Author Archives: postalheritage

Our blog has moved!

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This is the last blog you’ll find here, but we haven’t disappeared – we’ve upgraded!

In a little more than a year, we will be opening the doors to The Postal Museum. Gearing up for this excitement, we’ve got a new name, a new logo, and we’ve built a whole new website: postalmuseum.org.

Visualisation of how The Postal Museum might look

Our blog has a new home there – postalmuseum.org/blog – where we will be sharing more stories, discoveries and updates as we work towards opening.

Thank you to all our readers and we hope to see you over at postalmuseum.org!

Pop it in the Post – Your world at the end of the street

Last year we celebrated 175 years since the introduction of the world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, and 160 years since the invention of the pillar box. Both are now everyday objects that we are more than familiar with. Pop it in the Post, our family-friendly exhibition, explores these and other new, and sometimes quirky, ideas that made the mail accessible to all. You can visit now at Havering Museum in Romford until 26 March, free of charge.

Painting titled 'The Postman', 1891

‘The Postman’, 1891 (OB1997.5)

Children and adults alike can discover the story of the letter writing revolution and how millions of people’s lives were changed as a result of the innovative problem-solving of Rowland Hill and Anthony Trollope, the brains behind the stamp and pillar box.

Pop it in the Post at Islington Museum, March 2015

Pop it in the Post at Islington Museum last year

As part of the exhibition you can see the writing slope and handstamp Trollope used whilst travelling and working around the country, as well as three early pillar boxes from the BPMA’s collection.  There is also a chance to dress up as a Letter Carrier (an early postman) and solve some post puzzles.

One of the first pillar boxes to be used in the British Isles, introduced in the Channel Islands circa 1852-1853 (OB1996.653)

One of the first pillar boxes to be used in the British Isles, circa 1852-1853 (OB1996.653)

Come along to find out more about these life-changing inventions and how they created a communications revolution.

Havering Museum is open Wednesday – Saturday 11am-4pm.

-Emma Harper, Exhibitions Officer

New Exhibition: Unstitching the Uniform

A new exhibition entitled ‘Unstitching the Uniform’ is now open in our Search Room, inspired by, and including objects from, our recent community project with The Amies.  You may remember our Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, has previously written about our work with this group of ten trafficked women brought together by PAN Arts and The Poppy Project, an organisation providing support, advocacy and accommodation for trafficked women.

During the project, the group investigated the design history of the postal service; a particular favourite focus became the huge variety of ever-changing uniforms worn by postal workers. Inspired by their own experiences and the objects and stories explored, the group responded in creative ways, including sewing their own versions of key uniform items from our collection, and collaborating with the artist Ella Phillips from October Gallery and textiles facilitator Susie Foster. It is this work that formed the inspiration and basis for the ‘Unstitching the Uniform’ exhibition.

The Amies together, © Brendan Foster Photography

The Amies together

From cloth caps to hessian bags, uniform has always been designed for durability, protection and identification and this theme is explored throughout the exhibition using original objects from BPMA’s collection such as caps, badges and telegram pouches. Also featured are those workers who pioneered a change in uniform, from Jean Cameron’s call for postwomen’s trousers to Mr Sant Singh Saneet’s successful campaign for the turban to become an accepted item of headgear.

Female horse and cart drivers, First World War, POST 118

Female horse and cart drivers in uniform, First World War (POST 118)

Alongside the objects and archival images are art installations by Ella Phillips and Susie Foster. Susie has created a jacket and skirt inspired by both the postwoman’s uniform and the design work of The Amies during workshop sessions. Ella charts the progress of The Amies throughout the project, telling some of their remarkable stories. Included on display is a pouch sewn by one of group, similar to one used by a Post Office telegram messenger boy.

Admiring some handiwork

Admiring some handiwork

The Amies at work

The Amies at work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We do hope you’ll come along to see this exhibition during our opening hours to follow The Amies on their journey, unravelling stories held within our collection, and to see the work that they inspired.

For more information about other amazing social enterprises involving the Amies group, visit www.flowerpress.org.

