Dear Santa: The History of Writing to Father Christmas

In this post, Archives Assistant Ashley March gives us a preview of his talk next Tuesday (1 December) at 7pm. Ashley has been delving through the BPMA’s files to explore how, with the Post Office’s help, Santa started writing back to children across the UK.

My adult interest in writing to Father Christmas started – as the best stories do – with an unexpected question. A couple had come to use our Search Room, and as one of them pored over pages and pages of pension records, looking for a trace of his great grandfather (or some other long-distant relative), the other shyly approached the desk and asked me, with a glint in her eye, ‘Do you know what happens to the letters to Santa?’

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Christmas card from Santa, 1994

I can’t say the question had occurred to me before, and it was April at the time, so hardly festive. After only a little digging, however, we found a folder of research that others had done on the topic, packed with intriguing documents. A surprise to me – the first ‘letter from Santa’ the Post Office sent wasn’t safe and traditional in design, but rather bold and stylish:

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A press release dated 21st December 1963 explained that for the first time, ‘children who had sent letters to Father Christmas in Snowland, Reindeerland, Toyland, etc., and who had put their addresses on their letters, would receive a message from Father Christmas.’ Around 7,500 of the cards pictured were sent, with a special postmark:

Reindeerland postmark 1963

Reindeerland postmark 1963

It turns out we have quite a few files dedicated to Santa mail, back then and since. Looking through the titles, my head filled with questions: Why start sending Santa’s replies at that time? Why the Post Office? And who decided what Santa could send? We take it for granted today that Father Christmas writes back to any of us (if, all importantly, we supply a return address), but we should remember that it might not have turned out this way.

Different ideas had been floated: one manager suggested sending a record featuring Santa’s voice as ‘even more attractive and in keeping with the times than a letter’, and below you can see a charmingly rustic mock-up of a colouring book that Santa might have sent if writers had been asked to pay for his reply:

Proposed Santa colouring book

Proposed Santa colouring book

It might have been made in a hurry!

It was possibly made in a hurry!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rummaging around in our repository, I’ve unearthed a great selection of stories like this to share, so please join me if you can. Did I mention that there will be mulled wine?

-Ashley March, Archives Assistant

Join Ashley next Tuesday 1 December at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Stamps @ The Movies

Everyone has a favourite film, whether it’s a mushy Rom-Com or an Action Thriller, they bring stories into our lives and create characters you remember forever. Many different aspects of the film industry have been portrayed on stamps; here are just a few examples.

30p, Old Cinema Ticket from 100 Years of going to the pictures - A Cinema Celebration (1996)

30p, Old Cinema Ticket from 100 Years of going to the pictures – A Cinema Celebration (1996)

Iconic film legends have appeared on stamps over the years including English born actress Vivien Leigh, best known for her academy awarding winning role as Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939).  Leigh has actually appeared twice; once in 1985 for ‘Great British Film’ and again in ‘Great Britons’ from 2013.

1st, Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) from Great Britons (2013)

1st, Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) from Great Britons (2013)

31p, Vivien Leigh (from photo by Angus McBean) from British Film Year (1985)

31p, Vivien Leigh (from photo by Angus McBean) from British Film Year (1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Niven has also featured in his role as Peter Carter in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ 1946, where after falling from a Lancaster bomber without a parachute, he argues his case in court to remain on earth. Niven also played British spy James Bond in the independent 1967 spoof of Casino Royale.

1st, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) from Great British Film (2014)

1st, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) from Great British Film (2014)

Many films are adapted or based on books or plays and stamps throughout the years have commemorated both films and their inspirations. The Rocky Horror Show was initially a book created by Richard O’Brien transferred to the stage and finally made into a film in 1975 featuring Tim Curry.

