Tag Archives: archives

Favourite archive item: the Great Train Robbery

For our final blog for Explore Your Archives week Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager tells us about his favourite item from the archive, which, as you probably know from Head of Archives Vicky’s blog earlier this week, is no easy task!

When asked to pick my favourite object I (eventually) chose a Great Train Robbery file in part because I have worked  with it a lot so know it well but also because I feel it’s something people are surprised to find out we have. Although the train in question was a Travelling Post Office people don’t always associate the incident with the postal service. This particular file  is the main investigation report compiled by the Post Office’s own police force, the Investigation Branch (IB), into the infamous August 1963 robbery.


Most of the file is made up of an in depth 40 page account of the robbery, investigation and subsequent trial, prepared by IB Assistant Controller Richard F Yates in May 1964, nine months after the robbery took place.

The file also includes schedules of arrests and prosecutions, a ‘confidential list of 28 suspects given to the IB by the Police’, memoranda, correspondence, details of the attempts to locate missing suspects, press cuttings, and a police poster showing wanted suspects. It also has snippets of people’s personal experiences of the incident and investigation such as that in the image below where Yates starts his report with an indication of how he became involved with the investigation.


Yates’ in depth report details key events in the investigation including establishing the amount of money stolen, the journey on the night of the robbery, the systematic search of the Cheddington area, the discovery of the robbers hideout at Letaherslade Farm, and the subsequent arrests of the suspected robbers. It also includes notes on how the investigation was conducted, on page 10 he explains: ‘The extensive publicity given to this case inevitably produced an enormous amount of inaccurate and bogus information and this had to be examined with more than the normal care having regard to the seriousness of the offence.’


Despite the investigation coming to an end around 1970 this year, over 50 years after the incident took place, there was interesting development. Gordon Goody, regarded as the mastermind of the robbery, unveiled Patrick McKenna as the Ulsterman . McKenna’s name is glaringly absent from all the files we have at the BPMA. Despite the Sun suggesting last year that the IB’s chief suspect was a ‘Thomas’ O’Reilly, our records show that they and Tommy Butler quickly dismissed him as a possibility: ‘[Butler] does not consider, however, that any useful purpose would be served by questioning [James Patrick] REILLY [incorrectly identified by the Sun as a railwayman]’.

I like this file for several reasons. It shows how the investigation developed over time, what the Post Office considered important at the time (Ronnie Biggs, subsequently the most famous of the robbers, being merely a footnote), and how they continued investigating and observing behavior for many years after the robbery. It demonstrates complex, messy history as it is happened and developed. Given that it was written almost a year after the robbery it is an exaggeration to call Yates’ report the first draft of history but draft it is, complete with amendments and footnotes based on subsequent knowledge. There is no neat ending simply a petering out as the last of the robbers Bruce Reynolds was caught in 1968, Biggs remained a missing fugitive, the driver of the train Jack Mills died and some of the investigators involved retired.

This is just a snapshot of the contents of one of many files on the Great Train Robbery. You can find out more about the robbery itself and the investigation that followed from our online exhibition on Google Cultural Institute.

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

A Project Archivist Farewell

I’ve just completed my final task as Project Archivist: appraising and cataloguing a vast deposit of records on the Army Postal Service (APS). The files focus mainly on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and its successors, and date from before the First World War to the 1970s. I’ve catalogued nearly 500 files, volumes, photographic collections and plans.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he's been cataloguing.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he’s been cataloguing.

There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had to battle an onslaught of Armed Forces vocabulary:  being able to tell a sitrep from a sapper was essential, and woe betide an archivist who confused the DAPS with a WOLO.* My geographical knowledge has also been tested: the deposit included files on British and Allied Forces’ postal arrangements in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, with many locations identified by their old colonial names. The most unexpected item was a manual from an Army post office in Kiribati!