-Emma Harper, Exhibitions Officer

Dear Santa: The History of Writing to Father Christmas

In this post, Archives Assistant Ashley March gives us a preview of his talk next Tuesday (1 December) at 7pm. Ashley has been delving through the BPMA’s files to explore how, with the Post Office’s help, Santa started writing back to children across the UK.

My adult interest in writing to Father Christmas started – as the best stories do – with an unexpected question. A couple had come to use our Search Room, and as one of them pored over pages and pages of pension records, looking for a trace of his great grandfather (or some other long-distant relative), the other shyly approached the desk and asked me, with a glint in her eye, ‘Do you know what happens to the letters to Santa?’

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Christmas card from Santa, 1994

I can’t say the question had occurred to me before, and it was April at the time, so hardly festive. After only a little digging, however, we found a folder of research that others had done on the topic, packed with intriguing documents. A surprise to me – the first ‘letter from Santa’ the Post Office sent wasn’t safe and traditional in design, but rather bold and stylish:

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A press release dated 21st December 1963 explained that for the first time, ‘children who had sent letters to Father Christmas in Snowland, Reindeerland, Toyland, etc., and who had put their addresses on their letters, would receive a message from Father Christmas.’ Around 7,500 of the cards pictured were sent, with a special postmark:

Reindeerland postmark 1963

Reindeerland postmark 1963

It turns out we have quite a few files dedicated to Santa mail, back then and since. Looking through the titles, my head filled with questions: Why start sending Santa’s replies at that time? Why the Post Office? And who decided what Santa could send? We take it for granted today that Father Christmas writes back to any of us (if, all importantly, we supply a return address), but we should remember that it might not have turned out this way.

Different ideas had been floated: one manager suggested sending a record featuring Santa’s voice as ‘even more attractive and in keeping with the times than a letter’, and below you can see a charmingly rustic mock-up of a colouring book that Santa might have sent if writers had been asked to pay for his reply:

Proposed Santa colouring book

Proposed Santa colouring book

It might have been made in a hurry!

It was possibly made in a hurry!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rummaging around in our repository, I’ve unearthed a great selection of stories like this to share, so please join me if you can. Did I mention that there will be mulled wine?

-Ashley March, Archives Assistant

Join Ashley next Tuesday 1 December at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Pushing the Envelope with James Addison

In this post, Graphic designer James Addison gives us a preview of his talk next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. James has been testing the Royal Mail’s delivery service through a series of peculiar envelopes containing nothing more than cryptic clues and puzzling addresses to see what lengths our humble posties will go to deliver our letters. 

Pushing-the-Envelope-Image1

Have you ever thought about sending a banana through the post? Or even asking your postman to decide where your letter should be sent? Perhaps writing your address in Morse code? No?

As a self-confessed ‘Post Puzzler’, I have been challenging the Royal Mail by writing and sending cryptic addresses on envelopes for many years. From maps and symbols to word-searches and drawings of the destination, they never fail to deliver and I have a growing admiration for their patience and perseverance.

Puzzles_for_postmen_4

The Royal Mail has been a great fascination of mine for many years. How a letter can physically travel from one end of the country to the other for just 54p is still brilliant (you can’t even buy a Double-Decker chocolate bar for that price). But when you discover the lengths that our postal service have gone to in order to deliver that letter then receiving one is even more special.

Puzzles_for_postmen_5

During my talk I will be delving back into my own personal archives of curious envelopes, odd experiments and occasionally eyebrow-raising postal exploits. Please join me as I share not only my work but that of many other artists, designers and illustrators over the years who have explored this still thriving medium and bringing a whole new meaning to the word ‘postcode’.

-James Addison

Join James next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Dear Amie: Inspiring formerly trafficked women through postal uniforms

During the past two years our Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, has been developing our audiences in the run-up to opening The Postal Museum. Through engaging new groups we have been able to interpret our collection in new and exciting ways. We have created strong and sustainable bonds with formally under-represented groups who now see us and objects as relevant and of interest. In this post, Hannah shares what she has been up to with the Amies, a group of ten women who are survivors of trafficking.

