Paints and post boxes: engaging families through exhibitions

As we move into the final design stages for The Postal Museum and Mail Rail, a new family friendly attraction opening in central London in 2016, we’ve been asking ourselves the question, how do families engage with our stories and collections? Our Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson tells us about the work she and Exhibitions Officer Dominique Gardner have been doing to answer this question.

Some postal inspired artwork!

Some postal inspired artwork!

Pop it in the post: your world at the end of the street , our latest touring exhibition, is the first we’ve designed that’s aimed at children. With this in mind we decided to launch it at Islington Museum, located just around the corner from the BPMA and popular with local families. It was the perfect place to engage these future visitors to The Postal Museum and get their feedback on what we have to offer them. The exhibition explores how the communications revolution came about as the result of the introduction of the Penny Black stamp and pillar boxes. From the workers who made it possible to the crazy and elaborate new types of post being sent – there are plenty of fascinating and surprising themes; perfect for sparking the curiosity and imaginations of young minds!

This little boy's imagination is peaked - or maybe its the paints.

This little boy’s imagination is sparked- or maybe its the paints!

Alongside the exhibition we ran some drop-in family activities during the Easter holidays. Recent research conducted at our Museum of the Post Office in the Community exhibition at Blists Hill Victorian Town showed that children enjoyed engaging with the uniform in the collection, particularly the hats. Therefore, this was chosen as the inspiration for the take-away craft activity. Children made their own top hat mask and played with the postal themed board games and beautiful jigsaw puzzles specially made for the exhibition. One group visiting from a children’s holiday club stayed with us for 2 hours, with almost every child trying on the handling postal uniforms, which bodes well for the dressing up interactive experience we have planned for the new museum!

Getting messy with paints

Getting messy with paints

The exhibition then played host to a much younger audience at the early years workshop for the under 5s. This time we used mail art as the inspiration – with children as young as 2 creating their own beautifully decorated envelopes to send through the post. It was hard to tell who enjoyed it the most, the parents or the children…but it shows our collection can make for a fun shared learning experience between people of all ages, regardless of their personal experience of using the postal service.

Pop it in the post: your world at the end of the street will be displayed at Islington Museum until Saturday 2 May. After that, the exhibition heads to Bruce Castle Museum from July to September, and in October it heads north to Mansfield Museum – winner of the Kids in Museums Family-Friendly Award in 2011.

-Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

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!

Mail Rail Book Reading Event

With building works to transform Mail Rail into an exciting and immersive national visitor attraction as part of The Postal Museum set to begin in the next few months, opportunities to show off this extraordinary and inspiring space in all its mothballed glory are becoming increasingly limited. Hannah Clipson, BPMA Community Learning Officer tells us about a recent event which did just that…

From 1927 to 2003, Mail Rail transported huge volumes of post under the streets of London, beneath the feet of millions of blissfully unaware commuters and tradesmen going about their daily business 70 feet above. Opened in an age when the horse and cart ran alongside new-fangled automobiles, it was a technological innovation that kept people in touch across ever-greater distances and at ever-greater speed. Since the last shift when workers downed their tools in 2003, the Mail Rail has sat, silently gathering dust. Until now!

On 25 March, a lucky group of visitors were granted access to this hidden landmark as the Mail Rail Car Depot, where trains from across the network were brought for repair, became the dramatic backdrop for a very special BPMA event.

In collaboration with Cityread London 2015, an annual celebration that encourages all of London to pick up the same book and read it together, Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Sunday Times best-selling urban fantasy/crime fiction series Rivers of London, unveiled a special new short story, King of the Rats, read by comedian, rapper and entertainer Doc Brown, aka Ben Bailey Smith.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, 'King of the Rats'.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, ‘King of the Rats’.

“When a self-styled King of the Rats crashes a corporate do hosted by Fleet and Tyburn naturally the Folly are called in.  Peter and Kumar have to determine whether his majesty is the legitimate ruler of the rat nation or a sad man with a rodent fixation.

And they’d better do it fast before irate Rivers decide to embark on a bit of DIY pest control.”

After being treated to this new instalment, fans were able to pick the author’s brain during a lively Q&A session!

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

The evening marked the start of Cityread’s 2015 season. Over the next month Rivers of London will be the theme behind a programme of exciting events across all 33 London boroughs.

You can hear the full story, read by Doc Brown, below

My Favourite Object: Prosthetic Hand

Asking a Curator to choose their favourite object is like putting a kid in a sweet shop and then telling them they can only have one! In fact, some of you may remember that I shared my favourite object with you last year, a truncheon issued to Post Office employees before the Chartist riots of 1848. Today however my favourite object is a recent acquisition of a Postman’s Hand, which is not quite as sinister as it sounds, I promise!

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Prosthetic hand with letter

 

Besides all the pun based opportunities this object has provided (for the last few weeks I have been constantly asking my colleagues if they need a hand with anything…) it is actually a very important addition to the BPMA’s collection, as it reveals an often hidden aspect of history.

