Tag Archives: covers

A Curious Culture of Letter Writing

In December 2011, as some of you may remember, BPMA and the BBC produced a collaborative radio series entitled the People’s Post. One episode of that series focussed on the culture of letter writing. Ever since this episode I have been intrigued by this subject and the many different forms letters have taken, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Century. As a result I decided to delve into the BPMA collection to see whether a culture of letter writing was reflected in the objects and files in the collection.

On Thursday 20th June at 7pm I’ll be giving a talk in which I use objects from our collection as a basis to explore how postal reform helped the development of this culture of letter writing and sharing some of the weird and wonderful things I’ve discovered.

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Some of the broader themes I’ll be looking at are the introduction of the penny post, the development of envelopes and postcards, as well as the sending of cards for special occasions such as Christmas. I am by no means a postal historian and this is much more an introduction to some of the main changes in the 19th Century postal system and how these are reflected in the objects I’ve found within the BPMA’s collection and the social history they tell.

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

These objects range from various Curious Addresses – the name given to envelopes where the address is presented in a different format such as a poem or a picture; Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; the Express Delivery form used by suffragettes to post themselves as ‘human letters‘ and an account of a kitten being sent through the post as well as numerous postcards and letters.

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

Come along to the Phoenix Centre, London, on Thursday 20th June at 7pm to find out more…

– Emma Harper, Curator

See images from the Curious Culture of Letter Writing on Flickr.

Free post

From the early part of the 17th century through until 1840 when Rowland Hill’s new reforms turned the postal world on its head with cheap Universal Penny Postage, the Post Office had been blighted by a constant battle against people that strove to find ways and means by which they could send their mail “free of charge”.

As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, the root of the problem lay in the fact that in 1652, Members of Parliament granted themselves the right to send and receive their letters free.

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment, 1911-36 (2010-0383/19)

The abuse of this privilege grew at such an enormous pace it was soon totally out of control. By the early 1830’s it was estimated to cost the Post Office over £36,000 per annum but 30 years later the Surveyor’s report shows the annual cost of the frank to have risen to £140,000 per annum.

Many Acts of Parliament and proclamations were issued over the years to try and stem the abuse of the franking system but no sooner that one loophole was blocked, a way would be found around it. There were 4 main weaknesses:-

1) The need of an M.P.’s signature on the front of free letters, encouraged unscrupulous people to forge the signature if a genuine one was unobtainable.

This situation was allowed to continue until 1764 when the first Act of Parliament was issued to penalise those who carried out this offence. From now on, those found guilty were transported for a term of 7 years.

One such case is well documented in the BPMA Archives when in 1818, the Rev. Laurence Halloran D.D. was found guilty of forging the signature of William Garrow M.P. and was duly sentenced to 7 years transportation. William Garrow of course is the principal character in BBC 1’s current T.V. programme Garrow’s Law which features this brilliant Lawyer, Judge and M.P. of the 18th/19th century.

Whilst awaiting transportation in Newgate prison, Halloran wrote a book of poems claiming his innocence and in which he published memorials that he claimed were received from many illustrious persons who supported him in his distress.

Mr. Parkin, the Post Office Solicitor’s case papers are held in the Royal Mail Archive and make fascinating reading. They include copies taken from several dies that Halloran had forged of ordination certificates including his own. Halloran was obviously a clever and well-educated man but also a man that was capable of forging a signature to avoid the postage on a letter.

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

2) M.P.’s sold on their privilege to Companies that paid them handsomely for their postage rights.

They also handed out huge quantities of franked (signed) letter sheets to family and friends or to anyone from whom they needed a favour such as a vote. Instances are recorded where servant’s wages had been part-paid in franked letter-sheets, which when the recipient was unable to write, would be sold-on in the local tavern. It is known that some of these finished up in the hands of criminals and were converted into I.O.U.’s.

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

3) In 1712 Newspapers were taxed and later were allowed to travel free in the post, providing they bore the newspaper tax stamp.

This was a massive burden to the Post Office – newspapers were bulky and heavy and by the late 1830’s it was estimated that some 70% by weight of all mail was going “free”.

