Tag Archives: City of London

Mail Rail Book Reading Event

With building works to transform Mail Rail into an exciting and immersive national visitor attraction as part of The Postal Museum set to begin in the next few months, opportunities to show off this extraordinary and inspiring space in all its mothballed glory are becoming increasingly limited. Hannah Clipson, BPMA Community Learning Officer tells us about a recent event which did just that…

From 1927 to 2003, Mail Rail transported huge volumes of post under the streets of London, beneath the feet of millions of blissfully unaware commuters and tradesmen going about their daily business 70 feet above. Opened in an age when the horse and cart ran alongside new-fangled automobiles, it was a technological innovation that kept people in touch across ever-greater distances and at ever-greater speed. Since the last shift when workers downed their tools in 2003, the Mail Rail has sat, silently gathering dust. Until now!

On 25 March, a lucky group of visitors were granted access to this hidden landmark as the Mail Rail Car Depot, where trains from across the network were brought for repair, became the dramatic backdrop for a very special BPMA event.

In collaboration with Cityread London 2015, an annual celebration that encourages all of London to pick up the same book and read it together, Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Sunday Times best-selling urban fantasy/crime fiction series Rivers of London, unveiled a special new short story, King of the Rats, read by comedian, rapper and entertainer Doc Brown, aka Ben Bailey Smith.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, 'King of the Rats'.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, ‘King of the Rats’.

“When a self-styled King of the Rats crashes a corporate do hosted by Fleet and Tyburn naturally the Folly are called in.  Peter and Kumar have to determine whether his majesty is the legitimate ruler of the rat nation or a sad man with a rodent fixation.

And they’d better do it fast before irate Rivers decide to embark on a bit of DIY pest control.”

After being treated to this new instalment, fans were able to pick the author’s brain during a lively Q&A session!

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

The evening marked the start of Cityread’s 2015 season. Over the next month Rivers of London will be the theme behind a programme of exciting events across all 33 London boroughs.

You can hear the full story, read by Doc Brown, below

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.

William Dockwra, The Penny Post and Coffee Houses

In today’s episode of the BBC Radio 4 series The Peoples Post the role of the Penny Post and the part played in its establishment by William Dockwra was rightly highlighted. This very early penny post system is sometimes neglected but this new cheaper and faster postal system, that was affordable by almost all, predated the much better recorded universal penny post by 160 years. The Penny Post, which was set up independently of the state run Royal Mail began in the City of London, then as today the centre of business and finance in the country. It was business and enterprise that helped it grow and develop, and very quickly it became a commercial success, so much so that it threatened the monopoly of the Royal Mail. William Dockwra opened the penny post in 1680, with its first office in the heart of what is still today the financial district of London. Within a year the number of receiving houses being used by the system had risen to between 4 and 500.

Dockwra Penny Post triangular marking, this letter was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 series (PH (L) 3/07)

Dockwra Penny Post triangular marking, this letter was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 series (PH (L) 3/07)

At the heart of this network of receiving houses was the London coffee house, then as today instrumental in business. The coffee houses of London were a place of business, a place where business meetings would take place and where many businessmen would establish themselves as regulars, making particular coffee houses the place where people could expect to find them. For this reason many of the London coffee houses were an ideal place for the letters of the penny post to be sent to and collected from.

Within the collections of the BPMA there are a number of examples of letters addressed to businessmen via their regular coffee house. A prolific user of this system was James Gordon, a wine merchant and here we see an examples of two letter addressed to Gordon, sent to two separate London coffee house, one is the Lloyds Coffee House which was situated in Lombard Street, close to where the General Post Office itself was situated at the time.

Letter addressed to James Gordon Esq. at the New Lloyds Coffee House London (Postal History Series)

Letter addressed to James Gordon Esq. at the New Lloyds Coffee House London (Postal History Series)

Letter also addressed to James Gordon but this one is stated, ‘to be left at the Jamaica Coffee House London’ (Postal History Series)

Letter also addressed to James Gordon but this one is stated, ‘to be left at the Jamaica Coffee House London’ (Postal History Series)

Both these items were sent by the GPO’s Penny Post, after the government took over Dockwra’s service. It was also within this same coffee house that the Lloyd’s Insurance market was first established that is today one of the world’s largest insurance markets and still based just down the road from this coffee house.