The deposit’s greatest strength is its rich insight into the APS during the Second World War and its aftermath. Virtually every theatre of operations is covered. There are Directorate-level files on postal arrangements during the Siege of Malta (POST 47/1034), the Battle of Madagascar (POST 47/871), the Dunkirk evacuation (POST 47/925) and the D-Day preparations (POST 47/747), to name just four. The handover of postal and telecommunications services to the government of newly-independent India is also documented.

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

The files also hold lots of personal stories about the careers of REPS officers. POST 47/780, for example, partly records a falling-out between the APS staff at HQ First Army and Allied Force HQ during the Tunisian Campaign and the interception of ‘artistic’ postcards that were being received by First Army soldiers. And if you ever wanted to know how many bugles were held by the Post Office Cadets at the Home Postal Centre in Nottingham in 1947, POST 47/942 will tell you.**

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

The APS files have been catalogued in POST 47 and 56. The deposit also contained large amounts of non-postal material on the REPS more generally. These have been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’. All these files will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

This is the end of my year-long, grant-funded Project Archivist post. I’ve catalogued over 1,500 files from all over the Archive in that time. But I’m not leaving the BPMA! Instead, I’m regenerating into a new incarnation as a catalogue systems archivist. I’ll be doing lots of data-processing work and beta-testing our shiny new online catalogue before it launches later this year. Watch out for an update from me on this blog in the Spring.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sitrep = situation report; sapper = the Royal Engineers’ equivalent to a private; DAPS = Director Army Postal Service; WOLO = War Office Liaison Officer.

** Two (one substandard).

Behind the scenes; conservation in progress

Do you ever wonder what is happening to sticky tape? The answer is usually “No” and for a good reason. We all believe that it will remain nice and sticky for eternity! Especially nowadays when we have so many choices of self-adhesive tape or pressure sensitive tape with excellent qualities too; there are transparent, matte, colour, black, white, brown, red, archival ones, linen ones and so many more. The point is that we don’t think twice when it comes to applying it because we are confident about its short term effect and result. Well, I will try to change your mind a bit and show you how a well-intended attempt to stick together broken glass plate negatives turned into a painstaking nightmare.

In the mid-19th century, photographic negatives began to use glass as a support. Glass provided a sharper negative and a more detailed positive print, and soon replaced paper negatives. Like photographic prints, glass negatives are composite objects, consisting of a glass support, a binder, and an image-forming or recording substance. At the BPMA we store approximately 2500 glass plate negatives dated from 1930s to the 1950s with a variety of topics from day to day postal operations. 89 of them are damaged, with broken and/or missing parts. A common practice of preserving a broken glass plate negatives was to sandwich it between either one or two new glass plates and apply a tape around their perimeter to secure them. The quality and type of tape used varied but one thing was certain; the intention of the ‘restorer’ could only be described as a noble attempt to save what was broken.

Taped Glass Plate negatives

Taped Glass Plate negatives

Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always have the result we hoped for. So when the need arose to remove the tape, I faced a big challenge. The adhesive of the tape had permeated the emulsion layer of the glass plate negative, it had cross-linked as we say in conservation (a chemical process of bonding one polymer chain to another). This new type of bonding creates irreversible damage as it discolours and fades the image but mostly because it weakens the emulsion layer and makes it prone to flaking, putting the image at risk. Any mechanical attempt to remove it went downhill so the next idea was to use an aqueous and a chemical treatments which mean the introduction of liquid either water or solvent. I used a microscope to avoid any unnecessary contact between emulsion and water –these two things do not like each other very much.
All geared up with a microscope, a portable air extraction unit, solvent and water, apron, I have started the process of slowly moistening the tape and carefully removing it with a dentist’s spatula.

During removal. residues from adhesive stuck on surface

During removal. residues from adhesive stuck on surface

To remove tape from one glass plate negative of 80 x 100cm in dimension I have estimated it took from 14 to 20 hours. On the other hand, I have timed how long it took to apply a sticky tape on one glass plate negative mock-up of the same dimension and it took between 1-2 minutes. Pretty amazing don’t you think! Consequently in a collection of 89 damaged and taped glass plate negatives it took 3 hours to apply the tape and it would take 1780 hours to remove it, which is 254 working days! Makes you wonder why conservation sometimes can take so long!

