Tag Archives: BT Archives

The FOUR openings of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. At 189m, the Tower was the tallest building in London until 1980 and is still an iconic part of the capital’s skyline. Rather than look at the build, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT David Hay recounts the story behind its FOUR official openings and the drama that ensued.

The planning for the Tower opening ceremony, documented at BT Archives, reveals a little known story of inter departmental rivalry and public image concerns. Construction on the Tower began in 1961, and as early as 1963 thought was being given to an official opening. The Postmaster General of the time, J R Bevins, was keen for a ceremony in 1964 “as soon as the shell has been completed”. A major concern was that the project should be seen to be led by the Post Office. The actual construction was managed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and Bevins was “determined to do something about this by the start of March, without M.o.W. [Ministry of Works]” and that “there must be no question of his [MoW] minister organising shows.”

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The GPO Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, had to point out that there was little point in organising an event before any equipment had been installed in the Tower, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.”

O’Brien’s preferred date for the opening ceremony was April or May 1965 with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding. In case there were delays, Bevins’ successor, Tony Benn, decided to invite Prime Minister Harold Wilson to officiate instead. In his letter, Benn asked Wilson to “draw attention to the role of the Post Office as the central nervous system of the United Kingdom dealing in the transmission of all sorts of information on which the economic life of the community depends”. Downing St was given the choice of April or October and, to O’Brien’s dismay, Wilson gave an October date as his preference. The Post Office had wanted a ceremony sooner rather than later because the physical construction of the Tower had been completed in 1964, and O’Brien was concerned that the public would be wondering why it had not been opened already.

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The October date – preferred by the GPO Engineering Department to ensure that all the latest equipment was installed – was seen to be a better option, “it would be rather unfortunate if we were to try to show the way in which the Post Office is installing the most up to date equipment in the world if we had so important a person as the Prime Minister opening the Tower when little equipment is there.”

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Ultimately, perhaps reflecting a typical British compromise, there were actually FOUR opening ceremonies:

  • The topping out ceremony on 15 July 1964 marking the formal end of the construction, where a Minister of Public Building and Works made a speech “confining himself to the building achievements.”
  • The operational opening of the Tower on 8 October 1965.
  • An official visit by HM Queen Elizabeth hosted by Tony Benn on 17 May
  • The opening of the public areas of the Tower (the restaurant and the observation floor) on 19 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Sir Billy Butlin (who had been awarded the licence to operate the restaurant).

The files also reflect a little of the characters of some of the key players in the Tower’s story. J R Bevins, who had been instrumental in the building of the Tower, declined his invitation because it had been incorrectly addressed to him as ‘Mr’ rather than “the Right Honourable J R Bevins – after all I am a Privy Councillor”. And following the ceremony Tony Benn wrote to O’Brien requesting that special arrangements be made to ensure that official drivers received refreshments at future events, “I believe there was some difficulty about this in connection with the opening of the Post Office Tower”.

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Whatever day you see as the ‘official opening’, the BT Tower (formerly the Post Office Tower) is still an iconic landmark in London today and an innovation from the General Post Office.

You can read more on the history of the BT Tower on the BT Archives website

BT Archives online

Last Wednesday BPMA’s Head of Archives Vicky Parkinson and myself were lucky enough to be invited to an opening event for BT’s new digital archives catalogue.

The new BT Archives online catalogue.

The new BT Archives online catalogue.

This involved us ascending to the 34th floor to the old revolving restaurant of the BT Tower in Fitzrovia (by the way the restaurant may have closed – in 1980 – but the viewing space still revolves, from my experience a slightly unsettling feeling). There we enjoyed fabulous views over sunny London and a series of launch speeches for the BT catalogue which has now gone live here.

Cover of Post Office Magazine from November 1965. It depicts the GPO Tower.

Cover of Post Office Magazine from November 1965. It depicts the GPO Tower.

The BT Digital Archives was developed through the New Connections project, a one million pound collaboration between Coventry University, BT and The National Archives, in order to bring an important part of this unique archive and innovations story to a much wider audience. It was funded by JISC under Strand B: Mass Digitisation of their Content programme between November 2011 and July 2013.

The project aimed to catalogue, digitise and develop a searchable online resource of almost half a million photographs, images, documents and correspondence, a core part of the overall collection assembled by BT over 165 years, including over:

  • 45,000 photographs and pictures, c1865 – 1982
  • 190,000 pages from over 13,500 research reports, 1878 – 1981
  • 230,000 documents from over 550 policy and operational files, 1851 – 1983

JISC funding ended in July 2013, but the site will continue to be maintained and developed by BT Heritage and Coventry University as part of their continuing collaboration working with Axiell.co.uk suppliers of the Arena platform.

One thing I liked was an early appearance of Tommy Flowers (who later led the team which designed Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer) from 1931. Engineering Research Report 5235 (TCB 422/5325) is co-written by Flowers and entitled ‘Key Sending from “A” Positions using a AC Signals on a Straightforward Junction Basis over Two Wire Junctions’.

– Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Ringing the Change: Post Office promotion of the telephone and telegraph service, 1925-1939

On Thursday 8 November the BPMA are delighted to host our guest speaker, David Hay, Head of Heritage at BT Group PLC. David Hay will be exploring the radical change in Post Office telephone marketing strategy in the 1930s in a talk entitled Ringing the Change.

"Telephone rates" publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

“Telephone rates” publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

Between 1925 and 1928 the Post Office invested almost £1 million a month in the telephone network as it began the roll-out of automatic telephone exchanges, enabling subscribers to make local calls directly without involving a telephone operator. The result of this new technology, together with the introduction of new mass-produced telephone instruments using early plastics, was that the cost of having a telephone gradually began to fall. The Post Office also introduced new services during this period, such as the first transatlantic radio telephone service in 1926, direct telephone communications with countries in Europe and the expansion of the public telephone kiosk network.

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

However, much of this innovation went unnoticed by the public. Indeed, despite the enormous investment in new technology, there was widespread concern by 1931 that Britain was lagging behind other countries in Europe in the take-up of the telephone. Up to 25 per cent of the capacity of the telephone network was lying idle.

"Always at your service", telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

“Always at your service”, telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

This richly illustrated talk will explore the early attempts of the Post Office to address this and to market the telephone to a wider part of society then before, efforts which were revolutionised in 1933 by the recruitment of Sir Stephen Tallents as the Post Office’s first Public Relations Officer. The decade before the Second World War was in many ways a golden period for GPO marketing, not least in the publicity machine unleashed by Tallents who had a passionate belief in the role of the arts promoting what were then Government services. Tallents and his team commissioned artists, designers, film makers and photographers to project a modern view of the Post Office to its customers and to its own employees.

"Come on the telephone", telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

“Come on the telephone”, telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

The result was that by the end of the inter-war era many of the GPO’s products and services – such as the Jubilee red telephone kiosk designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the Speaking Clock and the 999 Emergency Service – had become iconic parts of the nation’s cultural fabric, and remain so to this day. And the Post Office itself, which entered the decade criticised on all sides for failing to promote its telecommunications services and communicate its role generally, was ultimately respected as a national asset vital to the country’s success.

We hope you will join us for what promises to be a fascinating talk!

Tickets are £3 per head or £2.50 for concessions, and can be bought on the door on the night or you can book tickets online.

Archive stock-take 2012: Transfer of material to BT Archives

Our annual stock-take is a necessary period of spring-cleaning for our archive service and collections, allowing us to tackle important jobs we don’t otherwise get time for.

My task this year was to identify, pull together and check off records that have been awaiting transfer to their more rightful home at BT Archives.

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

As a consequence of the British Telecommunications Act, 1981, which transferred the responsibility for telecommunications services from the Post Office to British Telecom, a lot of material has been transferred by us to BT Archives since they were established in 1986. They have their own collecting policy, which essentially concerns historical material reflecting the development and operations of BT and its predecessors.

The records set aside for transfer to BT during stock-take clearly fall under this remit, including some wonderful posters dating from the 1930s to the 1950s promoting telephonist jobs, advising on wartime telephone usage, and advertising overseas telegrams and radiotelegrams to ships at sea. The material also includes telegraph training manuals for the early twentieth century, telephone service instructions for the 1930s, and a large number of files relating to a gas explosion in the telegram-conveying pneumatic tube line beneath Holborn in 1928. There are numerous interesting claims files submitted by local residents, plus one for Fred Astaire and his sister, who were starring in a production of Funny Face at the Princes Theatre (now Shaftesbury Theatre), which was suspended for several weeks as a result of the explosion.

Vital paperwork needs to be completed before a transfer of archive material can take place to ensure accountability and good house-keeping. A complete list of all the records was compiled on a spreadsheet, which was then approved by the BPMA’s Head of Archives and Records Management. This material can then be copied into an Exit/Receipt form, which will then be signed by myself, our Head of Archives and Records Management and the Heritage Collections Manager at BT Archives, a copy of which I will place in a registered file for safekeeping at the BPMA.

All the listing and transfer approval has been dealt with in advance of stock-take to allow sufficient time for any hitches. So what’s left to do now? Essentially carefully packaging and boxing up the material ready for a short taxi ride down to the old Holborn telephone exchange (where the BT Archives are houses), and then updating our records (including those on our catalogue where necessary) to show that the material has been transferred.

Material ready for transfer.

Material ready for transfer.

The transfer of material to BT is by no means a finite process, as our uncatalogued records may well contain telecoms material that will only appear as we work through our backlog. However, as we attempt to get our house in order prior to our big move to Calthorpe House, this upcoming transfer will help to make sure we only take with us material designated for long-term preservation at the BPMA, whilst clearing some much needed space in our repository.

Although I’m sorry to see those lovely telephonist and telegram posters go, at least they will be going to a very good home! Keep your eyes peeled for them on the BT catalogue!

The telephonist has an interesting job - poster by Dorrit Dekk

The telephonist has an interesting job – poster by Dorrit Dekk

Anna Flood – Archivist (Cataloguing)

For an overview of Telecommunications in our collection please visit our website.