97p, Rocky Horror Show from Stage Musicals (2011)

97p, Rocky Horror Show from Stage Musicals (2011)

1st, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone from Harry Potter (2007)

1st, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone from Harry Potter (2007)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harry Potter Novels have been hugely popular in recent years documenting the childhood of one boy wizard and his friends. Now made into eight films it is a huge franchise with its own theme park in Orlando. The above stamp from 2007 features the first book cover, ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’.

Carry on Hammer 50p Stamp (2008) Carry on Cleo

Carry on Hammer 50p Stamp (2008) Carry on Cleo

Stamps also celebrate the films themselves, appealing to all ages. The above stamp ‘Carry On Cleo’ from 2008 references the huge Carry On franchise synonymous with British humour. C.S.Lewis’ fantastical Chronicles of Narnia novels have been made into 3 movies, with key characters featuring in 2011’s Magical Realms issue.

97p, Aslan from Magical Realms (2011)

97p, Aslan from Magical Realms (2011)

Star Wars 1st Stamp (2015) Yoda

Star Wars 1st Stamp (2015) Yoda

 

Contemporary cinema also appears in stamp design. October saw the release of Royal Mails commemorative stamps to celebrate the new Star Wars movie. New and old characters are depicted alongside iconic spacecraft like the Millennium Falcon.

Star Wars 1st Stamp (2015) Millennium Falcon

Star Wars 1st Stamp (2015) Millennium Falcon

34p, Alfred Hitchcock (from photo by Howard Coster) from British Film Year (1985)

34p, Alfred Hitchcock (from photo by Howard Coster) from British Film Year (1985)

 

Many films are created by talented producers and writers. Alfred Hitchcock is probably recognized as the greatest British filmmaker, directing ‘To Catch a Thief’, ‘North by Northwest’ and his infamous ‘Psycho’. He was nicknamed ‘The Master of Suspense’ and made many cameo appearances in his movies.

 

 

Writers like Arthur Conan Doyle have had their literary creations celebrated on stamps. Doyle’s most iconic character Sherlock Holmes had his own stamp issue in 1993. Holmes has been portrayed in many films by the likes of; Christopher Lee, Basil Rathbone and most recently Robert Downey Jr.

1st, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859-1930 from Eminent Britons (2009)

1st, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859-1930 from Eminent Britons (2009)

Sherlock Holmes 24p Stamp (1993) The Reigate Squire

Sherlock Holmes 24p Stamp (1993) The Reigate Squire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The influence of film making is wide reaching and will inevitably continue to be a key theme in stamp design.  The characters and actors are easily recognisable, creating a fun and interesting way of celebrating our favourite films. I wonder what movie will appear next…..

-Georgina Tomlinson, Philatelic Assistant

Pushing the Envelope with James Addison

In this post, Graphic designer James Addison gives us a preview of his talk next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. James has been testing the Royal Mail’s delivery service through a series of peculiar envelopes containing nothing more than cryptic clues and puzzling addresses to see what lengths our humble posties will go to deliver our letters. 

Pushing-the-Envelope-Image1

Have you ever thought about sending a banana through the post? Or even asking your postman to decide where your letter should be sent? Perhaps writing your address in Morse code? No?

As a self-confessed ‘Post Puzzler’, I have been challenging the Royal Mail by writing and sending cryptic addresses on envelopes for many years. From maps and symbols to word-searches and drawings of the destination, they never fail to deliver and I have a growing admiration for their patience and perseverance.

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The Royal Mail has been a great fascination of mine for many years. How a letter can physically travel from one end of the country to the other for just 54p is still brilliant (you can’t even buy a Double-Decker chocolate bar for that price). But when you discover the lengths that our postal service have gone to in order to deliver that letter then receiving one is even more special.

Puzzles_for_postmen_5

During my talk I will be delving back into my own personal archives of curious envelopes, odd experiments and occasionally eyebrow-raising postal exploits. Please join me as I share not only my work but that of many other artists, designers and illustrators over the years who have explored this still thriving medium and bringing a whole new meaning to the word ‘postcode’.