Today, just yards from the blue plaque marking the site of the Lloyds coffee house is one of London’s many modern coffee houses, still a place of business meetings to this day.

– Chris Taft, Curator

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The London Penny Post. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The Lord Mayor’s Show 2010

The British Postal Museum & Archive are proud to announce that the 13th November 2010 will see one of the largest road vehicles in the BPMA collection, the Mobile Post Office GPO2 taking to the streets of London as part of the BPMA’s contribution to one of the longest established and best known annual events in London, the Lord Mayor’s Show. This contribution is in partnership with the Postal History Society who celebrate their 75th anniversary next year.

GPO publicity for the 1930s Mobile Post Office

GPO publicity for the 1930s Mobile Post Office

With over 6,000 participants, 200 vehicles, 21 carriages, 71 floats, 150 horses and 20 marching bands, the Lord Mayor’s Show is the largest parade of its kind with half a million people turning up to watch the parade and millions more watching on the BBC. It will provide the perfect opportunity to publicly showcase what we do here at the BPMA.

The parade will begin with a military flypast over Mansion House at 11am to celebrate the inaugural outing of the 683rd Lord Mayor of the City of London. The procession will then travel from Mansion House to St Paul’s Cathedral, where the new Lord Mayor is blessed by the Dean of St Paul’s before the procession carries on to the Royal Courts of Justice where the Lord Mayor swears an oath of allegiance to the sovereign before the Lord Chief Justice and Judges of the Queen’s Bench Division, as enshrined in the charter of King John (the original of which can be viewed at the Museum of London).

Ian Lider, Lord Mayor of London for the year 2008/9, waves from the State Coach on his way to swear loyalty to the Crown.

Ian Lider, Lord Mayor of London for the year 2008/9, waves from the State Coach on his way to swear loyalty to the Crown.

The procession then sets off at 1pm on the return journey along Victoria Embankment to Mansion House, where the newly sworn-in Lord Mayor arrives to be greeted by the City Aldermen and Livery Company Masters in their colourful gowns.

The day culminates in a fireworks extravaganza between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges on the Thames from 5pm.

If you would like to see an important piece of postal history make a striking addition to this historical event you can get a good view from anywhere on the processional route. For visitor advice, useful maps and timetables, tips on how to get to the parade and where to stand, details of the procession and lots of information about the history of the Show please see the Lord Mayor’s Show website.

Commemorative postcard

Handstamp created for use on the commemorative cover postcard based on the original GPO2 cancellation

Handstamp created for use on the commemorative cover postcard based on the original GPO2 cancellation

To celebrate taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show, the BPMA has developed a limited edition commemorative full colour postcard which features the 1930s GPO2 publicity image above. These postcards will travel in the parade onboard GPO2 and later be cancelled by a special handstamp created by Adrian Bradbury, based on the original GPO2 cancellation design. The postcard will also bear a specially designed GPO2 cachet and a 47p Blackfriars Bridge stamp (2002 issue).

Only 150 commemorative postcards will be produced and these can now be pre-ordered. Each postcard costs £3.99 and is available by telephoning 020 7239 5125 or sending a cheque made payable to Postal Heritage Services Limited to Product Sales, BPMA, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, London WC1X 0DL.

Walking Tours of GPO London

Our ever popular walking tours are running again this year, between May and September. Guided by our curators, these tours will visit the key postal history locations in the City of London, including former coaching inns, and the sites of early and important Post Offices buildings.

As part of London 2010: Festival of Stamps we will also be offering highlights walking tours, lasting half the length of our regular tours. The highlights tours will conclude at the Guildhall Art Gallery, enabling attendees to visit the exhibition Empire Mail: George V and the GPO. Full length tours lasting three hours will also run this year.

One key postal heritage location visited on the walking tour is the former site of the office of the Postmaster General in Lombard Street. In 1680 this was the only place in London at which mail could be posted. At this time there were only 77 workers employed by the Post Office in London, and only 316 Post Office staff in the entire country!

