Category Archives: Postal History

NEW PODCAST: Unstitching the Uniform

Last week Curator Joanna Espin gave a talk on the hidden stories behind our uniform collection at the Guildhall Library. In case you missed it, here is the podcast along with the accompanying slideshow.

Pop it in the Post: NEW family touring exhibition

Over 160 years ago novelist Anthony Trollope suggested an idea which would change how people communicated forever – the UK pillar box! The first box was installed in 1852, in Jersey, in the Channel Islands. We have never looked back and the iconic red pillar box is now known as a national icon.

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To mark Anthony Trollope’s momentous suggestion and the bicentenary of his birth – we have developed a brand new family exhibition that looks at the communications revolution that followed the introduction of the world’s first stamp, and the UK’s first pillar box  (so-called because of its resemblance to a pillar or to a column).

Early pillar box designs

Early pillar box designs

Pop it in the Post: The World at the end of your street opens at Islington Museum on Saturday 28th March, until 2nd May.

For over 160 years, people in Britain have been able to stick a stamp on a letter and post the letter into a pillar box- sending their news to friends and family across Britain, and then further afield. The exhibition begins by exploring life before stamps and pillar boxes, when only the privileged few could afford to send letters.

We then look at the ground-breaking introduction of stamps, and pillar boxes. The popularity of pillar boxes and other post boxes grew throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Post boxes of all shapes and sizes were soon available in cities, towns and villages. Meet the individuals who made this possible, and discover how millions of people’s lives were changed. The world was now available to everyone – simply through the pillar box at the end of your street.

Street letter box number 1855, corner of Fleet Street and Farringdon Road

Street letter box number 1855, corner of Fleet Street and Farringdon Road

This small exhibition will include original Victorian pillar boxes, replica Victorian letter carrier uniforms available to try on, and also activities and games available for families and children. Throughout the exhibition run there will also be some fun daytime drop-in sessions for children on selected days. Please check our website for more information nearer the time or contact BPMA Exhibitions Officer on 0207 354 7287.

Future exhibition venues:

3 October to 21 November 2015
Mansfield Museum
Leeming Street, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire NG18 1NG

6 January – Saturday 26 March 2016
Havering Museum, Essex
19-21 High Street, Romford RM1 1JU

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

‘Built for Service, Post Office Architecture’ – an eye-opening read

Recent addition to the BPMA, Emma Jhita (Head of Fundraising), reviews volunteer Julian Osley’s book on Post Office architecture.

I’ve always been fascinated by post-war architectural design so when I was browsing the books on sale on the shop page of the BPMA website my attention was grabbed by the striking image of Plymouth post office in the 1950s on the cover of Julian Osley’s book ‘Built for Service, Post Office Architecture’. British architecture, from the range of styles, the (sometimes deceptive) history of the buildings themselves, and even more so our own relationship with the architecture, tells us a lot about the social changes in British society from the communications revolution that took place as a result of the first postage stamp to the present day.  And on opening the book I very quickly realised that it is a gateway to these stories and what is essentially a hidden world, as is the dedicated website: http://britishpostofficearchitects.weebly.com

Front cover image: Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Front cover image: Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Design opportunities were limited for Frederick Palmer, the architect employed by the PO, although his design for Minehead survives in the archives

Design opportunities were limited for Frederick Palmer, the architect employed by the PO, although his design for Minehead survives in the archives

Author Julian Osley opens our eyes to two things in this book. Firstly just how vital Post Offices were to the towns and cities in which they opened, both in terms of the jobs created and the convenience for the local community. Post offices really were a lifeline to the outside world – the internet provider of their day. Also whether built under the Office of Works or a re-development of an existing building, all major towns and cities in Britain have a legacy of buildings that enhance their surroundings, from ‘post office Georgian’ offices sitting comfortably on high-streets to buildings that proudly champion the Edwardian Baroque style.

