Tag Archives: architecture

Volunteer Week: Spotlight on Post Office Architecture expert Julian Osley

Our volunteers have a range of interests, from design to postal history and everything in between. Some of these interests are what motivate them to join us, others they discover while here. To celebrate volunteer’s week Julian Osley tells us about Post Office architecture, a passion he discovered while volunteering at the BPMA.

The Uniform Penny Post prompted an enormous increase in the level of business, however the Post Office was slow to provide suitable premises in which to manage the transaction of business.

By 1840 major post offices had been built in London, Edinburgh and Dublin but, it was not until the 1860s that serious attention was given to improving the quality of post office buildings in provincial urban areas. For the most part these buildings were designed by architects in the Office of Works, and followed prevailing architectural fashions, such as the Italianate style of design which can be seen today in the former post offices at Derby, Maidstone, Sheffield, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hull and Wakefield, to name just a few.

Maidstone post office

Maidstone post office

 

Typical of the more flamboyant Edwardian era are the buildings at West Hartlepool, Aldershot, Esher, Canterbury and Sheffield. After the First World War, for reasons of economy, and also to foster the image of post office as an approachable, yet solid and dependable institution, the style known as “Post Office Georgian” was adopted, its characteristics being the use of brick on a domestic scale in order to achieve harmony with the local environment.  A ‘Brighter Post Office’ campaign was launched in the late 1920s in order to make post office interiors more attractive. For a few years after Second World War, new post office buildings followed the Georgian tradition (although in a stripped-down format), but following the Festival of Britain of 1951, this was finally abandoned in favour of a modern approach.

Wakefield post office

Wakefield post office

Because the post office became so important in the lives of a community after the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, the opening of a new building was an event to be celebrated. Often it was made available for inspection before the official opening ceremony, to be attended by Post Office officials and local dignitaries, who would make congratulatory speeches; on occasion, the architect would be invited to give a tour of the building, and then tea would be taken in the sorting office. A programme of the day’s events might be printed, and the local newspaper would report the proceedings at length, while at the same time providing a detailed description of the building. Critics would use the correspondence pages of the paper to air their views over the poor location of the building, the lack of an external clock and inadequate street lighting, but in general these buildings were praised for their “commodious” accommodation and regarded as having contributed significantly to civic pride.

Maidstone post office

Maidstone post office

To find out more about volunteer’s week visit http://volunteersweek.org/about or head to our twitter page see what other exciting things our volunteers get up to.

‘Built for Service, Post Office Architecture’ – an eye-opening read

Recent addition to the BPMA, Emma Jhita (Head of Fundraising), reviews volunteer Julian Osley’s book on Post Office architecture.

I’ve always been fascinated by post-war architectural design so when I was browsing the books on sale on the shop page of the BPMA website my attention was grabbed by the striking image of Plymouth post office in the 1950s on the cover of Julian Osley’s book ‘Built for Service, Post Office Architecture’. British architecture, from the range of styles, the (sometimes deceptive) history of the buildings themselves, and even more so our own relationship with the architecture, tells us a lot about the social changes in British society from the communications revolution that took place as a result of the first postage stamp to the present day.  And on opening the book I very quickly realised that it is a gateway to these stories and what is essentially a hidden world, as is the dedicated website: http://britishpostofficearchitects.weebly.com

Front cover image: Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Front cover image: Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Design opportunities were limited for Frederick Palmer, the architect employed by the PO, although his design for Minehead survives in the archives

Design opportunities were limited for Frederick Palmer, the architect employed by the PO, although his design for Minehead survives in the archives

Author Julian Osley opens our eyes to two things in this book. Firstly just how vital Post Offices were to the towns and cities in which they opened, both in terms of the jobs created and the convenience for the local community. Post offices really were a lifeline to the outside world – the internet provider of their day. Also whether built under the Office of Works or a re-development of an existing building, all major towns and cities in Britain have a legacy of buildings that enhance their surroundings, from ‘post office Georgian’ offices sitting comfortably on high-streets to buildings that proudly champion the Edwardian Baroque style.

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Many of the Post Offices discussed in the book are no longer standing, or are perhaps unrecognisable in their new guise as a pub, restaurant, housing, or in the case of ‘The Mailbox’ in Birmingham a shopping centre. This includes the old Northern District Post Office on Upper Street, next door to our office in Islington which is soon to be developed into housing and shops. Even with the buildings that remain as functioning Post Offices we often remember the interior more clearly inside of better – the queues to buy a stamp, a Postal Order, withdraw or deposit money… how times have changed!

