Category Archives: Collection

My Favourite Object: Pentacycle

In this month’s edition of My Favourite Object, find out why the Pentacycle is Head of Fundraising Emma’s absolute favourite.

Perhaps the perfect symbol of the Victorian spirit of invention, often seen as eccentric by today’s standards, the Pentacycle was invented in 1882 – not long after the more famous “Penny-farthing” and before safety bicycles, more recognisable as ancestors of the bikes we ride today, were introduced.

Front of Player's Cycling cigarette card showing four postmen on Centre cycles, otherwise known as 'Hen and Chicks'.

Front of Player’s Cycling cigarette card showing four postmen on Centre cycles, otherwise known as ‘Hen and Chicks’.

Designed by Edward Burstow, an architect from Horsham in Sussex, the Pentacycle was conceived to enable larger postal loads to be carried and delivered with ease. Although popular with postal delivery workers in Horsham, it did not catch on more widely, and certainly does not look an easy or comfortable ride by today’s standards!

I have a couple of reasons for choosing the Pentacycle as ‘My Favourite Object'; firstly because it is just such a fantastic looking machine. It is large, awkward-looking and, although I have no idea what it would be like to ride, certainly does not look user-friendly (and that’s with its capacious mail baskets empty). Yet, despite all of this the very concept feels ambitious and visionary…why wouldn’t it catch on? It’s this sense of optimism and spirit of adventure that really make me connect with the Pentacycle.

Me with the Pentacyle at our Museum Store in Debden.

Selfie with the Pentacyle at our Museum Store in Essex.

I also love its nick-name “the Hen and Chicks”. The reason for this excellent name can be understood simply from viewing the image below, and lends such personality to this ungainly invention. It perhaps conveys the affection with which the postmen who rode the bikes referenced them, and the interest visitors to the collection are still compelled to show the Pentacycle on seeing for the first time.

Pentacycle Debden

Pentacyle at our store in Essex.

 

Although the Pentacycle, or a 1930s replica of one, is currently housed at the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex, it will be the central object on display in the ‘Revolutionising Communications’ exhibition zone of The Postal Museum when it opens. This gives it an important role, along with many other unique and surprising objects which will be on permanent display to the public from late 2016, in providing a window on the past through the perspective of the postal service.

View from below

View from below

Working at the BPMA I feel uniquely privileged to have more of an insight into the collection, and to be able to explore and connect with items such as the Pentacycle or ‘Hen and Chicks’. Bringing remarkable items, such as this, to a wider audience than ever before is exactly why The Postal Museum and Mail Rail will be so important. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing visitors of all ages explore, experience and be inspired by this history of adventure and the pioneering spirit that has driven communications forward over the past 500 years and will continue to do so into the future.

-Emma Jhita, Head of Fundraising

100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania

As the First World War Centenary commemorations continue more and more stories of bravery and tragedy emerge. Some are well known such as the events on the battle fields, others such as the vital role played by the British postal service less so. Within The Postal Museum galleries these heartwarming and often tragic stories of how the General Post Office kept a world at war in touch will be revealed to the public. Our Archive Catalogue & Project Manager Gavin McGuffie looks at one such story.

One hundred years ago, on Friday 7 May 1915, the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland when almost home on a voyage from New York to Liverpool.

'WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

‘WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

The loss of 1,198 passengers and crew led to an international outcry, especially in Britain and the British Empire, as well as in the United States (128 of 139 US citizens on board died). The German government’s announcement almost two years later that having ended attacks on passenger ships it would again conduct full unrestricted submarine warfare was a major factor in persuading the United States to declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917.

RMS Lusitania had been holder of the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and briefly the world’s largest passenger ship. Launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, the Lusitania had the designation ‘Royal Mail Ship’ or ‘RMS’. This prefix dates back to 1840 and was used for seagoing vessels carrying post under contract to Royal Mail.

'LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

‘LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

Given that the main connection with the Post Office was the fact that the ship was carrying mail it is not surprising that the only file in The Royal Mail Archive entirely about the Lusitania concerns the loss of mail is entitled ‘SS Lusitania sunk May 1915. United States mails missing. Salvage and compensation claims’

It starts with a newspaper cutting from the day after reporting on the tragic event and a letter from Cunard expressing their gratitude for the Post Office’s sympathies.

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

The file goes on to reveal that the quantity of mail on Lusitania’s last voyage was not particularly large. She carried mail that had been especially endorsed for the Lusitania; the US liner New York, leaving about the same time, carried most of the European mail. According to a note in the file, 83 sacks of mail were dispatched on the ship containing 922 registered articles, about 47,000 unregistered letters and 1800 prints.

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

Following the sinking the Post Office received many enquiries about lost mail in particular relating to that with a financial value. One enquiry concerned four lost dispatches from the Governor of Bermuda to the Colonial Office sent in a weighted bag that would cause them to sink in case of disaster at sea.

