Tag Archives: First World War

Dear Amie: Inspiring formerly trafficked women through postal uniforms

During the past two years our Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, has been developing our audiences in the run-up to opening The Postal Museum. Through engaging new groups we have been able to interpret our collection in new and exciting ways. We have created strong and sustainable bonds with formally under-represented groups who now see us and objects as relevant and of interest. In this post, Hannah shares what she has been up to with the Amies, a group of ten women who are survivors of trafficking.

Established in July 2014, delivered in collaboration with the October Gallery and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we engaged with the Amies over a 12 week period. The 10 ladies were originally brought together by PAN Arts, a London-based arts company, and The Poppy Project. This summer we built upon this project, working with the Amies and partnering with the October Gallery, The Mary Ward Centre and The Calthorpe Project. However, this time, we looked at postal uniforms throughout the ages, and used them as inspiration to make our own textile items. Through a series of images, we’ll share what we have been up to.

We started off the project looking at the various bags that have been used by postal workers over the centuries. Inspired by the telegram messenger bags, we made our own versions to practice simple sewing skills.

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

We developed our sewing skills at the Mary Ward Centre through making a bag with a zip using sewing machines. This got the whole group ready to tackle making a skirt, inspired by the post women’s uniform during the First World War. To make the skirt, we explored images from the collection and experimented with patterns, and had a fabric printed containing our favourite images.

Nanda cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

One of the women cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

Mani making her bag on the sewing machine

One of the women making her bag on the sewing machine

Asia and Paulina look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

The group look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

Mani shows us her ideas for a pattern

One of the women shows us her ideas for a pattern

Nanda works on sewing her skirt

One of the women works on sewing her skirt

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

Being able to build upon this project and working with these women has been an absolute joy. Seeing the women grow in confidence and help each other to learn new skills (both textile and life skills) whilst using our collection as a platform has been hugely worthwhile and humbling. Partnering with the October Gallery and The Mary Ward Centre has also enabled us to learn new skills from peers; invaluable as we continue to move forward developing our audiences for The Postal Museum. Next steps include planning our next project with the women at The Postal Museum and developing our first community inspired exhibition at our archive in Freeling House. Watch this space!

-Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

This project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

english_compact_pantone (1)

BPMA objects displayed in student-curated Time Tunnel exhibition

We recently loaned The Langley Academy in Slough a selection of objects from our First World War handling collection for a special Time Tunnel exhibition. The Langley Academy is the UK’s first school with specialist Museum Learning status.

The exhibition was curated by the Museum Club – students from Years 7, 8 and 11 with a shared passion for museums. The Time Tunnel exhibition spans 65 million years of history, starting at the dinosaurs and finishing at present day with some of our objects representing the First World War.

MuseumClub (4)

Sumaiya, Karam, Daniel, Komalpreet and Saba from Museum Club talk more about the exhibition below:

One Wednesday during Museum Club we skyped the British Postal Museum & Archive to hear about objects that they could loan us and decide what we wanted to borrow and how we could use it. Sally (Learning Officer) and Emma (Curator) explained what the objects were and information about them. We talked about the history of the objects that we wanted to borrow.

When the objects arrived we decided how we wanted to display them. We arranged the objects such as First World War postcards and a field telephone by theme.

Langley Academy Museum Club 1

Here’s what Karam and Saba had to say about the Time Tunnel exhibition:

‘Being a curator of Time Tunnel was one of the best experiences of my life. I learnt how to choose objects wisely’

(Karam)

‘Being a curator was very exciting. There was a lot of interesting objects from the museums. My favourite objects in the exhibition were the post box and the field telephone’

(Saba)

TEACHERS: Bring the story of the postal service at war to life in your classroom with Last Post the BPMA’s free downloadable digital First World War schools learning resource.

-Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer

The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelope: Case Closed

Regular readers may remember my blog, ‘The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelopes’, a beautiful story of communication via illustrated envelopes, which were sent to various members of the Tolhurst family. Since writing about the mystery, we’ve uncovered some exciting new pieces of the story. Image 7 After the blog was published, we quite quickly received an e-mail from a descendant of Charles Frederick Tolhurst, informing us that she was Vera Tolhurst’s niece, Frederick Charles Tolhurst’s granddaughter, and that she had found the BPMA’s Tolhurst blog when looking up the family surname on Google. We were, obviously, extremely excited and arranged a meeting. Image 3 When we met Tolhurst’s descendants, Brenda and Sandy, they brought with them a large collection of previously unknown of illustrated envelopes, which were made by Charles Frederick Tolhurst and sent to his son Reginald, their father. Reuniting the illustrated envelopes sent to Reginald with those sent to Vera, one appreciated the scale of the communication and the amount of time and effort put into this correspondence. Image 11 Years after sending mail art to his children, Charles Frederick Tolhurst sent illustrated envelopes to his grandchild. Themes of warfare are again depicted as the Second World War had by then broken out. The letters which accompany the illustrated envelopes are in the family’s collection, bringing us into direct contact with Charles Frederick Tolhurst’s voice for the first time. One such letter and illustrated envelope was sent on his granddaughter’s first birthday, in September 1939. The letter sends ‘many happy returns’ but hopes for happier birthdays ‘than the present one, because we are at war with Germany and you are away with your Dear Mother from home in consequence of the disturbing times that modern warfare brings. May happier days soon be with us.’ The accompanying illustrated envelope is far more solemn than those Tolhurst usually sent to children and depicts a mile stone engraved with ‘1 MILE’ and a sign post pointing to ‘LIFE’S JOURNEY’. Image 10 In May 1940, Tolhurst wrote to his granddaughter again of war, and sent the letter in an envelope which he had illustrated with grey tanks, aeroplanes and parachutes. He wrote “Not a happy looking envelope but in days to come, you will hear of people talking about the war at times they will mention those things on the envelope.” He goes on to say “no doubt when you reach the age of 21 you will consider [the envelopes] interesting.” It seems Tolhurst was hoping to capture his experience of warfare through his artwork, so that his family might remember and make sense of it in the future. Image 5 This family’s mail art story continues today as Charles Frederick’s granddaughter sends mail art to her friends and family – this is a family tradition of communication and illustration spanning over 100 years. Image 6 It was wonderful to meet the Tolhurst family, learn more about their story and close the mystery of the Tolhurst envelopes. -Joanna Espin, Curator

The Battle of Festubert: 100 year anniversary

The Post Office Rifles is an often forgotten battalion, formed largely of postal workers, that fought on the Western Front during the First World War, their story is one of the many that will be told in The Postal Museum. Our Head of Collections, Chris Taft, tells us about their first experiences on the Front Line.

In May 1915 the Second Battle of Artois was launched to try and push the German line eastwards and improve communications between Northern France and Paris. The campaign, which was to last over a month, would see many casualties and a number of smaller battles, including the first engagement for the Post Office Rifles.

Post Office Rifles Regiment

Post Office Rifles Regiment

The Post Office Rifles had been formed long before the outbreak of war in August 1914, fought in conflicts such as the Boer War. Recruitment to the 8th Battalion City of London Regiment, as they were officially known, was almost exclusively from men of the British Post Office and in March 1915 after months of training at home the battalion left for France. In May 1915 they moved close to the village of Festubert, located between Béthune and Lille, which at the time was on the Front Line.

Recruitment poster

Recruitment poster

On 9 May the main battle began with an attack by the British Army at Aubers in support of a French attack at Vimy Ridge. The attack was a failure and casualties were high. The battle however continued and further attacks on German positions were planned. The Post Office Rifles were to see their first action when, along with the 7th Battalion of the City of London Regiment, they were to attack the German line. One member of the Battalion involved in the battle, Thomas May, kept a diary of the events, which we hold here at the BPMA, and he recalls:

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

The battle dragged on: the Germans launched a counter-attack and the Post Office Rifles were now holding a front line trench position and were subjected to day after day of heavy bombardment which, combined with poor weather, created thick mud and appalling conditions as May records:  ‘Very heavy shelling of our trenches all the day and also it rained all the day’.