Henry Tanners elevation design for Leeds

Henry Tanners elevation design for Leeds

Leeds Post Office today. Photograph © David Dixon via Geograph and licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence

Leeds Post Office today. Photograph © David Dixon via Geograph and licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence

An old post office now a pub. “The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

An old post office now a pub. “The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

Whether we realise it or not, I truly believe we have a very familiar relationship to Britain’s network of post office buildings – whether we’re queuing to post a letter, using a Bureau de Change or sitting down to tuck into a pizza!

Get Built for Service: Post Office Architecture for just £3.50 including postage and packaging! Enter discount code BUILT4SERVICE at checkout.

Britons of Distinction

Royal Mail is celebrating the lives and work of ten prominent Britons with a new set of stamps launched today. The Britons of Distinction stamps celebrate ten distinguished individuals from the realms of science and technology, architecture, politics and the arts who have all made a major contribution to British society.

The ten 1st Class stamps feature a mixture of portraits and images of these individuals and their achievements.

1st Class – Sir Basil Spence – architect of Coventry Cathedral

Knighted for services to architecture, particularly his designs for the new Coventry Cathedral, opened in 1962, after the original was bombed. The image shows Coventry Cathedral.

1st Class – Frederick Delius – opera, choral and orchestral composer

The First Cuckoo stamp, British Composers, issued 14 May 1985

The First Cuckoo stamp, British Composers, issued 14 May 1985

Yorkshire-born composer of choral and orchestral works. Born in 1862 and most renowned for music evoking a timeless English pastoral idyll. Delius’ The First Cuckoo was commemorated on a stamp in 1985 (pictured right).

1st Class – Mary ‘May’ Morris – designer and textile artist

Textile artist and designer celebrated for her embroidery; daughter of the artist and thinker William Morris (whose work was featured on stamps last year). The image shows Orange Tree, designed and embroidered by May Morris.

1st Class – Odette Hallowes – SOE agent in occupied France

French-born British secret agent in wartime France, who survived solitary confinement in German concentration camps.

1st Class – Thomas Newcomen – inventor of the atmospheric steam engine

Devon ironmonger, engineer and inventor of the atmospheric steam engine, which helped power the Industrial Revolution. His first working engine was installed at a coalmine near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712.

1st Class – Kathleen Ferrier – contralto performer of opera and song

Lancashire-born contralto whose international opera and song career was prematurely ended by her death from cancer. Ferrier worked for the GPO as a telephonist on two occasions, and you can view her nomination papers for 1930 and 1934 on the Ancestry website.

1st Class – Augustus Pugin – Gothic revival architect and designer

Architect, designer and advocate of the Gothic style whose commissions included the interiors of the Palace of Westminster. The stamp shows Pugin’s interior of the Palace of Westminster.

1st Class – Montague Rhodes James – scholar and author of ghost stories

Cambridge academic and author of chilling ghost stories, originally written as entertainments for his friends.

1st Class – Alan Turing – mathematician and code breaker

Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing's work on computers), Millennium Series. The Investors' Tale, issued 1999

Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing's work on computers), Millennium Series. The Investors' Tale, issued 1999

Mathematician and computer scientist, whose work with the code breakers at Bletchley Park helped to speed up the end of the Second World War. The stamp shows Turing’s Bombe code breaking machine at Bletchley Park. Turing previously featured on a stamp in 1999 (pictured right).

1st Class – Joan Mary Fry – Quaker relief worker and social reformer

Quaker campaigner for pacifism and social reform, who organised food relief in Germany after the First World War, and then in Wales

Two different pictorial first day of issue postmarks are available.

Britons of Distinction first day of issue handstamps

Britons of Distinction first day of issue handstamps

Stamps and stamp products are available at all Post Office branches, online at www.royalmail.com/stamps, the Royal Mail eBay shop and from Royal Mail Tallents House (tel. 08457 641 641), 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.