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

Perhaps the most interesting story within the file relates to the small amount of mail salvaged. Originally believed to have been washed ashore at Castletownshend, County Cork, it was subsequently found that a mail basket including a parcel of diamonds was in fact picked up by John Hayes, skipper of the fishing boat ‘Pet’. Within our file is a water damaged bill of lading from the Lusitania which accompanied the parcels which were being returned to their senders on the ship.

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

Correspondence concerning this basket and Hayes’ desire to be properly rewarded for the salvage of the receptacle continued until 1922 involving a £10 reward as an ‘act of grace’ and even a question in the House of Commons.

The Lusitania was not the only mail ship to be sunk during the First World War. In October 1918 the RMS Leinster was torpedoed in the Irish Sea killing more than 500 including 21 postal workers, the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.

To find out more about the vital role played by the General Post Office and those who worked for it visit our online exhibition Last Post

5 Surprising Facts About Anthony Trollope

Today is Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday. Aside from being one of the most prolific Victorian novelists, Trollope was the first to suggest ‘iron posts’ on the side of the road – for people to post their letters into, at any time of day – or as we know them today: pillar boxes. To celebrate Trollope’s 200th birthday and his contributions to the British postal service, Senior Curator Julian Stray will be giving a talk on Thursday 30 April at 7pm. As a sneak peak, here are five surprising facts about him.

  1. Young Anthony was a poor worker who was regularly late for work, took extended lunches, ran up debts with suppliers and liked a drink and a game of cards.
Picture of Trollope c.1860

Picture of Trollope c.1860

 

  1. Anthony Trollope loathed a meritocracy; regarding promotion by merit as a “damnable system”. He preferred advancement on the grounds of seniority, though he obviously was advantaged personally, on occasion, by nepotism
  1. As a senior figure within the Post Office, Trollope would frequently argue with Rowland Hill for he hated the man and relished their disagreements; describing their encounters as“feuds- such delicious feuds”
Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill

  1. Trollope was always keen to build his life experience for use in his novels. When sent to negotiate a treaty for the conveyance of mail with Egypt, he promptly went travelling to see “the dervishes of Cairo at one on Friday, they howl but once a week”
Trollopes invention: the pillar box!

Trollopes invention: the pillar box!

  1. Even after he retired from the Post Office in 1867, the UK Government engaged him to travel to the USA to negotiate a postal treaty with Washington. He spent £33 on transatlantic telegrams, a tidy sum in 1868.

Tickets are still available to order online and are only £3 (£2.50 concession), so book today!

My Favourite Object: Prosthetic Hand

Asking a Curator to choose their favourite object is like putting a kid in a sweet shop and then telling them they can only have one! In fact, some of you may remember that I shared my favourite object with you last year, a truncheon issued to Post Office employees before the Chartist riots of 1848. Today however my favourite object is a recent acquisition of a Postman’s Hand, which is not quite as sinister as it sounds, I promise!

IMG_7501

Prosthetic hand with letter

 

Besides all the pun based opportunities this object has provided (for the last few weeks I have been constantly asking my colleagues if they need a hand with anything…) it is actually a very important addition to the BPMA’s collection, as it reveals an often hidden aspect of history.

The hand in question is not a real one but is made of wood covered with leather and has an adaptor to fit it into the wrist unit of a prosthetic arm. Some of the earliest prosthetics in history were also made of wood and leather but this hand fits into the advanced development of prosthetic limbs that occurred after the Second World War to aid rehabilitation of the many soldiers who had limbs amputated as a result of the conflict.

Postman's hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

Postman’s hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

The Post Office as an employer has always made a concerted effort to advance employment opportunities for disabled people, including veterans, as has been shown in previous posts and this was particularly so after the Second World War. Hands like this were in use from the 1950s through to the 1970s – this example bears its date on it ‘4/11/64’ – and were designed to hold letters. What is particularly revolutionary about this object though is that it has a roller, or wheel, under the thumb which allowed one letter to be removed while still keeping grasp of the others. This enabled disabled employees to sort letters with greater ease and efficiency than with the previous, more basic, prosthetics. Feeling the hand it is quite heavy and it has made me think what it would have been like to use.

IMG_6797

Profile of hand

 

This object was kindly donated to us from the Limb Fitting Centre at the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, which was founded to care for soldiers wounded in the First World War, and has since become renowned as a limb fitting and amputee rehabilitation centre. They were able to tell us that the hand had been developed by Hugh Steeper Ltd, major manufacturers of prosthetics at the time. This was the only remaining postman’s hand at Roehampton and it was returned to them by a retiring postman in the early 1970s.

As you can see the BPMA’s collection is constantly developing and this object adds to our knowledge of an important part of our history which is relatively under-represented. It is fascinating objects such as this that will form the bedrock of the new Postal Museum but they are nothing without the stories of the people who used them. If you have a story to share please email us at peoplespost@postalheritage.org.uk and help us achieve our ambition of filling our brand new museum with the voices of real people. Thank you!

-Emma Harper, Curator

Dear Amie

At the BPMA we regularly work with local community groups, engaging them with our collection and listening to their stories. The outcome is always rewarding, but sometimes the way these groups interpret our collections is truly heart-warming. The BPMA Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, tells us about her experience working with a group of 10 trafficked women known as the Amies.

