Category Archives: Wilkinson Collection

The Great British (Letter Box) Bake Off

The recent series of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) has been something of a talking point around the BPMA offices: our staff are known for their love of cake so understandably Tuesday evenings have become sacred TV nights for a lot of us, as I’m sure they have been for you. Cake, in my opinion, forms a vital part of any museum – just think of all those museum cafes offering everything from scones to chocolate cake to fuel your visit around the galleries.

This does not mean that I was expecting to find a cake on the shelf in our Museum Store…but that’s exactly what I did find within a few months of my starting at BPMA, whilst working on the Wilkinson Collection. The Wilkinson Collection is a collection of letter box related items and this cake fitted that description as it was a Swiss roll iced and decorated in the form of a letter box.

Letter Box Cake found in the Wilkinson Collection.

Letter Box Cake found in the Wilkinson Collection.

Food of any sort, whilst welcome to feed the staff, is less welcome as part of the collection. Food encourages pests which can damage other parts of the collection, particularly the archive and textile collections which is why eating and drinking is limited to a specific area of our offices and not allowed in our Search Room. Add to this the fact that the cake was 20 years old (admittedly still in its packaging) and this one object was immediately a threat to the rest of the collection. As a result, we made the decision to dispose of this item.

However, in addition to the cake, we also found the recipe for it which you can find below! I’ve often been tempted to make this, the basic instruction of ‘Make a Swiss Roll in the usual way’ would fit nicely into any technical challenge on the GBBO, whilst the final result would, I’m sure, be a showstopper. If anyone out there would like to take up the challenge of making this letter box cake do send us your photos!

Letter Box Cake

Swiss Roll
Apricot jam
Red colouring
Almond icing
Chocolate butter icing

Make a Swiss Roll in usual way* and brush sides with warmed jam.
Add red colouring to all but a small quantity of the almond icing and roll out thinly to a strip long enough to cover the roll, making join at back.
Mould some almond icing to form top and flap of box, and attach these with jam and butter icing.
Cut a square of the uncoloured almond icing and stick it on to the front.
Using chocolate butter cream and a plain writing nozzle, make marks to represent times of collection, etc.

*There are several on the BBC website, including a chocolate roulade by GBBO’s Mary Berry.

– Emma Harper, Curator

If you’ve been inspired to bake the cake, here are some pictures of pillar boxes to inspire you as you ice it.

The Post Office in Chesham

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

As part of our commitment to providing access to Britain’s postal heritage, BPMA occasionally loans objects from its collection to other museums in order to help support displays relating to the social history of the Post Office across the country, and ensure as many people as possible are able to enjoy and learn from them.

Postal van postcard (2009-0081/671).

Postal van postcard (2009-0081/671).

Chesham Museum currently has an exhibition about ‘The Post Office in Chesham’ which uses photographs and objects to examine the history of Chesham post office and its place within the community. Followers of our blog may remember that the Wilkinson collection, which was catalogued in 2009, is a collection of postal ephemera, primarily model letter boxes and vehicles collected by one Ian Wilkinson, resident of Chesham. The exhibition at Chesham Museum features a section on Ian Wilkinson as ‘Chesham’s little known collector of Post Office memorabilia’ and BPMA has leant a few objects from the Wilkinson collection to help tell this story.

Chesham model letter box (2009-0081/035).
Chesham model letter box (2009-0081/035).

Amongst these is a model letter box with the Chesham coat of arms on the front which is thought to be one of the first items collected by Ian Wilkinson. Also on loan is a postcard in the shape of a postal van (pictured above) and one of my favourite items from the Wilkinson collection, a ceramic letter rack in the shape of an envelope addressed to Ian Wilkinson at his Chesham address in ‘Germaines Close’ [now Germains] not far from Chesham Museum. The letter rack was made around 1985 either by, or for, Ian Wilkinson and is typical of the quirky individual nature of the collection. BPMA has also leant some handstamps from our collection relating to places within Chesham such as Ashley Green and Great Hivings to illustrate the wider history of Chesham post office.