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Many of the Post Offices discussed in the book are no longer standing, or are perhaps unrecognisable in their new guise as a pub, restaurant, housing, or in the case of ‘The Mailbox’ in Birmingham a shopping centre. This includes the old Northern District Post Office on Upper Street, next door to our office in Islington which is soon to be developed into housing and shops. Even with the buildings that remain as functioning Post Offices we often remember the interior more clearly inside of better – the queues to buy a stamp, a Postal Order, withdraw or deposit money… how times have changed!

Henry Tanners elevation design for Leeds

Henry Tanners elevation design for Leeds

Leeds Post Office today. Photograph © David Dixon via Geograph and licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence

Leeds Post Office today. Photograph © David Dixon via Geograph and licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence

An old post office now a pub. “The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

An old post office now a pub. “The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

Whether we realise it or not, I truly believe we have a very familiar relationship to Britain’s network of post office buildings – whether we’re queuing to post a letter, using a Bureau de Change or sitting down to tuck into a pizza!

Get Built for Service: Post Office Architecture for just £3.50 including postage and packaging! Enter discount code BUILT4SERVICE at checkout.

The Story behind Five Postal Uniforms

Ahead of next week’s talk, ‘Unstitching the Uniform’, Joanna Espin shares the fascinating stories behind five postal uniforms.

1/ Protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen I’ll start at the very beginning, with the first Royal Mail uniform, issued to Mail Coach Guards in 1784. Bold, militaristic and scarlet red, the Mail Coach Guard uniform was a symbol of authority; protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen, the guards had to look powerful. Despite the dangers, there are just two recorded instances of attacks on mails coaches: once in 1786 by a highwayman who was shot dead by the Guard, and once in 1816 by an escaped lioness from a travelling menagerie. 1 The Mail Coach Guard cut an imposing figure but also generated a reputation for being popular with the ladies. The early 19th century song ‘The Mail Coach’ tracks a Mail Coach Guard’s journey through various pubs and his encounters with various women, including the ‘sweetheart so snug at the bar’, and the ‘sweet little girl in the moon’. In 1837, when a GPO uniform was issued to London Two Penny Postmen, its supposed effect on women was commented on in a leading periodical, which recommended the abolition of ‘this very martial attire, which elevated the Postman into a formidable rival to the policeman in his little flirtations with our female servants’.  Here’s an image from ‘The Mail Coach’ song sheet, depicting the Mail Coach Guard with ‘sweet Nan at the star’.

2/ ‘Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ As well as being a symbol of authority, uniform can be the object of derision, as demonstrated in this satirical cartoon of the Two Penny Postmens’ uniform. In 1837, Two Penny Postmen were issued with a coat, waistcoat and hat. Can you see what’s missing? Trousers. That’s because employees were expected to supply trousers themselves and so, very often, there was a juxtaposition between the smartness of the supplied uniform and the condition of the trousers. In the illustration here, the woman at the door exclaims ‘Goodness! Mr Doubleknokk. Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ To which the letter carrier replies: ‘O no mum! It’s the government dress. Hat, coat & waistcoat & no trousers.’ 2

3/ A dangerous job and Dr. Merrit’s medical gussets Mail has been delivered by many methods across greatly varying terrain and one interesting example of this is the River Post of the Port of London. Established in 1800 and continuing until 1952, the job of delivering post to vessels anchored in the Thames was a dangerous one: both the first person appointed to the post and his assistant died in separate accidents. Early River Postmen were issued with a unique, scarlet, full skirted frock coat, trimmed with brown velvet, and incorporating ‘Dr. Merritt’s medical gussets’, for ventilation. Here’s a fantastic early 20th century lantern slide of Thames river postman, George Henry Evans, on his rounds in a more simple uniform. Can you see Tower Bridge in the background? 3