During the summer of 2014 I spent 12 weeks working with the Amies on a project run in partnership with the October Gallery to investigate the design history of the postal service. These women are of diverse nationalities and ages; brought together by PAN Arts, a London based Arts Company, and The Poppy Project, an organisation providing support, advocacy and accommodation for trafficked women, and as such had a wide range of experiences and outlooks.

Over the course of the 12 weeks we looked at the changing uniforms of postal workers, the process of stamp design, the poster collection and mail art.

Examples of mail art from the BPMA collections

Examples of mail art from the BPMA collections

Inspired by their own experiences and the objects and stories explored in the BPMA collections, the group responded in creative ways, guided by the artist Ella Phillips from October Gallery. We designed our own stamp artwork, sent our own mail art through the post and they sent letters to family and friends, some examples of which you can see below. In addition, each participant had their own sketch book that they could add to during the workshops and in their own time.

Some of the work created by the Amies

Some of the work created by the Amies

Dear Amie exceeded our expectations; not only did it facilitate a range of positive outcomes for the participants but it also proved invaluable to the BPMA. One of the participants described her pride in having created positive experiences and a new life for herself and there was an eagerness to develop a second phase of the project in 2015. For this the women decided they’d like to create a textile output which will be displayed in our brand new Postal Museum, due to open in 2016.

Stamp artwork created by the group

One of the Amies design for a stamp showing things important to her

For the BPMA we learned some extremely valuable lessons and gained some remarkable stories of what the postal service means to different people. The level of engagement showed us the true potential of our collection and the diverse ways in which it can be used to inspire a wide range of audiences. The postal theme resonated with the women in a way that we could not have imagined. For most of them, sending a letter to loved ones had been a lifeline through extremely difficult circumstances. Recollection of these memories, stimulated through the exploration of BPMA material, led to a fascinating and unexpected reinterpretation of some of our objects and the discovery of some truly remarkable, personal stories. It reinforced to us that our collection can be interpreted in meaningful, personal ways and act as a catalyst to uncovering touching stories such as those of the Amies.

My Favourite Objects: Birdcage Valentine

More of a celebrator of Anna Howard Shaw Day than Valentine’s Day on 14 February, I never really spent much time down the card aisle hunting for the perfect valentine. That was until I took a journey through the valentines section of our archive.

Boxes and boxes full of Valentines

Boxes and boxes full of Valentines

We have nearly 1000 individual valentines in our collection spanning from the oldest in 1790 to ones as recent as 1996. As you can see in the picture above, they fill the shelves from floor to ceiling! One of the runner’s up for my favourite object was a Vinegar Valentine. You can’t help but be in shock by the rude (and downright nasty) nature of these. Just take a look at the following transformation card.

vinegar

My favourite object is a much more humbling valentine of a birdcage from 1817. It doesn’t look like your traditional valentine with hearts and love sprawled across it, and from the picture below it doesn’t look like anything too special.

Birdcage valentine (OB1995.49)

Birdcage valentine (OB1995.49)

However, the image above really doesn’t do it any justice through! In the centre is a string to pull. We haven’t tried to open it for quite some time, so after a bit of a pep talk Curator Emma demonstrated how the card works for me and now with you!

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Nearly 200 years old, this card is beautifully illustrated with the bird on the front and the two little mice on the inside. Way before laser cutting, the detailed cuts that form the cage were done by hand. Valentines sent during the 19th century, apart from Vinegar Valentines, were usually handmade mementos of affection – a lot of time was spent making these cards. This is why the Valentine Birdcage is my favourite object, because of its individual nature. It isn’t a generic card on the shelf but made specifically for the receiver. In other words, the admiration for the receiver is in the details NOT in the number of pink hearts.

What’s the best valentine you ever received or sent? We would love to see it!  Tweet us @postalheritage or send us an email at peoplespost@postalheritage.org.uk.

See even more valentines on our new online exhibition.

-Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager

 

Make your own Victorian Inspired Valentine’s Card

Victorian Valentine’s The popularity of sending Valentine’s cards greatly increased in the Victorian period, thanks, in part, to the introduction of the Penny Post. Victorian Valentine’s cards were often made of a number of different  materials, including lace, fringing, fabric and even human hair, which were layered, one on top of the other, much like a scrap book. Pictures of flowers were popular, as were images of Cupid and hearts. Victorian cards were a lot smaller than those generally on sale today and came in lots of different shapes. Some cards even had elaborate or novelty features like pop ups, music, scent and mechanical components.

'To My Valentine' Valentine Card c. 1890

‘To My Valentine’ Valentine Card c. 1890

Make your own Here are some beautiful images from Victorian Valentine’s cards in the BPMA’s collection for you to print out, cut out and use to create your very own Victorian inspired Valentine’s card. You could include your own photographs, sketches or memontos to make the cards really personal. 1 2 3 4

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We would love to see how your cards turn out or hear about any interesting cards you’ve sent or received yourself! Tweet us @postalheritage or send us an email at peoplespost@postalheritage.org.uk. -Joanna Espin, Curator