-James Addison

Join James next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Dear Amie: Inspiring formerly trafficked women through postal uniforms

During the past two years our Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, has been developing our audiences in the run-up to opening The Postal Museum. Through engaging new groups we have been able to interpret our collection in new and exciting ways. We have created strong and sustainable bonds with formally under-represented groups who now see us and objects as relevant and of interest. In this post, Hannah shares what she has been up to with the Amies, a group of ten women who are survivors of trafficking.

Established in July 2014, delivered in collaboration with the October Gallery and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we engaged with the Amies over a 12 week period. The 10 ladies were originally brought together by PAN Arts, a London-based arts company, and The Poppy Project. This summer we built upon this project, working with the Amies and partnering with the October Gallery, The Mary Ward Centre and The Calthorpe Project. However, this time, we looked at postal uniforms throughout the ages, and used them as inspiration to make our own textile items. Through a series of images, we’ll share what we have been up to.

We started off the project looking at the various bags that have been used by postal workers over the centuries. Inspired by the telegram messenger bags, we made our own versions to practice simple sewing skills.

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

We developed our sewing skills at the Mary Ward Centre through making a bag with a zip using sewing machines. This got the whole group ready to tackle making a skirt, inspired by the post women’s uniform during the First World War. To make the skirt, we explored images from the collection and experimented with patterns, and had a fabric printed containing our favourite images.

Nanda cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

One of the women cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

Mani making her bag on the sewing machine

One of the women making her bag on the sewing machine

Asia and Paulina look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

The group look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

Mani shows us her ideas for a pattern

One of the women shows us her ideas for a pattern

Nanda works on sewing her skirt

One of the women works on sewing her skirt

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

Being able to build upon this project and working with these women has been an absolute joy. Seeing the women grow in confidence and help each other to learn new skills (both textile and life skills) whilst using our collection as a platform has been hugely worthwhile and humbling. Partnering with the October Gallery and The Mary Ward Centre has also enabled us to learn new skills from peers; invaluable as we continue to move forward developing our audiences for The Postal Museum. Next steps include planning our next project with the women at The Postal Museum and developing our first community inspired exhibition at our archive in Freeling House. Watch this space!

-Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

This project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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Meet the Staff: Archivist (Cataloguing) Matt Tantony

My name’s Matt, and I’m an archivist. You may remember my blog posts and tweets from 2013-14. I’m thrilled to say that I’ve rejoined the BPMA after fifteen months away. I’ve been here since early September and there’s so much to do!

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

My work as an archivist is really varied. You can sometimes see me helping researchers in our Search Room as the archivist on duty, and I’ll once again be bringing you posts on this blog to show you new discoveries and curiosities from our collections. Behind the scenes, I spend every Monday helping my colleagues with the giant task of preparing to move the Archive to The Postal Museum. But my main focus is on cataloguing: I’ll be aiming to catalogue hundreds of records from the Archive over the coming months.

My first cataloguing assignment was the overseas mail letter books. This somewhat mysterious POST class (number 48, to be precise), hasn’t fully been publicly available until now. Several people have worked on it before me, including my illustrious predecessor Anna.

What are the letter books? Well, they’re official records containing copies of correspondence, mostly sent from the Secretary to the Post Office to various recipients including postal agents, other countries’ postal administrations, and shipping companies involved in overseas mail. The date range is vast: from the early 18th century to the 1950s. Many of the letter books deal with postal arrangements for then-British colonies and territories, from the large (Canada) to the small (the Turks Islands). Fortunately, most of the volumes have helpful indexes:

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

As you might expect, the subject matter is minutely detailed and often financial or logistical in nature. A packet ship inspection here, a surcharge on parcels there. Newfangled developments in telegraphy in one letter, a shipping contract renegotiation in the next. But amidst the day-to-day technicalities of international post, you inevitably find world events, such as this Post Office letter about the sinking of the Titanic:

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

The mails went between nations – or at least attempted to – in the face of sea disasters, technology shifts, political intrigues, and wars, both civil and international. For example, here’s a 1774 letter from Post Office Secretary Anthony Todd, firing none other than Benjamin Franklin from the job of Britain’s Deputy Postmaster in America:

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Of course, the American War of Independence began the following year. Later in the very same book are rather friendlier letters from Todd to Franklin, who was now the United States Postmaster General.