For many ordinary folk (maybe illiterate), just to receive a newspaper in a familiar hand was comforting and sufficient. It told them that loved ones were alive and thinking of them. Others (those that could read), would perhaps require a bit more news and might be disposed to conceal their letter within the newsprint. This was generally done by “ringing the letters” in pencil or “pricking out the letters” with a pin. The recipient, by writing down the letters as they appeared in sequence in the newsprint, could easily decipher the message. To write a letter within a newspaper was an unforgivable crime subject to the most severe penalty, but did a series of pin-pricks made in a newspaper, constitute writing a letter? A tricky job for the legal profession.

, 1839. (Postal History Series)”]Letter sent free to the Commander in Chief of the forces [he was allowed to receive all letters free], 1839. (Postal History Series)4). As with a newspaper, receipt of a letter was welcomed whether it could be afforded or not.

Some families that were parted had simple pre-arranged codes that they would build into the address panels of their letters. Perhaps a “doubled-crossed” tee would mean that all the family were well; perhaps an “under-lined” word or an extra name slipped into the address would impart some meaningful piece of news to the person reading the address panel. Having gleaned those little scraps of news about their loved ones, the recipient would simply hand back the letter to the carrier saying “Sorry, but I can’t afford it” and the long process of another “dead-letter” would begin. Dead-letters were both cumbersome and expensive to the Post Office.

– Mike Bament, Postal Historian

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

A Culture of Letters

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looked at the culture of letters that had arisen in Great Britain by the end of the 18th Century, with people from many different backgrounds writing letters for a variety of reasons. In this blog I hope to show how this culture continued to grow throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, illustrated by items from BPMA’s museum collection.

Quite a lot of letters in our collection are written by the Post Office rather than individuals; these deal with official matters such as examinations and appointments however even these still had a personal touch such as this letter informing Claude Kirby that:

it is practically certain you will be offered appointment as SC&T [Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist], as a result of the position which you took in the November 1935 examination.

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

It is often this type of letter that fulfils an official purpose which survive; however, the BPMA also has examples of the more personal, individual letters through which show how people began to share their observations with each other, and which marked the beginning of the instant communication revolution that has emerged in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Many of these more personal letters are love letters: this example is written by a Robert Abbott to his sweetheart Mary.

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

The hand drawn flower in the top left corner sets the scene as he goes on to talk tenderly about a number of things, including the approaching birthday of his sister who

had she been in this world, she would have been thirty-three. But she is more blessed in that state where ‘there is Time no longer’

The culture of letter writing allowed people to express their feelings in a more personal way than ever before; another letter from our collection is from a sailor serving on the HMS Grampus in 1846 to his father, in it he describes the funeral of a colleague.

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

For many, letter writing became more than just a method of communicating information, events or feelings; it was also a way of displaying their creativity as shown by the emergence of what is known as ‘curious addresses’.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

These are envelopes decorated by the sender with pictures, or short verses, often incorporating the address within the picture rather than writing it out in full and testing the knowledge of the postal staff in the process!

BPMA has quite a few curious addresses in the collection, including this particular example which was sent to a Vera Tolhurst on 11/11/1918 in honour of Armistice Day.

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Prior to the introduction of uniform penny postage in 1840 hardly any letters were sent in envelopes as they counted as an additional sheet and were charged as such. By 1855 however, it was estimated that 93% of domestic letters were sent in envelopes, allowing the development of curious addresses along with it. This is just one of many ways in which people across the country began to engage and react to changes in the postal service creating a real culture of letters.

There are many more items in the BPMA collection that show this culture of letters; see our Flickr set for larger versions of the items in this article, and look out for more blogs on this subject in the future.

– Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage A Culture of Letters. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Return to Sender

Each month we present an item from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) have been working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

This month, Bettina Trabant, the curator who worked on Bruce Castle’s postal history collection, chooses one of her favourite items…

As a qualified Curator I have worked in a variety of national, independent and specialist museums before coming to Bruce Castle. Prior to starting as Postal Heritage Officer, I wasn’t very aware of postal history at all. I had collected stamps as a child, but that hobby didn’t last very long as I only knew one other stamp collector, a boy from my school whom I didn’t like at all.

