Tag Archives: Central Telegraph Office

The Central Telegraph Office as I knew it

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In this, his final article, he tells us what he remembers of the Central Telegraph Office.

The Central Telegraph Office (CTO) was located on the corner of Newgate Street and St Martin’s Le Grand. It was originally five stories high but was reduced to one as a result of the bombing during the 1940 blitz. A second, brick built, story was added in 1946/7. This floor was used to re-house much of the admin staff such as the typing pool, Chief Inspector of Messengers, etc.

Central Telegraph Office - bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

Central Telegraph Office – bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The function of the CTO was to act as a clearing house for both inland and overseas telegrams. It was connected to most major cities in the world by teleprinter (the forerunner of the fax machine). It was also linked to almost all of the central London post offices by a pneumatic tube. By placing a telegram awaiting despatch into a container, that resembled a 25lb shell case covered in felt like material, it was possible to send the telegram via an underground tube direct to the CTO or the smaller tube officer located in the basement of King Edward Building, for despatch. Alas most of this system was destroyed during the war, although a large part was reinstated when the roads were repaired during the rebuilding of inner London.

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Just across the road from the CTO was another building. This building was almost as big as the CTO and was known as Angel Street. This building was connected to the CTO by a bridge built at the second floor level. The function of this building was to provide rest rooms, locker rooms and a restaurant for the many staff employed at the CTO. These facilities were needed as many of the staff worked split shifts and were required to work, say, from 7am to 11am, then they would be required again until 2pm when they would work until 6pm. This building was also badly damaged at the same time as the CTO. The surviving part was used to provide a ground floor restaurant whilst the upper two floors were used as locker/rest rooms for the messengers and girl probationers (the equivalent of the boy messengers). The remaining areas, because it contained undamaged basements and sub basements was asphalted over and used as air raid shelters. It was locked-up when the war ended and never re-opened.

The CTO was connected to the other three local buildings by underground passages and despite the damage suffered during the war it was still possible to use this method of contact.

The CTO was finally demolished in 1967. When the site was being prepared for redevelopment a large Roman mosaic floor was discovered. During the subsequent excavation a Roman burial ground was also uncovered. The Romans wrapped the bodies in a form of straw matting and placed them into slots in the wall as their final resting place…

I thought at the time how ironical it was that people should shelter from the bombs in a burial ground.

Memories of a boy messenger – Part 3

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In Part 3 he tells us his progression as a Messenger.

I started delivering telegrams by easy stages firstly by delivering the addresses close to the office then as my confidence and knowledge grew to addresses further away. On occasions we were sent to more outlying places to help build up our knowledge. Not only did I have to cope with learning the area but all of us had to get used to the consequences of power cuts. (All power was cut off between 2pm and 4pm each working day.) Normal deliveries still had to be made during the period, so if you arrived at an office and the delivery had to be made to the sixth floor, you just had to walk up. I continued to learn the area until one I was asked whether I would like to become a cycling messenger. I immediately agreed and was told that I would have to pass a test first. This entailed cycling up the narrow road at the rear of the CTO and turning round without falling off. A senior messenger watched and he decided whether you had passed or failed.

Central Telegraph Office delivery room, 1947. Jim (Dusty) Miller pictured on the right. (POST 118/1788)

Central Telegraph Office delivery room, 1947. Jim (Dusty) Miller pictured on the right. (POST 118/1788)

So, I started life as a cycling messenger, we were rewarded the daily sum of 6p (2½p) for keeping our bicycles clean and “ship shape”. We had various adventures including the very bad winter of 1947. I remember when the snow started, I had just returned from my tea break and was the only messenger in the delivery room. A very apologetic Inspector explained that he had four “Death Telegrams” which had to be delivered and as I had to go out I might as well take the remainder of the telegrams for the places en route. I remember cycling along Aldersgate Street and wondering what all the fuss was about. I eventually reached Torrence Stret (the furthest point in our delivery). As I turned into St Johns Street to come back the full force of the storm hit me and I realised then that I had been cycling with the wind behind me. I delivered the remainder of the telegrams and returned to the CTO about 7.30pm. To my surprise the other boys on my shift were waiting for me. They had refused to go home until they were sure I was safe. In order to remove my overcoat they had to chip the ice away from the button holes with a bicycle spanner and when I removed the coat it was frozen it stood up in the centre of the room unaided. For almost a week after the snow fell we had to deliver all telegrams by foot as it was decided that it was too dangerous to allow us to cycle.