If any of you wish to see these objects and many more from Chesham’s own collection, the exhibition continues until Wednesday 19 October and can be visited on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 11am until 3pm. Please see Chesham Museum’s website for further details.

More cigarette card images

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

Sydney (New South Wales) Postman, City Uniform

Sydney (New South Wales) Postman, City Uniform

Images of cigarette cards from the Wilkinson Collection will soon be added to our online catalogue so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some more of the cards with you beforehand.

Many of the cigarette cards examine aspects of postal systems in countries across what was then the British Empire. They look at the uniform worn by postal workers, the different buildings that functioned as post offices and how the systems coped with extreme weather conditions. Four cards from a set produced by Royal Mail in conjunction with Wills in c.1930 illustrate this point well by showing the workings of the Australian Post Office.

This first card (2010-0383/14) shows the fetching uniform worn by city postmen in Sydney, New South Wales which is where the first Australian post office was established in 1810. The distinctive red jacket and the white helmet are both different from the uniform of London postmen at the time, harking back to an older military style of dress.

In contrast to this, 2010-0383/06 shows a Post Office established in a new gold town in Australia. Quite different from the impression given by the formal attire of the City postman, this post office seems quite understated amongst the tents. However, it shows how important the Post Office was, that

even the most adventurous cling to home and civilization through this visible link, the Post Office.

Post Office at Gold Diggings, Australia

Post Office at Gold Diggings, Australia

The other two cards are representative of the nature of the terrain and weather experienced by Australia and how, inevitably, this affected the transportation of mails across the country. In the 19th century, most people relied upon the mail coach for intercommunication: as the third card, 2010-0383/04 depicts, it was able to cover great stretches of the country in a relatively short amount of time.

Mail Coach - Western Australia

Mail Coach - Western Australia

As has been the case recently, Australia can also be subject to some extreme weather conditions. 2010-0383/05 displays this, showing a postman delivering mail to Kiandra in New South Wales, a mountainous district and, incidentally, an old gold mining town. The postman, fully equipped with his skis, trudges through the snow with the mail slung over his shoulder; as is printed on the card

In no other business could the work be done so expeditiously.

Carrying Mails to Kiandra, New South Wales

Carrying Mails to Kiandra, New South Wales

All the cards mentioned, and many more, will soon be on our online catalogue.

New Wilkinson Collection Records: Cigarette Cards

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

Amongst the records recently added to our online catalogue were groups of cigarette cards that are part of the Wilkinson Collection. These had previously been kept as part of the Secondary Collection however, after doing a bit more research it was decided that they would be a welcome addition to the catalogue. Whilst the quality of the images on these cards is, inevitably, not always the best, they are often very interesting, giving a flavour of life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Cigarette cards are trading cards introduced by tobacco companies to stiffen cigarette packaging as well as to advertise different brands of tobacco. On one side of the cards would be a picture, ranging from the famous actors or sports personalities of the day, through to city views and landscapes. Cards were normally produced in sets of 25 or 50 for customers to collect and you could also buy albums to put the cards in. These cost just a shilling, which would have been viable at least for the middle classes, and possibly for some of the working class as well.

It may surprise some readers to learn that quite a few of the sets released had postal themes. These cards showed a range of subjects relating to the postal service both in Britain and across the British Empire, including historical events or figures, stamps from different countries, as well as technological advances in delivering the mail. This range can be shown in the following cards from our collection.

Number 31 of a series of 50 Wills cigarette cards, entitled ‘English Military Post Office (Foreign Service)’

Number 31 of a series of 50 Wills cigarette cards, entitled ‘English Military Post Office (Foreign Service)’ (2010-0383/31)

The first card shows a Foreign Service Post Office with men dressed in khaki military uniform opening mail bags in front of their tents. This is probably a depiction of a Post Office from either the Boer or First World War. On the back of each card there is always some information about the subject depicted and I think this one speaks for itself:

No one realizes the benefit and blessing of Post Office activity and resource more than the soldier and his relatives in war time. The Post Office enables him to keep in touch with the old home…the postal officials share the hardships, inconveniences and dangers of the campaign.

