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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:

Visualisation of how The Postal Museum might look

Our blog has a new home there – – 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!

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

Getting ready for Europhilex 2015

BPMA newbie and Fundraising Assistant Cat shares all that has gone into preparing for the largest stamp event in Europe – Europhilex 2015

I have just had my two month anniversary working for the BPMA and what a busy two months it has been! I don’t think I could have joined the BPMA at a better time with so many events coming up and it being such a crucial time in the run up to the opening of The Postal Museum and Mail Rail. At the moment, my work has been largely focusing on philately (my new favourite word) and the upcoming Europhilex show. I have been working really closely with our Fundraising Events Officer, Sarah Jenkins who having worked on the regular Stampex shows, has been my philately guru and mentor.

Reading through our article in the London 2015 newsletter

Reading through our article in the Europhilex newsletter

Together, we have made our way through what has sometimes seemed a never-ending to-do list to prepare the BPMA stand at Europhilex. One of the highlights of my first week was watching Sarah and our Marketing and Commercial Assistant Katie use their creativity to map out the stand space in an empty office, using any objects they could find. I think it was at this point that I realised this job was going to be an interesting and unique one!

One lucky winner will go home with a print from the original Penny Black die - visit our stand this week for more details

One lucky winner will go home with a print from the original Penny Black die – visit our stand this week for more details.

I have been amazed at just how much work goes into every event that the BPMA hold. Talks about Europhilex began months before I even started. For the stand, we have worked to a strict timetable with regular meetings discussing all of the details in turn.  I will admit this now;  in these meetings I often found myself writing words in my pad and referring to my good friend Google….the nod and smile tactic was used quite a lot. There have been a lot of discussions around the star of the show – the Machin cast – which will have its own spotlight and plinth. Treatment fit for a Queen!

The Star of the Show - the Machin Cast

The Star of the Show – the Machin Cast

Alongside planning the stand, I have also been organising bits ‘n bobs for events we are holding around Europhilex week including an Afternoon Tea for invited guests. I constantly made the error of ordering cakes and canapés for these events before lunch. I never knew a job could also make you so hungry. This experience has been an incredible one and I am just so excited to see it all in action next week at Europhilex. Wish me luck!

If you want to follow our progress next week then stay tuned to the BPMA on Twitter, where I will be posting updates all week.’

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. To mark the year of the centenary, our First World War exhibition, Last Post, is now open at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group.

The exhibition explores the contribution of millions of people to wartime communication and the far reaching role of thePost Office on both the battlefield and the home front.

Field Post Office

Field Post Office

An Oxo tin among other things

Demonstrating the huge variety of items that could be sent through the post in wartime, you can see on display an OXO tin posted home from the fighting front by William Cox, a former Post Office worker. He posted the OXO tin back to his brother and sister, containing a button from the tunic of a fallen soldier and a piece of shrapnel.

Cox's OXO Tin

OXO tin sent home by Cox

Battlefield will and a favourite plant

You can also view the story of Private Leonard Eldridge of the 8th London Regiment (The Post Office Rifles). Soldiers were encouraged to write battlefield wills whilst on the Front. Private Eldridge’s will is on display in the exhibition.

Eldridge writes: ‘everything I possess except the aspadastras plant of mine, I give to you. The plant, I, with my last wish, leave it, and must be given to, Miss Florence Smith… She must be treated in my absence as my lover with every respect.’

Post Office Rifles

8th London Regiment – The Post Office Rifles

Wilfred Owen

Also on display in the exhibition are two original poems written by local Shropshire-born First World War officer and poet Wilfred Owen, kindly lent to us for the exhibition by The British Library.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, perhaps Owen’s most iconic poem, is on display. The poem was written in October 1917 and revised a few months later, in early 1918. Owen sent the poem to his mother, Susan Owen, with the message: ‘Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final).’

Field Post Box

Soldiers waiting for post

We also fittingly have on display Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Letter’. The poem depicts a soldier writing a letter to his wife back home. Whilst writing the letter, the soldier is fatally hit, and a comrade finishes the letter off for him.

The poem highlights the importance of letter writing to soldiers and also the danger present at all times in the trenches. It also illustrates that the contents of letters home may not have accurately depicted the conditions of everyday life for soldiers.


The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, until 27th March 2015 and entrance is free.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition in person, we have launched a simultaneous online exhibition in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.

Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Mail Rail gets the green light

Last week we received some very exciting news with regard to our plans for the new museum as Islington Borough Council approved our planning application to develop a stretch of the old Post Office Underground Railway – Mail Rail – into a unique subterranean ride.


Waiting in the Dark ©Jonathan Bradley 

The announcement resulted in a great deal of media coverage for the BPMA including pieces on the TimeOut, Daily Mail, Wired and BBC News websites.


