Tag Archives: Collection

New acquisitions

A few weeks ago we were very fortunate to have a visit from someone wishing to donate a group of material to the BPMA museum collection. The group of material related to a Thomas William Ernest May, the donor’s father. We have subsequently been able to trace something of his Post office service through the Archive records. May joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman and just a couple of years later, in 1913, was appointed as a Sorter at North District Office in Islington, very quickly transferring back to his old role as postman but at the North West District Office. Just one year later with the outbreak of the Great War as it was known, Thomas, like many other Post Office workers, joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles at the age of 20. He later returned to work at the Post Office, rising to the rank of Assistant Superintendent by the time of his death in 1953.

The objects donated to the BPMA relate both to May’s time in France with the Post Office Rifles as well as his Post Office work. Amongst these are several very personal objects, including a green leather bound pocket journal given to May before he embarked for France in 1915. It includes a map of Flanders, various helpful French and German phrases, a calendar for 1915 and different methods of working out your position in day and night: all to aid the soldier should he get lost or separated from his battalion. The journal itself is written by Thomas in pencil and covers his posting to France as well as his thoughts and feelings in the midst of campaigns on the front line. We are hoping to work on a project to scan and transcribe this journal to chart May’s time during the war, so do look out for that on this blog in the coming years, as well as many other items relating to the Centenary of the Great War.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

There are also photographs of May with other members of the Post Office Rifles, both in official uniformed shots as well as more informal photos of them with their brooms and rifles. May received the 1914-1915 Star Medal and the British War Medal, both campaign medals routinely given to those who served and they are also included within the collection as is the slightly more unusual Silver War Badge. The Silver War Badge was given to soldiers who had to return from the war due to injuries, the badge states ‘FOR KING AND EMPIRE SERVICES RENDERED’. It was to be worn on civilian clothing and was proof that they had been honourably discharged and meant they could avoid being given a white feather for supposedly shirking their duty.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

As previously mentioned, May returned work at the Post Office following his experiences in the war and the final object of this blog dates from 14 March 1929 when he was still at the North District Office. It is a large hand-illustrated card in the form of a postcard and shows a man pushing a child in a pram on the front in a street scene with a cinema and dancing hall in the background. The caption reads ‘You will have to cut all that out now! Daddy’ and features ‘Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes from NDO’ on the birth of his daughter, who has now generously donated these objects to BPMA.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

This is such a wonderful group of personal items relating to Thomas Ernest William May and we are very grateful to his daughter for donating them so that Thomas’ story can be added to the others told through our collection.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

New Acquisition: Sir Francis Freeling’s Certifying Seal

When an object is offered to the museum, there are certain things that are considered before it is formally accepted into the collection and accessioned. Is the object in good condition? Often materials can degrade not only causing damage to the object in question but sometimes threatening the condition of items already in the collection. BPMA already has a large collection and we try not to duplicate items too much. Sometimes having more than one of an object can be an advantage as it means we can display objects for longer, or still allow access for research whilst an original is on display. However, we must be careful to have a balanced collection that represents a wide breadth of stories. This brings me on to the final and perhaps most important thing to consider, does the object meet our Collecting Policy? In other words does it have a postal connection in the story it can tell and how it can enrich our knowledge and understanding of communication, past and present.

Recently we were offered an item that was in good condition, was not already represented in the collection and certainly has an interesting story to tell. This object was a Certifying Seal used by Sir Francis Freeling during his time as Secretary of the General Post Office. Sir Francis Freeling was Secretary of the Post Office from 1797 to 1836 and was one of the longest serving administrators of the Post Office in the 19th Century. Amongst other things, Freeling helped establish a system for recording minutes and reports, which forms the foundation on which today’s Royal Mail Archive is built.

Sir Francis Freeling’s Certifying Seal

Sir Francis Freeling’s Certifying Seal

This seal would have been used by Freeling to seal official correspondence. The main seal is made of a red ochre coloured material, possibly a sort of stone, whilst the handle has an embossed floral design. In the centre of the impression is the Royal coat of arms with a crown at the top. In three scrolls across the bottom of the coat of arms is inscribed ‘GENL. POST OFFICE’ and across the bottom appears the word ‘SECRETARY’.

Sir Francis Freeling’s Certifying Seal

Sir Francis Freeling’s Certifying Seal

Another thing to consider when an object enters the collection is its provenance: where it came from, who owned it. This certifying seal was kindly donated to the BPMA from the Talbot family who are connected to the Freeling family through the marriage of Charles Henry Waring and Lucy Freeling, the latter was the grand-daughter of Sir Francis Freeling. This kind of personal connection adds a personal touch to the story of the object.

Sir Francis Freeling was an important character in the history of the Post Office, it is for this reason that our current home, Freeling House, is named after him and we are therefore especially pleased to accept this item into the collection.

Emma Harper – Curator (Move Planning)

View items from the Royal Mail Archive and British Postal Museum collection in the Collections & Catalogue section of our website.