Established in July 2014, delivered in collaboration with the October Gallery and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we engaged with the Amies over a 12 week period. The 10 ladies were originally brought together by PAN Arts, a London-based arts company, and The Poppy Project. This summer we built upon this project, working with the Amies and partnering with the October Gallery, The Mary Ward Centre and The Calthorpe Project. However, this time, we looked at postal uniforms throughout the ages, and used them as inspiration to make our own textile items. Through a series of images, we’ll share what we have been up to.

We started off the project looking at the various bags that have been used by postal workers over the centuries. Inspired by the telegram messenger bags, we made our own versions to practice simple sewing skills.

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

We developed our sewing skills at the Mary Ward Centre through making a bag with a zip using sewing machines. This got the whole group ready to tackle making a skirt, inspired by the post women’s uniform during the First World War. To make the skirt, we explored images from the collection and experimented with patterns, and had a fabric printed containing our favourite images.

Nanda cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

One of the women cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

Mani making her bag on the sewing machine

One of the women making her bag on the sewing machine

Asia and Paulina look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

The group look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

Mani shows us her ideas for a pattern

One of the women shows us her ideas for a pattern

Nanda works on sewing her skirt

One of the women works on sewing her skirt

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

Being able to build upon this project and working with these women has been an absolute joy. Seeing the women grow in confidence and help each other to learn new skills (both textile and life skills) whilst using our collection as a platform has been hugely worthwhile and humbling. Partnering with the October Gallery and The Mary Ward Centre has also enabled us to learn new skills from peers; invaluable as we continue to move forward developing our audiences for The Postal Museum. Next steps include planning our next project with the women at The Postal Museum and developing our first community inspired exhibition at our archive in Freeling House. Watch this space!

-Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

This project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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Meet the Staff: Archivist (Cataloguing) Matt Tantony

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.

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).

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).

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).

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)

The FOUR openings of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. At 189m, the Tower was the tallest building in London until 1980 and is still an iconic part of the capital’s skyline. Rather than look at the build, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT David Hay recounts the story behind its FOUR official openings and the drama that ensued.

The planning for the Tower opening ceremony, documented at BT Archives, reveals a little known story of inter departmental rivalry and public image concerns. Construction on the Tower began in 1961, and as early as 1963 thought was being given to an official opening. The Postmaster General of the time, J R Bevins, was keen for a ceremony in 1964 “as soon as the shell has been completed”. A major concern was that the project should be seen to be led by the Post Office. The actual construction was managed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and Bevins was “determined to do something about this by the start of March, without M.o.W. [Ministry of Works]” and that “there must be no question of his [MoW] minister organising shows.”

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The GPO Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, had to point out that there was little point in organising an event before any equipment had been installed in the Tower, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.”

O’Brien’s preferred date for the opening ceremony was April or May 1965 with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding. In case there were delays, Bevins’ successor, Tony Benn, decided to invite Prime Minister Harold Wilson to officiate instead. In his letter, Benn asked Wilson to “draw attention to the role of the Post Office as the central nervous system of the United Kingdom dealing in the transmission of all sorts of information on which the economic life of the community depends”. Downing St was given the choice of April or October and, to O’Brien’s dismay, Wilson gave an October date as his preference. The Post Office had wanted a ceremony sooner rather than later because the physical construction of the Tower had been completed in 1964, and O’Brien was concerned that the public would be wondering why it had not been opened already.

TCB_346 T010

The October date – preferred by the GPO Engineering Department to ensure that all the latest equipment was installed – was seen to be a better option, “it would be rather unfortunate if we were to try to show the way in which the Post Office is installing the most up to date equipment in the world if we had so important a person as the Prime Minister opening the Tower when little equipment is there.”

TCB_346 T194

Ultimately, perhaps reflecting a typical British compromise, there were actually FOUR opening ceremonies:

  • The topping out ceremony on 15 July 1964 marking the formal end of the construction, where a Minister of Public Building and Works made a speech “confining himself to the building achievements.”
  • The operational opening of the Tower on 8 October 1965.
  • An official visit by HM Queen Elizabeth hosted by Tony Benn on 17 May
  • The opening of the public areas of the Tower (the restaurant and the observation floor) on 19 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Sir Billy Butlin (who had been awarded the licence to operate the restaurant).