Built for Service

Despite the importance of the post office in the lives of our communities, it has surprisingly been overlooked by architectural studies: furthermore, historians of the Post Office have by and large concentrated on its administrative history, with only passing reference to its buildings. In an attempt to redress the balance Built for Service: Post Office Architecture (published by the BPMA in 2010) chronicles the history and development of the post office building in Great Britain from the mid-19th century to the 1970s.

Derby Post Office (1870) (architect James Williams)

Derby Post Office (1870) (architect James Williams)

Southampton Post Office (1894) (architect Sir Henry Tanner)

Southampton Post Office (1894) (architect Sir Henry Tanner)

Hull Post Office (1908) (architect Walter Pott)

Hull Post Office (1908) (architect Walter Pott)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Maesteg Post Office (c.1935) (architect Henry Seccombe)

Maesteg Post Office (c.1935) (architect Henry Seccombe)

Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Hitchin Post Office (1962) (architect J.O. Stevens)

Hitchin Post Office (1962) (architect J.O. Stevens)

Although new post office buildings were commissioned by the Post Office, execution of the work was the responsibility of another Government department, the Office of Works and its successors. This duality of purpose, with the tensions that it created up until the First World War, is described in the book, and means that historians are required to research in two major repositories: for plans and contract drawings (where they have survived), the National Archives at Kew; and for the role of the Post Office, the British Postal Museum and Archive, although they are by no means mutually exclusive.

One of the joys of study in the BPMA Archive is of course working with the catalogued material, which reveals how assiduously the Post Office took its responsibilities with regard to the fitting-out of its buildings and the welfare of its staff, but also with the extensive ephemeral material in the Portfolio files. Here may be found a wealth of unique material (such as programmes of opening ceremonies), revealing details about dates of opening of new post offices, and names of architects, as well as correspondence, press cuttings, unpublished research papers and a fine selection of photographs.

Souvenir programme of the Opening of the New Post Office, Clevedon. One of many such items in the BPMA Portfolio collection.

Souvenir programme of the Opening of the New Post Office, Clevedon. One of many such items in the BPMA Portfolio collection.

The recent spate of post office closures has begged the question: what happens to redundant post office buildings? Do they still have a presence on the high street, and if so, what has happened to them?. Many Victorian and Edwardian post offices have been statutorily listed as Grade II structures. This generally means that their external appearance is protected, while the interiors can be altered to suit a new purpose. Many inter-war post offices, no longer required by the service, have also survived demolition. The nature of these buildings, featuring a large open space on the ground floor, has meant that it has been relatively easy to convert them into public houses, nightclubs, and chain restaurants. The names of many of the public houses recall the former association – “The Last Post”, “The Old Post Office”, “The Penny Black”, and so on.

“The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

“The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

“The Last Post”, Loughton (c.1930) (architect Archibald Scott)

“The Last Post”, Loughton (c.1930) (architect Archibald Scott)

“Zizzi”, Surbiton (c.1895)

“Zizzi”, Surbiton (c.1895)

In many cases, the upper floors of these buildings have been converted into residential use.

Built for Service serves as an introductory guide to the post office building, but it is supplemented by a website. This is an alphabetical illustrated guide, detailing years of opening, names of architects, archive sources for further research, bibliographical references, and current use (if no longer a post office), with links to further information available online.

– Julian Osley

Architecture as Public Art: Buildings on British Stamps

St Andrew's, Greensted-juxta-Ongar, Essex stamp, 1972

St Andrew's, Greensted-juxta-Ongar, Essex stamp, part of the Village Churches issue designed by Ronald Maddox (1972). And Brian Goodey's favourite stamp.

The conclusion to our Open Day in December last year was a talk given by Professor Brian Goodey, the recently retired Chairman of our Board of Trustees. This talk is now available as a podcast.

Brian Goodey is Professor Emeritus in the Joint Centre for Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University, and his research interests include the evolution of the British townscape and the role of electronic media in re-shaping understandings of place and heritage. He writes on aspects of urban development, and on the role of the artist in public settings. In addition Professor Goodey is an “accumulator of stamps”, and an admirer of the graphic artists who make them. His (dare we call it a) collection is focused on the buildings and structures which have appeared on stamps in both Great Britain and the rest of the world.