A Passion for Postcards

Writer and researcher Guy Atkins explores the intrigues of old postcards and why we like collecting them.

As a boy I was keen on collecting things, old keys, coins, stamps. I loved stamps. When I was about 14 a great aunt died. Relatives knew that I collected stamps and there were four original albums from the Edwardian era in her possession, as she was very old. They gave them to me. Because of the stamps on the back. But of course, they were all ha’penny greens. They were all the same. And then I looked at the cards and thought they were interesting. They were more interesting than the stamps! And so I looked into it, really. And I sort of refined them. Took out some of the ones that I wasn’t particularly interested in, and sold them. You could get two pence each for an old card. That was about 1971. And for some reason I kept back some cards done by an artist called A. R. Quinton who died in 1934…

– Peter Cove

Forty years after having “kept back” his first cards, Peter Cove now owns one of every postcard designed by the artist A. R. Quinton, and published by Salmon’s of Sevenoaks. That’s 2,350 cards.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

This time last year, I was writing a thesis on the intrigue of old postcards. Like Peter, I’m hooked on collecting them. And having read of his odyssey in Picture Postcard Monthly, I contacted Peter to see if I could interview him. I wanted to understand what it felt like to have finished a collection.

Brilliantly, he agreed. And invited me to his home near Dorchester. With his wife Sarah chatting to a friend in the kitchen, Peter poured the tea and we set about discussing our shared passion.

The details of Peter’s hunt were extraordinary: he told me of adverts he placed in French magazines to find a card of Dover that might have been sent to France; he explained how he’d buy cards he thought people with items on his “wanted list” might accept in exchange; and, lowering his voice for fear of Sarah overhearing, he spoke of visits to London markets where he’d spend hundreds of pounds.

Towards the end of the interview, Peter laid out some of his Quinton albums. With pride, he showed me the card that had brought his quest to an end: Salmon’s card no. 2986, picturing a railway line near Rhyl. He bought it for £300.

Picking it up, Peter described the card as “most uninteresting to most people”. One might have predicted this. The final card was always likely not to have been commercially successful when first sold, making it in short supply today. I was not prepared, however, for Peter’s ambivalence towards the rest of his collection:

“It’s something I liked years ago. And I started so I’ll finish. Do you know what I mean?… Now my tastes have changed. They’ve moved on to more sophisticated artwork…”

In my thesis, I wanted to see how Peter’s experiences stacked up against the ideas of academics who have written about collecting – in particular, the work of Jean Baudrillard and Susan Stewart. For Baudrillard, Peter’s serial motivation would be of little surprise. His apparent disregard for the cards’ aesthetic appeal tallies with Baudrillard’s observation that for collectors “what motivates the purchase is the pure imperative of association”.

Likewise, for Susan Stewart, Peter’s collection is not constructed by individual cards. Rather it comes to exist by how it is arranged. Stewart would argue that Peter’s ten heavy-duty albums are a kind of “Noah’s ark”, preserving items according to criteria selected by him.

Perhaps these charges are fair. But Peter unsettles other ideas of Baudrillard and Stewart. Take Baudrillard’s psychoanalytic portrait of collectors. He sees collectors as individuals struggling to form relationships with others, and using collecting as a way to withdraw from society. It is easy to match this template for collectors against fictional characters. Think of the terrifying Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’ The Collector, or Bruce Chatwin’s porcelain-obsessed Kasper Utz. Yet for Peter, being able to build relationships is at the core of his collecting. Rather than being estranged from society, Peter needed all his social skills to complete the Quinton series. It was his good relationships with dealers that allowed him to reach his goal. And while Peter is only one collector, empirical research on collecting suggests he is not unusual; collectors are not a markedly different group from the rest of the UK population.

Another strand of both Baudrillard and Stewart’s analyses Peter confounds is that collecting somehow abolishes time, that it is ‘anti-history’. For Stewart, “a collection replaces origin with classification”. This is an important part of her criticism of collecting as the “most abstract form of all consumption”. She believes it eradicates labour, making the moment of production remote.

It is true that Peter does not greatly value the artistic merits of Quinton’s work (“he was not a great artist!”) and the driver of his collecting was undoubtedly the completion of the series. But the origins of the cards matter. Ordered according to when the originals were painted, the cards in Peter’s albums provide a history of Quinton’s journey around Britain. Far from marginalizing Quinton’s labour, Peter and fellow members of the Salmon Study Group reveal it. Each year they visit sites he painted and compare the artwork on his cards with the views today.

So where does this leave us? Well, interviewing Peter and other collectors has made me wonder whether it’s time for a reversal in the portrayal of collecting, time for collecting to edge out from the shadows. Perhaps the motivations for collecting will always be private and mysterious. Maybe collectors do use the pursuit of objects to escape into their own worlds. But this should not stop us from recognizing the communal benefits of collecting. Alongside that drive to complete, stories emerge, histories are rescued and communities form.