After Removal of tape

After Removal of tape

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise to all lovely collectors out there who value and protect their collections that if you think a quick fix might solve your problem, please think twice. Besides if you are unsure about a procedure please contact a conservator who will be able to advise you and guide you to a suitable solution. In the long term, it will be a less costly and time consuming operation and it will save your precious collection for future generations to enjoy.

Before and After Conservation

Before and After Conservation

Katerina Laina ACR, MSc
Assistant Paper Conservator

Asking the Archive staff…

Matt ponders the results of the informal Archive staff survey.

Matt ponders the results of the informal Archive staff survey.

What types of places have archives? As part of #mattsfriday, I decided to run an informal survey of some of my colleagues in the Archive, Search Room and Conservation teams.

I got together with participating colleagues to compile a little list of all the different places where we’d worked with archives before we joined the BPMA. The survey covered both paid employment and work experience/volunteering. The end result was a list of 48 different institutions or organisations with archives! This, of course, doesn’t take into account our previous employment in non-archival jobs. The chart below divides the results up by category:

Institutions where participating BPMA staff have previously worked with archives. The key denotes the pie chart segments in clockwise order.

Institutions where participating BPMA staff have previously worked with archives. The key denotes the pie chart segments in clockwise order.

As you can see, there’s a huge diversity of previous experience being brought to the BPMA’s work! Staff members have worked for local authority archive services in England, Scotland and Wales. Some of us have worked for museums, galleries, and other cultural sites. There were also many universities and other higher education institutions with archives in the list: some of these were research collections managed by universities, others were the historic records of the institutions themselves. Some of us have worked for businesses, including the archives of at least two high street retail giants. Among our number we also have staff who have worked for national and specialist institutions including a film archive, the British Library, and The National Archives at Kew. Finally, the ‘Other’ category included Royal archives, a church organisation, and the private collections of a Duke.

This brief, informal survey also showed just how many different kinds of places keep archives – and employ archivists and conservators to look after them. This includes institutions in the public and private sectors, and large and small organisations. A career in archives really can take you almost anywhere. Of course, there are other careers in the heritage sector, just as the BPMA has other areas – curatorial, philatelic, etc. – in its collections. As we plan to move to our New Centre, it’s also helpful to think about how we’ve got to where we are.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

2,000 new records on our online catalogue

At the start of October we did one of our periodic uploads of newly catalogued material onto the online catalogue. Over 2,000 new records went online. These include descriptions of files, stamp artwork, microfiche, museum objects and library books, a good number of which will be accompanied by images (with more to go online soon). Below is a brief summary of what has gone on.

Museum objects

These are a combination of items that have been part of the collection for some time but only fully catalogued in the past few years as well as objects newly acquired by the BPMA for its museum collection. Do browse through the records and you will see the huge variety of objects including slogan dies, which one of our volunteers, Cyril Parsons, has been working on editing; more items of uniform such as a Ministry of Civil Aviation coat made by the GPO; a group of material relating to the more modern operations of the Post Office Investigation Department; as well as several other new acquisitions featured in previous blogs, such as the Certifying Seal used by Sir Francis Freeling during his tenure as Secretary of the General Post Office.

Royal Mail Archive: Philatelic

POST 150 QEII Decimal Stamp Artwork for the following issues:

  • QEII 1971 Ulster paintings
  • QEII 1971 Literary Anniversaries
  • QEII 1971 British Anniversaries
  • QEII 1971 University Architecture
  • QEII 1971 Christmas
  • QEII 1972 General Anniversaries
  • QEII 1972 British Polar Explorers
  • QEII 1972 British Architecture, Village Churches
  • QEII 1972 Broadcasting Anniversaries
  • QEII 1972 Royal Silver Wedding
  • QEII 1973 British Trees
  • QEII 1973 European Communities
  • QEII 1973 Artistic Anniversaries
  • QEII 1973 British Explorers
  • QEII 1973 County Cricket
Stamps and first day cover for Modern University Buildings stamp issue, 1971. (QEII 96-35)