In his talk, Professor Goodey gave a personal view on architecture as depicted on British stamps in the last few decades. Introducing the talk he said:

I maintain the belief that stamps are produced as a reflection of design and image change within society, but their appearance is in every way political, and that aside from the stamp production industry they represent a government intention to influence the thinking of, potentially, every member of that society, and the recipients of stamps mailed elsewhere. Simply stated, buildings on stamps are intended to promote the work of architects, builders and developers, and to focus society on vernacular, historic or contemporary design.

There is a caveat here, certainly policies over the period I’ve looked at, which is really to 2006, have changed considerably. Certainly, there was an interesting period of “Cool Britannia” under Mr Blair, and various periods of retrenchment to tradition to sober-up for a while – and some of these will appear.

Professor Goodey feels there is an opportunity to “nation build through the post”, which is fast diminishing as stamp use declines. Do you agree with him? Listen to or download the podcast from our website or iTunes, and leave your comments here.

Post Offices

Cover of Post Offices by Julian Stray

Cover of Post Offices by Julian Stray

The local post office has a special place in the social history of Britain. A new book, published by Shire Publications and written by the BPMA’s Assistant Curator Julian Stray, provides an historical overview of the development of this public institution – from “letter receiving house” to familiar high-street presence.

Outlining the range of services post offices have provided over time – from stamps, pensions and postal orders, to airmail, savings certificates, dog and TV licences – and highlighting the “heyday of the GPO” during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Julian Stray recalls childhood memories of post office counters selling stamps and sweets, the weekly pension queue, and the friendly local postmaster.

Also examined are the many different types of post offices, from the village sub-office to mobile post offices in tents used in bombed areas during the Second World War.

The sub-post office at Shipton-under-Wychwood opened before 1847, but relinquished its title as England’s oldest post office when it closed in 1975.

Shipton-under-Wychwood Post Office, Oxfordshire c.1900

Shipton-under-Wychwood Post Office, Oxfordshire c.1900

By the late 1920s, post office frontages were heavy with advertising. Notices relating to overseas mail and telephone services were a common sight.

The branch office at Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, London, c. late 1920s.

The branch office at Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, London, c. late 1920s.

During the Second World War mobile, tented post offices were produced for quick deployment to areas that had lost their office as a result of enemy bombing.

Mobile post office set up in a bombed area of London, 1941

Mobile post office set up in a bombed area of London, 1941

After 1969, when the Post Office became a public corporation and its relationship with the Ministry of Works ended, local architects designed new offices.

Guildford’s North Street post office (1970-72), by architects Roman Halter and Associates, was a radical departure from previous offices; the building incorporated wrap-around glazing and a projecting gazebo.

Guildford’s North Street post office (1970-72), by architects Roman Halter and Associates, was a radical departure from previous offices; the building incorporated wrap-around glazing and a projecting gazebo.

Post Offices by Julian Stray is a celebration of a very British institution now threatened by modern-day forces. It is now available from the BPMA online shop.

“Are the public really after the date stamp?”: Photograph albums of post office interiors in POST 91

by Anna Flood, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Some of the most attractive items I have listed in preparation for cataloguing the records in the POST 91: Buildings, Furniture and Fittings series have been the photograph albums of head and branch post office interiors from the 1930s to the 1950s. The quality of the photographs is excellent and they depict the difference in styles ranging from ornate, to minimalist and art deco. They also give an idea of the bustle of public offices during their everyday usage.

Central London Post Office

Central London Post Office

Prior to the Second World War little consideration had been given to uniformity in post office interior design. As reflected in the photograph albums new features and layouts were implemented in various offices, but none prevailed. The post office constructed for the Glasgow Exhibition in 1938 was more a showpiece than a model for things to come.

Glasgow Exhibition Post Office, 1938

Glasgow Exhibition Post Office, 1938

However, a study undertaken by the Post Office Architect’s Branch in 1954, entitled ‘The Public Office: Some Notes on Design and Layout’, indicates a developing concern for the post office interior as a key element of corporate image. Perhaps the “battleship grey” and “chocolate brown” public office colour schemes were too reminiscent of the war. Certainly the muted Ministry of Works 1939 colour schemes for post offices, also in POST 91, have an element of Dad’s Army about them.