Since working at Bruce Castle I have developed a fascination for postal history and discovered the wide variety of topics that fall under its banner. Roads and travelling, art and design, labour history, military history, telephones, letter writing and Christmas are only some of the many themes.

Over the years the postal service has served as inspiration to artist, poets and musicians. Most notably Elvis Presley’s: ‘Return to Sender’ which became an instant hit.

A misaddressed airmail letter from 1941

A misaddressed airmail letter from 1941

Here at Bruce Castle we hold a large number of wrongly or strangely addressed envelopes and many bearing the ‘Return to Sender’ stamp. We have several envelopes that show a picture rather than a written address, including one of a large bull. Letters addressed solely to a town without a street are also very common.

The Post Office had a special section called ‘Dead Letter Office’ where it dealt with post that could not be delivered. Postal workers had to be very resourceful at times which caused the Post Office to produce a poster campaign advertising clear and correct addressing.

Mail from the moon

Amongst the many stand holders at the London 2010 International Stamp Exhibition are stamp dealers Buckingham Covers, who will be offering visitors the rare chance to view two special – and rather controversial – envelopes which have been to the moon.

None of the millions who watched the historic flight of Apollo 11 around the world knew that the spaceship contained more than just scientific equipment. Without official approval from NASA, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins each took a few special envelopes; Buzz Aldrin took 104, Neil Armstrong took 47 and Michael Collins took 63.

Apollo 11 cover, signed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins

Apollo 11 cover, signed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins

When the astronauts returned to earth all the envelopes were placed in quarantine, and have the special markings to prove it. The envelopes were also autographed by all three astronauts. As to how we can be so sure about the number of envelopes carried, these were noted by Aldrin on the paper bag in which the envelopes were handed in to be postmarked. Aldrin signed the bag, and recently it fetched £2,000.

The paper bag on which Buzz Aldrin listed how many covers had flow with each astronaut on Apollo 11

The paper bag on which Buzz Aldrin listed how many covers had flow with each astronaut on Apollo 11

Even more controversial were the covers flown on Apollo 15. Dave Scott and the rest of the crew took 398 envelopes to the Moon, many of them hidden in Scott’s space suit. These were later confiscated by NASA and remained in their possession for a number of years, until NASA themselves flew first day covers for the US Postal Service. Dave Scott sued for the return of his covers and eventually won the case.

One of the controversial Apollo 15 covers

One of the controversial Apollo 15 covers

All three of the Apollo 15 astronauts later signed an affidavit stating that the covers had been flown to the Moon.

Affidavit signed by the Apollo 15 astronauts

The affidavit signed by the Apollo 15 astronauts

There is more about the Apollo 15 covers controversy on Wikipedia.

Two Apollo covers will be on display at Buckingham Covers, stand 110 at the International Stamp Exhibition at the Business Design Centre in Islington, from 8-15th May.

Ten Collections – One Collector

A social-thematic philatelic display and talk by Dane Garrod

There are so very many themes, countries and periods that any philatelist, stamp-collector, or even social historian, can collect and research, that we are spoilt for choice.  One can marvel at those who are determined to place all their energies and time in having interest in just one area or theme.  However, diversity brings its own rewards by allowing a constant return to a collection that has been temporarily put aside, but to which one can return with fresh enthusiasm and retained knowledge.

My upcoming display and talk at the BPMA will cover ten such diverse collecting interests – there should be something for everyone here – and a brief resumé follows concerning some of what will be shown and alluded to.  Many will include stories of the people who shaped their time, and their country.

The unused 1kr orange of 1850

The unused 1kr orange of 1850

Austria – 19th and early 20th century: To begin, a very early stamp-issuing country in Europe, the first letter of the alphabet, and the first item is their first stamp from some 160 years ago – catalogued as S.G. No.1, it is the unused 1kr orange of 1850.  The sheets in this section continue with the design work of J.F. Renner, who designed all the stamps for Austria from mid-1919 to mid-1921.  Beautifully written-up in Gothic script, but not by this presenter.  Research has failed to find who this illustrious Austrian collector was, but he has left his philatelic legacy in this format. 