The courtyard of the General Post Office, London, 1700s

The courtyard of the General Post Office, London, 1700s

As the Post Office expanded and became an increasingly important institution, larger buildings were needed. In 1829 GPO Headquarters moved to St Martins-Le-Grand. Here the mail coaches for other parts of the country departed each night, a spectacle which drew crowds of curious onlookers, as documented by the artist James Pollard.

Mail coach and horses departing from the General Post Office white neoclassical building designed by Smirke and located in St Martins-le-Grand. Some boys run alongside, waving hats and hands. The men in the painting wear top hats.

The Royal Mail's departure from the General Post Office, London by James Pollard

In 1910 GPO Headquarters moved again, to King Edward Building on King Edward Street. This grand building had a façade of Portland stone and a 160 x 60 foot public office on the ground floor, which boasted a full-length mahogany counter and marble floors. Since 1997 this building has been the London home of Merrill Lynch, but the statue of postal reformer Rowland Hill still stands outside.

King Edward Building Public Office, 1947

King Edward Building Public Office, 1947

Walking Tours 2010

Extended Walking Tours
Saturday 8 May, 2-5pm
Sunday 5 September, 2-5pm

Highlights of GPO London Tours
Saturday 26 June, 2-3.30pm
Tuesday 13 July, 2-3.30pm

Booking details on our website

John Wornham Penfold and his pillar box

This year marks the death centenary of John Wornham Penfold, designer of probably Britain’s best loved pillar box. Penfold was born in Haslemere, Surrey on 3rd December 1828. He studied architecture and surveying, and was employed first by Charles Lee, before starting his own business.

J W Penfold

J W Penfold

Penfold rose to the top of his profession serving as President of the Architectural Association and becoming an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was also a founder member of the Institute of Surveyors, serving as its first Honourary Secretary (the Institute was later granted a Royal Charter, making it the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors).

In 1880 Penfold was appointed as a surveyor to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and re-designed the Jewin Street area in the City of London after it had been destroyed by a large fire (this area was again destroyed by bombs during World War 2 and is now the site of the Golden Lane Estate).

One of Penfold’s finest works was at the former Naval Training School in New Cross, South London. In 1890 the site was taken over by the Goldsmiths Company and was converted into a technical and recreational institute. Penfold modified the building to suit its new propose and enclosed the central courtyard to create a Great Hall. This site is now part of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Throughout his life Penfold regularly returned to his native Haslemere. He surveyed the local area when the railways came, rebuilt and expanded Haslemere parish church and surrounds, and designed other local buildings. But Penfold is best remembered for his work for the Post Office.

In 1866 Penfold submitted designs for a pillar box. The Post Office had been attempting to standardise letter boxes throughout the country for some time, and had produced a national standard, but this was found to be wanting. With Penfold’s box the Post Office again attempted to establish an enduring national standard.

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

Penfold’s box – or the Penfold, as it became known – combined simple design with functionality. Hexagonal in shape, it was adorned with acanthus leaves and balls, a far less ornate design than some of the elaborately decorative boxes which had come before it. But the cost of producing Penfolds was high, and a cheaper and plainer standard box was introduced 13 years later.

However, many of the features initiated with the Penfold boxes remain in use. Penfolds were produced in different size to accommodate different volumes of mail, as pillar boxes still are to this day, and Penfolds were also the first boxes to be manufactured in the new standard colour of red, in 1874.

Such is the popularity of Penfolds that the BPMA and Royal Mail frequently receive correspondence from members of the public who wish to see damaged boxes in their area repaired, rather than replaced with a new box. Some original Penfolds are considered so significant that they are listed, giving them special protection under the law.

Replica Penfolds, bearing the cipher of Queen Victoria, have also been produced. The first replica was produced in 1988 and was placed in the heritage era of Windsor. Another, installed in about 1990, is sited outside Penfold’s former home in Haslemere. Penfolds are the only letter boxes which Royal Mail has produced replicas of in this way.

J W Penfold also gave his name to the sidekick of 1980s cartoon character Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse and Penfold even lived in a pillar box on Baker Street, London, although their home was an ‘Anonymous’ Pillar Box, rather than a Penfold.

The BPMA holds four examples of Penfolds, three originals (two red, one green) and a replica. These can be inspected on our Museum Store Open Days.

J W Penfold died on 5th July 1909 and is buried in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere, which he designed. He remains the only British pillar box designer to have his box named after him.

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