Tag Archives: Archive

Stories from the Archive: ‘Beauty Blackwood’

In this week’s post, Archives Assistant Robin shares the interesting life of Sir Arthur Blackwood, Secretary of the Post Office from 1880-1893, from a recent Search Room enquiry.

Whilst the Post Office employment records held by the BPMA can provide crucial information for family historians, helping to fill in the gaps of an ancestor’s career and whereabouts, it is often quite difficult to get a true sense of an employee’s personality from them. However, for certain senior employees we hold a number of biographies, obituaries and personal portraits that can really help to flesh out their characters.

I found this out for myself when answering an email enquiry from an academic researching the life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, later Sir Arthur Blackwood. I had previously not known anything about him, and his entry in the Establishment Books (below) didn’t give me much to go on, but a search of our catalogue made me aware of a number of interesting sources of information we hold (including a biography by H Buxton Forman and an obituary in the staff magazines) that really brought him back to life.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Sir Arthur Blackwood’s entry in the Establishment Book for 1893, the year of his death, with the name of his replacement added in pencil. POST 59/126

Sir Arthur, had apparently been somewhat dandyish in his youth (he was nicknamed “Beauty Blackwood”), but underwent a religious conversion whilst serving in the Crimean War and became a committed Evangelist, renouncing all worldly pleasures and taking up the study of Hebrew.[1] He had a reputation as a philanthropist, and was heavily involved with a number of Post Office charities and societies. He was the president of the Post Office Total Abstinence Society, which had almost 3,000 members and branches in 31 towns, and wrote a pamphlet advocating abstinence entitled “For the Good of the Service” (a copy of this Pamphlet is held at the Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey).[2] He was a patron of the Post Office Orphan Home, was the first president of the Post Office Musical Society, and was involved in promoting Boy Telegraph Messenger Institutes for a number of London districts. His biographer quotes one Messenger, a Barnardo’s boy, as saying Sir Arthur was “such a gentleman, and spoke to me as if he was my brother”[3]. His biography also notes that he took a great interest in the formation of the Post Office Athletics and Cricket Clubs, and having served in the army was also a keen supporter of the Post Office Rifles, distributing prizes in their annual ceremonies.[4]

Despite his towering 6ft3 height and sixteen stone frame, Sir Arthur was in poor health for much of his life, and his final years as Secretary were hampered by illness – he was delayed from attending the 1891 postal congress in Vienna due to ill health and took extended leave shortly before his death in 1893 from pneumonia.[5]

An obituary run by the January 1894 issue of St. Martins-Le-Grand, the Post Office Staff Magazine (available in POST 92 in the BPMA search room) calls him a “splendid specimen of manhood”.[6] However, elsewhere I learnt that Sir Arthur’s son, the fantasy and horror writer Algernon Blackwood, felt that his father’s Evangelism had led him to have a repressive and unhappy upbringing.[7] Sir Arthur could also be severe in the line of duty. His obituary tells the story of how in 1890 Sir Arthur quelled strike action at Mount Pleasant by “[speaking] to the assembled staff in the most earnest, severe, and appropriate manner, and in the name of the Postmaster General expelled them from the premises as well as from the Service.[8]” It is fascinating that we can get such a rounded portrait of Sir Arthur’s character from these various sources.

Perhaps the best example of the material we hold on Sir Arthur is a fantastic black and white print of him in his prime (object reference 2011-0008, below), which really gives an indication of his stern but genial character. I hope I have shown in this blog that even the collection of a business archive such as the BPMA can bring the personality of historical figures to life and are a fantastic source for genealogists and biographers alike.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008

-Robin Sampson, Archives Assistant

Special Offer: Get your very own limited edition Victorian Innovation Cover for only £1.99

[1] J. S. Reynolds, ‘Blackwood, Sir (Stevenson) Arthur (1832–1893)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/46635, accessed 23 July 2014]

[2] Blackwood, Mrs. (ed.), Some Records of the Life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, Hodder & Stoughton, 1896. p396

[3] Ibid. p397

[4] Ibid. p395

[5] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January 1894 p9

[6] Ibid. p1

[7] George Malcolm Johnson, ‘Blackwood, Algernon Henry (1869–1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31913, accessed 23 July 2014]

[8] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January p7

Pop-Up Author event with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school

Yesterday we were delighted to host a Pop-Up Education Author Event. Pop Up Education connect authors with schools through inspirational educational programmes.

We welcomed Cathy Brett, author and illustrator of Everything is Fine (and other lies I tell myself) and a class of year nine students from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school to our archive.

Students from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School meet author Cathy Brett.