Messenger Boy with cycle, 1930s (2011-0443/02)

Messenger Boy with cycle, 1930s (2011-0443/02)

Although I was unaware of it at the time the Post Office was very much in a transitional period. I remember coming back from a take and was told by a variety of messengers that we were being given a rise of 18/- (90p) and we would be given our arrears before Christmas. What we didn’t know at the time was how this rise would effect our conditions of service. The first thing was that there would be no more General Exams (these exams were designed to help messengers and girl probationers decide their futures). The next exam was due to be taken in a few months time and would be the last one. It would be open to all staff below the age of 18, however only 5 telegraph operator places would be available. In future Messengers would be known as Young Postmen and would progress within the service by various exams open to all grades. Our uniforms and hats changed to that of a postman and our cap badges were altered but other than this it had little on us at this stage.

The biggest upset was when the school leaving age was raised to 15 years. We lost a steady stream of messengers either to promotion or entering the forces to complete their National Services, our complement dwindled to 11 messengers (8 on delivery duties and 3 on indoor work). This compared to the 40 plus who were available when I first arrived. Instead of taking out 10 or 12 telegrams per “take” we now had to take out between 30 and 40 messages. Apart from the strain it put on the messengers it caused unacceptable delays to the telegrams. The GPO solved the problem by diverting ex-forces personnel awaiting training as telephonists to the CTO to act as male messengers and here they remained until the GPO was able to recruit boy messengers again. In total the telephonists stayed at the CTO for about eighteen months.

I remained an outdoor Messenger until I was about 16½ (by this time I was 6ft tall) when I was given an indoor job helping mainly in the typing pool. Just before by 18th birthday I was summoned to the Chief Inspectors room and told that the day after my birthday I was to report to Eastern District Office where I would start life as a Postman. So my life as a Boy Messenger came to a rather abrupt and somewhat unexpected end.

Keep visiting this blog for more of Jim (Dusty) Miller’s memories.

Memories of a boy messenger – Part 2

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In Part 2 he tells us what it was like to work as a Messenger.

The delivery room was a fairly large room with some of its windows still bricked up following the war. It had three large desks in the corner set in an L shape. The Inspectors in charge sat at two of them, one was responsible for sending the boys out on deliveries. He worked out the time it took to deliver the telegrams by allotting a time for the farthest point of call then adding 2 minutes for each other telegram. The other one booked you back in and decided when you should have your meal break, etc.

A London telegraph messengers' despatch room - artwork for a poster by Grace Golden, 1948 (POST 109/183)

A London telegraph messengers’ despatch room – artwork for a poster by Grace Golden, 1948 (POST 109/183)

He also had the responsibility to make sure that messengers who were being punished by being given “full time” did not have any of the privileges given to the other messengers, such as going home early or having an extra give minutes to their meal breaks. Full time could be given for a variety of reasons, such as not wearing your hat when on a delivery, answering the Inspector back, or taking too long to deliver the messages without a valid reason.

The room also contained a number of wooden forms where messengers sat between deliveries, and it also contained a number of bicycles. These were the heavy old red bicycles used by the Post Office at the time. Each bicycle had a number painted on the frame just below the saddle and was allocated to a particular messenger. The room next door was responsible for enveloping and addressing the envelopes for dispatch. They would then be sent to the delivery room via a conveyer belt.

A group of telegram messenger boys sat in rows on wooden benches in the L.P.S. Boy Messengers Retiring Room, c. 1930-40 (2012-0049/05)

A group of telegram messenger boys sat in rows on wooden benches in the L.P.S. Boy Messengers Retiring Room, c. 1930-40 (2012-0049/05)

The area covered by the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) was broken into 10 walks (or “takes” as we called them); nine of these consisted of the local streets whilst the 10th was for internal mail. It was the Inspectors’ responsibility to see that the walks were cleared every 10 minutes thus no telegram would be delayed by more than 10 minutes in the delivery room. It was common practice to send more than one walk out with a Messenger at one time. The walking Messengers usually got walks 1 to 4 whilst the cycling messengers took the deliveries further away.