Number 16 of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series entitled ‘An Early Mail Van’

Number 16 of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series entitled ‘An Early Mail Van’ (2010-0384/16)

The second card I’ve chosen is part of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series produced jointly by Royal Mail and W.H. & J. Woods Ltd which shows an early motorised mail van. The Post Office was among the first of the public services to take advantage of motor transport. In 1898 motor vans were tried on the London to Brighton services and by 1911 had superseded horse vehicles on all the Parcel Coach Services between London and provincial towns. They also enabled longer distances to be covered.

These are just two from almost 190 cigarette cards in the Wilkinson Collection so please do take a look at some of our others on the online catalogue – pictures to be uploaded soon!

The Wilkinson Collection on Flickr

Model letter box cigarette holder

A model letter box made of metal and brown leather. Quite decorative in style, it may well have been used to hold cigarettes.

Today we added some photos of items from the Wilkinson Collection to Flickr. The Wilkinson Collection is named after the late Ian Wilkinson, who collected over 3000 objects related to post boxes and the postal service. Amongst the items are money boxes, model letter boxes and model vehicles; some feature characters such as Snoopy, Mickey Mouse or Postman Pat, or were manufactured by companies such as Lego, Fisher Price or Dinky.

The BPMA’s predecessor, the National Postal Museum, received the Wilkinson Collection in 1989, but it is only in the past year that it has been catalogued by Collections Cataloguer Emma Harper, and made available on our online catalogue (read more about this in Emma’s blogs).

The photos we’ve put on Flickr today show some of the Collection’s highlights and oddities, from a Mickey Mouse money box to a letter box cigarette holder. There really is something for everyone in the Wilkinson Collection!

Wilkinson Secondary Collection and Issues of Disposal

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections) 

You may have noticed that since my last blog around 850 objects from the Wilkinson Collection have been added to our online catalogue. These are the objects that I have been cataloguing in the past months; however, these are not the full extent of the collection. In the case of the Wilkinson collection we thought that the sheer size of the collection meant that it was unlikely we would catalogue every single object. Moreover, as I have stressed throughout my blogs, the collection is very diverse and contains things that were often not directly relevant to our collecting policy. For this reason we decided to catalogue what we saw as the core of the Wilkinson collection, the model letter boxes and vehicles, which could also include some of the more ‘popular’ items such as the Postman Pat objects. Which begs the question, what have we done with the rest?

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

Over 1000 objects have been kept at what we are calling a ‘Secondary Collection’ level. These are objects which we do not consider are the ‘core’ of the collection, things that Ian Wilkinson began to collect later on in his life, rather than those objects that were the original inspiration for the collection. These include items such as mugs, plates, books, badges, key-rings, and ephemera such as birthday and greeting cards. All of these objects have some reference to the postal world on them, even if it was sometimes a challenge to find them!

Information is still recorded about these objects, such as a description of the object (including any defining features), measurements and their present location. However, instead of cataloguing them on the database, this material is kept in the object history file and electronically on our computer system. As a result, if anyone does want to see any of the objects in the secondary collection we can initially provide them with information about the object and, if they want to, arrange for them to view the object itself. This system gives us as a museum much more flexibility. Whilst we will obviously still care for the objects to the same standard as if they were catalogued, we can be a little freer with their use. They can, and hopefully will, be used as a handling collection, and in education sessions, to give people a wider experience of museum objects without them or us worrying as much about damage or breakages.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

As a result, the Secondary Collection not only includes those items that are less relevant but also some objects that fall into the core groups but are not in quite as good condition. Condition of an object is an important issue to consider when cataloguing objects. Some materials can deteriorate quickly and actually affect the condition of other objects as they do so. As a result, some objects, if they were severely damaged, or deteriorating and would continue to do so at a rapid pace, would not be catalogued and would instead be disposed of.

Throughout the museum sector there is a strong presumption against disposal. However, it is recognised that in some circumstances disposal is the sensible option for the benefit of the museum collection as a whole, as well as the individual object. In the past museums have often collected anything and everything without any clear idea of why or how they can benefit the museum. This has often led to problems of space and stretched resources. Nowadays, museums are much more aware of these problems and put in place measures to ensure that nothing is collected or kept that cannot be properly cared for, or might damage other objects in the collection.

