Tag Archives: civil service uniforms

Volunteer Flora and the ‘box of doom’

My name is Flora, and I’m an MA Museum Studies student at the University of Leicester. Over April, I spent some time at BPMA, helping to audit and pack objects in preparation for the move.

Flora auditing and packing the museum collection.

Flora auditing and packing the museum collection.

I spent most of the time at Freeling House, delving into the archive downstairs. This included badges, ties, postcards, letters, publicity leaflets, and lots of other things. The postcards were particularly interesting, especially trying to make out the messages on the back of some of them. Less fun was counting a large number of duplicate badges for disposal – the total was 666 (as well as a small saxophone badge and a clip that looked as if it was from a pair of dungarees), so I think that definitely qualifies as a ‘box of doom’. We also found an old sign ‘In Case of Alarm of Fire’, with separate instructions for male and female employees (women were supposed to file out in pairs – I wonder what happened if there was an odd number?!).

Two days a week were spent out at the Museum Store in Debden, which is home to the larger (and often more unusual) objects. I can’t quite decide on my favourite; it’s a tie between the model of the HMS Queen Mary (complete with tiny moving lifeboats), parts of the Travelling Post Office (including a water boiler and food heater), or the Post Office ‘L’ Plates – I had no idea that the Post Office used to teach their own drivers.

Model of the HMS Queen Mary.

Model of the HMS Queen Mary.

One day involved packing lots of vehicle parts, helpfully listed as ‘assorted unknown parts’; luckily, another volunteer with an extensive knowledge of cars was on hand to help us identify what we were actually packing. There were definitely a few more challenges out in Debden – lots of oddly shaped objects that, just as you thought you’d finally wrapped them up, would burst back through the acid-free tissue paper and make a bid for freedom. I also got to dust a couple of post boxes and post vans which was fun – leading to complaints from my mum about my reluctance to dust at home.

I also spent two days down in the corner of the archive checking the old uniforms for signs of moth activity. There were a few false alarms (including a set of disintegrating shoulder pads in one of the jackets), but luckily, no signs of infestation (I did find one jacket with a few worn patches, but decided that moths probably haven’t yet developed the intelligence to eat in a completely straight line!). The range of uniforms hiding in the corner was astounding: I found Danish uniforms (both town and country, and summer and winter – clearly the Danes like their uniforms), as well as Canadian and Swiss ones. There were also Foreign Office uniforms, from when the General Post Office won the contract to dress some departments of the Civil Service as well as their own employees. It was amazing (and slightly terrifying) to be touching fabric that was over one hundred years old in some cases, but it was all remarkably well preserved. I also never realised quite how heavy overcoats were, especially the thick woollen ones.

Flora condition checking the uniform collection.

Flora condition checking the uniform collection.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and it’s been a great introduction to the practical side of collections documentation and management (rule number one: the collections database CALM is anything but!). I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Emma and Sarah for putting up with me (and for the plentiful supply of tea, biscuits and occasional cake out at Debden!)

See our Volunteers page to find out about volunteering at BPMA.

Civil Uniform Collection

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections)

Searching the online catalogue you may have noticed an omission from The British Postal Museum & Archive’s collection; uniforms. This absence doesn’t mean The BPMA doesn’t hold such material; indeed we have about 1000 items such as ties, protective clothing, waistcoats, jackets, skirts and trousers to name but a few items.

A Postwoman's overcoat, 1918. The coat is dark blue with red detailing on the edges, gold buttons and T5 in gold on the collar.

Close up of Postwoman’s overcoat, 1918. This is an example of the first standard uniform for Postwomen. Before WW1 postwomen had only been supplied with waterproofs.

To rectify this, a project has recently begun to bring The BPMA’s uniform catalogue records up to date and review the collection with regard to our museum collection review policy and facilitate the decision as to what is to be accessioned (the formal, legal process of accepting an object into a museum collection) permanently into the collection. Once accessioned, the uniform records can then be uploaded onto the online catalogue.

While cataloguing the collection, photographic images of the vast majority of the collection have been created. This means digital images (such as the ones illustrating this blog) can accompany the online catalogue record making the collection more accessible to the public.

Postman’s long-sleeved waistcoat, 1908. The waistcoat is black with gold buttons. The sleeves are dark grey.

Postman’s long-sleeved waistcoat, 1908.

So far the project has unearthed a number of intriguing items including a Tangier postman’s uniform dated 1905-1914, Ministry of Civil Aviation uniforms and early experiments in acid resistant material. It has also unearthed what appears to be one of the earliest garments in the collection, a frock coat from the 1860s.

A red Mail guard's frock coat, with gold trim and buttons, and black collar, cuffs and pocket flaps.

Mail guard’s frock coat introduced as part of the new range of uniform of 1861. It retains Dr Merritt’s medical gussets for ventilation.

1861 marked the introduction of a new uniform for letter-carriers, mail-guards and drivers designed by the army contractors Tait Brothers & Co. These new uniform marked the change from red being the dominant colour in letter carriers uniform to dark blue.

Letter carriers uniform now consisted of a blue frock coat with a scarlet collar, cuffs, and facings with initials G.P.O. and wearer’s number underneath being embroidered in white on each sided. The waistcoat was made to match the coat in colour, facings, and buttons. The mail-driver’s frock coat was similar to the letter carrier’s, with the exception of a gold-lace trimming and gold-embroidered initials. The mail-guard’s coat retained the use of the fine scarlet cloth and is a double breasted frock, richly braided with gold lace; and the collar is blue with the initials G.P.O. embroidered in gold on each side. All the garments were fitted with the intriguingly titled Dr. Merritt’s medical gussets for ventilation.

Black and white engraving of three men wearing the new uniforms for letter-carriers, mail-drivers and guards

Illustration of the new uniform designed by Tait Brothers & Co for letter-carriers, mail-drivers and guards from The Illustrated London News, 29 December 1860 (POST 111/99).

This blog marks only the beginning of the project, but it is hoped that the resulting online collection will form an invaluable resource for researchers interested in the histories of civil service uniforms, postal history, buttons, gender and a host of other areas.