Stories from the Archive: ‘Beauty Blackwood’

In this week’s post, Archives Assistant Robin shares the interesting life of Sir Arthur Blackwood, Secretary of the Post Office from 1880-1893, from a recent Search Room enquiry.

Whilst the Post Office employment records held by the BPMA can provide crucial information for family historians, helping to fill in the gaps of an ancestor’s career and whereabouts, it is often quite difficult to get a true sense of an employee’s personality from them. However, for certain senior employees we hold a number of biographies, obituaries and personal portraits that can really help to flesh out their characters.

I found this out for myself when answering an email enquiry from an academic researching the life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, later Sir Arthur Blackwood. I had previously not known anything about him, and his entry in the Establishment Books (below) didn’t give me much to go on, but a search of our catalogue made me aware of a number of interesting sources of information we hold (including a biography by H Buxton Forman and an obituary in the staff magazines) that really brought him back to life.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Sir Arthur Blackwood’s entry in the Establishment Book for 1893, the year of his death, with the name of his replacement added in pencil. POST 59/126

Sir Arthur, had apparently been somewhat dandyish in his youth (he was nicknamed “Beauty Blackwood”), but underwent a religious conversion whilst serving in the Crimean War and became a committed Evangelist, renouncing all worldly pleasures and taking up the study of Hebrew.[1] He had a reputation as a philanthropist, and was heavily involved with a number of Post Office charities and societies. He was the president of the Post Office Total Abstinence Society, which had almost 3,000 members and branches in 31 towns, and wrote a pamphlet advocating abstinence entitled “For the Good of the Service” (a copy of this Pamphlet is held at the Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey).[2] He was a patron of the Post Office Orphan Home, was the first president of the Post Office Musical Society, and was involved in promoting Boy Telegraph Messenger Institutes for a number of London districts. His biographer quotes one Messenger, a Barnardo’s boy, as saying Sir Arthur was “such a gentleman, and spoke to me as if he was my brother”[3]. His biography also notes that he took a great interest in the formation of the Post Office Athletics and Cricket Clubs, and having served in the army was also a keen supporter of the Post Office Rifles, distributing prizes in their annual ceremonies.[4]

Despite his towering 6ft3 height and sixteen stone frame, Sir Arthur was in poor health for much of his life, and his final years as Secretary were hampered by illness – he was delayed from attending the 1891 postal congress in Vienna due to ill health and took extended leave shortly before his death in 1893 from pneumonia.[5]

An obituary run by the January 1894 issue of St. Martins-Le-Grand, the Post Office Staff Magazine (available in POST 92 in the BPMA search room) calls him a “splendid specimen of manhood”.[6] However, elsewhere I learnt that Sir Arthur’s son, the fantasy and horror writer Algernon Blackwood, felt that his father’s Evangelism had led him to have a repressive and unhappy upbringing.[7] Sir Arthur could also be severe in the line of duty. His obituary tells the story of how in 1890 Sir Arthur quelled strike action at Mount Pleasant by “[speaking] to the assembled staff in the most earnest, severe, and appropriate manner, and in the name of the Postmaster General expelled them from the premises as well as from the Service.[8]” It is fascinating that we can get such a rounded portrait of Sir Arthur’s character from these various sources.

Perhaps the best example of the material we hold on Sir Arthur is a fantastic black and white print of him in his prime (object reference 2011-0008, below), which really gives an indication of his stern but genial character. I hope I have shown in this blog that even the collection of a business archive such as the BPMA can bring the personality of historical figures to life and are a fantastic source for genealogists and biographers alike.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008

-Robin Sampson, Archives Assistant

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[1] J. S. Reynolds, ‘Blackwood, Sir (Stevenson) Arthur (1832–1893)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/46635, accessed 23 July 2014]

[2] Blackwood, Mrs. (ed.), Some Records of the Life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, Hodder & Stoughton, 1896. p396

[3] Ibid. p397

[4] Ibid. p395

[5] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January 1894 p9

[6] Ibid. p1

[7] George Malcolm Johnson, ‘Blackwood, Algernon Henry (1869–1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31913, accessed 23 July 2014]

[8] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January p7

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