Tag Archives: envelopes

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.

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.

Morten Collection Object of the Month: May 2010 – Stamps from Weimar Germany

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object 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) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

The Weimar Republic is the period in German history between the end of WWI and the coming to power of Hitler in 1933. Weimar society was characterised by great political instability, violence and strikes. There were eight elections in its short 15 year life span, and over 16 different political parties, including five different liberal parties, standing for parliament.

Inflation was extremely high due to an increase in money since the start of WWI and reparation payments agreed with the Allies (as part of the Treaty of Versailles) after the war ended. By 1923 the German Mark was practically worthless due to new credits that were taken out in order to continue making reparations payments and to provide social security benefits for striking workers. Compounding the problem was that due to the strike Germany had no goods to trade with.

In 1922, 1000 Marks was the highest bank note, but by 1923 the highest bank note was One Billion Marks. People would be paid daily and go shopping daily as money became worthless the next day. The crisis ended in November 1923 when Germany underwent currency reform and introduced the Rentenmark.

In our collection at Bruce Castle we have an example of how the German Post Office dealt with the inflation crisis. A window printed envelope from the Portugisisches Handeskontor in Hamburg from 1923 contains five 400 Mark stamps on the front, overprinted to valued them at 800,000 Marks, and twenty 100 Mark stamps on the reverse, overprinted to value them at 100,000 Marks.

Envelope from Weimar Germany with five 400 Mark stamps on the front overprinted to valued them at 800,000 Marks

Envelope from Weimar Germany with five 400 Mark stamps on the front overprinted to valued them at 800,000 Marks

Envelope from Weimar Germany with twenty 100 Mark stamps on the reverse, overprinted to value them at 100,000 Marks

Envelope from Weimar Germany with twenty 100 Mark stamps on the reverse, overprinted to value them at 100,000 Marks

Overprinting to change the value of stamps is not unique to Weimar Germany, it has happened in many other parts of the world, including some British colonies.

London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition

Last Saturday the London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition opened at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London.

Eagerly awaited by enthusiasts, and taking place just once every ten years, this 8-day stamp spectacular is one of the highlights of the London 2010 Festival of Stamps.

Royal Mail's stand at the London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition

Royal Mail's stand at the London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition

There is much to see (and buy!) at the show, with over 200 stand holders, including many foreign postal administrations, plus numerous societies represented.

The centre piece is the impressive Royal Mail stand, surmounted by two arches of giant stamps. Around the exterior of the stand is a display put together by the British Postal Museum & Archive with unique items from both our collections and the security printers Enschedé.

Half the display deals with the low value stamps of King George V’s reign, including the Downey head stamps – the first stamps of George V’s reign – and declared a ‘disaster’! The display includes dies, rollers and printing plates, including some for unissued stamps.

The intaglio printing plate used to print The King's Stamps, alongside some examples

The intaglio printing plate used to print The King's Stamps, alongside some examples

The other half of the display brings the story up to date with describing how the printers Enschedé produced the new 2010 stamps, based on the 1913 Seahorse and 1924 Wembley stamps.  This includes the actual intaglio printing plate.

Other things to look out for include the competitive displays. Over the 8 day show there will be 2400 frames of competitive exhibits on show. Each frame holds 16 stamp album sheets, so that’s a lot of stamps in total! There are many different entries on every conceivable subject, from the British Occupation stamp issues of Iraq (1917-1923) to ‘A Glimpse into the World of Beer’! The full list of entries can be seen here.

The world’s largest envelope

The world’s largest envelope

Hanging from the ceiling you might notice a large grey envelope. In fact it is officially the world’s largest envelope – sent by Stanley Gibbons to Brian Trotter, organiser of the show.

One of the rarest and most valuable stamps in the world is also on display; the only known example of a Swedish 3 skilling stamp inadvertently printed in yellow instead of green. It will be put up for auction after the exhibition.

The show lasts until Saturday 15 May.

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.

Greetings Telegrams

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist

Greetings telegrams were introduced in Great Britain on 24 July 1935; for the payment of an extra 3d (three pence) people could have their telegrams delivered on a specially illustrated form complete with a golden envelope.