4/ The first full uniform for postwomen War was a catalyst for two developments in postwomen’s uniform: the introduction of the first full uniform and, later, the introduction of trousers. In the First World War, thousands of married and single women were employed in temporary positions for the duration of the conflict, in roles previously reserved for men. In 1916, the first full uniform was issued to postwomen, though women had been working for the GPO in small numbers since the 18th century. By comparison, the entire male delivery force had been uniformed since 1872. Here 12 postwomen model the new uniform. 4 5/ Women wearing the trousers A further development in women’s uniform came during the Second World War: in 1941 postwomen were permitted to wear trousers instead of skirts. First requested by a Scottish Postwoman, Jean Cameron, the idea was quickly taken up by the GPO and proved popular, with more than 500 pairs of trousers ordered in two months. By November 1943, 14,000 pairs of women’s trousers, or ‘Camerons’ as they were referred to in reference to their pioneer, had been issued. Jean Cameron spoke of her excitement at being the first postwoman to wear trousers because “I shouldn’t be a woman if I wasn’t pleased to be the first to start a fashion”.  Female counter staff were still required to wear skirts, with the concession that they could forgo stockings, due to the ‘need for economy in clothes’. Here’s an image from 1941 of a postwoman in her Camerons. 5     I hope you can make it to my talk at 6pm on Thursday 26 March at Guildhall Library. There’ll be free wine!

The Postman’s Snuffbox (Part 2)

Earlier this week, our guest blogger Kenneth Grey Wilson shared the story of a postman’s snuffbox that he came across while on holiday in London. In this post he shares the story of the snuffbox’s owner, Arthur Whittard, and his family.

Paddy put us in contact with her first cousin Sadie Evans, another of Arthur’s granddaughters. With help from Sadie and her daughter, Jane English, the story of the Dursley postman, Arthur Whittard, began to take form. My wife and I offered to return the snuffbox to the Whittard family in exchange for some details of Arthur’s story.

Arthur Whittard was born in Dursley 1866, began work as an errand boy at age 15, and later joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRR).  After his military service, Arthur was certified as a postman in 1893, and a year later he married Ada Morgan. The 1911 census reveals that the Whittard family lived on Slade Lane, and had nine children: Frederick 16, Arthur Victor 14, May 12, Maud 11, Edith 9, Valentina 8, Alfred 6, and Dorothy 2.

One family story relates the possibility that Arthur worked as a school headmaster in India.  We could not confirm this, but it is of note that in the late 1800s the Kings Royal Rifles were posted to India. Perhaps this family story relates to time that Arthur spent in India with the KRR before returning to Durlsey and beginning his work as a postman.

Dursley Postmen 1900

Dursley Postmen, circa 1900. Arthur Whittard fifth from the left back row, with the prominent mustache. Back (L-R) Unknown, Unknown, Frank Martin (?), Unknown, Arthur Whittard, Unknown, Unknown, Fred Hitchins. Front (L-R) Tom Fussell, Frank Hadley, Unknown, Unknown, ? Hitchins, Jim Fussell. Seated, Harry Trotman, Telegraph Boy. Photo and information courtesy of David Evans and Andrew Barton, Dursley

With the onset of World War I, Arthur’s eldest son, Frederick, joined his father’s old regiment as a rifleman with the King’s Royal Rifles in July 1914. In September, Arthur, age 48, re-enlisted in the military and served as a corporal-instructor with the Army Service Corps in England.  Arthur’s younger son, Victor followed his brother into the King’s Royal Rifles infantry regiment as a rifleman in January 1915.

Both of Arthur’s sons saw action in the trenches of the Western Front of France and Flanders in 1915.  Victor met the fate of so many men in the trenches, and became ill with pneumonia. He died on Boxing Day, December 26, 1915. He was only 19 years old. Victor is buried in Merville Communal Cemetery in Northern France.  His brother Frederick was wounded in Ypres during the heavy fighting of the summer of 1915, and was discharged in May 1918, with the loss of a leg. Arthur continued to serve in the ASC until he was discharged as ill, in March 1918, and he died only a few years later at age 59.