Before the war the CTO was designated a “walking office” this meant that because of the small area involved plus the fact that a lot of the deliveries had to be made in small alley ways it was thought to be quicker to walk. However the war changed all that because as various local offices were bombed and had to be closed down the CTO delivery area grew in size. Despite this and the fact that bicycles had to be supplied in order to cover the distances involved the Post Office still refused to supply the correct cycling equipment. As a result we had to supply our own gloves and had to shorten our long overcoats to prevent them catching in the wheels.

When I arrived in the delivery room I was allocated to a Senior Messenger whose job it was to teach me the walking part of the area. I was told that I would be taught by him for two weeks then I would go to a School in Chelsea for a two day course to learn about the forms we were expected to use then I would be sent out on my own (a daunting prospect).

Telegram messenger boys on the steps outside of a main entrance (possibly the London Postal School), c.1930-40 (2012/0049-03)

Telegram messenger boys on the steps outside of a main entrance (possibly the London Postal School), c.1930-40 (2012/0049-03)

To be fair, because of the bomb damage it was probably easier to learn the area than it would be now. For instance, it was possible to walk from Newgate Street to Ludgate Hill across flattened area caused by the bombing; the area now occupied by the Barbican and Museum of London complexes were completely raised to the ground. The only three buildings left standing were the Redcross Street Fire Station, the Golden Lane theatre and the Morgue, just opposite the Theatre. The remainder of the area was non existent. The authorities built small brick walls between the pavement and the bombed basements to prevent people falling into them.

A boy messenger walks through a bomb-damaged area, c. 1940s (POST 118/1361)

A boy messenger walks through a bomb-damaged area, c. 1940s (POST 118/1361)

Keep visiting this blog for more of Jim (Dusty) Miller’s memories.

Memories of a boy messenger – Part 1

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In Part 1 he tells us about his first day on the job.

I remember how excited I was to receive the letter that told me to report for duty at the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) on 15 May 1946, having passed the medical and scraping in a half inch above the minimum height required of four feet ten and a half inches.

The Central Telegraph Office, c.1930s-40s (POST 118/1379)

The Central Telegraph Office, c.1930s-40s (POST 118/1379)

Despite the good advice I received from my parents I still managed to get lost and arrived later than I intended. As I approached the main door located in St Martin’s Le Grand, I was stopped by the doorman who told me that in future as a Boy Messenger I should use the back door. I was then taken to a man, who seemed to be in charge of most of the telegraph work.

After a brief welcome I was passed from office to office, signing and filling in various forms. I was also given my weekly allocation of meal vouchers each worth 1/- (5p). The restaurant that catered for the CTO staff was open from 8am to 6pm; it provided hot food from 11am to 2.30pm. Despite the rationing it was possible to buy a good hot meal and a sweet for less than 1/-.

Finally, I was taken to the Chief Inspector of Messengers. I remember there were three people in the room, an Assistant Inspector, Inspector and the Chief Inspector. I was passed from one to the other each one telling me about the job and conditions.

My duties would consist of 6 eight hour shifts which could start as early as 7am and finish as late as 7pm. I would be allowed a 40 minute meal break each day plus a breakfast or tea break of 20 minutes at the Inspectors’ discretion. Once thought suitable I would be expected to work 4 hours compulsory overtime every third Sunday increasing to 10 hours a day when I reached 16 (the CTO was required to deliver all telegrams on Sundays with an EC or WC address).

My starting pay would be 21/6 (£1 07½) per week); when you allow for fares to work of about 35p, plus either a morning or afternoon snack at a weekly cost of 15p, I had very little money to spare. However, my pay would rise by yearly increments to 41/- (£2-05p) per week at 18 years. In addition to my pay I would receive 6 meal vouchers per week free until I reached 16 when I would be expected to pay half the cost of the vouchers. They would automatically stop when I reached 18 years.

I would be given two uniforms a year, one winter and one summer weight. I would also receive one pair of shoes and one pair of boots a year, plus overcoat and walking cape (to be replaced when I outgrew them), and a pill box-type hat with badge that was unique to me. My number was TS228 (only the messengers at the CTO and their sister office at Threadneedle Street were allowed to wear the Tube Service or TS motif on their cap badges).