Stamps and first day cover for Modern University Buildings stamp issue, 1971. (QEII 96-35)

Royal Mail Archive: non-philatelic

Series and sub-series of records from the following POST classes have gone online:

  • POST 17 (Inland Mails, Organisation, Circulation and Sorting)
  • POST 58 (Staff Nomination and Appointment)
  • POST 59 (Establishment books, entire backlog catalogued)
  • POST 91 (Buildings, Fixtures and Fittings, c.200 from a series of site plans, elevations and sections, floor plans, proposals for renovations on microfiche)
  • POST 108 (Public Relations Department)
  • POST 113 (Information Technology, c.40 reports)
  • POST 151 (Central Headquarters)
  • POST 153 (Mails Division)
  • POST 161 (BBC/Post Office emergency arrangements)
  • POST 162 (Director of Postal Services)

Small numbers of records from individual POST classes have also gone online. Details are listed below:

  • POST 11 (Conveyance of Mail by Railways)
  • POST 22 (Counter Operations and Services)
  • POST 28 (Ancillary Services)
  • POST 61 (Uniforms and Discipline)
  • POST 62 (Staff Welfare)
  • POST 63 (Staff Training)
  • POST 65 (Staff Associations)
  • POST 68 (Rules and Instructions)
  • POST 69 (Board papers)
  • POST 115 (Staff Associations and Union Publications)
  • POST 154 (Marketing Department, postmark slogans sub-series)
  • POST 157 (Postal Operations Department, surface mail services and post minibus sub-series)

As well as staff including myself, Anna Flood, Matt Tantony and Adam Hillhouse, work has also been undertaken by volunteers Claire Wardle and Kim Noulton.

War Memorials

More than 300 new or edited records of war memorials commemorating postal staff who served or died in the world wars.

We hope you will find these records both useful and interesting. Please let us know if you spot any errors. Although we do our very best to ensure records going on are properly and accurately proof read errors do occasionally creep through.

– Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Search for all these new records by visiting the online catalogue.

Cataloguing archives, in four very easy steps

If you’ve browsed our archive catalogue, you may have found it rather different to, say, one you’ve used in a library. In this blog post, I’m going to explain a little of how archivists worldwide create catalogues.

What’s unusual about archive catalogues is that they aren’t flat lists. Instead, they have multiple levels. If you look at our POST 22 catalogue, for example, you’ll see that it’s arranged like a tree with branches at different levels. This hierarchy is part of the General International Standard Archival Description, to which many archivists work worldwide. A typical archive catalogue has four main levels. In descending order, they are: FONDS – SERIES – FILE – ITEM. Here’s how they work.

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

In this picture, my trolley holds an imaginary archive that I’ve just received. There are many boxes containing hundreds of records. Reading them all would take weeks. It would, however, be helpful for researchers (and staff) to get a general overview of the entire archive: how much of it there is; who created it and when; the kinds of information within it. My catalogue, therefore, would start with a single description of the archive as a whole. UK archivists often call this whole unit the fonds (a French word that means accumulation, related to the English ‘fund’).

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

One level down, I’d divide the fonds into groupings of related records. In the picture above, I’ve chosen one box as the first grouping. I would try to provide useful distinctions for researchers, but also to preserve the existing arrangement of records within the fonds. Some archive services classify records by the departments or offices that produced them, others employ functional distinctions. However it’s done, the entire fonds gets subdivided into multiple groupings, which archivists call series. Like with the fonds, my catalogue would include descriptions of each series’ extent, scope and content. At the BPMA, series are called POST classes; many are divided into sub-series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

On the lowest levels, I’d describe every individual record within each series. In the picture above, for example, I’ve picked out from my imaginary series a single folder of photographs to describe. These are the file-level descriptions. In archivist-speak, a file is a discrete group of documents that were kept, created or used for a specific purpose.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

It’s possible to go one level further down and catalogue each separate item within a file. These are called item-level descriptions. It’s not always necessary to do this, but it can be done. In the picture above, I’ve started describing the individual photographs that form the file. We could also identify a single book, document or image as an item because they can’t be subdivided any further.