We will probably never know how the Arthur’s snuffbox traveled from Dursley, to Old Spitalfields Market in London 88 years after his death, but the little snuffbox was returned to Dursley and to Arthur’s granddaughter, Sadie Evans. With a little luck, some online research, and some trans-Atlantic sleuthing two tourists from Texas learned a bit about a British postman and the history of a family in a small market town in Gloucestershire.

“When people bury treasure nowadays they do it in the Post-Office bank.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

If this story inspired you to do some family history research of your own, or you just want to find out more about a family member who worked for the British postal service, the BPMA has range of records in its collection that may help you find out more.

The Postman’s Snuffbox (Part 1)

While on holiday in London Kenneth Grey Wilson and his wife found a snuffbox owned by a British postman. In trying to find the relatives of this postal worker he came across a few unexpected surprises. This week (in a two-part post), Kenneth will be sharing his story and that of the snuff box owner.

We all love a good treasure-hunting story; accounts of buried pirate booty, lost gold mines, or Roman coins found in a farmer’s meadow seem to capture the attention of nearly everyone. Most of us are not fortunate enough to discover a buccaneer’s hoard behind a chimney stone, but it seems that we all in our way do a bit of treasure hunting—keeping an eye out for a Picasso at a jumble sale, searching for bargains at Debenhams, or just looking for forgotten change in vending machines.

My wife and I are both collectors and treasure-hunters of a sort, and when traveling we look for inexpensive curios in antique shops, shop windows or flea markets—objects that seem to convey history, hold a strong visual appeal, and ideally some level of mystery. The object might be a hand-made toy, a piece of jewelry, an old postcard or a faded photograph, but it must convey a human touch or story that communicates across time. On a recent trip to London we spent hours in the British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of London, but what really excited us was the prospect of discovering small treasures in the many flea markets of the city.

On a damp, grey Sunday—the kind of day that makes tourists feel that they are in the London of Sherlock Holmes or Charles Dickens—we ventured out to the Old Spitalfields Market in the East End, an area of London outside the old medieval walled city that has seen buying, selling, haggling and trading of all sorts for hundreds of years. The historic market looked promising—crowded aisles between stalls filled with bits and pieces of other times and other lives.  The odors of age and dust were greatly improved by the smells of of Cornish pasties and meat pies and we eagerly took to the hunt.

While bargaining over some small metal hooks that might find use in our bathroom, I noticed a small, nickel-plated snuffbox with the words, “A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley” marked on the lid. The letters had been stamped into the metal, one at time, with hand tools. The repetition of the letter “X” turned on its side had created a border around the words.  My wife and I immediately thought that this intriguing find had enough clues to trace it to its original owner, and that mission might serve as a fun challenge. The snuffbox would be our map. The owner would be the treasure.

Snuffbox

Snuffbox

I made a cash deal with the seller for both the bathroom hooks and the snuffbox and my wife and I went happily back to our hotel room to rest up for the next day’s adventures.  A week later, back at home in Texas, I searched the Internet for Dursley, and found that it was a small market town in Gloucestershire. A search for A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley, quickly turned up a link to an online forum for past residents of Dursley and a comment by Julie Smith from Ohio, USA, about growing up in the town, along with a mention of her late brother, Alan Whittard, who had been a Dursley postman.

Parsonage St., Dursley, circa 1910. The old post office was on this street. Postcard from Kenneth's collection.

Parsonage St., Dursley, circa 1910. The old post office was on this street. Postcard from Kenneth’s collection.

It appeared that we had a win on the first spin of the wheel, but in further investigation, we recognized that Alan was too young to be our snuffbox owner, and what’s more, no one remembered him ever using snuff. Julie offered to contact a friend in Dursley, Jennifer Rennie, known as “Paddy.” As it turned out, Paddy’s maternal grandfather was Arthur Whittard, a Dursley postman at the turn of the 20th century. So, unknown to Julie, she and her “friend” Paddy were actually distant cousins…

If this story inspired you to do some family history research of your own, or you just want to find out more about a family member who worked for the British postal service, the BPMA has range of records in its collection that may help you find out more.