Folkestone Head Post Office circa 1950s

Folkestone Head Post Office circa 1950s

It’s hard to tell whether the author of the ‘Notes on Design and Layout’ was entirely serious in his scathing observations on post office interiors; referring to the public office as a “mortician’s parlour” and seemingly haunted by a pair of wall lights, referred to rather ominously in several photographs as “the twins”. The public did not escape criticism either; pondering the height, dimensions and material of counter screens, the author questioned the likelihood of people attempting a smash and grab for the date stamp. He clearly didn’t think much of the habits of the average post office customer, asking whether ash trays were really necessary given the large number of cracks in the floor.

Manchester Head Post Office, circa 1950s

Manchester Head Post Office, circa 1950s

Looking at the photographs of the polished and, in some cases, grand interiors of public offices during this period it seems the criticism they received was unwarranted. The fact that the majority of the photographs appear staged, depicting spotless public offices devoid of their usual activity may actually be advantageous to those interested in the specifics of post office design; the angle from which many of the photographs were taken, providing a broad interior perspective, captures many details of furniture and fittings.

Diss Head Post Office, 1953

Diss Head Post Office, 1953

The albums are a valuable illustrative companion to the numerous post office plans and design guidelines currently being catalogued as part of POST 91.

Scarborough Head Post Office, 1953

Scarborough Head Post Office, 1953

In future blogs I will provide further information on the plans of post office buildings. In particular there are a number of watercolour elevations from the turn of the twentieth century that are most striking in their craftsmanship.

John Wornham Penfold and his pillar box

This year marks the death centenary of John Wornham Penfold, designer of probably Britain’s best loved pillar box. Penfold was born in Haslemere, Surrey on 3rd December 1828. He studied architecture and surveying, and was employed first by Charles Lee, before starting his own business.

J W Penfold

J W Penfold

Penfold rose to the top of his profession serving as President of the Architectural Association and becoming an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was also a founder member of the Institute of Surveyors, serving as its first Honourary Secretary (the Institute was later granted a Royal Charter, making it the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors).

In 1880 Penfold was appointed as a surveyor to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and re-designed the Jewin Street area in the City of London after it had been destroyed by a large fire (this area was again destroyed by bombs during World War 2 and is now the site of the Golden Lane Estate).

One of Penfold’s finest works was at the former Naval Training School in New Cross, South London. In 1890 the site was taken over by the Goldsmiths Company and was converted into a technical and recreational institute. Penfold modified the building to suit its new propose and enclosed the central courtyard to create a Great Hall. This site is now part of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Throughout his life Penfold regularly returned to his native Haslemere. He surveyed the local area when the railways came, rebuilt and expanded Haslemere parish church and surrounds, and designed other local buildings. But Penfold is best remembered for his work for the Post Office.

In 1866 Penfold submitted designs for a pillar box. The Post Office had been attempting to standardise letter boxes throughout the country for some time, and had produced a national standard, but this was found to be wanting. With Penfold’s box the Post Office again attempted to establish an enduring national standard.

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

Penfold’s box – or the Penfold, as it became known – combined simple design with functionality. Hexagonal in shape, it was adorned with acanthus leaves and balls, a far less ornate design than some of the elaborately decorative boxes which had come before it. But the cost of producing Penfolds was high, and a cheaper and plainer standard box was introduced 13 years later.

However, many of the features initiated with the Penfold boxes remain in use. Penfolds were produced in different size to accommodate different volumes of mail, as pillar boxes still are to this day, and Penfolds were also the first boxes to be manufactured in the new standard colour of red, in 1874.

Such is the popularity of Penfolds that the BPMA and Royal Mail frequently receive correspondence from members of the public who wish to see damaged boxes in their area repaired, rather than replaced with a new box. Some original Penfolds are considered so significant that they are listed, giving them special protection under the law.

Replica Penfolds, bearing the cipher of Queen Victoria, have also been produced. The first replica was produced in 1988 and was placed in the heritage era of Windsor. Another, installed in about 1990, is sited outside Penfold’s former home in Haslemere. Penfolds are the only letter boxes which Royal Mail has produced replicas of in this way.

J W Penfold also gave his name to the sidekick of 1980s cartoon character Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse and Penfold even lived in a pillar box on Baker Street, London, although their home was an ‘Anonymous’ Pillar Box, rather than a Penfold.

The BPMA holds four examples of Penfolds, three originals (two red, one green) and a replica. These can be inspected on our Museum Store Open Days.

J W Penfold died on 5th July 1909 and is buried in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere, which he designed. He remains the only British pillar box designer to have his box named after him.