The plot of Everything is Fine revolves around the First World War letters the protagonist Esther uncovers through peeling back the wall paper in her bedroom. Finding the letters sets Esther on a journey of discovery into the past. Our Author Event linked Cathy’s fictional story with the real First World War material in our collection.

In our archive the students saw original First World War letters, postcards and photographs. Through exploring this material they found out about the postmen and women who sorted, censored and delivered letters like those found by Esther in the book.

Following that, Cathy led a masterclass where she talked about how she became an author and illustrator. She introduced them to the character of Amelia, a First World War nurse and demonstrated her fantastic creative skills.

The students wrote letters that they imagined would be sent to Amelia through the Post Box Time Machine.

Students illustrate their letters to the past.

DSC_1647

Here’s a little selection of what the students had to say about the Author event:

‘I liked seeing letters from over 100 years ago and learning about peoples experiences’ (Ladan)
‘Now I know what women did in the Post Office when the men went to war’ (Tashika)
‘I liked doing the letter to Amelia from the Time Machine’ (Tashika)
‘I enjoyed seeing actual pictures of the postal workers back then’ (Ahlaam)
‘I enjoyed writing letters to each other and that we can actually send them’ (Abida)

We’d like to say thank you to Pop Up Education for arranging this event. We had a great time hosting Cathy and the students.

-Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer

Meet the staff: Day in the life of an Archive Assistant

In this morning’s blog Penny McMahon highlights the different jobs and functions that she does as an Archives/Records Assistant.  

Logging

The day starts at 9am, I normally log the visitors and requisition forms from the day before. The visitors are logged to keep track of the different interests our users have, to spot any trends and make changes to the services we offer accordingly. The requisitions are also logged –‘requisitions’ is the term we use to describe fetching original archival items from the repository. This information is recorded so that when deciding on which material to digitise or pin point items that need preservation treatment, we can select the most frequently used items. The information is also gathered in case the item goes missing-we can look up the date it was last retrieved and who the last person to look at it was.

Donations

At 10am the search room opens to the public and our friendly postman arrives with the mail. As well as bringing us letter enquiries we also receive donations from the public and Royal Mail through the post. Giving these donations unique references to identify them and putting a basic description in our catalogue database is essential to keeping track of these. The thought donators take to send these items in is appreciated. However, it is useful to have as much background information as possible about an item and prefer it when people call us before going to the expense of posting an item to us. You can view the museum collection policies on this page on our website.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.

Visitors

By 11am we normally have several researchers in the search room. The exciting thing about working in the search room team is the variety of interests that researchers have. We don’t know who is going to walk through the door.  Family historians are a significant portion of the archives users; this is because the General Post Office was one of the biggest employers in Great Britain and these employee records can be hugely insightful. As family historians normally use the archive once or twice and the records they are interested in are so specific, they require quite a lot of help to guide them through the archives. I find family historians are some of the most rewarding users to help, I think because of their personal connection to the records.

The BPMA also attracts a number of academic researchers, including PhD students that use our archives to gather insight into the social history of Great Britain. As the Post Office is a national and international network, the records in the archives document the social and technological changes across the centuries. The BPMA has a number of partnerships with different universities supporting these students. These students know the collections and catalogue well and require little help, but they get through the records fast, so we spend a lot of time retrieving records from the repository for them.

Remote Enquiries

The info mailbox receives around 160 email enquiries a month; we also receive enquiries by phone and by letter. Some of these are straightforward and can be answered in minutes. For example, often authors want to know how much it would cost to send a letter in a different era (World War I is particularly popular just now), or how long it would take for the letter to arrive. Some require a lot more work and often we rely on the specialist knowledge of our Philatelic and Museum Curators to point us in the right direction. These enquiries we do throughout the day whenever we are not directly helping an onsite visitor or carrying out other projects, such as research or cataloguing projects.

Retrieved archive items.

Retrieved archive items.

Lunch

Normally lasts around an hour and I am spoilt for choice with all the delicious markets around Freeling House.

Museum Visitors

Towards the end of the day we normally have a few visitors who, when they visit us, expect to see a national museum. Sadly at the moment the archive search room only has 4 display cases and although the Mail Rail photographic exhibition currently on display is very interesting, it is impossible to exhibit in such a small space the breadth of the museum, philatelic and archive collections. Luckily The Postal Museum will have much more room to better display the collections.

Tours

Our public behind the scenes archive tours normally kick off at around 3pm. I really enjoy the opportunity these tours give to show off the variety of our collection from the beautifully written 17th century account books to a first edition Ulysses to original telegram artwork by designers such Rex Whistler. The interaction that the different members of the public have with the items is always different, meaning that every tour is different. Public tours can be booked online, we also organise ad hoc tours to groups.

Set-up for a tour.

Set-up for a tour.