I’ve finished my thesis now. But I’m keen to keep investigating. So if you’re a collector, I’d be delighted if you got in touch. Especially, if you’ve a story of something that has happened as a result of your collecting. Maybe you’ve uncovered an interesting history that would have otherwise been forgotten? Or become great friends with other collectors? If anything comes to mind, please do get in touch. My email address is guyatkins@gmail.com. Or write to Guy Atkins c/o BPMA, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, LONDON WC1X 0DL. I’ve also got a blog you can follow at www.postcardese.com or @postcardese on Twitter.

References:

Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting”, in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, (Reaktion Books, 1994)

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993)

Ask A Curator

On Wednesday three members of our Curatorial team will be taking over our Twitter account as part of Ask A Curator Day.

Our curators manage our existing collections and actively acquire new objects to add more detail to the story of the British postal service. The objects within our collection include letter boxes, stamps, postal vehicles, paintings, hand stamps, archive documents and much more.

The three curators tweeting will be:

11am-1pm – Sarah Jenkins, who works with our collections including the recently digitised lantern slides.

1-3pm – Chris Taft, our Senior Curator. He has recently been working on our Mail Rail project to preserve rolling stock from this fascinating underground railway.

3-5pm – Emma Harper, who is organising the curatorial aspects of our move to a new home at Calthorpe House, and has previously worked with the Wilkinson Collection of pillar box memorabilia.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

If you have any questions for our curators tweet them on @postalheritage this Wednesday. Don’t forget to include the hashtag #AskACurator.

The London Postal School

Regular readers of this blog will have seen our recent post about the digitised lantern slides of Foreign Postal Workers we recently added to Flickr. We have now added more digitised lantern slides to Flickr, this time related to the London Postal School (LPS).

'London Postal School. Postmens Retiring Room. Tea Time' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/13)

‘London Postal School. Postmens Retiring Room. Tea Time’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/13)

The London Postal School was, as the name suggests, the General Post Office’s training facility for postal workers. The School taught trainees how to perform a variety of tasks and functions, from serving on a Post Office counter to sorting and delivering the mail.

As in today’s workplace training sessions students at the London Postal School attended illustrated presentations related to their work, but this being the first half of the 20th Century the students viewed lantern slide shows rather than PowerPoint presentations. The slides from these shows are now part of our Museum Collection, and they give an interesting insight into postal operations of the period.

One lantern slide shows the Post Office branch at Charing Cross, which is described as “very old”. With its ornate exterior and cramped interior it is markedly less modern than the Post Offices at Kentish Town and Albemarle Street.

'London Postal School. Very old P.O. Charing Cross B.O. Exterior' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/17)

‘London Postal School. Very old P.O. Charing Cross B.O. Exterior’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/17)

There are also a number of slides showing airmail operations, then a new and groundbreaking mode of postal delivery, and some showing the mail bag exchange system used on the Travelling Post Offices, rail services on which mail was collected, sorted and dispatched on the move.

'London Postal School. T.P.O. Bags in Position. Net down' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049-27)

‘London Postal School. T.P.O. Bags in Position. Net down’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049-27)

Finally, there are a variety of slides showing sorting offices and the various technologies employed there such as chutes, the “Creeper” conveyor belt system (below), and the stamping machine and facing table. What the trainees made of all this we’ll never know!

'London Postal School. Mails being conveyed by ''Creeper'' from/ the Landing Stage to Customs Baggage Room' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/40)

‘London Postal School. Mails being conveyed by ”Creeper” from/ the Landing Stage to Customs Baggage Room’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/40)

Visit our Flickr site to see the London Postal School lantern slides.

Tours of The Royal Mail Archive

by Helen Dafter, Archivist 

With over 2.5 miles of records our archive is a treasure house of social, postal and design history. BPMA staff conduct several tours each year offering a friendly and informative introduction to our collections.

A tour is conducted around the Royal Mail Archive.

A tour is conducted around the Royal Mail Archive.

Items on display vary but generally include family history resources such as Post Office staff magazines and records on staff welfare, the records of the Post Office Investigations department (who dealt with criminal activities which involved the Post Office, such as the Great Train Robbery) and Treasury Letters (correspondence between the Treasury and the Post Office).

We also take visitors behind the scenes at the archive and in to our basement repository. This part of the visit includes a discussion of the environmental conditions required for the storage of archives. We also look at the security of the archive and the types of boxes and files used to store the materials.

Finally, we invite visitors to select and examine material in our registered file series. This series includes material on a wide range of topics, as random selection of just a few of the files illustrates.

The next Archive Tour takes place on 30 April. Tours last approximately one hour and places must be booked by 5.00pm on the day before the tour. To book a place please email info@postalheritage.org.uk or telephone 020 7239 2570. We hope to see you there.

Royal Mail Archive Tours 2009
30th April, 2.00-3.00pm
30th July, EVENT CANCELLED
29th October, 2.00-3.00pm

For the first time this year – Evening Tours!
28th May, 5.45-6.45pm
10th September, 5.45-6.45pm