Tag Archives: aerial post

100 Years of Sending Mail by Aeroplane

The world’s first scheduled airmail service took off 100 years ago today as part of the celebrations for the coronation of King George V. Between 9 and 26 September 1911 16 flights carried 35 bags of mail from Hendon aerodrome in North-West London to Windsor Great Park marking the world’s first regular airmail service. Today Royal Mail has issued a miniature sheet commemorating the event. This is now available from http://www.royalmail.com/aerialpost.

Aerial Post Minature Sheet.

Aerial Post Minature Sheet.

The first demonstration of an official aerial mail delivery had taken place in February 1911 when Captain Walter George Windham had organised the first flight as part of an exhibition in Allahabad, India. After his return to Britain, Captain Windham used his experience to promote the idea of special mail flights to celebrate the coronation of King George V.

Postal officials suggested the exclusive use of specially designed private stationary for which an extra charge could be made and special postmarks be used. The design was created by William Lendon and featured a Farman biplane over Windsor Castle. It was sold in Harrods, Selfridges and other major department stores in London where the special postcards and letters could also be posted and collected by a private van. A huge amount of mail – about 58,000 postcards and letters – was subsequently received before the first flight took off on 9 September 1911.

Artwork for Coronation aerial post stationery.

Artwork for Coronation aerial post stationery.

The first airmail plane left Hendon on 9 September at 4.55pm carrying one bag of mail weighing 23 ½ lbs and arrived safely at Windsor just 12½ minutes later. The mail was then taken to the Post Office in Windsor by the cycle Postman, sorted and despatched to London by the 6pm train.

Four pilots were engaged to operate the Aerial Post service with Gustav Hamel performing most of the 1911 flights in his Blériot monoplane. He became one of the best-known aviators of the time but died soon after these pioneering airmail flights when he drowned in the Channel in 1914. That flying was very precarious was also proven by the accident of one of the other airmail pioneers. Frenchman Charles Hubert crashed in his Farman biplane attempting to take off from Hendon on 11 September 1911 with eight mail bags and broke both thighs.

Front of Wills' cigarette card number 46 showing the aerial post between Hendon and Windsor that took place in 1911. (2010-0383/46)

Front of Wills' cigarette card number 46 showing the aerial post between Hendon and Windsor that took place in 1911. (2010-0383/46)

It was this uncertainty and dependency on good weather and daylight which led to the end of the Aerial Post service after these first few days in September 1911. Too many special letters and postcards had been seriously delayed due to unfavourable weather conditions, which meant that there were no further serious attempts to establish a regular airmail service in Britain before World War I intervened. However, in 1919 the first public overseas airmail service was launched between London and Paris and later extended to more distant destinations to cover the British Empire.

– Douglas Muir, Curator of Philately

You can see a selection of photographs from our collection showing the history of the airmail service on Flickr.

Centenary of the World’s First Scheduled Aerial Post

Tomorrow marks exactly one hundred years since the start of the world’s first-ever regularly scheduled airmail service. To mark this occasion we have refreshed our Treasures of the Archive exhibition to include a display case full of material related to this historic event.

Coronation Aerial Post - Gustav Hamel in his Bleriot XI, 9 September 1911. (POST 118/5738)

Coronation Aerial Post - Gustav Hamel in his Bleriot XI, 9 September 1911. (POST 118/5738)

Established as part of the celebrations for the coronation of King George V, the first flight of the Aerial Post took place on Saturday 9 September 1911. The noted pilot Gustav Hamel took the controls on the day, flying a Blériot monoplane between Hendon Aerodrome and Windsor Great Park. He carried one small bag of mail weighing 23½lbs on the flight which lasted around 15 minutes.

Poster advertising First United Kingdom Aerial Post.

Poster advertising First United Kingdom Aerial Post.

First United Kingdom Aerial Post handstamp impression. (2009-0332/1)

First United Kingdom Aerial Post handstamp impression. (2009-0332/1)

Our Aerial Post display features a number of unique items from the collections, including the striking 1911 poster promoting the flight, the artwork for commemorative postcards and envelopes carried on the flight, as well as the postcard addressed from the pilot Gustav Hamel to the Postmaster General. Original handstamps from both Hendon and Windsor will also be on display.

An online exhibition, featuring a wealth of additional information about the event, can be accessed on the BPMA website.

Two new products will also be released to mark the Centenary: a limited edition A5-sized postcard depicting the 1911 poster and a brand new postcard pack. Both items will be available via the online shop.

– Andrew Richmond, Head of Access & Learning

Illustrating Empire Mail: George V and the GPO

by Jennifer Flippance, 2010 Exhibitions & Projects Manager

The BPMA’s major exhibition this year – Empire Mail: George V and the GPO – runs until 25 July at Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London.  Big exhibitions like this take several years of planning, starting with a theme and developing the story around it. Objects must be selected and conserved (including any loans from other institutions), text and captions written and images chosen to bring the story to life. Empire Mail explores the reign of George V (1910-1936), innovations in the General Post Office and George V as a stamp collector – one of the finest of his time.

Selecting images to use in an exhibition can certainly be a challenging task.  Each image has to earn its place, illustrating a different aspect of the exhibition’s story.  Inevitably there will be many wonderful images that don’t quite make it.

I wanted to share some of these as I think they still deserve to be seen.  If you haven’t yet been to see Empire Mail: George V and the GPO, you might wonder which ones were chosen!