At the end of the day…

I need to put away all the original archival material that I have been using to answer enquiries and the archival material that visitors have been using. If the search room has been quiet and the enquiries are finished this is normally a good time to update our reference library with any new books or journals that have come in.

The search room closes at 5pm and I head home soon after to have a glass of wine.

-Penny McMahon, Archivist/Records Assistant

Under the Bonnet of the BPMA’s Online Catalogue

Here at the BPMA we’re making major changes to the way our online catalogue looks – and works. There will be more details soon, but today I’ll show you three of our planned improvements:

1. Streamlined Catalogue Data

Matt's been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Matt’s been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Since February I’ve been fine-tuning the data and structure of the entire BPMA catalogue. I’ve refined old catalogue entries to bring them into line with our current descriptive standards. I’ve rearranged fields to free up space for exciting new content. And I’ve reformatted the way the date is written for every single record in the catalogue. That’s over 120,000 records. I had to use lots of computer tricks to make all these changes in just a few weeks, rather than editing the records one by one. A career in archives can be a really good test of your IT skills!

2. Enhanced Thumbnail Images

We're enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

We’re enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

About 25,000 entries in the catalogue have thumbnails: small photos or scans showing you what the object or record looks like. In 2014 there are more high-resolution computer screens and faster Internet speeds than even a few years ago. We want our online catalogue to have larger, brighter thumbnails than we’ve used until now. Web visitors will be able to see our collections in even more detail.

I’ve been hunting down every digital image of the BPMA’s collections, converting them into new thumbnails at a higher resolution and an increased size.  Wherever possible, our new images will be 700 pixels wide on their shorter side. In the past six weeks I’ve created thumbnails for 22,000 objects and records. Only a few thousand left to go!

3. Improved Online Experience

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

We’re currently finalising the new online catalogue interface. It’ll offer new ways to navigate our collections, including user tagging, and sorting search results by different criteria. You should also be able to browse the entire Archive by its hierarchy (example shown above), which will show how any one record relates to all the others. There’ll be all-new guidance pages for first-time users, which I’m writing this week.

This is my final blog post here, as I’m leaving the BPMA at the end of May. It’s a privilege to have been part of the BPMA’s amazing work.

–  Matt Tantony, Archivist (Catalogue Systems)

It’s a Project Archivist Christmas

As 2013 comes to a close, I’ve repackaged and catalogued over 1,000 files from the Archive. In this blog post, I’ll share a few of the methods I used to get this historic material processed and available for researchers as quickly as possible.

Project Archivist Matt reflects

Project Archivist Matt reflects on a year’s work.

As I wrote in my introductory post, most if not all archive services have backlogs of material that hasn’t been catalogued due to lack of time or staff. My main role as Project Archivist is to reduce the BPMA’s backlog, one section of the Archive at a time. So far I’ve eliminated four backlogs:

  • Organisation, circulation and sorting of inland mails (POST 17).
  • Post Office counter operations and services (POST 22).
  • Establishment records (POST 59).
  • Public Relations Department, predecessors and successors (POST 108).

Each backlog was composed of hundreds of individual files, ranging from administrative papers to technical plans to visual material like posters and photographs. The files had come into the Archive from many different sources over the past few decades. My task was to repackage and catalogue the files, and find places for them in the BPMA’s existing catalogue structure. I also needed to remove redundant files to free up much-needed repository space. And I wanted to make my descriptions reasonably detailed, to help people search for files in our online catalogue.

The working method I devised, therefore, was based around fast, detailed processing on a file-by-file basis. I had the opportunity to evaluate and refine the method after each backlog was finished. I also familiarised myself with More Product Less Process (MPLP) theory after recommendations from professional colleagues. While I didn’t completely embrace the MPLP approach, I adopted some of its ideas to increase efficiency.

I’m not going to hurl technical details at you, but here are some of the techniques I used to process over 1,000 wildly differing files alongside the other work I do at the BPMA.

1. Get to know the territory: Before starting, I visually inspected the entire backlog to get a rough idea of its extent and anything requiring special conservation treatment. I also collated any existing box lists and accession records, did background research, and compiled a glossary of terms used in file names.

2. Establish basic standards: I adopted a minimum standard of description and repackaging, which could be enhanced if a file warranted it. Any file containing a contents list or executive summary had it copied pretty much verbatim into the catalogue description, while files in stable ring binders were generally not repackaged.

3. Multi-task: I combined appraisal (i.e. deciding if we needed to keep the file), repackaging, physical arrangement and catalogue description into a single integrated process, performed on one file at a time. Intellectual arrangement of files into a catalogue structure was only done after all files had been processed.