The overseas mail letter books are a tricky resource to use (and to catalogue!). The range of subjects is huge, and you may need to cross-reference with other bits of the Archive to get a clear picture of what’s being discussed. There’s also 350 years of changing handwriting to negotiate, and multiple languages including French and Arabic. But they have lots of value and interest as a staggeringly detailed picture of global communication, and they’ll be joining our online catalogue soon.

Catch you in a few weeks with my next discoveries in the Archive!

– Matt Tantony, Archivist (Cataloguing)

By Air, Land and Sea, The Battles of Britain

October 2015 marks 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt, a major English victory in the Hundred Years War. It saw the superiority of English archers defeat the French knights, leading to a unification of the two countries.

Stamps are an expressive way to remember and commemorate historic battles and I have chosen just a few to document the terrains of war faced by the British throughout history. First we will focus on land.

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008) Henry V (1413-22)

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008)

Henry V’s men were greatly outnumbered at Agincourt, however the narrow battleground prevented large scale manoeuvres benefiting the English. Their innovative use of the longbow also kept the progressing French at bay. The defeated French Knights can be seen in the below stamp taken from the illuminated manuscript ‘The Vigil of Charles VII’ c.1484. 

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008) Battle of Agincourt, 1415 Henry V's Triumph

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008) Battle of Agincourt, 1415 Henry V’s Triumph

After the battle Henry married the French King’s daughter Catherine of Valois and their children were acknowledged as heirs to the throne. It was their son Henry VI who would become King of both England and France.

The Houses of Lancaster and York 54p Stamp (2008) Henry VI (1422-61 & 1470-71)

The Houses of Lancaster and York 54p Stamp (2008)

As an island nation we have always been under threat from invasion by sea. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 saw 27 British ships defeat 33 of the combined forces of France and Spain. It was here that Admiral Lord Nelson’s unorthodox tactics confirmed British Naval supremacy.

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 68p Stamp (2005)

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 68p Stamp (2005)

Nelson decided that instead of attacking the enemy ships parallel, which awarded a greater target area, he would attack straight on. By moving two smaller groups forward perpendicular to the enemy he was able to split their line. This formation can be seen in the above stamp from 2005.

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 1st Stamp (2005)

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 1st Stamp (2005)

Though a tremendous victory, it saw the death of Nelson who was mortally wounded aboard his ship the HMS Victory. This event was immortalized in numerous paintings like the one depicted in the stamp above. Nelson’s body was brought back to England in a cask of brandy, where he was honoured with a state funeral.

Maritime Hertiage 24p Stamp (1982) Lord Nelson and HMS Victory

Maritime Heritage 24p Stamp (1982)

With the advancements in technology the new danger to the nation came from the sky. 2015 also celebrates the 75th Anniversary of The Battle of Britain, the first campaign to be fought predominately in the air. Below you can see an image of ‘The Few’, the name given to the boys who defended their country.

The Battle of Britain £1.33 Stamp (2015)

The Battle of Britain £1.33 Stamp (2015)

In the stamps below you can see the Supermarine Spitfire designed by Reginald Mitchell. The aircraft was light, quick and a match for the Lufwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109. Although Hawker Hurricanes were used predominately by the RAF, it was the Spitfire that became the iconic symbol of British defence.