1. Field Post Office, First World War

Field Post Office, First World War

We used two other photographs of First World War Field Post Offices in the exhibition, so this one didn’t make it, but I still really like the image. Sending and receiving mail was vital for troop morale and Field Post Offices would be set up in any appropriate location. Notice the F.P.O sign on the windowsill and the poster promoting war savings certificates as an appropriate gift for a sweetheart!  Unfortunately we don’t know where or when this photo was taken.

2. Coronation Aerial Post, 1911

Coronation Aerial Post, 1911

Two women posting into a special aerial post box at the officers of the Windsor Chronicle.  The 1911 Coronation Aerial Post was the world’s first regular airmail service.  One of these red, wooden post boxes (on loan from Windsor & Royal Borough Museum) can be seen in the exhibition and we would have liked to include this image of it in use. Unfortunately, because this is an image from a newspaper it would have been very poor quality once blown up to the size needed for display.

3. Aerial mail rehearsal, August 1911

Aerial mail rehearsal, August 1911

We had some good images of the September coronation airmail flights and the rehearsals the month before, so this one did not make the grade. It shows a postman with mail sack approaching one of the planes during a rehearsals. (This particular plane – a Valkyrie Monoplane – was used in the rehearsal, but not the actual mail flights.)

There were 20 flights in total (16 from Hendon to Windsor and 4 on the return leg) each generally carrying 2 mail sacks with a combined weight of about 50lbs.  Only special postcards and envelopes were carried, examples of which can also be seen in the exhibition.

4. Dryman Post Office, Glasgow

Dryman Post Office, Glasgow

The exhibition team all liked this pleasant rural scene from the 1930s with the iconic George V Morris van, however the image didn’t quite fit in with the exhibition themes. The photograph was most likely taken for the Post Office magazine, illustrating the work of Post Office employees in different parts of the country.  We do have one of the Morris vans on display.  Moving it into the gallery took some very careful manoeuvring!

5. Light aircraft about to leave Newtownards airfield, Northern Ireland, carrying air mail, 1935

Light aircraft about to leave Newtonard airfield, Northern Ireland, carrying air mail, 1935

There were many good airmail photos to choose from and unfortunately this one is from just outside the dates covered by the exhibition. Airmail was still a relative novelty during the 1930s; here a small plane is operating out of a small airfield with a grass runway. But even this scene was advanced compared to images of the open wood and fabric aircraft making that first airmail flight just 24 years previously!

6. Messengers on motorcycles, 1934

Messengers on motorcycles, 1934

This photograph was almost chosen for the section illustrating the development of motorised mail transport. We are lucky to have one of the original BSA B33 motorbikes on display, a unique survivor from the introduction of motorcycle telegrams delivery in the early 1930s. Messengers had to be at least 17 years old and were expected to ride at 15mph – something I suspect they didn’t always adhere to!

7. Post Office London Railway, 1926

Post Office London Railway, 1926

This fascinating illustration shows the route of the Post Office underground railway that runs from Whitechapel to Paddington Station and also how the mail was transported from the sorting offices via chutes and lifts to the railway below. This image is rather busy and in the end we chose to use a simpler map of the route alongside plans, photographs and original objects.

An online version of Empire Mail: George V and the GPO can be found on the BPMA website.

New items on our online catalogue

Earlier today we uploaded more than 4000 new records to our online catalogue, bringing the total available to the public to 81,238. The BPMA online catalogue records information about many of the objects and archive material in our collection, allowing anyone to search for it online before visiting us. Not everything we hold at the BPMA has been catalogued as yet, but we currently have 10 staff working full time to put this right. 

A special handstamp from the first flight of the Aerial Post between Windsor and Hendon in 1911

A special handstamp from the first flight of the Aerial Post between Windsor and Hendon in 1911

Some of the cataloguing team have been writing progress reports for this blog and now you can see the results of their work online. New to the catalogue are 2520 slogan dies, 841 objects from the Wilkinson Collection, 402 King George V black proof sheets, 440 handstamps and 158 records about the stamp artwork from the era of King Edward VIII.

Among the 440 handstamps are some real gems, such as special handstamps from the first flight of the Aerial Post between Windsor and Hendon in 1911. There is also an Aycliffe Penny Post handstamp from 1839-1843, and a group of handstamps used on board S.S Quest on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition in 1921-2.

Also of interest are handstamps formerly belonging to the British Post Office in Rio de Janeiro. These were returned to the GPO in November 1896 from the British Consulate, where they had lain since 30th June 1874 when the British Post Office in Brazil closed.

A photograph of King Edward VIII by Hugh Cecil, used on the definitives issued in 1936.

A photograph of King Edward VIII by Hugh Cecil, used on the definitives issued in 1936.

The digitisation of all stamps, proposed stamps, and album artwork from the reign of Edward VIII will be of particular interest to philatelists. The death of King George V on 20th January 1936, and the consequent accession of Edward VIII resulted in ambitious plans from the Post Office. It was decided that there would be three possible stamp issues, a temporary “Accession” issue, which would be replaced by a special “Coronation” issue, and finally a “Permanent” issue.

One of the King Edward VIII definitives issued in 1936

One of the King Edward VIII definitives issued in 1936

While four accession stamps were issued in September 1936, the King’s abdication three months later brought work on the Coronation and Permanent issue stamps to an abrupt end. However, there is still a wealth of material in the BPMA collections, including all the work which went into creating the four Accession definitives – photographs, artwork, essays and issued stamps – and all artwork and essays produced for the Coronation and Permanent issue stamps, produced right up to the week of the abdication.

To access the new material on the online catalogue please follow these links:
King George V black proof sheets
King Edward VIII stamp artwork
The Wilkinson Collection

Slogan dies
Handstamps