Some days of stalemate followed as the artillery bombardment continued for days on end in an attempt to weaken the German front line. Thomas May described the scene: ‘Most awful sights. Dead and wounded laying about … We all were gasping for water and food but could not obtain any.’

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

On 20 May the offensive was resumed and eventually the objective was captured by the British, but not without heavy casualties; in the Battle of Festubert alone over 16,000 British troops were killed. The Post Office Rifles lost over half their men as May’s diary records:

I must say that during the last few days we have lost nearly half the battalion also losing six officers and several suffering with slight wounds and nervous breakdowns. It was heartbreaking to see the boys return from the trenches, the boys were knocked to the wide, and some platoons who numbered about 61 men only about 14 left in some cases.

The Battle of Festubert was to be the Post Office Rifles first engagement, but there were many more in the following years of war. Festubert, however, remains synonymous with the Battalion and many of the dead from the battle are buried in the British Military Cemetery in the village, which is now officially called, the Post Office Rifles Cemetery.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania

As the First World War Centenary commemorations continue more and more stories of bravery and tragedy emerge. Some are well known such as the events on the battle fields, others such as the vital role played by the British postal service less so. Within The Postal Museum galleries these heartwarming and often tragic stories of how the General Post Office kept a world at war in touch will be revealed to the public. Our Archive Catalogue & Project Manager Gavin McGuffie looks at one such story.

One hundred years ago, on Friday 7 May 1915, the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland when almost home on a voyage from New York to Liverpool.

'WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

‘WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

The loss of 1,198 passengers and crew led to an international outcry, especially in Britain and the British Empire, as well as in the United States (128 of 139 US citizens on board died). The German government’s announcement almost two years later that having ended attacks on passenger ships it would again conduct full unrestricted submarine warfare was a major factor in persuading the United States to declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917.

RMS Lusitania had been holder of the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and briefly the world’s largest passenger ship. Launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, the Lusitania had the designation ‘Royal Mail Ship’ or ‘RMS’. This prefix dates back to 1840 and was used for seagoing vessels carrying post under contract to Royal Mail.

'LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

‘LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

Given that the main connection with the Post Office was the fact that the ship was carrying mail it is not surprising that the only file in The Royal Mail Archive entirely about the Lusitania concerns the loss of mail is entitled ‘SS Lusitania sunk May 1915. United States mails missing. Salvage and compensation claims’

It starts with a newspaper cutting from the day after reporting on the tragic event and a letter from Cunard expressing their gratitude for the Post Office’s sympathies.

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

The file goes on to reveal that the quantity of mail on Lusitania’s last voyage was not particularly large. She carried mail that had been especially endorsed for the Lusitania; the US liner New York, leaving about the same time, carried most of the European mail. According to a note in the file, 83 sacks of mail were dispatched on the ship containing 922 registered articles, about 47,000 unregistered letters and 1800 prints.

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

Following the sinking the Post Office received many enquiries about lost mail in particular relating to that with a financial value. One enquiry concerned four lost dispatches from the Governor of Bermuda to the Colonial Office sent in a weighted bag that would cause them to sink in case of disaster at sea.

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

Perhaps the most interesting story within the file relates to the small amount of mail salvaged. Originally believed to have been washed ashore at Castletownshend, County Cork, it was subsequently found that a mail basket including a parcel of diamonds was in fact picked up by John Hayes, skipper of the fishing boat ‘Pet’. Within our file is a water damaged bill of lading from the Lusitania which accompanied the parcels which were being returned to their senders on the ship.

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

Correspondence concerning this basket and Hayes’ desire to be properly rewarded for the salvage of the receptacle continued until 1922 involving a £10 reward as an ‘act of grace’ and even a question in the House of Commons.