The hand in question is not a real one but is made of wood covered with leather and has an adaptor to fit it into the wrist unit of a prosthetic arm. Some of the earliest prosthetics in history were also made of wood and leather but this hand fits into the advanced development of prosthetic limbs that occurred after the Second World War to aid rehabilitation of the many soldiers who had limbs amputated as a result of the conflict.

Postman's hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

Postman’s hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

The Post Office as an employer has always made a concerted effort to advance employment opportunities for disabled people, including veterans, as has been shown in previous posts and this was particularly so after the Second World War. Hands like this were in use from the 1950s through to the 1970s – this example bears its date on it ‘4/11/64’ – and were designed to hold letters. What is particularly revolutionary about this object though is that it has a roller, or wheel, under the thumb which allowed one letter to be removed while still keeping grasp of the others. This enabled disabled employees to sort letters with greater ease and efficiency than with the previous, more basic, prosthetics. Feeling the hand it is quite heavy and it has made me think what it would have been like to use.

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Profile of hand

 

This object was kindly donated to us from the Limb Fitting Centre at the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, which was founded to care for soldiers wounded in the First World War, and has since become renowned as a limb fitting and amputee rehabilitation centre. They were able to tell us that the hand had been developed by Hugh Steeper Ltd, major manufacturers of prosthetics at the time. This was the only remaining postman’s hand at Roehampton and it was returned to them by a retiring postman in the early 1970s.

As you can see the BPMA’s collection is constantly developing and this object adds to our knowledge of an important part of our history which is relatively under-represented. It is fascinating objects such as this that will form the bedrock of the new Postal Museum but they are nothing without the stories of the people who used them. If you have a story to share please email us at peoplespost@postalheritage.org.uk and help us achieve our ambition of filling our brand new museum with the voices of real people. Thank you!

-Emma Harper, Curator

Meet the Staff: Day in the life of a Team Support Officer

Each month we are sharing what a typical day is like across the BPMA through our Meet the Staff series. This month our Team Support Officer Deepa stepped up to the challenge.

I am Deepa of House Admin and Central Functions; BPMA Team Support Officer, First of Her Role, Reporter of Facilities Issues, Coverer of Maternal Leave, Scanner of A4 Documents, and Assistor to all BPMA departments who require a hand. I’m very lucky to have a fantastically varied job that involves working with most of my colleagues in their various departments at some point.

Working at my desk with an essential cup of tea in hand.

Working at my desk with an essential cup of tea in hand.

My day-to-day work covers a range of semi-regular activities- logging call outs with the Royal Mail Helpdesk whenever things need fixing around our two London locations and letting people know that help will be with them shortly, requesting access to the Mail Rail tunnels for colleagues to get up to all manner of exciting subterranean activities, gathering and distributing paperwork for our Senior Management Team ahead of their fortnightly meetings and arranging their annual away days, and trying to not kill the Director’s plant on my windowsill despite its complete lack of a will to live (why does it keep flowering when it’s clearly half dead?) – that I tend to from the ergonomic comfort of my desk in North Islington.

Our Director's resilient plant

Director’s resilient plant

As our Secretary to the Trustees is currently off tending to her new addition I am also helping out by covering these duties while she’s away. The quarterly board meetings tend to require preparation to start at least a month in advance, and then can be supplemented with additional meetings in between so there’s always something to do from scheduling meetings between staff and trustees, to preparing, printing and posting reports for them ahead of meetings, then writing them up in a (hopefully) timely manner.

Important and colourful work

Timetable of board meetings and all other happenings at the BPMA

-Deepa Sebastian, Team Support Officer

Daily Life at the Front Line: Thomas May Diary

Last month we introduced you to Thomas May, a member of the Post Office Rifles (PORs), who fought in the First World War 100 years ago.  Thomas’ diary is in BPMA’s collection and through it we can gain an insight into his personal experience of the war during his station in France in 1915. Histories of the First World War tend to focus on the action: the battles, the excitement and, of course, the horrors. However, there was another side, one full of parades, drills, inspections and endless marching. This daily drudgery is more than apparent throughout Thomas’ diary and will be the focus of today’s blog.

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. Post Office Rifles changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Inspections and Exercises

Troops generally worked to a pattern of two days at ‘the front line’ in the trenches and two days at rest, in Thomas’ case usually in Bethune, a French mining town. These rest days were by no means peaceful however. Rising at 6am Thomas would frequently have to prepare kit and weapons for inspections. On Sunday 18 May, after the men had been in France for over a month, Thomas notes that it was the ‘first time I have ever paraded with rifle’. Two days later his morning consisted of ‘Rifle, Ammunition Inspection, Bayonet fighting exercises’. This is a stark reminder not only of the realities of warfare 100 years ago – where hand to hand combat was still a distinct possibility – but also of the relative inexperience of these young men.

Marching through the Land

Throughout the diary there are several days where May and the troops seem to spend most of the time marching, either because they were moving off to a new base or billet, or simply on a route march as on Wednesday 28 April: ‘Route march from 9.30am to 2.30pm. Distance 12 miles. Weather very hot and roads very bad for marching. Properly knocked on return.’