Messenger boy (POST 118/126)

Messenger boy (POST 118/126)

My holiday entitlement was 12 days a year to be taken between May and October. The senior boys had first choice so junior messengers like me had to take our holidays in either May or October.

Having been told all the terms and conditions I was whisked away to the Inspector in charge of the stores in a small office at the rear of Angel Street. Here I was measured for my uniform, given my pouch belt and armband (these had to suffice until my uniform was ready) and walking cape. I was then taken to the delivery room which was located at the rear of the CTO.

Keep visiting this blog for more of Jim (Dusty) Miller’s memories.

The General Post Office: GPO East – 1829-1912

One of the earliest sites occupied by the ‘General Post Office’ in London was in the area of Lombard Street, near the Bank of England. Since 1678, the General Post Office had been headquartered in this part of the City, purchasing more property as its work increased in volume and scope.

However in 1814 the Post Office’s piecemeal acquisition of buildings had gone as far as it could and the Post Office Architect reported that it wasn’t worth continuing to develop the site.  He recommended a new location be selected for the construction of a purpose-built headquarters building.

This engraving shows St Martins Le Grand before the construction of the Post Office.

This engraving shows St Martins Le Grand before the construction of the Post Office.

The area chosen was St Martins-le-Grand, less than half a mile away, to the north of St Paul’s cathedral. It was an area of poor repute and presumably the land was relatively cheap. In clearing space for the new headquarters over 130 houses were demolished and 1,000 inhabitants displaced.

The Post Office wanted a building that would reflect its increased national importance, so it employed Sir Robert Smirke, the architect who had designed the British Museum.

Hand-coloured engraving showing the new building around 1829.

Hand-coloured engraving showing the new building around 1829.

Construction was complete in 1829 and the entire General Post Office was relocated from Lombard Street to their imposing new premises. Known as the ‘General Post Office’, the building combined the functions of administrative headquarters, sorting office and London’s principal public Post Office.

The structure was nearly 400 feet long, with a Grecian-style frontage facing onto the east side of St Martins-le-Grand. At night, the exterior was lit by a thousand gas burners.

GPO East

GPO East

Letter Carriers Room arranged for the dispatch of newspapers.

Letter Carriers Room arranged for the dispatch of newspapers.

Running the width of the building – 130 feet from the Portico on St. Martin’s-le-Grand through to Foster Lane at the rear – was a grand public hall with a 50-foot ceiling supported by six columns of Portland Stone. Either side of the public hall were offices, with further offices on the first floor. Above those were sleeping rooms for the foreign clerks who were required to be available to receive the foreign mails that arrived at all hours. The basement of the building held the mail-guards rooms, armoury and servants quarters.

Each evening mail coaches gathered at the General Post Office to collect mail for overnight delivery to other cities around the country. The coach, horses and driver were all provided by contractors. The only Post Office employee aboard was the guard. He was heavily armed, carrying two pistols and a blunderbuss.

The nightly departure of the mail coaches, racing off in different directions, became very popular, drawing crowds of spectators.

The Royal Mails departure from The General Post Office, 1830.

The Royal Mails departure from The General Post Office, 1830.

The last London-based mail coach made its final journey in 1846, made redundant by the development of the railway.

Beginning with the Central Telegraph Office in 1874, several other Post Office buildings were constructed in the immediate vicinity and, to avoid confusion, the General Post Office became known as GPO East.

GPO East, early 20th Century

GPO East, early 20th Century

In the above photograph from the early Twentieth Century you can see the two extra storeys that were added following the huge expansion in mail volumes after postal reform in 1840 made the postal service affordable to all.

The basement was also extended but it still didn’t increase capacity sufficiently and eventually the building was declared to be too small. In 1912, after its functions were transferred to the other GPO buildings in the area, GPO East was demolished.

Pen and wash by Sir George Clausen RA, 1913, showing the demolition of GPO East

Pen and wash by Sir George Clausen RA, 1913, showing the demolition of GPO East

The demolition of such an iconic building was not without its opponents and some effort was made to preserve the portico and pediment. However no one was prepared to bear the cost of carrying it away.