Architects of the Air 20p Stamp (1997) Reginald Mitchell and Supermarine Spitfire MkIIA

Architects of the Air 20p Stamp (1997)

1st, Supermarine Spitfire by R.J.Mitchell from Design Classics (2009)

1st, Supermarine Spitfire by R.J.Mitchell from Design Classics (2009)

The Hawker Hurricane can be seen in the below stamp accompanied by Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. Dowding played a huge role in the success of the Battle of Britain as the Head of RAF Fighter Command. It was here that all information was collected and decisions made, ultimately winning the battle.

Royal Air Force 17p Stamp (1986) Lord Dowding and Hawker Hurricane Mk. I

Royal Air Force 17p Stamp (1986)

Throughout history Britain has been at war. The stamps displayed here celebrate the dedication of those who took part and the lives of the men and women lost in the conflicts. Through the medium of stamps we can circulate a message of national remembrance.

-Georgina Tomlinson, Philatelic Assistant

The FOUR openings of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. At 189m, the Tower was the tallest building in London until 1980 and is still an iconic part of the capital’s skyline. Rather than look at the build, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT David Hay recounts the story behind its FOUR official openings and the drama that ensued.

The planning for the Tower opening ceremony, documented at BT Archives, reveals a little known story of inter departmental rivalry and public image concerns. Construction on the Tower began in 1961, and as early as 1963 thought was being given to an official opening. The Postmaster General of the time, J R Bevins, was keen for a ceremony in 1964 “as soon as the shell has been completed”. A major concern was that the project should be seen to be led by the Post Office. The actual construction was managed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and Bevins was “determined to do something about this by the start of March, without M.o.W. [Ministry of Works]” and that “there must be no question of his [MoW] minister organising shows.”

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The GPO Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, had to point out that there was little point in organising an event before any equipment had been installed in the Tower, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.”

O’Brien’s preferred date for the opening ceremony was April or May 1965 with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding. In case there were delays, Bevins’ successor, Tony Benn, decided to invite Prime Minister Harold Wilson to officiate instead. In his letter, Benn asked Wilson to “draw attention to the role of the Post Office as the central nervous system of the United Kingdom dealing in the transmission of all sorts of information on which the economic life of the community depends”. Downing St was given the choice of April or October and, to O’Brien’s dismay, Wilson gave an October date as his preference. The Post Office had wanted a ceremony sooner rather than later because the physical construction of the Tower had been completed in 1964, and O’Brien was concerned that the public would be wondering why it had not been opened already.

TCB_346 T010

The October date – preferred by the GPO Engineering Department to ensure that all the latest equipment was installed – was seen to be a better option, “it would be rather unfortunate if we were to try to show the way in which the Post Office is installing the most up to date equipment in the world if we had so important a person as the Prime Minister opening the Tower when little equipment is there.”

TCB_346 T194

Ultimately, perhaps reflecting a typical British compromise, there were actually FOUR opening ceremonies:

  • The topping out ceremony on 15 July 1964 marking the formal end of the construction, where a Minister of Public Building and Works made a speech “confining himself to the building achievements.”
  • The operational opening of the Tower on 8 October 1965.
  • An official visit by HM Queen Elizabeth hosted by Tony Benn on 17 May
  • The opening of the public areas of the Tower (the restaurant and the observation floor) on 19 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Sir Billy Butlin (who had been awarded the licence to operate the restaurant).

The files also reflect a little of the characters of some of the key players in the Tower’s story. J R Bevins, who had been instrumental in the building of the Tower, declined his invitation because it had been incorrectly addressed to him as ‘Mr’ rather than “the Right Honourable J R Bevins – after all I am a Privy Councillor”. And following the ceremony Tony Benn wrote to O’Brien requesting that special arrangements be made to ensure that official drivers received refreshments at future events, “I believe there was some difficulty about this in connection with the opening of the Post Office Tower”.

TCB_346 T648

Whatever day you see as the ‘official opening’, the BT Tower (formerly the Post Office Tower) is still an iconic landmark in London today and an innovation from the General Post Office.

You can read more on the history of the BT Tower on the BT Archives website