Tag Archives: #explorearchives

Meet the Staff: Archivist (Cataloguing) Matt Tantony

My name’s Matt, and I’m an archivist. You may remember my blog posts and tweets from 2013-14. I’m thrilled to say that I’ve rejoined the BPMA after fifteen months away. I’ve been here since early September and there’s so much to do!

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

My work as an archivist is really varied. You can sometimes see me helping researchers in our Search Room as the archivist on duty, and I’ll once again be bringing you posts on this blog to show you new discoveries and curiosities from our collections. Behind the scenes, I spend every Monday helping my colleagues with the giant task of preparing to move the Archive to The Postal Museum. But my main focus is on cataloguing: I’ll be aiming to catalogue hundreds of records from the Archive over the coming months.

My first cataloguing assignment was the overseas mail letter books. This somewhat mysterious POST class (number 48, to be precise), hasn’t fully been publicly available until now. Several people have worked on it before me, including my illustrious predecessor Anna.

What are the letter books? Well, they’re official records containing copies of correspondence, mostly sent from the Secretary to the Post Office to various recipients including postal agents, other countries’ postal administrations, and shipping companies involved in overseas mail. The date range is vast: from the early 18th century to the 1950s. Many of the letter books deal with postal arrangements for then-British colonies and territories, from the large (Canada) to the small (the Turks Islands). Fortunately, most of the volumes have helpful indexes:

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

As you might expect, the subject matter is minutely detailed and often financial or logistical in nature. A packet ship inspection here, a surcharge on parcels there. Newfangled developments in telegraphy in one letter, a shipping contract renegotiation in the next. But amidst the day-to-day technicalities of international post, you inevitably find world events, such as this Post Office letter about the sinking of the Titanic:

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

The mails went between nations – or at least attempted to – in the face of sea disasters, technology shifts, political intrigues, and wars, both civil and international. For example, here’s a 1774 letter from Post Office Secretary Anthony Todd, firing none other than Benjamin Franklin from the job of Britain’s Deputy Postmaster in America:

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Of course, the American War of Independence began the following year. Later in the very same book are rather friendlier letters from Todd to Franklin, who was now the United States Postmaster General.

The overseas mail letter books are a tricky resource to use (and to catalogue!). The range of subjects is huge, and you may need to cross-reference with other bits of the Archive to get a clear picture of what’s being discussed. There’s also 350 years of changing handwriting to negotiate, and multiple languages including French and Arabic. But they have lots of value and interest as a staggeringly detailed picture of global communication, and they’ll be joining our online catalogue soon.

Catch you in a few weeks with my next discoveries in the Archive!

– Matt Tantony, Archivist (Cataloguing)

Favourite archive item: the Great Train Robbery

For our final blog for Explore Your Archives week Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager tells us about his favourite item from the archive, which, as you probably know from Head of Archives Vicky’s blog earlier this week, is no easy task!

When asked to pick my favourite object I (eventually) chose a Great Train Robbery file in part because I have worked  with it a lot so know it well but also because I feel it’s something people are surprised to find out we have. Although the train in question was a Travelling Post Office people don’t always associate the incident with the postal service. This particular file  is the main investigation report compiled by the Post Office’s own police force, the Investigation Branch (IB), into the infamous August 1963 robbery.

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Most of the file is made up of an in depth 40 page account of the robbery, investigation and subsequent trial, prepared by IB Assistant Controller Richard F Yates in May 1964, nine months after the robbery took place.

The file also includes schedules of arrests and prosecutions, a ‘confidential list of 28 suspects given to the IB by the Police’, memoranda, correspondence, details of the attempts to locate missing suspects, press cuttings, and a police poster showing wanted suspects. It also has snippets of people’s personal experiences of the incident and investigation such as that in the image below where Yates starts his report with an indication of how he became involved with the investigation.

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Yates’ in depth report details key events in the investigation including establishing the amount of money stolen, the journey on the night of the robbery, the systematic search of the Cheddington area, the discovery of the robbers hideout at Letaherslade Farm, and the subsequent arrests of the suspected robbers. It also includes notes on how the investigation was conducted, on page 10 he explains: ‘The extensive publicity given to this case inevitably produced an enormous amount of inaccurate and bogus information and this had to be examined with more than the normal care having regard to the seriousness of the offence.’