Staff working on Mail Rail 

The decision means that, as part of a visit to The Postal Museum, due to open in central London in 2016, visitors will be able to explore the hidden world of Mail Rail under Mount Pleasant through an interactive exhibition and a 12-15 minute subterranean ride through 1km of the original tunnels, following the same route that much of the nation’s mail took for nearly 80 years from 1927-2003.


The BPMA’s vision for Mail Rail 

The Mail Rail ride is part of the BPMA’s project to create the Postal Museum which will reveal the extraordinary stories of British social, communications and design history through the universally iconic postal service. By opening up almost 400 years of records and objects from the reign of King Charles I to the present day, The Postal Museum will reveal unusual and exciting episodes from British history. It will showcase curious items including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial, a Victoria Cross and flintlock pistols used to defend Mail Coaches in the 19th Century.


delivering…The Postal Museum 

We are still waiting on the outcome of an application for £4.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a decision on which is expected in May this year, which will allow us to start construction work on the Postal Museum, now including the Mail Rail ride. This is obviously a very exciting time for us here at the BPMA and we look forward to sharing our progress with you over the coming months. 

The remarkable (postal) life of Tony Benn

The BPMA is saddened to learn today of the passing of Tony Benn. Benn served as Postmaster General under Harold Wilson 1964-66 and was instrumental in establishing our predecessor the National Postal Museum, which closed in 1998. There are many things he will be remembered for including the building of the Post Office Tower, introduction of the Post Bus, creation of the Girobank and overseeing the introduction of postcodes. Possibly the most famous and controversial action, however, was his attempt to remove the Queen’s head from stamps.


Tony Benn as Postmaster General

This revolutionary idea came about as part of a now infamous partnership with the artist and designer David Gentleman. In 1964 Benn launched an appeal for ideas to widen the scope of commemorative stamps to, in his own words, “celebrate events of national or international importance, to commemorate appropriate anniversaries and occasions, [and] to reflect Britain’s unique contribution to the arts and world affairs”.

In responding to this appeal Gentleman raised with Benn the issue of removing the Queen’s head, as he felt that its inclusion often caused problems for designers in terms of space for their work. This appealed to Benn’s socialist leanings and he encouraged Gentleman to submit his designs without the monarch.


Example of a stamp with the Queen’s head

Both Benn and Gentleman fought hard for this radical change to stamp design suggesting that the Queen’s head be replaced with the words “Great Britain” or “U.K. Postage” as can be seen on examples such as Churchill design below. However by the end of 1965 the Queen, having initially entertained the idea, decided in no uncertain terms that she wanted her head to remain on stamps.


The Churchill stamp design without the Queen’s head

A compromise was put forward to address Gentleman’s initial issue of space that resulted in a new small cameo silhouette, created from Mary Gillick’s sculpture for pre-decimal coinage, being included on pictorial stamps instead of the full Queen’s head image. This gave designers much greater leeway and changed the form, appearance and subject matter of stamps for over 20 years, allowing for a wider variety of images to appear including the first British Christmas stamps designed by children.


With new small Queen’s head image

Gentleman had won his battle, but for Tony Benn his socialist idea of removing the Queen’s head off of stamps was never realised. He had however challenged the system, and as a result implemented the first major change to stamps in many years.

Ladies of Medicine

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a good opportunity for us to look at the role of women in the Post Office. As this is such a diverse subject we will focus on the Medical Department and the appointment of the first ‘Lady Doctor’, or Female Medical Officer.

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

The origins of the medical department date back to 1855 when the first full time (male) Medical Officer was appointed. His duties included inspecting candidates for appointment to the Post Office, providing medical care and assistance to staff on lower pay grades, and investigating cases of sick absence. It was not until 1883 that the first Female Medical Officer was appointed. This appointment was made on the recommendation of the Postmaster General at the time, Henry Fawcett, who argued:

Without depreciating in any degree the value of the services of the Male Medical Staff, I am convinced, from consideration of a general character, that the peculiar nature of ailments from which women suffer renders them in a special manner susceptible of treatments by duly qualified female practitioners

(POST 64/1)

The number of women employed in the Post Office Headquarters at this time was 1150, compared to 7250 men. Initially the Treasury rejected Fawcett’s request for this new role, on the grounds that the number of women employed was too low. However Fawcett persevered, claiming that the number of women employed was likely to increase, and eventually the Treasury accepted his recommendations.

Miss Shove was appointed the first Female Medical Officer in the Post Office in March 1883. She was entitled to one month’s leave each year (the same as the male Medical Officer), but had to provide a substitute to cover her absence. In contrast the male Medical Officer had a deputy and they covered each other’s leave. Her salary was £300 a year, increasing by £20 a year to a maximum of £450. This was lower than the salary of £400-£600 recommended by Fawcett, and considerably lower than the £800-£1000 paid to the male Medical Officer. Regulations established at this time stated that;

the female Medical Officer will, in ordinary cases, address her reports direct to the Secretary, but will confer with the Chief Medical Officer on all occasions when it may be necessary.