Avis de Réception – 21st century: Covers/envelopes from many countries requesting acknowledgement of receipt, with the returning cards prepared for despatch.  This began in the early 19th century in Austria, and spread worldwide in later years.  Now much in decline, it served as a procedure for confirming receipt of letter, package or parcel.  These items shown are from very recent years.

Avis de Réception cover and receipt from Syria

Avis de Réception cover and receipt from Syria

£1 George VI stamp from Kenya, Uganda & Tanganyika

£1 George VI stamp from Kenya, Uganda & Tanganyika

British Commonwealth – King George VI issues:  A display of covers and stamps, with stamps from Ceylon, Mauritius, and Kenya, Uganda & Tanganyika, as examples of diversity of design and colour shades.  The covers have stories to tell, which is revealed in the PowerPoint display.

Germany – The Third Reich:  With additional supporting items such as a postcard from the set sold on the ill-fated Hindenburg airship, and a voting slip for the 1932 Presidential election, the philatelic material includes stories and examples of a forged German postcard, a Red Cross transmitted item from occupied Guernsey, and the use of the Olympic Stadium postmark of 1936.

A cover sent in 1938 from Stuttgart

A cover sent in 1938 from Stuttgart

Great Britain – Parliamentary:  One of the oldest item shown in this display was written by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, dated 1714 – her parliamentary involvement is well known.  There is an envelope and letter to Willy Sax in Zurich, paint supplier to Churchill – items connected with John Stonehouse and with David Cameron (not to be mentioned together, of course) –  and part of an undated petition to Parliament from the Lady Howard and her daughters, which would have been transmitted by messenger at some date in perhaps the late 1500s.

Christmas card from David and Samantha Cameron, 2004

2004 Christmas card from the current leader of the Conversative party David Cameron and his wife Samantha.

WWI Prisoner of War mail to Kopenhagen:  World War One prisoner-of-war envelopes/covers, despatched to the Danish Red Cross in Kopenhagen, from Russian prisoners in Germany or Poland.  They show the full details of the sender, prison camp, and even the barrack block, and would have contained letters in cyrillic that were sent onwards to their families and loved ones.  The display shows how the covers changed in their pre-printing over the five years of use.

World War One prisoner-of-war mail

World War One prisoner-of-war mail

Revenues:  A field of collecting now returning with a measure of revival in recent years.  Shown are Saar revenue stamps, and British revenue items including vehicle tax discs from the 1950s, a TV licence when it was just £3, and various Motor Ration Books from the 1973 oil crisis – prepared and issued, but fortunately not required.

A TV licence issued in 1960

A TV licence issued in 1960

Württemberg – Stuttgart Privat Post & other stories:  One of the highlights in this section is the postal stationery produced by Wilhelm Leopold for Stuttgart city post from 1888, in competition with the official German post.  Leopold’s attractive postcards were popular with the city inhabitants who were prepared to pay 3 pfennig for them instead of the usual 2 pfennig. When the German postal authorities decided to increase their rate to 3 pfennig, Leopold reduced his to 2 pfennig!

Stuttgart Privat Post postcard

Stuttgart Privat Post postcard

British Commonwealth – Queen Elizabeth II issues:  Mint stamps from Gambia, Sierra Leone and Swaziland are featured, the last two countries showing the use, or even over-use, of overprints on definitives sets.  A few covers to compete this section, including an air-mail letter from independent Rhodesia that was surcharged upon entry to Britain, as the Rhodesian independence was declared illegal.

A surcharged air-mail letter from independent Rhodesia

A surcharged air-mail letter from independent Rhodesia

Great Britain – Social/Open class & other stories:  Perhaps the most interesting and diverse area of philatelic and related material, most with a story to tell.  Included are items from a forced 5-year honeymoon, begun in June 1940 in Guernsey – a letter-card from the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic – hand-drawn Edwardian covers – and finally, a much-loved acrostic.   If like the writer originally was, you are unsure what an acrostic is, then I urge you to come to this PowerPoint talk and display on 22nd April and enjoy being well-informed and much entertained…

British prisoner of war post from Germany

British prisoner of war post from Germany

Dane Garrod will speak at the BPMA on 22nd April. For further information and booking details please visit our website.

