 3: "The Post Office in Conflict".

Visualisation of Zone 3: “The Post Office in Conflict”.

In Zone 3, visitors will step into a reconstruction of life in WWII London, whilst Zone 4, by contrast, will present a bright, visual feast, vividly demonstrating the time from the 1930s to the 1960s when the Post Office was a leader in style and design in Britain.

Visualisation of Zone 4: "Style and Design".

Visualisation of Zone 4: “Style and Design”.

Zone 5 will consider the modern Post Office, including the competition and challenges of 21st Century Communications, as well as the role of the service at the heart of isolated rural communities.

Work is currently underway to work up a long-list of objects and records from the Museum and Archive collections to populate the exhibition and illustrate the stories and themes outlined above. Whilst the ‘usual suspects’ (such as items from early Mail Coach Guards and the many photos and posters held in the Archive) are, of course, under consideration, the BPMA are keen to include ‘hidden gems’ that may not have been seen in previous exhibitions – something for which we would like your help…

Tell us which artefacts from the BPMA collections you would like to see on display in the new exhibition!

Blog readers are invited to suggest a museum object or archive record that they would like to see included in the new gallery displays, with an explanation as to why you have chosen that particular item. The best suggestion, as selected by the BPMA Access and Learning Team, will win a signed copy of Julian Stray’s book Mail Trains. Results announced in January.

Please send your suggestions by 30 November 2012 to: Andy Richmond – BPMA Access & Learning Manager,

Ringing the Change: Post Office promotion of the telephone and telegraph service, 1925-1939

On Thursday 8 November the BPMA are delighted to host our guest speaker, David Hay, Head of Heritage at BT Group PLC. David Hay will be exploring the radical change in Post Office telephone marketing strategy in the 1930s in a talk entitled Ringing the Change.

"Telephone rates" publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

“Telephone rates” publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

Between 1925 and 1928 the Post Office invested almost £1 million a month in the telephone network as it began the roll-out of automatic telephone exchanges, enabling subscribers to make local calls directly without involving a telephone operator. The result of this new technology, together with the introduction of new mass-produced telephone instruments using early plastics, was that the cost of having a telephone gradually began to fall. The Post Office also introduced new services during this period, such as the first transatlantic radio telephone service in 1926, direct telephone communications with countries in Europe and the expansion of the public telephone kiosk network.

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

However, much of this innovation went unnoticed by the public. Indeed, despite the enormous investment in new technology, there was widespread concern by 1931 that Britain was lagging behind other countries in Europe in the take-up of the telephone. Up to 25 per cent of the capacity of the telephone network was lying idle.

"Always at your service", telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

“Always at your service”, telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

This richly illustrated talk will explore the early attempts of the Post Office to address this and to market the telephone to a wider part of society then before, efforts which were revolutionised in 1933 by the recruitment of Sir Stephen Tallents as the Post Office’s first Public Relations Officer. The decade before the Second World War was in many ways a golden period for GPO marketing, not least in the publicity machine unleashed by Tallents who had a passionate belief in the role of the arts promoting what were then Government services. Tallents and his team commissioned artists, designers, film makers and photographers to project a modern view of the Post Office to its customers and to its own employees.

"Come on the telephone", telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

“Come on the telephone”, telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

The result was that by the end of the inter-war era many of the GPO’s products and services – such as the Jubilee red telephone kiosk designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the Speaking Clock and the 999 Emergency Service – had become iconic parts of the nation’s cultural fabric, and remain so to this day. And the Post Office itself, which entered the decade criticised on all sides for failing to promote its telecommunications services and communicate its role generally, was ultimately respected as a national asset vital to the country’s success.

We hope you will join us for what promises to be a fascinating talk!

Tickets are £3 per head or £2.50 for concessions, and can be bought on the door on the night or you can book tickets online.

Space Science stamps

Royal Mail has today issued six new stamps which take a journey around our solar system, revealing the beauty and mystery of the other worlds that also orbit the Sun. The Space Science issue celebrates Britain’s role in the exploration of space and marks the 50th anniversary of Ariel 1, the first British satellite.

Space Science Presentation Pack.

Space Science Presentation Pack.

Two 1st class stamps show the Sun, our nearest star, and Venus, as seen from the Venus Express probe.

Space Science 1st class stamps.

Space Science 1st class stamps.

The two 77p stamps feature a shot of ice within an impact crater on the surface of Mars and the diamond-shaped asteroid Lutetia, captured by the Rosetta probe.

Space Science 77p stamps.

Space Science 77p stamps.

Perhaps one of the most exciting developments was the historic landing of the Huygens probe upon Saturn’s largest moon Titan, featured on one of the £1.28p stamps, revealing a landscape remarkably similar to that of Earth. The other £1.28p stamp features the beautiful icy rings of Saturn, lit up by the Sun behind, which were photographed by the Cassini probe.

Space Science £1.28 stamps.

Space Science £1.28 stamps.

All the extraordinary images captured for the Space Science issue were taken by the European Space Agency‘s (ESA) satellites and probes. As a member of the ESA, Britain’s scientists, universities and companies have made significant contributions to its missions, such as Mars Express and the Cassini-Huygens probe to Saturn.

In the Space Science Presentation Pack that accompanies this issue, astronomy journalist Dr Stuart Clark takes a look at our solar system and the recent European probes that have explored it.

Philip Parker, Royal Mail Stamps spokesperson, said:

In previous astronomy issues we had looked at the distant galaxies, so for this issue we decided to take a more ‘local’ approach and explore our home solar system.

We worked closely with the European Space Agency to determine the content of this issue, and the designers selected recent images gathered by ESA space observatories and probes to produce this fascinating set of stamps.

Two different pictorial ‘first day of issue postmarks’ are available to accompany this stamp issue.

Space Science first day of issue postmarks.

Space Science first day of issue postmarks.

Stamps and stamp products are available at most Post Office branches, online at and from Royal Mail Tallents House (tel. 08457 641 641), 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.