My name’s Matt, and I’m an archivist. You may remember my blog posts and tweets from 2013-14. I’m thrilled to say that I’ve rejoined the BPMA after fifteen months away. I’ve been here since early September and there’s so much to do!
Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.
My work as an archivist is really varied. You can sometimes see me helping researchers in our Search Room as the archivist on duty, and I’ll once again be bringing you posts on this blog to show you new discoveries and curiosities from our collections. Behind the scenes, I spend every Monday helping my colleagues with the giant task of preparing to move the Archive to The Postal Museum. But my main focus is on cataloguing: I’ll be aiming to catalogue hundreds of records from the Archive over the coming months.
My first cataloguing assignment was the overseas mail letter books. This somewhat mysterious POST class (number 48, to be precise), hasn’t fully been publicly available until now. Several people have worked on it before me, including my illustrious predecessor Anna.
What are the letter books? Well, they’re official records containing copies of correspondence, mostly sent from the Secretary to the Post Office to various recipients including postal agents, other countries’ postal administrations, and shipping companies involved in overseas mail. The date range is vast: from the early 18th century to the 1950s. Many of the letter books deal with postal arrangements for then-British colonies and territories, from the large (Canada) to the small (the Turks Islands). Fortunately, most of the volumes have helpful indexes:
Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).
As you might expect, the subject matter is minutely detailed and often financial or logistical in nature. A packet ship inspection here, a surcharge on parcels there. Newfangled developments in telegraphy in one letter, a shipping contract renegotiation in the next. But amidst the day-to-day technicalities of international post, you inevitably find world events, such as this Post Office letter about the sinking of the Titanic:
Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).
The mails went between nations – or at least attempted to – in the face of sea disasters, technology shifts, political intrigues, and wars, both civil and international. For example, here’s a 1774 letter from Post Office Secretary Anthony Todd, firing none other than Benjamin Franklin from the job of Britain’s Deputy Postmaster in America:
Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).
Of course, the American War of Independence began the following year. Later in the very same book are rather friendlier letters from Todd to Franklin, who was now the United States Postmaster General.
The overseas mail letter books are a tricky resource to use (and to catalogue!). The range of subjects is huge, and you may need to cross-reference with other bits of the Archive to get a clear picture of what’s being discussed. There’s also 350 years of changing handwriting to negotiate, and multiple languages including French and Arabic. But they have lots of value and interest as a staggeringly detailed picture of global communication, and they’ll be joining our online catalogue soon.
Catch you in a few weeks with my next discoveries in the Archive!
– Matt Tantony, Archivist (Cataloguing)