Tag Archives: empire air mail

International Archives Day 2010

In celebration of International Archives Day, Archivist Helen Dafter looks at our international collection.

The name British Postal Museum & Archive may not initially suggest an internationally focused collection, yet the British Post Office has a long history of transmitting and receiving mail from overseas. The records in our archive shed light on the development of international mail services and the British Post Office’s involvement with them.

A report to the Postmaster General on smuggling on packet boats

A report to the Postmaster General on smuggling on packet boats

An overseas mail service has been in operation in Britain since 1580 – pre dating the inception of Royal Mail as a public service – and in 1619 the position of Postmaster General for Foreign Parts was established, however the foreign mail service was fairly small in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At this time the only way of sending mail abroad was by ship.

By 1840 commercial shipping companies had begun to be contracted to carry post. The archive holds copies of the contracts awarded to these shipping companies in POST 51. We also hold a range of reports and minutes relating to the operation of packet ships. These include reports on smuggling (POST 39/2), and quarantine regulations (POST 29/264a). One of the ships licensed to carry mail was RMS Titanic, and the archive also holds blueprints of the ship, and telegrams relating to its sinking. These records reflect the conditions under which packet ships operated and how long it took for mail to reach foreign countries.

Poster: South and East African Air Mail - Make every day posting day

South and East African Air Mail - Make every day posting day, poster advertising airmail from 1937

In the twentieth century packet ships have gradually been replaced by airmail. The first overseas airmail was in 1918 and operated from Folkestone to Boulogne. In April 1924 Imperial Airways was established, initially handling air mail for Europe it later expanded to cover destinations further afield such as India, Singapore and Australia. Many of the destinations for airmail were countries within the British Empire and with this in mind the Empire Air Mail Scheme was established in 1937. This scheme aimed to carry all first class mail throughout the British Empire for 1½d per ½ ounce, with a charge of 1d for postcards. (More information about the history of airmail can be found in our information sheet. Records of the development and operation of overseas airmail can be found in POST 50.)

Clearly the operation of an international mail service involves many factors outside the control of the British Post Office. The effective transmission of mail overseas involves close cooperation with other postal administrations. POST 46 consists of Conventions and Articles of Agreement for overseas mail. It includes conventions for the execution of the treaty concerning the formation of The General Postal Union, or Universal Postal Union as it was later known (POST 46/57).

One difficulty with operating an international postal system is that events in other countries can significantly impact on the transmission of mail. The greatest disruption in often caused by war – the outbreak of hostilities can result in well established mail routes needing to be revised at short notice. Evidence of this can be seen in POST 56 (War and Civil Emergencies) as well as the registered files in POST 33 and POST 122.

Political difficulties can also disrupt the circulation of mail, for example in the 1960s the deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan resulted in difficulties with transmitting mail via these countries. The natural environment may also impact on the international postal system. Most recently this has been seen in the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, which in addition to stranding many holidaymakers also disrupted airmail services.

This gives just a taster of the international nature of the records held by The British Postal Museum & Archive. To find out more please consult our online catalogue: www.postalheritage.org.uk/catalogue.

Join us on Twitter to tweet about International Archives Day 2010 by using the hashtag #IAD10.

Selling the Air Mail service

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist (Cataloguing)

With the rapid development of Air Mail services from the 1920s onwards, the Post Office was faced with the challenge of marketing the concept to the British public. Brigadier General Sir Frederic Williamson, Director of Postal Services, summed up the problem in a lecture to the Post Office Telephone and Telegraph Society of London in November 1933 (POST 50/24, p 14): “the British user of the Postal service is extremely conservative” “it takes a long time and a considerable amount of persuasion to induce him to take up readily or on a large scale any new service” “what is essential in a new service such as this is to bring its advantages under the notice of those who are likely to use it”.

The question of appropriate publicity for the developing service was one of the major items for discussion by a specially appointed ‘Air Mail Committee’ at this time; as early as March 1930 Air Mail labels were issued in the three shilling stamp book, services were also advertised in a special leaflet and in the Post Office Daily List, but take up was slow.

Publicity ideas developed over time; a suggestion for the use of advertising posters on mail vans in December 1930 was dismissed as “undesirable” (POST 33/2912A file 16), but by 1933 a Post Office Circular dated 31 May (p 208) announced that a poster on the subject of air mail services was to be displayed on mail vans until the end of August (a copy of this poster can be found in POST 33/2912A file 22). The display of this poster tied in with the launch of a successful press campaign which helped to achieve a “growth of something like half a million Air Mail letters” (POST 50/24, p 14).

Building on this achievement, the newly formed Public Relations department produced a number of posters designed to sell the service, some of which can be seen in the exhibition: Designs on delivery: GPO posters from 1930 to 1960.
 
Brigadier General Sir Frederic Williamson suggested back in 1933 (POST 50/24, p 14) that it would be a good idea to “familiarise the youthful mind with the possibilities of air services”; accordingly two key posters from the 1930s were produced for use in schools. One of these formed part of a series on the theme of ‘Overseas Communications’, it shows airmails for the empire being loaded at Croydon in 1934 (PRD 142, POST 110/3174C).

Loading air mails for the Empire: Croydon 1934

Loading air mails for the Empire: Croydon 1934

The second displays a map of ‘Air Mail routes’ and was designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer in 1937 (PRD 146, POST 110/3177). 

Airmail routes

Airmail routes designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer

Kauffer was also responsible for designing a poster to be displayed in Post Offices in 1935; this poster emphasised the speed of the service (PRD 111, POST 110/2488).

Quickest Way by Air

Quickest Way by Air

Another poster introduced in this year, designed by Theyre Lee-Elliott, showed the upward trend in air mail traffic between the years 1927 and 1933 (PRD 78, POST 110/2487).

Into the Air

Into the Air

Posters for display on mail vans were also produced along with a series of leaflets publicising the expansion of available services; these were meant to further stimulate the appetite of a public, who were increasingly excited by the prospect of a more speedy service for their overseas mail.

Empire Air Mail Scheme

Empire Air Mail Scheme

Speed the Air Mails

Speed the Air Mails

South African Air Mail

South African Air Mail

Mails for East and South Africa, India, Malaya etc

Mails for East and South Africa, India, Malaya etc

Empire Air Mail Scheme

Empire Air Mail Scheme

Designs on Delivery
Well Gallery, London College of Communication
7th October to 4th November
Online Exhibition – FlickrArchives Hub –  The Guardian