What I’ve done, ultimately, is to describe the whole archive several times over. At each descending level, I’ve described smaller and smaller bits of the archive, in increasing detail. The resulting catalogue has a tree structure. It lets researchers zoom in on the parts of the archive they’re interested in, without losing track of those parts’ evidential and informational relationships to the whole. Think of it like a collapsible map of the archive, telling you its physical and intellectual geography.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

What I’ve discussed here is an ideal-world scenario. Archives often aren’t neat or easily divisible, and may actually be collections of material from different sources. There’s also the possibility of future deposits. But working towards a shared international standard, as archivists do, means that we can all contribute to a project over time. It also means catalogues can be shared online with other archive services in the UK and abroad.

There’s a whole lot more to cataloguing than this. But I hope that this introduction begins to explain why we do what we do, and how it works. If you have any questions about archival work, I’ll happily try to answer them.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Volunteering at BPMA

Fahema Begum writes about what it’s like to volunteer for us…

I studied History at university and was interested in pursuing a career within the heritage and archiving sector. I was curious to gain further insight and experience into this field and that is what attracted me to volunteer at BPMA. I have been volunteering with BPMA since April 2012 so I have been there over a year now! How quickly time has flown by! However my time here is nearing to an end as I have secured a job as an Archives Assistant at the Bank of England. The experience here has been invaluable and I have gained considerable knowledge and skills, which will help me in my new role.

I volunteer at the Royal Mail Archive in Freeling House and had previously assisted on a large project, repackaging and relabeling the postal slogan die collection in preparation for the move to the new Postal Museum site. This was my first time actually handling original objects which was quite exciting! It was fascinating to see what was written on a different slogan die (mainly advertising slogans) and learn interesting facts along the way. It was also great to find out that we had achieved repackaging over forty percent of the slogan die collection!

My current project involves auditing and re-packing objects also in preparation for the move to the new museum. Whilst undertaking this task, I was exposed to more of the collections including objects such as handstamps, uniforms, even trophies and awards for sports. Whilst working on both projects, I have learned new and valuable practical skills such as object handling and preservation/conservation skills as well as learning how to use the CALM collections database. This experience has reinforced my interest in the heritage sector and has equipped me with the relevant skills to acquire a job as an Archives Assistant.

Fahema at work in the Archive.

Fahema at work in the Archive.

Although I have been working mainly on the museum side, I have had the opportunity to talk to one of the many archivists who work at the BPMA; Anna provided me with a brief summary of the archiving system at BPMA. It is surprising how the cataloguing system differs between the museums and archives, and it was useful to gain an overview of the archive side of the organisation.

I think anyone passionate about history would find it interesting to volunteer at BPMA. Also if you are looking to pursue a career within the heritage sector, volunteering is an excellent opportunity to gain an understanding of what the day to day work entails, whilst also developing the relevant skills. The volunteering program offered here is well structured and flexible. Although you work on a specific project at any one time, the work is still tailored to your interests. I have Emma (curator) as a supervisor and she is super organised! She is really supportive and has given me the opportunity to experience, explore and be involved in different aspects of the museum side. She is also extremely approachable and has given me useful career advice.

I really enjoy looking at the many different objects found in the archives and learning about its history. It’s amazing how extensive and varied a collection BPMA has, and only a part of it is housed at Freeling House. What is really exciting and something I am very much looking forward to is the new museum, which will provide visitors access to these unique collections and to learn more about the history of the collection!

Congratulations Fahema on your new job – we’re sorry to lose you. See our website for information about how YOU can Volunteer at BPMA.