Valued volunteer and postal historian retires

Recently one of our most highly valued volunteers, Mike Bament, retired, hanging up his tweezers for the last time. Mike has been volunteering at the BPMA for more than 20 years and is also a well-known postal historian.

This is the earliest recorded example of a mileage mark, 65 ARUNDEL, struck on a letter sent to Horsham in Sussex on 1st October 1784. The BB stands for By-Bag.

This is the earliest recorded example of a mileage mark, 65 ARUNDEL, struck on a letter sent to Horsham in Sussex on 1st October 1784. The BB stands for By-Bag.

The study of postal markings is often called “postal history”. Postal markings include datestamps, rate markings and indications of the origin, route and arrival of mail. With more modern mail they also show evidence of automatic cancelling and sorting. The BPMA’s extensive collections cover all these, as well as more than 200 albums dating from before and after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamp in 1840, including entire letters, covers, envelopes, postcards and postal stationery.

Before the advent of airmail all British mail going abroad, and coming from abroad, had to travel by sea. The earliest known handstamps were not recorded until early in the eighteenth century when the first handstruck stamps were issued by the General Post Office indicating that mail had arrived by sea.

A letter sent from Liverpool to New York in 1841

A letter sent “pr Britannia” from Liverpool to New York on 19th April 1841. The postage was ‘PAID AT / LIVERPOOL’ where the BCC type 60 framed handstamp with chamfered corners and dated was struck in red. This type of handstamp is found on some maritime mail from about 1840 to 1850.

One of Mike Bament’s recent projects has been to compile postal history material, which have then been digitised for the BPMA website, making them accessible to more people.

The latest listings went online recently and consist of four postal reform listings: Ship Letters, India Letters, ‘Paid at’ Stamps and Postal Reform. This is a continuation of the project which saw postal history items for the listings Penny Posts (including 5th Clause Posts), Mileage Marks and Missent Marks go online early last year.

Mike Bament has contributed invaluable work to the BPMA throughout the years, and he will be greatly missed. His work has and will continue to increase access to BPMA’s unique collections, and will be of great benefit to postal historians researching these subjects.

Would you like to volunteer at the BPMA? Visit http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/support/volunteer/ to find out more.

Update to the BPMA’s online catalogue

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

The BPMA’s online catalogue was updated on Friday 27th February. This update didn’t include huge amounts of material, just an extra 765 records, bringing the total available to 74,426. It did include some significant additions, however.

The first significant addition is a record for the Postal History Collection. The term Postal History is often applied to the study of postal markings and the collection includes approximately 200 albums of material, comprising letters, covers, envelopes, postcards and postal stationery, dating from before and after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamp in 1840. The collection has prompted significant amounts of research and this has been compiled into detailed lists which we’re making into downloadable pdfs. The pdfs can be found by following the hyperlinks on the catalogue record for the Postal History Collection. The lists are being loaded onto the website in tranches; the first four available are for provincial penny post, 5th clause, mileage and missent and misdirected mail marks. This represents a considerable amount of work from our dedicated group of volunteers who give freely both their time and their knowledge, for which we are grateful.

British Empire Exhibition 1925: 1½d letterpress die

We’ve also added photographs to the records of dies, plates and rollers found in our philatelic holdings of King George V Commemorative issues. For the first time, members of the public can see the original printing objects that were manufactured to create these stamps.

Additionally, new members of our cataloguing team have been busy cataloguing Christmas cards and material returned from loan by the Museum of London, and we also have some additional public records from The Royal Mail Archive available in the form of POST 73: Regional Administration and Operations and POST 122: Post Office: Registered Files: Minuted and Decentralised Registry Papers.

Catalogue updates can often take several hours to process and sometimes things go wrong. Last week’s update included the unintended addition of approximately 30 blank war memorial records. These will be taken off at the next update. In the meantime, if you spot anything unusual or that you think is an error then please get in touch with us directly. There is a feedback button on the catalogue for you to contact us.