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Despite the investigation coming to an end around 1970 this year, over 50 years after the incident took place, there was interesting development. Gordon Goody, regarded as the mastermind of the robbery, unveiled Patrick McKenna as the Ulsterman . McKenna’s name is glaringly absent from all the files we have at the BPMA. Despite the Sun suggesting last year that the IB’s chief suspect was a ‘Thomas’ O’Reilly, our records show that they and Tommy Butler quickly dismissed him as a possibility: ‘[Butler] does not consider, however, that any useful purpose would be served by questioning [James Patrick] REILLY [incorrectly identified by the Sun as a railwayman]’.

I like this file for several reasons. It shows how the investigation developed over time, what the Post Office considered important at the time (Ronnie Biggs, subsequently the most famous of the robbers, being merely a footnote), and how they continued investigating and observing behavior for many years after the robbery. It demonstrates complex, messy history as it is happened and developed. Given that it was written almost a year after the robbery it is an exaggeration to call Yates’ report the first draft of history but draft it is, complete with amendments and footnotes based on subsequent knowledge. There is no neat ending simply a petering out as the last of the robbers Bruce Reynolds was caught in 1968, Biggs remained a missing fugitive, the driver of the train Jack Mills died and some of the investigators involved retired.

This is just a snapshot of the contents of one of many files on the Great Train Robbery. You can find out more about the robbery itself and the investigation that followed from our online exhibition on Google Cultural Institute.

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Sending WWI Trench Cake

In today’s post for Explore Your Archives week, Archives and Records Assistant Penny McMahon shares the story of Trench Cake – a First World War recipe intended to be sent to troops on the front.

This summer members of the Great British Bake Off production asked us how much it would cost to send a trench cake to the front in 1916. I had no idea that cakes were sent to the front but it is a natural thing for family members to send cakes to loved ones, especially at Christmas.  It would have cost 1.s 4d to send a cake over 3lb between 7lb and would have cost 1s. 7d to send a cake between 7lb and 11lb.

No sellotape used - only brown paper and string!

No sellotape used – only brown paper and string!

The question intrigued several members of staff. We wanted to find out if we could still send a Trench Cake in the post and whether it would turn up in one piece. We carried out some research and found a notice detailing the packaging required to send food stuffs overseas from 1916. We also found a notice from 1918 asking members of the public not to send out Christmas cakes to men at the front. The notice went as far as to reassure the Great British public that the men serving oversees would be provided with a Christmas pudding.

We baked several cakes inline with an authentic recipe. The recipe has an interesting ingredients list. Presumably the cakes were made so that they’d be able travel, last well, and wouldn’t use too much rationed food. We packaged the cakes inline with the guidelines given on the notice. Then we posted the cakes to destinations including our own offices, to a cake baking competition in London (more on this later), Scotland and France.

Me with my Trench Cake before it was sent to Scotland.

Me with my Trench Cake before it was sent to Scotland.

I sent my cake to my brother in Scotland. It arrived in one piece the next day and he assures me that it tasted good.

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The Archive Services of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found a recipe from the Ministry of Foods Nutrition Collection and are having a cake baking competition. We have sent one of our efforts off to the competition so hopefully it will arrive safely. Our Head of Archives, Vicky Parkinson, is taking part in the judging. We’ll let you know via Twitter how we get on!

Trench cake sent from our office in Islington to our Clerkenwell Office. It arrived in one piece and we are enjoying it this morning!

Trench cake sent from our office in Islington to our Clerkenwell Office. It arrived in one piece and we are enjoying it this morning!

Favourite archive item: original poster artwork

For Explore Your Archive week, Head of Archives and Records Management Vicky Parkinson introduces her favourite item from our archive…well at least her favourite of the week!

“How do you feel about us filming a short ‘soundbite’ of you talking about ‘your favourite item’ while you are at the Conference next week?” started the email from the Head of Public Affairs at Archives and Records Association (ARA).

“Why not!” I thought, I can put my media training to use, and so I started to think about what my favourite item in the archive is. When you have around two and a half miles of shelving filled with archival material, dating back to 1636, it’s pretty hard to pick one item that’s your favourite.

POST 109/365.