The Lusitania was not the only mail ship to be sunk during the First World War. In October 1918 the RMS Leinster was torpedoed in the Irish Sea killing more than 500 including 21 postal workers, the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.

To find out more about the vital role played by the General Post Office and those who worked for it visit our online exhibition Last Post

My Favourite Object: Prosthetic Hand

Asking a Curator to choose their favourite object is like putting a kid in a sweet shop and then telling them they can only have one! In fact, some of you may remember that I shared my favourite object with you last year, a truncheon issued to Post Office employees before the Chartist riots of 1848. Today however my favourite object is a recent acquisition of a Postman’s Hand, which is not quite as sinister as it sounds, I promise!

IMG_7501

Prosthetic hand with letter

 

Besides all the pun based opportunities this object has provided (for the last few weeks I have been constantly asking my colleagues if they need a hand with anything…) it is actually a very important addition to the BPMA’s collection, as it reveals an often hidden aspect of history.

The hand in question is not a real one but is made of wood covered with leather and has an adaptor to fit it into the wrist unit of a prosthetic arm. Some of the earliest prosthetics in history were also made of wood and leather but this hand fits into the advanced development of prosthetic limbs that occurred after the Second World War to aid rehabilitation of the many soldiers who had limbs amputated as a result of the conflict.

Postman's hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

Postman’s hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

The Post Office as an employer has always made a concerted effort to advance employment opportunities for disabled people, including veterans, as has been shown in previous posts and this was particularly so after the Second World War. Hands like this were in use from the 1950s through to the 1970s – this example bears its date on it ‘4/11/64’ – and were designed to hold letters. What is particularly revolutionary about this object though is that it has a roller, or wheel, under the thumb which allowed one letter to be removed while still keeping grasp of the others. This enabled disabled employees to sort letters with greater ease and efficiency than with the previous, more basic, prosthetics. Feeling the hand it is quite heavy and it has made me think what it would have been like to use.

IMG_6797

Profile of hand

 

This object was kindly donated to us from the Limb Fitting Centre at the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, which was founded to care for soldiers wounded in the First World War, and has since become renowned as a limb fitting and amputee rehabilitation centre. They were able to tell us that the hand had been developed by Hugh Steeper Ltd, major manufacturers of prosthetics at the time. This was the only remaining postman’s hand at Roehampton and it was returned to them by a retiring postman in the early 1970s.

As you can see the BPMA’s collection is constantly developing and this object adds to our knowledge of an important part of our history which is relatively under-represented. It is fascinating objects such as this that will form the bedrock of the new Postal Museum but they are nothing without the stories of the people who used them. If you have a story to share please email us at peoplespost@postalheritage.org.uk and help us achieve our ambition of filling our brand new museum with the voices of real people. Thank you!

-Emma Harper, Curator

Daily Life at the Front Line: Thomas May Diary

Last month we introduced you to Thomas May, a member of the Post Office Rifles (PORs), who fought in the First World War 100 years ago.  Thomas’ diary is in BPMA’s collection and through it we can gain an insight into his personal experience of the war during his station in France in 1915. Histories of the First World War tend to focus on the action: the battles, the excitement and, of course, the horrors. However, there was another side, one full of parades, drills, inspections and endless marching. This daily drudgery is more than apparent throughout Thomas’ diary and will be the focus of today’s blog.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. Post Office Rifles changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Inspections and Exercises

Troops generally worked to a pattern of two days at ‘the front line’ in the trenches and two days at rest, in Thomas’ case usually in Bethune, a French mining town. These rest days were by no means peaceful however. Rising at 6am Thomas would frequently have to prepare kit and weapons for inspections. On Sunday 18 May, after the men had been in France for over a month, Thomas notes that it was the ‘first time I have ever paraded with rifle’. Two days later his morning consisted of ‘Rifle, Ammunition Inspection, Bayonet fighting exercises’. This is a stark reminder not only of the realities of warfare 100 years ago – where hand to hand combat was still a distinct possibility – but also of the relative inexperience of these young men.