Whilst marching is the most common of any army exercise, as Thomas shows it could be tiring work, particularly in the hot French weather which these English men were far from used to.

The Jolly Old Weather

Unsurprisingly comments on the weather are frequent in this Englishman’s diary. In the first couple of months the weather was ‘very warm for marching’ as we have just seen, but May brought heavy rain. This coincided with a major offensive by the Post Office Rifles at Festubert, making for horrid conditions. On 17 May Thomas writes ‘Still it was raining and we were up to our necks in mud…wet through to the skin and covered in mud, also cut about in trying to get through the German barb wire.’

Taking a Bath

Hygiene was an important concern as these muddy, dirty conditions at the front meant fleas and lice were common, as well as more serious illnesses. Some of the billets also left something to be desired. On 23 April Thomas was billeted in ‘a dirty old barn. Inside the barn was rats, mice, chickens, ducks and one bull, but all the boys slept soundly’.  Thomas does not seem to have relished the opportunities for a bath however: ‘Paraded 5.50am for Bathing much to our disgust’.

Ensuring an entire Company of men stayed clean cannot have been an easy task however and on some occasions the activity seems to have taken most of the day:

‘Bathing parade at 9.30am after marching all round France found baths at 1.30pm. Allowed 10 mins for bath. Returned home at 5pm.’

Extracts such as this from the personal diaries of those who experienced the war first hand support the themes that came through the printed media of the time. A famous postcard designed for the officers and soldiers of the 4th Division was entitled ‘Fighting Fleas in Flanders’.

Action and Inaction

Daily life at the front was full of such frustrations and the dichotomy of being ready to spring into action at a moment’ s notice and waiting in this state for hours on end is a powerful one.

20 May : ‘Stood by ready to move off at a moment’s notice. But all orders were cancelled.’

Nights were often interrupted with ‘Stand to arms 2.0am’ and on occasion full night operations made for a long day: ‘Paraded 1-30pm for trench digging, home 6.15pm. Night operations. Paraded 10-30pm. Trench digging, home 3-15am next morning.’

On May 7 at 5pm Thomas ‘was ordered to dig dugouts in readiness for a bombardment. Wind up all round, and had to sleep with boots and putees on. Nothing occurred.’

Food and Drink

Thomas’ subtle wit can be seen throughout the diary as on May 16 he writes ‘Since the exciting evening of May 7th had nothing else but bullied beef and biscuits also no boots and puttees off’. Bullied beef and biscuits was the staple diet for the Rifles, and although Thomas complains about it, he also realised that sometimes a bland diet was a blessing. On 29 March after one of the first shellings that the PORs experienced May writes ‘For once had a good dinner, but was spoilt owing to the horrible sight’. On 4 May dinner was accompanied by ‘Plenty of Champagne because of leaving for trenches’ May tellingly puts in brackets after this ‘(Usual Occurrence)’. Alcohol was often used to try and lift morale and create cohesion between the men of the fighting unit as well as aid in the transition between extreme fighting situations and the ‘rest’ days. In contrast to the front, there were concerns back at home that alcohol was harming the productivity of war workers and thus the war effort.

These were some of the components that made up the daily life of Thomas May and his fellow Post Office Rifles while at the Front. It was often frustrating, boring and tiring yet, as we will see in the next blog, the preparation was vital if the Post Office Rifles were to be successful in their first major offensive, that of the Battle of Festubert in May 1915.

– Emma Harper, Curator

NEW STAMPS: Comedy Greats

As a celebration of all things funny, Royal Mail  has issued  a selection of 10 stamps depicting the great and good in British comedy. These stamps showcase what British comedy has offered since the 1950s.

Comedy Greats The Two Ronnies Stamp 400% Comedy_Greats_Billy_Connolly_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_French_and_Saunders_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_Lenny_Henry_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_Monty_Python_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_Morecambe_and_Wise_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_Norman_Wisdom_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_Peter_Cook_and_Dudley_Moore_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_Spike_Milligan_Stamp_400% Comedy_Greats_Victoria_Wood_Stamp_400%

These comedians have paved the way for new comedy, breaking down social and economic boundaries proving that anyone can be funny. Comedians such as Victoria Wood, and French and Saunders have encouraged countless young women to follow their example and break into a predominantly male industry. Whereas Billy Connolly and Norman Wisdom represented ordinary working class individuals that people could relate too.

Whether they worked as a group, duo or on their own, these individuals enriched our lives with their comedy and through these stamps we can celebrate our much-loved Comedy Greats.

Comedy and comedians have appeared on British stamps before. Probably the first instance of comedy to appear on a British stamp was in 1964 with the Shakespeare Festival stamps. These featured characters from two of his comedies: Puck and Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Feste from Twelfth Night.

QEII_24_020L

Puck and Bottom, 3d

Festem, 6d

Feste, 6d

Comedy Greats is on sale now and available at www.royalmail.com/comedygreats, by phone on 03457 641 641 and in 82000 Post Offices across the UK.

-Georgina Tomlinson, Philatelic Assistant