Eventually all that remained was the Ionic cap from the right hand corner of the portico. This five-ton relic was presented to the Walthamstow Urban Council and can be seen today at Church End, Walthamstow Village.

Welcome to the London 2010: Festival of Stamps

After a long time planning and a lot of work by many people at the BPMA and other organisations the London 2010: Festival of Stamps will soon begin.

A 1963 US stamp depicting a broken chain and the words "Emacipation Proclamation", produced to celebrate 100 years since the abolition of slavery.

Stamp from the United States of America, 1963. Courtesy of Sands of Time

We will be making a buzz throughout 2010 about stamps and introduce many new people to the wonderful world of stamps, stamp design and postal heritage. One of the first events of the Festival is Post Abolition: Commemorative stamps from around the world (18 January – 30 June 2010). This new display in the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery of the Museum of London Docklands looks at how the abolition of slavery has been commemorated through the everyday postage stamp. 

The Festival continues with an exciting programme of exhibitions and events planned, with something to appeal to everyone.

As well as celebrating stamps, London 2010: Festival of Stamps also marks the centenary of the accession of George V – the philatelist king. To mark the occasion, don’t miss the BPMA’s major exhibition Empire Mail: George V & The GPO in co-operation with Guildhall Art Gallery and the Royal Philatelic Collection. The exhibition opens at the prestigious Guildhall Art Gallery on 7 May 2010 and runs until 25 July 2010. Many items from the BPMA’s wonderful collections will be on display in this exhibition that explores the life of King George V, through his personal passions as a philatelist and wider world events. There will also be a display of exquisite stamps and stamp artwork from the Royal Philatelic Collection.

Postal Union Congress £1 stamp, 1929. Shows King George V and an English knight on horseback.

Postal Union Congress £1, 1929. GBR02.25

Later in the year, BPMA will be releasing a new book about George V by our curator of philately, Douglas Muir. Based on extensive research, much of it original, this will be an vital addition to anyone interested in the period, which saw some of the most beautiful and highly regarded of British stamps, such as the seahorses and the PUC £1. 

Alongside Empire Mail: George V & The GPO, the BPMA will also be staging a display of Treasures of the Archive at our Search Room in Freeling House. The exhibition will feature unique pieces from the collections of The British Postal Museum & Archive. This includes a sheet of penny black stamps and the original die, among many other items of unparalleled significance in UK postal history.


As well as our own exhibitions, the BPMA is co-ordinating an exciting programme of events with partner organisations throughout 2010.

British Library Philatelic Rarities
British Library
1 February – 31 December 2010
The permanent 1,000 frame ‘Philatelic Exhibition’ will be refreshed with new or not recently exhibited material from the British Library’s world class collections. There will also be a programme of educational talks.

An early air mail envelope

Air mail envelope. Image courtesy of The Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum

King George V Exhibition
Bath Postal Museum
1 February – 30 October 2010
The Bath Postal Museum is staging an exhibition depicting the events that occurred during the reign of King George V (1910 to 1936). Items on display will illustrate how events that occurred during this period resulted in changes to peoples’ lives and their standard of living.

Congo (Katanga): 10 F Stamp with Air Katanga airplane tail

Congo (Katanga): 10 F Stamp with Air Katanga airplane tail

Impressions of Africa: money, medals and stamps
British Museum, Room 69a
1 April 2010 – January 2011
In 2010 17 African countries celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence from colonial rule. To mark this occasion the British Museum will be holding a small display looking at the images of Africa presented on coins, banknotes, medals, stamps and seals made for the continent during the past 100 years.

Throughout 2010 the Association of British Philatelic Societies (ABPS) will be holding regional events. Please see the London 2010 website to find out more about shows near you.

Other events are still to be confirmed, so don’t forget to visit our new-look website at www.london2010.org.uk for all the very latest news, visitor information and opening times. And please do check details before travelling as dates may change.


Alongside exhibitions and displays, the BPMA will also be holding Festival related activities. Highlights are listed below, but please see the London 2010 website, or the BPMA website to find out more.

Central Telegraph Office (GPO West) decorated with flags for the Jubilee of George V.