Marching through the Land

Throughout the diary there are several days where May and the troops seem to spend most of the time marching, either because they were moving off to a new base or billet, or simply on a route march as on Wednesday 28 April: ‘Route march from 9.30am to 2.30pm. Distance 12 miles. Weather very hot and roads very bad for marching. Properly knocked on return.’

Whilst marching is the most common of any army exercise, as Thomas shows it could be tiring work, particularly in the hot French weather which these English men were far from used to.

The Jolly Old Weather

Unsurprisingly comments on the weather are frequent in this Englishman’s diary. In the first couple of months the weather was ‘very warm for marching’ as we have just seen, but May brought heavy rain. This coincided with a major offensive by the Post Office Rifles at Festubert, making for horrid conditions. On 17 May Thomas writes ‘Still it was raining and we were up to our necks in mud…wet through to the skin and covered in mud, also cut about in trying to get through the German barb wire.’

Taking a Bath

Hygiene was an important concern as these muddy, dirty conditions at the front meant fleas and lice were common, as well as more serious illnesses. Some of the billets also left something to be desired. On 23 April Thomas was billeted in ‘a dirty old barn. Inside the barn was rats, mice, chickens, ducks and one bull, but all the boys slept soundly’.  Thomas does not seem to have relished the opportunities for a bath however: ‘Paraded 5.50am for Bathing much to our disgust’.

Ensuring an entire Company of men stayed clean cannot have been an easy task however and on some occasions the activity seems to have taken most of the day:

‘Bathing parade at 9.30am after marching all round France found baths at 1.30pm. Allowed 10 mins for bath. Returned home at 5pm.’

Extracts such as this from the personal diaries of those who experienced the war first hand support the themes that came through the printed media of the time. A famous postcard designed for the officers and soldiers of the 4th Division was entitled ‘Fighting Fleas in Flanders’.

Action and Inaction

Daily life at the front was full of such frustrations and the dichotomy of being ready to spring into action at a moment’ s notice and waiting in this state for hours on end is a powerful one.

20 May : ‘Stood by ready to move off at a moment’s notice. But all orders were cancelled.’

Nights were often interrupted with ‘Stand to arms 2.0am’ and on occasion full night operations made for a long day: ‘Paraded 1-30pm for trench digging, home 6.15pm. Night operations. Paraded 10-30pm. Trench digging, home 3-15am next morning.’

On May 7 at 5pm Thomas ‘was ordered to dig dugouts in readiness for a bombardment. Wind up all round, and had to sleep with boots and putees on. Nothing occurred.’

Food and Drink

Thomas’ subtle wit can be seen throughout the diary as on May 16 he writes ‘Since the exciting evening of May 7th had nothing else but bullied beef and biscuits also no boots and puttees off’. Bullied beef and biscuits was the staple diet for the Rifles, and although Thomas complains about it, he also realised that sometimes a bland diet was a blessing. On 29 March after one of the first shellings that the PORs experienced May writes ‘For once had a good dinner, but was spoilt owing to the horrible sight’. On 4 May dinner was accompanied by ‘Plenty of Champagne because of leaving for trenches’ May tellingly puts in brackets after this ‘(Usual Occurrence)’. Alcohol was often used to try and lift morale and create cohesion between the men of the fighting unit as well as aid in the transition between extreme fighting situations and the ‘rest’ days. In contrast to the front, there were concerns back at home that alcohol was harming the productivity of war workers and thus the war effort.

These were some of the components that made up the daily life of Thomas May and his fellow Post Office Rifles while at the Front. It was often frustrating, boring and tiring yet, as we will see in the next blog, the preparation was vital if the Post Office Rifles were to be successful in their first major offensive, that of the Battle of Festubert in May 1915.

– Emma Harper, Curator