Behind the object: the seemingly, uninteresting GPO truncheon

In this post, we asked Curator Emma Harper to talk about her favourite object. You will be surprised about what she came up with!

Asking a Curator to pick their favourite object is a bit like asking a child what they’d like to be when they grow up, in most cases the answer will change from day to day!

Should I choose the earliest letter box in our collection used in trials on the Channel Islands; the pneumatic rail car that was used to test the idea of using an underground railway to move the mail; or perhaps our recent acquisition of the diary of Post Office Rifleman, Thomas May, written when he was fighting in France in 1915.

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma's favourite object)

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma’s favourite object)

All of these are fascinating objects which help to illustrate the many interesting stories that our collection can tell. Instead however, I have chosen a truncheon. Now this may seem a lot less interesting than the items I’ve listed above but it is often the unassuming, apparently ‘boring’ items that can surprise us and this item, in my opinion, does just that.

A runner-up for Emma's favourite object: 19th century pneumatic railcar.

A runner-up for Emma’s favourite object: 19th century pneumatic rail car.

It is a fairly plain wooden truncheon with the handle painted white and the rest painted black. If you look closer however it not only has ‘GPO’ [General Post Office] inscribed on the back but also bears the coat of arms of the City of London, Queen Victoria’s cipher and a date ‘10/ APRIL/ 1848’. 1848 has become known as a year of revolutions and this particular date in April was the date of the Chartist’s mass demonstration on Kennington Common and procession to present their third National Petition to Parliament.  The Chartist movement was named after the People’s Charter which demanded political and electoral reform and in particular called for all males over the age of 21.

William Edward Kilburn - View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

William Edward Kilburn – View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

It was feared by the government that the Kennington Common rally would spark revolution not just in London but across the country and that government organisations such as the General Post Office could well be targeted. As the Illustrated London News stated on 15 April 1848: ‘the speeches of those gentlemen [the Chartists] had led the public to anticipate some serious disturbance of the peace of the metropolis, the Government and the civil authorities had made some extensive and well-arranged preparations to suppress effectually any violation of order or tranquility, should such be attempted.’ As a result, the government issued GPO staff with truncheons, including the one now in our collection, in order to protect themselves and Post Office property.

In the end the day passed off with relatively few violent outbreaks and, as far as I know, no direct attempts on the GPO.  While it may never have seen action, I hope I have shown how even the plainest of objects can add to our knowledge and understanding of history and our collection.

-Emma Harper, Curator

One response to “Behind the object: the seemingly, uninteresting GPO truncheon

  1. Pingback: My Favourite Object: Prosthetic Hand | The British Postal Museum & Archive

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