The BPMA’s ‘Acquisition and Disposal’ policy states that ‘Material will not usually be acquired if identical, or significantly similar, items already exist in the Collections’ and that ‘Existing collections [eg. Wilkinson collection] will be subject to regular professional reviews to ensure they are in line with [this] current collecting policy.’

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

It is this review process that I have been carrying out as I have catalogued the Wilkinson Collection. Many of the objects in the collection were duplicated either within the Wilkinson Collection itself, or occasionally in the wider BPMA collection. When I found a duplicated object I would get both objects out of the store to compare their condition. If one was in a worse condition than the other, for example, in the case of the model letter boxes, if one was more scratched or the paint work was peeling, then I would put that object to one side to consult with the curator what the next step should be.

Once a decision had been made as to whether an object should be disposed of, all relevant information about the item is recorded: this includes a description of the object, whether copyright is known; measurements are taken and the object is photographed. All of this information is stored physically in the Wilkinson collection’s history file, and electronically on our computers, like the Secondary Collection. As you can see, the disposal process is very similar to the cataloguing one. This way, we still have a lot of the information about the object but the condition and/or material of the object is not a threat to the collection.

Popular characters in the Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

In my last blog there was a picture of a letter box with Mickey Mouse on it. This is just one of many items in the Wilkinson Collection that has images of characters from popular culture on it. Some of these have specifically postal links, the most obvious being Postman Pat, others are there because the objects are primarily directed at children. It may be that you collected objects with Disney characters on, or were a fan of Danger Mouse when you were younger, or still do now! I know I was particularly excited when I found a money box tin in the shape of the old Police public call boxes only to find that it was in fact a model Tardis with none other than Tom Baker as Doctor Who on the front, complete with his iconic long stripey scarf, something that brought back memories of my own childhood. There are many items like these in the Wilkinson Collection.

Danger Mouse Talc Container

Danger Mouse Talc Container

After Postman Pat, the most postally relevant popular character to appear in the Wilkinson Collection is Danger Mouse and his side-kick, Penfold, named after the designer of one of Britain’s best loved pillar box. Despite the name Penfold, the pair actually lived in an Anonymous pillar box and it is this that ensured their inclusion in the collection. One of the items that features the pair is a model plastic letter box which was also a bubble bath container. Another is a container for talcum powder (left) which shows Penfold holding onto a rope inside the letter box with Danger Mouse standing next to him. That a programme such as Danger Mouse can use a letter box as the hero’s home shows how instantly recognisable letter boxes are and makes an everyday object part of another world.

Some of the model letter boxes in the collection are also musical boxes. One of these shows the dog ‘Dougal’ from the television series ‘The Magic Roundabout’. However, this object also has a more serious message as on the back is a decimal currency conversion chart complete with pictures of the new coins. This is another common theme used on model letter boxes made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, – the period when Britain changed from an imperial to a decimal currency – and shows how important an issue it was. Indeed, the post office itself was involved in organising aspects of the change-over.

Ian Wilkinson also collected model post vehicles (pictured below), one of which shows a US mail car being driven by the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip character Snoopy. The car has paw prints on it and ‘SNOOPY/ US MAIL’ is inscribed on the sides. Maybe seeing their favourite cartoon character drive a mail car inspired some children to work as a postman/ woman when they were older, I’m sure Postman Pat must be responsible for a few recruits! Other popular characters that appear throughout the collection are Paddington Bear, Felix the cat and Spot the dog. There is also a tin depicting Coronation Street, which includes a letter box!

A group of vehicles from the Wilkinson Collection, including a US mail car with Snoopy

A group of vehicles from the Wilkinson Collection, including a US mail car with Snoopy

I had a lot of fun cataloguing these items as not only were they things I had enjoyed as a child, but they were also not what I had expected to find in the collection. This highlights how diverse and unusual collections can become. If you recognise any of the objects mentioned here, or have similar ones do please respond with your own memories!