POST 109/365

It’s actually quite hard to choose just one item from an archive. The very nature of archives means you tend to consider them as series, rather than individual items. How do you single out one volume from a run of volumes containing cash accounts from the 17th century or one staff handbook from a series that contains over 700 volumes?(Side note: I did seriously consider choosing a cash book; the handwriting is beautiful and they can tell you a lot, not just how much money went in and out of the post office in any given year)

So maybe I should choose a series first, perhaps something I enjoy showing people when I do a tour of the archive? No doubt as to what that is, I love showing people our posters. Most people have hazy preconceptions of what will be in our archive before they come on a tour, and it’s fun to challenge those. Regular readers of our blog will know that we love the posters and will use them wherever we can to illustrate articles. What’s not to love about a series of posters that starts at the golden age of public relations?

Each poster is stunning in its own right, together they show the development of so many things: the use of PR in the Post Office, the changing services it provided, the issues that were important to the organisation (you just have to look at how many Post Early for Christmas campaigns there have been to realise what a big issue it is for the postal service every year), the development of design and the move to computerised design in the 1980s, to name a few. Watching people’s eyes light up when I open the draws and start bringing out the bright colourful posters reminds me what an amazing job I have.

As amazing as the posters are I love the artwork for the posters even more. In this age of technology it’s easy to take design for granted, one look at poster artwork reminds you what an amazing skill the designers had. You can see every brush stroke, see the pencil lines drawn to help keep lettering straight, see where they’ve stuck additional bits on, where there were fiddly bits that would have ruined the picture if they’d tried to paint in on directly. Unfortunately they’re also rather fragile, much more fragile than the posters, which means that we can’t handle them too much and so I don’t look at them as frequently and don’t know them as well.

POST 109/364

POST 109/364

Just before the ARA conference I took an artist down to the posters to give him some ideas of what we had, so that he could start thinking about how to engage a class of children in a project we were working together on. It was whilst preparing for this visit that I came across a wonderful piece of poster artwork (POST 109/158) and had a true wow moment.

POST 109/158

POST 109/158

We don’t have the poster for this, so this was the first time I had come across it. The colours pop in real life, and the text is bold. One of these days I will find the time to look through the records relating to poster design and see what I can find out about the artwork, and the artist, but the poster artwork itself stands on its own without any accompanying information, and little information on the poster itself. It shows the story of the GPO in the mid-1930s, and using graphic designers, it challenges the old fashioned art establishment, illustrating the pioneering go-getting nature of the GPO with its deliciously sleek airmail planes.

Up close picture of artwork for a poster. Artist: Ronald Watson POST 109-158

Up close picture of artwork for a poster. Artist: Ronald Watson POST 109-158

Ask me again in a few months time and I may very well have a different favourite item in the archive, that’s the joy of having two miles and a half of shelving containing records that document 378 years of postal history!

-Vicky Parkinson, Head of Archives and Records Management

 

#ExploreArchive: What to expect next week

This year we’re once again taking part in the Explore Your Archive campaign. From 10-15 November organisations across the UK are taking part in the campaign to celebrate the UK’s archives and heritage. Penny McMahon, Archives and Records Assistant, tells us a little about what you can expect.

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All of the BPMA’s Explore Your Archive activity will take place via social media, so look out for #explorearchives on our Twitter and Facebook pages, and right here on our blog. Every member of the archive team has selected one of their favourite records from the collection. This includes original artwork, snippets about the Post Office using animals in its workforce and a first-hand account of the Great Train Robbery.

Here are some of the highlights:

On Monday 10 November, Director Adrian Steel will be taking over Twitter sharing what goes on behind the scenes in our archive and here at the BPMA.

On Thursday 13 November, Head of Cataloguing Gavin McGuffie will also be giving the public an opportunity to choose a box in the archive to investigate, in our ‘pick a shelf any shelf segment’. We will put up a list of shelf numbers alongside a photograph of the shelf and you can choose which box he’ll look at.

Lastly we have been hard at work in the kitchen recreating Trench Cake. Trench cake was devised as a way of sending a cake to loved ones on the Front that would travel and keep well, without using up too many precious rationed goods. I first learned of Trench Cake when a member of the Great British Bake Off production team asked us how much it would cost and how a cake would be packaged during the First World War.  We have baked several examples of the cakes, brought one in for staff at the BPMA, sent one to Scotland and one to France. Fingers crossed they arrive in one piece!  Look out for a follow up blog to see how we got on.

Do you want to have a go at trench cake? We’d love to see your attempts – tweet us your pictures and tell us how it tastes!

– Penny McMahon, Archives and Records Assistant