(POST 64/1)

By 1894 the number of women employed at the Headquarters had increased to 2807 (the number of men stood at 10345). Spencer Walpole, the Secretary to the Postmaster General, applied to the Treasury to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, and to appoint an Assistant Female Medical Officer. The Treasury approved the appointment of the Assistant Female Medical Officer, but refused to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, on the grounds that the appointment of an assistant would ease her workload. Miss Madgshon was appointed Assistant Female Medical Officer in October 1895.

As the role of the Medical Department began to extend to other major cities, further Female Medical Officers were appointed. Almost immediately after the appointment of Miss Shove in London, a Female Medical Officer was appointed in Liverpool. By 1892 a female Medical Officer had also been appointed in Manchester, and consideration was being given to the issue in Glasgow. However, after consulting with the Supervisor of Female Telegraphists and her 4 Assistant Supervisors, it was felt that this would not be popular among the female staff;

from what she tells me, it appears that none of themselves viewed the suggestion with much favour, and the belief of all was, that of the female staff generally, the number who would prefer to be under the care, medically, of a lady would be found to be very small

(POST 64/1)

Similar doubts had apparently been expressed in Liverpool initially, but it quickly transpired that the women were actually less hesitant and more willing to consult a female Medical Officer about their ailments. However in Glasgow there was a further complication of no female physician practicing in the district, and therefore it was decided not to pursue the appointment of a Female Medical Officer at that time.

The employment of ‘Lady Doctors’ within the Post Office highlights wider developments in the late nineteenth century. These include the growth in the number of women practicing medicine, although it should be noted;

at the time of the [first] female Medical Officer’s appointment members of the medical profession were adverse to women practitioners in England. Most professional men still have objections to confer with lady doctors either over their patients or in connection with candidates for employment in the service

(A Wilson, Medical Officer in Chief, 30 Dec 1897, POST 64/1)

The role of Henry Fawcett in pushing for the appointment of the first female Medical Officer should not be understated, given his wider involvement in women’s issues. Finally the need for a Female Medical Officer stemmed from the increasing numbers of women being employed by the Post Office, thus the growth and development of the medical department mirrored changes in the wider Post Office workforce.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

More information on the employment of women in the Post Office can be found on our website.

Design: GPO Posters

Design: GPO Posters, a new book by Dr Paul Rennie, has just been published. Dr Rennie is Head of Context in Graphic Design at Central St Martins College of Art, and a past contributor to the BPMA podcast.

Design: GPO Posters

Design: GPO Posters

Featuring over 100 posters commissioned by the General Post Office (GPO) from 1930-1970, the book showcases the work of artists such as Edward McKnight Kauffer and Tom Eckersley.

The book is part of the award winning Design series produced by the Antique Collector’s Club and designed by Brian Webb, another past contributor to the BPMA podcast, and also a noted stamp designer. Other books in the Design series include Design: David Gentleman.

Design: GPO Posters and Design: David Gentleman are both available from the BPMA online shop for £12.50.

New Director for the BPMA

Dr Adrian Steel

Dr Adrian Steel

Dr Adrian Steel has been appointed as the new Director of The British Postal Museum & Archive with immediate effect. The Director will be responsible for the leadership and the strategic development and direction of the BPMA.

Brian Goodey, chairman of the Trustees of the BPMA said today “We are delighted that Adrian has taken on the role of Director. The BPMA is entering a challenging period that includes its planned move to Swindon and Adrian has very successfully led that project from the beginning.”

Dr Steel commented: “I’m delighted to be taking up the challenge of leading the BPMA in its next stage of development, building on the foundations of Tony Conder. With interest in the postal service and its heritage currently greater than ever, the next stage of our new centre’s development and fundraising to plan for, and the 2010 Festival of Stamps set to inspire the expert and the general public alike, I have plenty to do, and plenty to look forward to.”

Adrian has been with the BPMA, and its predecessor Royal Mail Heritage, since 2003. He has been Catalogue Manager, covered the post of Head of Archives and Records Management during maternity leave, and has led the BPMA’s project to create a new centre for its museum and archive collections since 2006. Following the retirement of Tony Conder in April 2009, he has been acting Chief Executive Officer.

Prior to joining BPMA, Adrian worked at the London Metropolitan Archives, Reuters Archive and the Wellcome Trust, where he was based in a project working with the archive of the Wellcome Foundation pharmaceutical firm. Adrian has a PhD in history from the University of London, where he studied party politics in the Greater London area in the 1920s. He has an MA in Archives and Records Management from University College London  and has been a Registered Member of the Society of Archivists (RMSA) since 2001.