Category Archives: Talks

June Evening Talk – Letter’s from a Long Road with Julian Sayarer

On 4 June record breaking cyclist Julian Sayarer will be joining us to talk about his remarkable journey that took him around the world with just his notebook and letters for company. Here he gives us a taste of what we can expect.

It would be hard to argue that my twenties were defined by riding bicycles and writing, with the two things eventually combining to form what probably became my preferred means of travelling the world.

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Aged 20, I finished my final politics exam of a first year at Sussex University, rode to Portsmouth and there met a friend for the Channel ferry and then the ride to Lisbon. The next year I rode to Istanbul through Eastern Europe. The following year to Istanbul along the Adriatic and through the Balkans. The following year I rode home to London through the Ukraine, and the year after that – in 2009 – I rode 18,049 miles around world in 169 days, breaking a world record in protest of the means by which it had the previous year been set by an alpha-male in cahoots with big finance. I didn’t like the inaccessible and foreboding depiction of travelling the world by bicycle, and I felt that the ideal of cycling towards an empty horizon had always been an experience too special to sell to a bank for its marketing campaigns.

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The slow pace of modern publishing bears a good deal of the responsibility for why I am talking about this experience in 2015 and a year after the release of Life Cycles. I always wanted this book to constitute snapshots of the world – its people and its politics – at the start of the twenty-first century, rather than be only an account of what it is to ride a bicycle a long way. As much as the waiting often felt far too long, I came to enjoy the reflection that the passing of time allows.

Words and writing have always been a good companion on the road, especially so in remote and foreign places. Surrealism can help make light of dehydration in a desert or sleep deprivation in a long night of riding. Amongst foreign languages, a written self can become conversation; the appearance of thoughts upon a page a frame of reference when otherwise alone. Some descents – of 30 effortless miles out of a mountain – I feel compelled to try and write and record, whilst others happen in moments that make all words feel cumbersome. When cycling around the world, I sent text messages to an obscure, new programme called Twitter, which in-turn displayed them on a website, and eventually went on to become quite successful.

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The bicycle remains altogether quite timeless in a changing world; the endeavours to chronicle those trips – in books, in letters, sometimes in tweets – is an ongoing journey mixed with challenges and rewards, always throwing new light on travel writing, letters, and forms of communication both obvious and hidden.

The event will take place on 4 June 19.00-20.00 at The Phoenix Centre, Phoenix Place, London, WC1X 0DL

To book tickets please visit www.lifecycles.eventbrite.co.uk or telephone 020 7239 2570.

You can buy Life Cycles online or in all good bookshops.

 

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!

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!

TALK: Glad Tidings: A history of the Christmas card

For our annual Christmas talk, we are welcoming Curator Steph Mastoris of the National Waterfront Museum. As a social history curator he has been fascinated for over two decades by the custom of sending Christmas greetings to family and friends, and the billions of cards that are produced. Get a sneak peak at what to expect from his Christmas talk next Tuesday.

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The Christmas card has been very close to the heart of the British postal service from just after the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. Moreover, the Half-Penny Post of 1870 was an important catalyst for the widespread popularity of the Christmas card. Starting as a wealthy middle class novelty, the tradition of sending Christmas cards became and still is a massive activity.

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In my talk I will discuss how very recent research is suggesting that the first published Christmas cards were produced some years before the famous one commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843.

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As the history of the Christmas card is fundamentally about how people have used them, I will talk about projects that look into how we use the postal service over the holiday season. One of the current projects, People’s Post, gives you the chance to share your memories of receiving cards and gifts in the post. After the talk, there will be an opportunity for the audience to contribute their stories. The information provided may well get built into the interpretation of the new Postal Museum when it opens in 2016!

Join us next Tuesday (2 December) at 7pm at the Phoenix Centre to find out more!

Hounded from Pillar to Post: The Experiences of FWW Conscientious Objectors

This Thursday join Ben Copsey, Manager of the “Objecting to War” Project at the Peace Pledge Union, as he explores the lives and experiences of the 20,000 British Conscientious Objectors during the First World War. In today’s post we give you a sneak peak at a relatively unknown topic.

With the introduction of Conscription in 1916, men who believed they could not fight in the war were left with a difficult choice. Abandon their principles and take up arms, or face ridicule, arrest, assault and prison as Conscientious Objectors.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

Over three hundred Post Office workers from around the country made the difficult decision to refuse to fight and kill in the First World War. Whether religious, political or ethical men, each one made a stand on the principle that noone should be forced into the army – a stand that for many would lead to years in prison, ostracism, and for some, death. Their motivations, experiences and opinions make a fascinating collection of sometimes odd, often passionate and always interesting stories of resistance and dissent. Post Office COs came from every area and community – from Jewish Sorters in the East end and Anarchist Postmen in Glasgow to Quaker Telegraphists in Liverpool – and experienced everything that could happen to an objector during the war, whether working with an ambulance service, going on the run or stubbornly refusing to compromise from the inside of Wormwood Scrubs, the men of the Post Office who stood up to say “No” to war provide a perfect snapshot of Conscientious Objection.

Many of their experiences are coming to light for the first time, telling a fascinating tale of courage, resistance and conviction of men standing up for their principles and the right to refuse to kill. While myths of Conscientious Objection still paint them as cowards and traitors, this talk will discuss why ordinary men
made an extraordinarily brave decision – and what happened to them as a result.

Join us this Thursday (6 November) from 7pm-8pm at the Phoenix Centre to find out more. Book your ticket online today to avoid missing out!