Central Telegraph Office (GPO West) decorated with flags for the Jubilee of George V. POST 118 290

Walking Tours

This year, for the first time, we have introduced two types of walking tour. The first type introduces Highlights of GPO London (Saturday 26 June and Tuesday 13 July, 1 ½ hours). The tour takes you in to the heart of old GPO London, exploring over 300 years of postal history, and developments in the buildings and iconic street furniture of telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The second, longer Extended Walking Tour (Saturday 8 May, Sunday 5 September. Approximately 3 hours) offers the chance to explore GPO London in more depth.  


A special programme of talks has been devised for the Festival, each one covering a different aspect of philately or postal history. The programme starts off on Thursday 11 March (7-8pm, Phoenix centre) with a panel discussion on Stamps in the 21st Century. Guests from across the spectrum of philately and stamp design will discuss stamp design and the future of stamps.

As you can see, 2010 is packed full of events, exhibitions and activities for people to find out more about stamps, postal history and stamp design. We hope you can join us at the London 2010: Festival of Stamps soon!

Walking back through 400 years of postal history

by Jennifer Flippance, London 2010 Project Officer

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

For the last three years BPMA has been running popular walking tours, which take you into the heart of old GPO London, exploring 400 years of postal history and developments in the iconic street furniture of telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The full tour lasts around 3 hours but next year, as part of our programme of activities to celebrate the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, we’re developing a ‘highlights’ version that will last around 1.5 hours and finish up at Guildhall Art Gallery. This will give you the opportunity to visit the fascinating exhibition, Empire Mail: George V and the GPO which will contain many significant objects and items of postal history from the reign of George V, when the GPO (General Post Office) was at its height.

Last week, Chris Taft, one of the curators at the BPMA who helped to develop and run the tours, took me out on the route of the new walking tour.

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1920s

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1935

It takes in the old GPO heartland around St Martin’s Le Grand, once the bustling hub of communication throughout the empire. This incorporates the majestic former GPO headquarters of King Edward Building – opened in 1910, the front of which is still standing today – and the sites of GPO North, the Central Telegraph Office and GPO East, from where crowds gathered each night to witness the spectacle of racing mail coaches leaving London.

Today King Edward Street is overlooked by a statue of Rowland Hill, the social reformer who revolutionised the postal service in 1840, making mail communication within reach of ordinary people for the first time.

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Then travel further back in time to the site where the ‘bishop mark’ the world’s first postmark was struck in 1661. Continue to the area of the City where many coffee houses clustered in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Coffee houses were significant in the development of communication because many had the facility for visitors to post letters. Due to the coffee shop owners’ close relationships with ship owners, this was considered a more efficient way of carrying letters overseas than using the Post Office.

A little further on is the site of the office of the Postmaster General. In 1680 this was the only place you could post letters in the country. By 1808 the office was called “the most important spot on the surface of the globe.”

Dates for the new walking tour will be announced later in the year.

The last full-length walking of 2009 takes place on Saturday 26 September (1.00 – 4.00 pm). Click here to find out how to book tickets

Guglielmo Marconi and the Post Office

Previously on this blog we wrote about the connection between the Post Office aboard the Titanic, and the telegrams held in our collection concerning the sunken ship. Also on the Titanic was wireless equipment and two operators supplied by the Marconi company, which proved important in getting word to nearby vessels – and beyond – that the ship was sinking. The Post Office was a pioneer of telegraphic technology and had become interested in Marconi’s experimentation at a key point in the development of wireless telegraphy, so it could be argued that thanks to the Post Office many of the Titanic’s passengers were saved.

Guglielmo Marconi, who died on this day in 1937, was born near Bologna in 1874 of an Italian father and Irish mother. He did not do well at school, but nevertheless had an interest in science and was fortunate to have as a neighbour Augusto Righi, a physicist who had worked with Heinrich Hertz, discoverer of radio waves.

A stamp commemorating Marconis first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

A stamp commemorating Marconi's first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

At the age of 20, Marconi began experimenting with radio waves, hoping to create a wireless telegraphy system. By 1895 he had achieved a range of two kilometres, but needed investment to continue development. When the Italian Ministry of Posts & Telegraphs showed no interest in the system, Marconi travelled to London and through his mother’s family connections received a letter of introduction to William Preece, Engineer-in-Chief to the Post Office.

