Tag Archives: British Armed Forces

The Post Office and British Broadcasting

The Royal Mail Archive isn’t just about letters and stamps; recently catalogued records in the series POST 89 illustrate the part played by the Post Office in the history of British broadcasting.

The Post Office regarded telegrams as electronic letters.

Not many people would associate the Post Office with broadcasting, but until 1922 it held a monopoly on electronic mass communication. When telegraphy, and later, the telephone were developed, the Post Office argued that it controlled anything which involved delivery from a sender to a receiver. Telegraph and telephone switching stations were defined as electrical post offices, with the messages or calls regarded as electronic letters. Wireless telegraphy, originally used to send short coded messages, was also viewed in this manner, but later, when the technology started to be used for audio broadcasts, the medium, now known as radio, no longer fitted the sender/receiver definition.

In 1920 a number of commercial companies were granted licences by the Post Office to make experimental broadcasts. These were halted when the Armed Forces complained of interference with their communication systems, but as more and more radio services were beginning in many other countries, the Post Office came under pressure to reverse this decision and open up broadcasting to commercial interests.

In 1922 the Post Office was involved in the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company, a commercial radio broadcaster financed by six large electronics manufacturers. The Company began transmissions on 14 November 1922 (more details of this can be found in POST 33), but the Post Office continued its involvement in broadcasting for many years to come.

POST 89 includes the minutes and papers of some of the broadcasting committees which the Post Office contributed to – the Sykes, Crawford, Selsdon, Ullswater and Beveridge committees. These provide an insight into the development of British broadcasting and the introduction of the licence fee system. The papers cover issues such as the impact broadcasting may have on traditional newspapers, whether broadcasting sporting events would affect attendance at such events, and the benefits and drawbacks to commercial broadcasting (especially appropriate given the recent discussion of product placement).

A 1967 poster recommending the purchase of licences for televisions and radios, designed by Kenneth Bromfield

The Sykes and Crawford committees (which sat in 1923 and 1925-1926 respectively) considered the development of the British Broadcasting Company. The Crawford committee (whose members included the author Rudyard Kipling) ultimately recommended that the British Broadcasting Company be replaced by a non-commercial, Crown chartered organisation – the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The Selsdon committee (1934-1935) and Ullswater committee (1935) were concerned with the introduction of television and how this would be financed, while the Beveridge committee (1949-1950) conducted a review of broadcasting in the United Kingdom and recommended regional devolution, broadcasting of minority views, more political broadcasting and trade union recognition.

Another contribution made by the Post Office to broadcasting was that it was responsible for administering the licence fee system, and POST 89 includes various papers on this subject. These include reports on planned publicity campaigns and evasion statistics (for more on this topic see our previous blog on TV detector vans).

So the next time you think about The Royal Mail Archive remember that it is about more than letters and stamps – although we do have some very interesting stamps!

Four stamps issued in 1972 to celebrate 50 years of the BBC

The British Forces Post Office

Recently a small group of BPMA staff and Friends visited the British Forces Post Office (BFPO). Based in an impressive purpose-built building at RAF Northolt, the BFPO provides a mail service to members of the British armed services, as well as a number of government departments and corporate clients.

The BFPO can trace its history back to 1799 when the office of Army Postmaster was established. Over time the service has formalised and expanded to become an important part of military life. From its initial beginnings as part of the Army it now ensures letters and parcels reach serving Navy and Air Force personnel too.

One reason for the longevity of the service is its value as a morale booster. During the Second World War (WW2) General Montgomery was heard to say that his soldiers could march for three or four days without food on the strength of one letter from home. These sentiments were echoed by Lieutenant Colonel J.A. Field, the present Commander of Defence Postal Services.

For this reason the BFPO and its predecessors have always been keen to use the technology of the day to deliver mail quickly and efficiently. Trials of airmail were conducted by the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) in 1918 and these proved so successful that a regular service between Folkestone and Cologne was established the following year. During WW2, Postal Section personnel were regularly detached with forward troops, often establishing postal services within hours of their arrival. In recent times the BFPO has used cutting-edge OCR technology to sort mail, and has established an innovative hybrid mail system called the e-bluey.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

Families of British service personnel have long been able to send letters on special blue stationery (known as a blueys), as well as packages weighing up to 2kg, free of charge, but e-blueys enable them to send a message electronically – which will usually arrive within 24 hours. E-blueys can be hand-written and faxed, or sent through the BFPO website. Drawings and colour photographs can also be included, a feature particularly popular with personnel with young families.

Once sent, the e-blueys are delivered via an encrypted computer system to Field Post Offices, where they are printed out using a special printer which seals each message as it is printed. The messages are then distributed to troops with regular mail, having been seen by no one apart from sender and recipient. The e-bluey system is extremely popular, and photographs and drawings which have been sent in this way are said to adorn the walls of many a barracks.

In addition to its sorting, delivery and logistics activities, the BFPO has a Philatelic Bureau which issues a number of First Day Covers each year. The BPMA group was lucky enough to receive one of these to commemorate our visit. As part of an initiative to collect items from postal services other than Royal Mail, the BPMA’s curatorial team collected BFPO bag labels, e-bluey samples and a range of other material.

The BFPOs First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BFPO's First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BPMA would like to thank BFPO for allowing us to visit, and is particularly grateful to the Officers and staff who provided us with information and assistance.