Guest post: Why “Traditional” is often better than “Digital”

After working at The Guardian Newspaper for 5 years Nick Huxsted is now a freelance digital marketing specialist working with a number of large and small organisations across the UK. He has featured on a number of blogs including The Guardian, Hip & Healthy and is a regular contributor of Weekend Notes. When not glued to his laptop Nick likes to relax by staying glued to his iPad.

The Post Office handles 23,000,000 letters a day, 1947. Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Cramp is usually associated with prolonged periods of exercise. Typically reserved for the legs and arms after a vigorous game of tennis or competing in an often under prepared fun run. It certainly wasn’t expected half way down a sheet of A4 when composing a letter to my grandmother. My hands, that while at school were accustomed to such seemingly simple tasks; had become weak, withered, useless writing implements unable to cope with the herculean effort of writing a short letter. The digital world with its endless button pushing and mouse clicking, had robbed my hands of its calligraphic strength. Instead of the fluid, elegant letter I had imagined the end results was an almost illegible scrawl that only the most gifted or graphologists would be able to decipher. Although extremely touched that I’d gone to the effort of sending her a letter, my grandmother had to call to ask what the content of my letter contained. So in an attempt to toughen up my hands I’ve recently been writing more letters, and the response I’ve received from the numerous recipients has been very surprising indeed. In an age where text speak, emails and social media has become all too common, hand-written letters it would appear not only stand out from the crowd, but have a much more emotional reaction from the recipient. In an attempt to bring back traditional forms of communication, here are some of the reasons why people tend to love receiving a hand written, illegible letter. Showing you care It takes almost no effort to send an email. We perform the daily ritual without ever giving it a moment’s notice, bashing out our message and relying on auto-correct and the delete button to compose a suitable message. Taking the time to consider, plan and compose a personal letter means you actually start to think about what you want to say. It will always be more descriptive, honest and thoughtful. Much more compelling than a text message with a smiley face attached to the end of it. The effort will surely not be lost on the lucky recipient. Memories When we move house, spring clean our wardrobe or clean under the bed, we often come across the boxes that contain many of our memories. The diaries, school essays and letters from loved ones frequently evoke a sense of nostalgia that are tactile, physical reminders of our past. The musty smell and slight brown tinge all promote a sense of nostalgia that is difficult to replicate by searching our old email archives. A message sandwiched between a reminder about PPI Insurance and Gym membership doesn’t really have the same sentimental value. Traditional letters provide a much more emotive glimpse into our past and history. Stand out from the crowd It’s common practice nowadays to send a “thank you” email after a meeting, a job application or attending a social event like a wedding. The sheer volume of messages we receive on a daily basis can either be physically lost in Mr Spam, or become the same standard blurb that we’ve all read a thousand times before. It’s much more likely that you’ll make an impression and stand out from the crowd if you’ve taken the time to send personal thank you. With the job market proving to become increasingly competitive, any advantage you can gain over other candidates is surely worthwhile. What would 60 million stamp collectors do? With such a large number of stamp collectors in the world the postal service is a constant source of culture and tradition that has seen John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Maria Sharapova join the stamp collecting ranks. With the British Guiana 1c magenta selling for a cool £4.66m and the most expensive item in weight and volume ever known, the postal service has helped sustain the hobby of millions who take joy in looking after and collecting valuable stamps. Romance Whenever Hollywood decides to break out the hankies and craft a new romance movie, you can rest assured that there will always be a scene where the boy woo’s the girl with a romantic letter, expressing his complicated but soon to be overcome obstacles of affection. “My friend really likes you” messages on Facebook really don’t cut the mustard in comparison. So the next time you want to send someone a message, have a think about how important his or her reply is to you. It may just be worthwhile enduring the temporary affects of cramp.