Tag Archives: British Postal Museum & Archive

Dear Santa: The History of Writing to Father Christmas

In this post, Archives Assistant Ashley March gives us a preview of his talk next Tuesday (1 December) at 7pm. Ashley has been delving through the BPMA’s files to explore how, with the Post Office’s help, Santa started writing back to children across the UK.

My adult interest in writing to Father Christmas started – as the best stories do – with an unexpected question. A couple had come to use our Search Room, and as one of them pored over pages and pages of pension records, looking for a trace of his great grandfather (or some other long-distant relative), the other shyly approached the desk and asked me, with a glint in her eye, ‘Do you know what happens to the letters to Santa?’

grotto

Christmas card from Santa, 1994

I can’t say the question had occurred to me before, and it was April at the time, so hardly festive. After only a little digging, however, we found a folder of research that others had done on the topic, packed with intriguing documents. A surprise to me – the first ‘letter from Santa’ the Post Office sent wasn’t safe and traditional in design, but rather bold and stylish:

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A press release dated 21st December 1963 explained that for the first time, ‘children who had sent letters to Father Christmas in Snowland, Reindeerland, Toyland, etc., and who had put their addresses on their letters, would receive a message from Father Christmas.’ Around 7,500 of the cards pictured were sent, with a special postmark:

Reindeerland postmark 1963

Reindeerland postmark 1963

It turns out we have quite a few files dedicated to Santa mail, back then and since. Looking through the titles, my head filled with questions: Why start sending Santa’s replies at that time? Why the Post Office? And who decided what Santa could send? We take it for granted today that Father Christmas writes back to any of us (if, all importantly, we supply a return address), but we should remember that it might not have turned out this way.

Different ideas had been floated: one manager suggested sending a record featuring Santa’s voice as ‘even more attractive and in keeping with the times than a letter’, and below you can see a charmingly rustic mock-up of a colouring book that Santa might have sent if writers had been asked to pay for his reply:

Proposed Santa colouring book

Proposed Santa colouring book

It might have been made in a hurry!

It was possibly made in a hurry!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rummaging around in our repository, I’ve unearthed a great selection of stories like this to share, so please join me if you can. Did I mention that there will be mulled wine?

-Ashley March, Archives Assistant

Join Ashley next Tuesday 1 December at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Royal Mail Archive added to UNESCO Memories of the World Register

Recently the BPMA has received some exciting news. The Royal Mail Archive, which we look after, has been added to UNESCO’s Memories of the World Register. The archive spans the years 1636 to 1969 and covers a wide range of items from promotional posters to the Penny Black and employment records to telegrams about the Titanic.

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Telegram telling of the sinking of the Titanic

UNESCO was impressed by the unique insight the archive offers into the development of communication within the UK and abroad and the way it reflects the social and personal impact that the postal service has had upon people across the country.

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GPO poster

Head of Archives Vicky Parkinson tells us about being added to this year’s list of inscriptions:

“Back in 2011 my colleagues attended that year’s inscription reception following the successful nomination of the work of the GPO film unit, which was a joint application with our colleagues in the BFI and BT. On the back of that success we felt that the Royal Mail Archive was worthy of inscription and the nomination paperwork was submitted in January of this year.

We were delighted to hear that the UNESCO committee agreed with us and on the 19 June 2014 Helen Forde, Chair of our Board of Trustees, and I travelled to Edinburgh to attend the award ceremony, along with the other successful nominees.

Vicky and Helen

Vicky and Helen at the reception. Photo by Lesley Ann Ercolano

The reception, hosted by Lloyds Banking Group at their iconic site on the Mound in Edinburgh, was about celebrating the UK’s outstanding history and raising awareness about some of the country’s documentary riches. For me it was a wonderful reminder of how the archive, and the work we do to look after it and make it available, fits into the bigger picture of how history, and more importantly the original records, still play a vital role in today’s society.

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One of the thousands of photos in the collection – women mending parcels at the Home Depot during the First World War

For those of us lucky enough to work with the archive on a day to day basis it’s easy to see just how significant the collection is, documenting the vital role the postal service has played in the UK. Having that importance recognised by schemes such as UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register and the Arts Council’s Designation scheme is a vital way of spreading awareness of the riches we have in our custody.”

It is these stories and more that will be told in The Postal Museum when it opens in 2016. To hear some of these fantastic stories, and see the wealth of objects all of our collections hold, before then keep an eye on the blog. Over the coming months BPMA staff will be telling you all their favourite stories and showing you all manner of intriguing and enticing objects.

Students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Massachusetts visit the BPMA

We are a group of four students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. At the beginning of the summer, from May 12th to June 28th, we had the privilege of working with the British Postal Museum and Archive to develop better visitor evaluation strategies. The goal of our project was to help improve visitor evaluation within their exhibitions which primarily focused on the Last Post Exhibition.

Mail Rail

WPI Students take a tour of Mail Rail

The overall experience was fantastic, filled with opportunities and memories. We were able to visit and explore some of the most popular museums in London including the Natural History, Victorian and Albert, and Science museums. At these museums, we observed visitors to identify what they enjoyed and see how the set up can affect visitor engagement.

Nysa

Nysa at Last Post Coalbrookdale

We also had the pleasure of working with BPMA visitors. Getting to know those who enjoyed the BPMA’s work, and asking them for helpful insight into what they learned and what they think would improve the sites. Working at events and visiting the Last Post exhibition at Mansfield and Coalbrookdale was a thrilling experience; we not only learned about the exhibitions but also were able to test many different evaluation methods such as interview, surveys, creative writing/drawing activities and observations.

Shuyang

Shuyang with the postal uniform display

We gathered some informative and gratifying feedback, for example one visitor said she “…learned so much more about a city [she had] lived in for 40 years.” Others said that they “did not realize the extent of Post Office involvement in the First World War.” The feedback we gathered was helpful and greatly aided our research objectives.

Enjoying London

WPI Students enjoying London

Aside from gaining new knowledge about museum goers, as a team we were able to improve our professional writing skills, communicate with a broad range of people, and work efficiently in a group setting. This experience also enabled us to grow as young professionals; we believe this project has added to a foundation of what the working world is like.  Living in London was an experience of a lifetime; adapting and working in a different culture will enable us to adapt to all presented opportunities and continue to broaden our understanding of the world.

Thank you,

Angela, Nysa, Shuyang and George

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)