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service: "A new way of saying Many Happy Returns"

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service (POST 104/15).

Greetings telegrams had already proved popular in other countries and they were an instant hit with the British public with nearly 25,000 telegrams being sent in the first week.

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service: "Send a Greetings Telegram"

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service (POST 104/15).

For the Post Office, greetings telegrams were a means of revitalising the telegraph service; according to E T Crutchley in his book ‘GPO’ (p140), it gave the service ‘a chance to play its part in the joyful occasions of life’, helping it to ‘dispel that atmosphere of dread and sorrow with which the telegram was so often surrounded in the past’.

In 1935 George V sent a message to the Postmaster General congratulating him on the 300th anniversary of the Post Office, he chose to send his message via the recently launched Greetings Telegram service on a form designed by Margaret Calkin James.  This message was reproduced and displayed in post offices around the country in order to advertise the service.

A reproduction of the greetings telegram sent by George V to the Postmaster General used as advertising in post offices.

A reproduction of the greetings telegram sent by George V to the Postmaster General used as advertising in post offices (POST 104/14).

The Post Office employed several key artists to produce telegrams; these included Frank Newbould, Claudia Freedman, Edward Ardizzone and Rex Whistler. Whistler designed the very first St Valentine’s day greetings telegram in February 1936; it proved popular and thereafter St Valentine’s day greetings telegrams were issued annually.

The St Valentine's day telegram is bordered with cherubs holding arrangements of leaves and fruits.

St Valentine’s day greetings telegram form 1936 designed by Rex Whistler (POST 104).

The Post Office also issued exhibition souvenir greetings telegrams.

A souvineer telegram from the Post Office Exhibition, Portsmouth & Southsea, 1936. The telegram has a thick blue border and a drawing of a telegram messanger boy aboard a motorcycle.

Souvenir greetings telegram from the Post Office Exhibition, Portsmouth & Southsea, 1936 (POST 104/26).

The telegram has a blue and red border featuring a Christmas tree and an image of a telegram messenger boy.

Souvenir greetings telegram from the Young People’s Post Office Exhibition (POST 104/26).

In 1937, Macdonald Gill was commissioned to produce a special telegram to celebrate the coronation of George VI. In 1953, this idea was used again when Harold Lynton Lamb designed a telegram to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II.

The telegram is bordered by the monarch's coat of arms, surrounded by official flowers of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland

George VI coronation telegram designed by Macdonald Gill, 1937 (POST 104).

Up until December 1940, greetings telegrams were delivered in a distinctive golden envelope, this colour was intended to emphasise the special nature of their contents. The outbreak of war necessitated the introduction of a new envelope, which was printed on white paper in blue to enable telegram delivery boys to read the addresses more easily during blackout periods.

Wartime exigencies brought about the suspension of the Greetings Telegram service on 30 April 1943; prior to this, economies had been made, with telegrams being issued in a more basic format to save on ink and paper.

The service was not reintroduced until November 1950 when the end of paper rationing saw the launch of a new greetings telegram form, designed by Claudia Freedman, together with a new yellow envelope, printed with red and black.

The return of the Greetings Telegram service was welcomed and the ensuing years saw designs by eminent artists such as, Eric Fraser, Balint Stephen Biro and John Strickland Goodall.

On 1 March 1957, in an attempt to boost usage of the service, a special ‘deluxe’ style of greetings telegram was introduced; this was a large folded card which came with a matching envelope, similar to a greetings card. The first of these, designed by Elizabeth Corsellis, was a wedding congratulations telegram, this was the first in a range of telegrams intended for specific occasions including birthdays and new births.

In 1982 the Inland Telegram service was axed by BT, although the Telemessaging service, which involved the sending of special occasion cards containing telephoned or telexed messages, continued to fulfil a similar function to the greetings telegram.

The book Bringers of Good Tidings by Ruth Artmonsky explores the Greetings Telegram is more detail. It is available now from our online shop.

Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms

If there is one man who can be said to have changed the face of the postal service forever it is Rowland Hill. Hill was a noted reformer in the Victorian era, pioneering pupil-focused mass education and working for the South Australian Colonisation Commission, but he also had an interest in the postal service. In 1837 he published and circulated the pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. During the 1830’s there were growing calls for postal reform and Hill’s pamphlet proved influential, ultimately leading to the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, in 1840.

A cross-written letter

A cross-written letter

Prior to 1840 the postal system was expensive, confusing and seen as corrupt. Letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender, and were charged according to the distance the letter had travelled and the number of sheets of paper it contained. As a result cross-writing, the practice of writing in different directions, was a common method of saving paper and money, and envelopes were rarely used.

For ordinary people the cost of receiving a letter was a significant part of the weekly wage. If you lived in London and your relatives had written to you from Edinburgh you would have to pay one shilling and one pence per page – more than the average worker earned in a day. Many letters were never delivered because their recipients could not afford them, losing the Post Office a great deal of money.

But while ordinary people scrimped and saved to use the postal system, many items, such as newspapers, were not subject to charge, and Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords had the right to frank and receive letters for free. Well-connected individuals could thus ask their MP to frank their mail for them, further reducing Post Office revenue.

After the Napoleonic Wars postage rates were high – a sly method of taxation – and there were many other anomalies and a number of local services with different charges. The system was ripe for reform.

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill’s solution was prepayment, and a uniform rate of one pence for all letters weighing up to one ounce. Hill made no mention of the method of prepayment but later proposed the use of stamped covers (an idea previously suggested by Charles Knight). At an official inquiry into the Post Office, Hill outlined his ideas further and suggested that “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash” be used. When the inquiry reported it recommended Hill’s plan to reduce postal charges and appended samples of stamped covers to the report.

The establishment of a parliamentary Select Committee chaired by fellow postal reform campaigner Robert Wallace followed, and at the same time a Mercantile Committee on postage was set up by merchants to campaign for lower postal rates. Rowland Hill was a member of the Mercantile Committee.

The Select Committee recommended Hill’s ideas in early 1839, but favoured a uniform rate of 2d. After public pressure was put on the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, the uniform rate was reduced to 1d, and on 15th August 1839 a bill was passed in favour of a universal penny post. The same bill abolished free franking and introduced prepayment in the form of stamped paper, stamped envelopes and labels.

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee the implementation of the bill and the uniform penny post was introduced on 10th January 1840. Covers, envelopes and the world’s first adhesive stamps, the Penny Black and Twopence Blue, were introduced in May 1840. The stamps quickly proved themselves to be most popular method of prepayment.

Rowland Hill’s idea for a universal penny post was quickly vindicated. The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically. The Post Office’s revenue was initially cut but with the increase in the number of letters it soon recovered.

Adhesive postage stamps were gradually introduced throughout the world and with the change to charging by weight, envelopes became normal for the first time. Hill’s brother Edwin invented a prototype envelope folding machine, enabling increased production to fulfil the growing demand.

The rapid increase in the use of the postal service is also partly credited with the development of the transport system, particularly the railways, and improved opportunities for businesses in the Victorian era and beyond. The lower charges also had wide social benefits and the increasingly literate working classes took full advantage of the now affordable postal system.

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Rowland Hill continued to influence the Post Office, becoming Secretary to the Postmaster General in 1846 and Secretary to the Post Office in 1854. During this period Hill established the Post Office Savings Bank, which encouraged more people to save, and introduced postcodes to London – essential in a city made up of lots of little villages all growing into each other, where streets in different parts of the city often had the same name.

Fittingly, Rowland Hill and his reforms have been celebrated on several postage stamps, including four stamps released to mark his death centenary in 1979, and the 1995 Communications stamps which commemorate the campaign for a universal penny post and the introduction of the Penny Black. Rowland Hill has also been honoured by three public statues and is buried in Westminster Abbey, a mark of how important his work was. There is also an awards scheme named after Hill for innovation, initiative and enterprise in the field of philately, and the Rowland Hill Fund, established in 1882, offers financial aid to past and present Royal Mail workers in times of need.

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

For more on postal history during the Victorian era please see our online exhibition Victorian Innovation.

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.