A War of Letters: Understanding WWI through letters

On Thursday 16th October Curator Emma Harper is giving a talk at the Guildhall Library entitled ‘A War of Letters’, here’s a little preview of what you can expect. 

Every aspect of the war was communicated by letter and, for many, letters were a way of maintaining some semblance of normality. Whilst accurate figures for the amounts of mail sent during the war are hard to pin point, we know that at its peak over 12 million letters a week passed through the Post Office’s temporary sorting office – the Home Depot.

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

 

Some survive in the BPMA’s collection and reflect the range of subjects that were written about. The weather, health and letter writing itself, or lack of it, were spoken about rather than the war itself, the effects of which were often played down as in this postcard from ‘Fred’ to his mother:

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

‘Just a few lines hoping that you are in the very best of health Dear. I hope that you are not offended with me for not writing to you before now, but I knowed the one letter would do for the two of you. I am not very sound myself but you need not worry over me.’

Receipt of a letter was a huge boost to morale both for those at home and at the Front, the maintenance of that link was of vital importance and recognised as such by the Post Office. By writing ‘On Active Service’ at the top of their correspondence soldiers could write home for free.

One of the most common ‘letters’ received from the Front was the Field Service Postcard. These postcards only allowed soldiers to give basic details to family back home as rather than writing their own sentiments they had to pick from a list, deleting those that didn’t apply. This was a form of censorship as the limited space for personal expression meant that there was less risk of divulging confidential information or of tales that may reduce morale reaching the Home Front. Despite the fact that nothing else was meant to be written on the postcard there were always exceptions and some of them did get through the censor, such as this harmless Christmas message [also 2014-0062].

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. 2014-0062)

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. (2014-0062)

Many of the letters received however did not bring such happy messages and some of the most poignant of the war are those last letters ever written, a selection of which I’ll be sharing in my talk. One of the letters in BPMA’s collection informs Mrs Peel of the death of her husband, Captain Home Peel of the Post Office’s own regiment, the Post Office Rifles [OB1997.212/46]. Unusually it was written by a German soldier, E.F. Gaylor [OB1997.212/37]. He writes: Although enemy and sometimes deeply hurt by the ridiculous tone of your horrid press, I feel it as a human duty to communicate you these sad news. Capt Peel was killed in action near Longueval & died, as it seems by the wounds received, without suffering.’

Captain Home Peel. OB1997.212/46)

Captain Home Peel. (OB1997.212/46)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. OB1997.212/37)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. (OB1997.212/37)

The fact that Peel carried his letters round with him and that Gaylor still felt it his duty to communicate the news to Peel’s loved ones, his enemies, shows the strength of feeling and importance given to letter writing in the war. These letters now also play a vital role in deepening our understanding and remembrance of the war.

To find out more please do come along to Guildhall Library on Thursday 16th October at 6pm. You can still book your tickets online!

Postal Censorship: An evening talk with Graham Mark

Tomorrow we welcome Graham Mark as he presents Postal Censorship and the Additional Mail Services of the First World War. In today’s blog Graham gives us a sneak peak as he shares insight into the censorship of foreign mails.

Cancelled with Army Post Office cancellation and with triangular censor mark. (PH12/05)

Cancelled with Army Post Office cancellation and with triangular censor mark. (PH12/05)

Censorship of foreign mails got off to a shaky start in London in 1914, but by slowly gathering staff with the required skills they were ‘in gear’ by the late Autumn.  The scope of their operations expanded in 1914-15, but was somewhat curtailed by the nervousness of the Foreign Office, which feared upsetting neutrals.  Censorship did that but the War Office was responsible for the censorship and defended its position.

American terminal and transit mails came under censorship in 1915, firstly on an experimental basis, which showed the need to establish regular examination of those mails.  For American mails a new office was set up at Liverpool in December 1915, which was logical as that was where the mail ships docked.  Transit and all other terminal mails were still handled in London.

Complaints arose that the censors were delaying the mails, so some schemes were set up to reduce this possibility. Banks and other businesses in London got into the habit of taking their mails direct to the censors, but this became a nuisance and was forbidden when an ‘Express Censorship’ was introduced in July 1915 for a fee of 2s/6d plus the usual postage costs.

An ‘honour envelope’ used during the First World War. These envelopes would not be opened and read by the censor if the sender signed the declaration that there was no war information being conveyed. This example however was not signed and so was opened by the censor. (PH32/27)

An ‘honour envelope’ used during the First World War. These envelopes would not be opened and read by the censor if the sender signed the declaration that there was no war information being conveyed. This example however was not signed and so was opened by the censor. (PH32/27)

Shipping documents are needed at the port of discharge so delay was reduced by a scheme set up in 1916 through the British Post Office and their counterparts overseas.  Packets appropriately marked were bagged separately and when the ship called at a British port those mails were examined at that port then returned to the ship, rather then being sent to London for censorship with the rest of the mails.

Under a third arrangement, of May 1917, the Post Office guaranteed for a fee of 6d plus treble registration, to send original and duplicate letters by different vessels in view of the danger to ships being attacked by the enemy.  These mails also had to be censored.

The percentage of mails examined was reduced by stages in 1919 and with minor exceptions the censorship ceased with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June.  By September 1919 the items detained by the censors over the previous five years had been disposed of and the last of the censorships was terminated.

– Graham Mark

Postal Censorship and the Additional Mail Services of the First World War with Graham Mark. 7.00pm-8.00pm at the Phoenix Centre. Book your place online or call 020 7239 2570.