Preece was impressed by Marconi and provided him with an assistant, George Kemp. On 27th July 1896 Marconi and Kemp successfully demonstrated the wireless telegraphy system between two Post Office buildings. A transmitter was placed on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office (located on Newgate Street/St Martin’s Le Grand, where the BT Centre now stands) and a receiver on the roof of GPO South (Carter Lane). The distance between the two buildings was 300 metres. Later that year the Post Office provided funding for Marconi to conduct further experiments on Salisbury Plain.

But despite the potential of the system and Marconi’s growing international reputation, the Post Office did not make any formal arrangements with Marconi, leaving him free to establish a private company, The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd, in London in 1897. Marconi and his company went from strength to strength, transmitting across the English Channel in 1899 and across the Atlantic in 1901.

Marconi’s company also provided wireless equipment and operators for shipping lines, enabling them to communicate with ports and each other for the first time. As a thank you for supplying this equipment for the Titanic, Marconi and his family were invited to sail on the ship’s maiden voyage. Fortunately they were unable to take the fated journey.

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

The wireless operators aboard the Titanic were Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. 25 minutes after the ship struck an iceberg, Captain Smith instructed Phillips to send an all stations distress call. Phillips then continued to communicate with ships in the area even after Smith had ordered that he and Bride stand down and save themselves. Phillips eventually went down with the ship, although Bride survived and was picked-up by the SS Carpathia. Together with the Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam, Bride transmitted the names of the survivors to shore.

Following the disaster, enquiries were held and Marconi was called as an expert witness. New safety procedures were put in place such as sufficient lifeboats for all passengers, lifeboat drills aboard ships and 24 hour wireless cover. An iceberg patrol was set up too, and began to patrol the North Atlantic in early 1913 with Marconi equipment on board.

Herbert Samuel, Postmaster General at the time, said of the Titanic disaster “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.”

Two stamps released by Royal Mail in 1995 as part of the Pioneers of Communication series commemorate Marconi, his invention, and its role in the Titanic disaster.

BT Archive – Events in Telecommunications History
Connected Earth – The Origins of Radio
Marconi Calling
Wikipedia: Guglielmo Marconi

Walking Tours of GPO London

Anyone walking through the City of London will note weird and wonderful street names such as Cheapside, Poultry and Undershaft, or the more mundane Milk Street, Bread Street and Oat Lane, and get a sense of the Square Mile’s past history as part over-crowded slum, part burgeoning centre of trade. But the history of postal communication can also be seen in the City, with Postman’s Park and Post Office Court being merely the most obvious examples. These and other sites will be explored as part of the BPMA’s programme of GPO London walking tours.

In 1643 the first General Post Office was established in the City, with the site most likely to have been in Cloak Lane, near Dowgate Hill. This came just eight years after Charles I made the Royal Mail available to his subjects, although it was Oliver Cromwell who formally established the Post Office in 1657.

At this time Coffee Houses were considered more reliable mail providers than the newly formalised Post Office. Many Coffee House owners collected letters and made arrangements with ship masters for their delivery overseas. This practice was illegal for it infringed the Post Office monopoly, but the service continued to be popular. It is not coincidental that so many early Post Offices were also established in the City of London.

The site of the Garraways Coffee House (rebuilt 1874) and Lloyds Coffee House (1691-1785) will be visited on the tour, along with the sites of the former GPO Headquarters at Lombard Street and St Martin’s-le-Grand.

Other notable sites visited on the tour are King Edward Building (the former Chief Post Office now occupied by Merrill Lynch), and GPO North. Also in the vicinity was the Central Telegraph Office where Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated wireless telegraphy to William Preece, Engineer to the GPO.

There will also be an opportunity to explore a range of operational GPO street furniture from many eras, including manhole covers, telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The tours last around 3 hours and are conducted by BPMA Curators. For more information and booking details please see our website.

BPMA Walking Tours, 2009
GPO London – Tuesday 30th June 2009, 1.00-4.00pm
GPO London – Saturday 19th July 2009, 2.00-5.00pm
GPO London – Tuesday 26th September 2009, 1.00-4.00pm