Category Archives: Postal History

The Battle of Festubert: 100 year anniversary

The Post Office Rifles is an often forgotten battalion, formed largely of postal workers, that fought on the Western Front during the First World War, their story is one of the many that will be told in The Postal Museum. Our Head of Collections, Chris Taft, tells us about their first experiences on the Front Line.

In May 1915 the Second Battle of Artois was launched to try and push the German line eastwards and improve communications between Northern France and Paris. The campaign, which was to last over a month, would see many casualties and a number of smaller battles, including the first engagement for the Post Office Rifles.

Post Office Rifles Regiment

Post Office Rifles Regiment

The Post Office Rifles had been formed long before the outbreak of war in August 1914, fought in conflicts such as the Boer War. Recruitment to the 8th Battalion City of London Regiment, as they were officially known, was almost exclusively from men of the British Post Office and in March 1915 after months of training at home the battalion left for France. In May 1915 they moved close to the village of Festubert, located between Béthune and Lille, which at the time was on the Front Line.

Recruitment poster

Recruitment poster

On 9 May the main battle began with an attack by the British Army at Aubers in support of a French attack at Vimy Ridge. The attack was a failure and casualties were high. The battle however continued and further attacks on German positions were planned. The Post Office Rifles were to see their first action when, along with the 7th Battalion of the City of London Regiment, they were to attack the German line. One member of the Battalion involved in the battle, Thomas May, kept a diary of the events, which we hold here at the BPMA, and he recalls:

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

The battle dragged on: the Germans launched a counter-attack and the Post Office Rifles were now holding a front line trench position and were subjected to day after day of heavy bombardment which, combined with poor weather, created thick mud and appalling conditions as May records:  ‘Very heavy shelling of our trenches all the day and also it rained all the day’.

Some days of stalemate followed as the artillery bombardment continued for days on end in an attempt to weaken the German front line. Thomas May described the scene: ‘Most awful sights. Dead and wounded laying about … We all were gasping for water and food but could not obtain any.’

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

On 20 May the offensive was resumed and eventually the objective was captured by the British, but not without heavy casualties; in the Battle of Festubert alone over 16,000 British troops were killed. The Post Office Rifles lost over half their men as May’s diary records:

I must say that during the last few days we have lost nearly half the battalion also losing six officers and several suffering with slight wounds and nervous breakdowns. It was heartbreaking to see the boys return from the trenches, the boys were knocked to the wide, and some platoons who numbered about 61 men only about 14 left in some cases.

The Battle of Festubert was to be the Post Office Rifles first engagement, but there were many more in the following years of war. Festubert, however, remains synonymous with the Battalion and many of the dead from the battle are buried in the British Military Cemetery in the village, which is now officially called, the Post Office Rifles Cemetery.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

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

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.

Enewsletter banner6

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. 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.