4. Use simple, sensible numbering: The BPMA uses two numbering systems. Each file/item has a Finding Number, which is unique, fixed, and used by researchers and staff to retrieve archives for consultation. Files/items also have Reference Numbers, which structure the multi-level archival descriptions I described in this blog post. Reference Numbers aren’t seen by researchers and can be swapped around as often as needed. This is a really great way to do almost all the processing of files without having to worry about exactly where they’ll go in the catalogue.

Cataloguing database screen capture

A screen capture of Matt’s cataloguing database, showing some of the completed fields and the BPMA’s dual numbering system.

5. Wherever possible, get a computer to help: I designed a relational database in Access for all my project work. The database would automatically complete some catalogue fields, saving lots of time. It logged which files had been catalogued and which had been marked for disposal. I used it during processing to group files into rough subject categories, which were refined into catalogue sub-series at the end. Best of all, I could take all the descriptions I’d written in the database and import them into our catalogue software in one batch.

These are some of the techniques I’ve used in my work. Perhaps you might find them helpful if you’re working on a similar task. Of course, there are many other ways of working, and I’d be very interested to read your suggestions for how I could do things differently!

WW2 postal records

Christmas is all about opening boxes, but archivists get to do it every day! Here, Matt opens the first of several boxes of uncatalogued WW2 postal records.

My new project is to catalogue a large collection of British Army postal service records, dating from World War 2 to the 1980s. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Christmas, and see you in the New Year!

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Coming this Friday: #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover!

Matt presents the hashtag for the #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover.

Matt presents the hashtag for the #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover.

This Friday, 15 November, I’m taking over the British Postal Museum & Archive’s Twitter feed! If you’ve enjoyed any of my previous blog posts, now you’ve got a whole Friday to interact with an Archivist.

I shall be posting live tweets throughout the day, from approximately 07:45 to 17:00 GMT. Hopefully, it’ll give you a glimpse of all the different bits and pieces that form a typical Friday for a BPMA archivist. Although, as many archivists will tell you, one of the joys of the profession is that there’s no such thing as a “typical” day! I’ll also be posting photographs of what I’m getting up to behind the scenes. My fabulous flipchart may be getting involved too.

Follow our Twitter feed (@postalheritage) to catch my updates on Friday. I’ll be using the hashtag #mattsfriday for all my content.

But really, we’d love for you to join in on the day! Questions and comments are very welcome. Just tweet @postalheritage using the hashtag #mattsfriday and I’ll try to answer. Of course, the Archive is only one part of the BPMA’s work. I can’t advise on museum objects or philatelic issues, but if you’ve got questions about archives, or what archivists do, or perhaps even how to get into archives as a profession, please do send me a tweet!

This is a relatively new experiment by the BPMA in engaging with our online visitors around the world. Depending on how it goes, #mattsfriday might become a regular feature.

See you on Friday!
-Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Introducing our new cataloguing updates

I’m Matt Tantony, and I joined the BPMA as Project Archivist in February this year. Since then, I’ve been spending almost every day underground in our repository, delving into boxes to uncover records that may have been unseen for years. Most archives have backlogs of material that, due to time constraints, is uncatalogued. In my year-long post I’ll be roaming The Royal Mail Archive, cataloguing the unseen records one section at a time.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

Each section’s cataloguing backlog lies in alluringly blank boxes in the repository. Every time I open a new box, I have no idea what I’ll find inside. It could be bound volumes, photographs, or a mountain of papers. It could even be computer data! My first task is to identify what each individual record actually is, when and where it originated, and what it can tell us. It’s rather like archaeology, although there’s usually documentation from the original transfer to the Archive to help me.

This randomly-selected box from the backlog contains over a dozen letter sorting manuals from different eras:

A box of letter sorting manuals.

A box of letter sorting manuals.

A month later, I’ve surveyed every box, and I’ve generated a vast database containing several hundred records’ details. Next, I puzzle out how to combine the newly-catalogued records and the existing ones into an easily navigable order in the catalogue. Archivists are trained to work to a single international standard that groups related records together into a kind of tree structure, often based on the structure of the organisation that produced them. I give each record a unique finding number, which is what our visitors use to request items for consultation in the Search Room.

I also need to repackage the records. We use specialist packaging materials, including those ever-present acid-free folders tied up with tape, to prolong the lifespan of archives. After my database is uploaded to our collections software, my colleagues and I spend several coffee-fuelled days proof-reading every word, before it’s published to the online catalogue for everyone to use. Then it’s onto the next section of the Archive and the process starts again!

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

The BPMA is working to tackle its cataloguing backlog, bringing thousands of records into the light, and making even more of our nation’s postal history available to everyone. I’ll be blogging here every few weeks, to keep you updated on my progress and to share the records I’ve uncovered.