The files also reflect a little of the characters of some of the key players in the Tower’s story. J R Bevins, who had been instrumental in the building of the Tower, declined his invitation because it had been incorrectly addressed to him as ‘Mr’ rather than “the Right Honourable J R Bevins – after all I am a Privy Councillor”. And following the ceremony Tony Benn wrote to O’Brien requesting that special arrangements be made to ensure that official drivers received refreshments at future events, “I believe there was some difficulty about this in connection with the opening of the Post Office Tower”.

TCB_346 T648

Whatever day you see as the ‘official opening’, the BT Tower (formerly the Post Office Tower) is still an iconic landmark in London today and an innovation from the General Post Office.

You can read more on the history of the BT Tower on the BT Archives website

‘Wish you were here’: 145 years since the first postcard

On this day, 145 years ago, the British public were first introduced to the postcard. As eagerly anticipated as the latest technology upgrades are today, 75 million were sent in the first year alone. 

However, they were a far cry from the ‘Wish You Were Here’ holiday scenes which primarily make up today’s postcards. Instead they were rather dull: the address was written on one side with the reverse left blank for the message. No other writing was allowed on the address side in case it obscured the address and led to the item being incorrectly delivered. Moreover, the postcard was introduced to benefit businesses as a time saving device rather than to share tales of holiday adventures. Mr Lundy of the North British Colour Company in Leith argued that a postcard:

“would save a vast amount of trouble…to the Post Office & also a large amount of valuable time which is daily wasted by large firms like ourselves who have many envelopes to open covering information which really is of no consequence as to whom it may be read by.”[1]

Original postcard design - no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post

Original postcard design – no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post!

By 1890 both publishers and the public were eager to make better use of the postcard. They suggested the introduction of a divided back, in other words, confining the address, if wished, to just a half of a side freeing up the rest of a card for a drawing or a longer message. Eventually the Post Office agreed on the condition that any extra designs or remarks did not “Lead to any practical embarrassment of the Officers of the Post Office” and so in 1894, the picture postcard was born.

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Soon cartoons and photographs adorned the fronts of postcards which were now very much the piece of social mail that we know today. With the turn of the new century in 1900 the craze for sending and collecting postcards went into overdrive. From country landscapes to cheeky seaside scenes, from political cartoons to photographs of major events the picture postcard was used the country over to share news, opinions and events, broadening people’s knowledge of the country and the world.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.  Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.
Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Whilst a picture might paint a thousand words, the messages on postcards were still an important aspect. As an open form of communication postcards can be fascinating objects. Looking back at postcards written decades ago the messages they carry can often seem cryptic if you were not the sender or receiver.  For example, one postcard in our collection sent to Miss M. Bright just says ‘How many ghosts did you meet last night. Will this do for your collection’ My imagination immediately conjures up a scene whereby Miss Bright is an Edwardian ghostbuster! The impact of the postcard as a more open form of communication is still felt today, whether we realise it or not, in the many texts and tweets we send around the world.

A very

A very spooky postcard…

But people also developed a myriad of ways to convey messages privately on postcards that the interested eye of the postman wouldn’t see.  This could be through the message itself, written perhaps in mirror writing or in a coded alphabet, or sometimes in an adaptation to the postcard itself. For example many people starting ‘tilting’ the stamp, leading to many variations known as The Language of Stamps. As with the Language of Fans the position of the stamp could convey a plethora of meanings, from ’I love you’ to ‘I don’t want to see you again’, it was adapted many times over.

Postcards showing the 'Language of Stamps'

Postcards showing the ‘Language of Stamps’

I hope this brief outline of the origins of postcards 145 years ago will inspire you to keep sending postcards to friends and family across the world and perhaps next time you send one, you’ll tilt your stamp or use your own secret message.

– Emma Harper, Curator

[1] The Royal Mail Archive, BPMA, POST 30/319A

Seals, Seas and Ancestries: A Remarkable Postal Family History

One of the things we often get asked, as keepers of the Royal Mail Archive, is what we can tell people about their relatives who worked for the Post Office.

‘What did my father do?’
‘When did my grandma work in this city?’
‘My great uncle says he whizzed around on a motorbike delivering telegrams when he was just a teenager – could this be true?’

Telegram Messenger Boy

Telegram Messenger Boy

We don’t always hold the answers, but when we do, it’s a wonderful feeling helping others to understand the lives of their loved ones.

Every so often, someone contacts us to look further back in time – to add a ‘great’ (or three) to the usual enquiries about parents or grandparents. As someone with the bug myself, I fully understand this; researching your family history can be highly addictive and it can turn up some great stories.

Section of a Post Office Appointments Book

Unfortunately the records can be difficult. We have a standard set that we search for our Family History Research Service, but the further back in time you look, the harder it can be to find particular people. So, when a request came in to research a man called Edward Randall Pascoe, born in 1779, I was worried that we wouldn’t find much to get our teeth into. As a further challenge, we were asked if we could find the cause of Edward’s death, when he was just 42 years of age. Could we help at all?

Poster of Mail for the Packet Ships

Poster showing Mails for the Packets arriving at Falmouth in 1833 by Harold Sandys Williamson

Edward Randall Pascoe, it turns out, was a packet boat captain. Our enquirer, married to one of Edward’s descendants, already knew this, as they had found a mention of him becoming Commander of a ship called the Mansfield in our Appointment records (handily digitised by www.ancestry.co.uk). By that time, April 1821, packet boats had been carrying Post Office mail across the sea for over a hundred years, and Edward’s task on the Mansfield was to see the post safely from Milford Haven, Wales, to Waterford, Ireland, and vice-versa.

Since our enquirer knew this already, we agreed to work differently from our usual service, to hunt for something useful. Searching our catalogue, I was excited to learn we held a record of the Mansfield dated 1 August 1821 – only a few months after Edward gained command of the ship – in a box of ‘Bills of Sale’. I unfolded it very carefully and read that ‘Edward Randall Pascoe of Milford in the country of Pembroke, Mariner, and William Molland of Dover in the county of Kent, Gentleman,’ agreed to buy the Countess of Mansfield from the Postmaster General for ‘one thousand eight hundred and forty pounds eight shillings and six pence,’ as long as Edward still carried the mail.

It described the vessel – ‘a square sterned Cutter’, ‘British built’ – in great detail, but best of all, lying at the bottom of the page, Mr Pascoe had placed his personal seal in wax and signed his name. A trace of the man himself! A rare find indeed.

Signature and Seal belonging to Edward Randall Pascoe Crop

Signature and Seal belonging to Edward Randall Pascoe

Further appointment records showed that Mr Pascoe later captained a Steam Packet (a steam-powered, mail-carrying ship, which gradually took over the trade from 1815) at Port Patrick, Scotland. Our enquirer could fill in one blank – that business partner William Molland was in fact Edward’s father-in-law – but what about the captain’s sad death in 1827? I could not find a record of a Death Gratuity, a kind of compensation payment for those killed in service, so it seemed that his fate would remain a mystery.

As luck would have it, however, I discovered that we had been asked about Mr Pascoe a few years before by another of his descendants, who had in fact written a book about his family. I got in touch with her and she completed the story: taking a ship to Holyhead, Wales, for repair, Edward was injured at sea, and died of a fever shortly after completing the crossing.

Steam Packet

Painting of the SS Great Britain Steamship

We were able to put these two researchers (and distant relatives) in touch with each other for the first time, and they have been able to enjoy sharing their discoveries. I wonder what Edward Randall Pascoe would make of it all!

While it’s a sad truth that most of our family-history-seekers don’t find such intriguing tales – and some of them find nothing at all – we have to celebrate the success stories. It makes you wonder: who might find each other in a few hundred years’ time piecing together your own life?

Ashley March – Archives Assistant