Tag Archives: General Post Office

Dear Santa: The History of Writing to Father Christmas

In this post, Archives Assistant Ashley March gives us a preview of his talk next Tuesday (1 December) at 7pm. Ashley has been delving through the BPMA’s files to explore how, with the Post Office’s help, Santa started writing back to children across the UK.

My adult interest in writing to Father Christmas started – as the best stories do – with an unexpected question. A couple had come to use our Search Room, and as one of them pored over pages and pages of pension records, looking for a trace of his great grandfather (or some other long-distant relative), the other shyly approached the desk and asked me, with a glint in her eye, ‘Do you know what happens to the letters to Santa?’


Christmas card from Santa, 1994

I can’t say the question had occurred to me before, and it was April at the time, so hardly festive. After only a little digging, however, we found a folder of research that others had done on the topic, packed with intriguing documents. A surprise to me – the first ‘letter from Santa’ the Post Office sent wasn’t safe and traditional in design, but rather bold and stylish:

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

Letter from Santa 1963









A press release dated 21st December 1963 explained that for the first time, ‘children who had sent letters to Father Christmas in Snowland, Reindeerland, Toyland, etc., and who had put their addresses on their letters, would receive a message from Father Christmas.’ Around 7,500 of the cards pictured were sent, with a special postmark:

Reindeerland postmark 1963

Reindeerland postmark 1963

It turns out we have quite a few files dedicated to Santa mail, back then and since. Looking through the titles, my head filled with questions: Why start sending Santa’s replies at that time? Why the Post Office? And who decided what Santa could send? We take it for granted today that Father Christmas writes back to any of us (if, all importantly, we supply a return address), but we should remember that it might not have turned out this way.

Different ideas had been floated: one manager suggested sending a record featuring Santa’s voice as ‘even more attractive and in keeping with the times than a letter’, and below you can see a charmingly rustic mock-up of a colouring book that Santa might have sent if writers had been asked to pay for his reply:

Proposed Santa colouring book

Proposed Santa colouring book

It might have been made in a hurry!

It was possibly made in a hurry!








Rummaging around in our repository, I’ve unearthed a great selection of stories like this to share, so please join me if you can. Did I mention that there will be mulled wine?

-Ashley March, Archives Assistant

Join Ashley next Tuesday 1 December at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Seals, Seas and Ancestries: A Remarkable Postal Family History

One of the things we often get asked, as keepers of the Royal Mail Archive, is what we can tell people about their relatives who worked for the Post Office.

‘What did my father do?’
‘When did my grandma work in this city?’
‘My great uncle says he whizzed around on a motorbike delivering telegrams when he was just a teenager – could this be true?’

Telegram Messenger Boy

Telegram Messenger Boy

We don’t always hold the answers, but when we do, it’s a wonderful feeling helping others to understand the lives of their loved ones.

Every so often, someone contacts us to look further back in time – to add a ‘great’ (or three) to the usual enquiries about parents or grandparents. As someone with the bug myself, I fully understand this; researching your family history can be highly addictive and it can turn up some great stories.

Section of a Post Office Appointments Book

Unfortunately the records can be difficult. We have a standard set that we search for our Family History Research Service, but the further back in time you look, the harder it can be to find particular people. So, when a request came in to research a man called Edward Randall Pascoe, born in 1779, I was worried that we wouldn’t find much to get our teeth into. As a further challenge, we were asked if we could find the cause of Edward’s death, when he was just 42 years of age. Could we help at all?

Poster of Mail for the Packet Ships

Poster showing Mails for the Packets arriving at Falmouth in 1833 by Harold Sandys Williamson

Edward Randall Pascoe, it turns out, was a packet boat captain. Our enquirer, married to one of Edward’s descendants, already knew this, as they had found a mention of him becoming Commander of a ship called the Mansfield in our Appointment records (handily digitised by www.ancestry.co.uk). By that time, April 1821, packet boats had been carrying Post Office mail across the sea for over a hundred years, and Edward’s task on the Mansfield was to see the post safely from Milford Haven, Wales, to Waterford, Ireland, and vice-versa.

Since our enquirer knew this already, we agreed to work differently from our usual service, to hunt for something useful. Searching our catalogue, I was excited to learn we held a record of the Mansfield dated 1 August 1821 – only a few months after Edward gained command of the ship – in a box of ‘Bills of Sale’. I unfolded it very carefully and read that ‘Edward Randall Pascoe of Milford in the country of Pembroke, Mariner, and William Molland of Dover in the county of Kent, Gentleman,’ agreed to buy the Countess of Mansfield from the Postmaster General for ‘one thousand eight hundred and forty pounds eight shillings and six pence,’ as long as Edward still carried the mail.

It described the vessel – ‘a square sterned Cutter’, ‘British built’ – in great detail, but best of all, lying at the bottom of the page, Mr Pascoe had placed his personal seal in wax and signed his name. A trace of the man himself! A rare find indeed.

Signature and Seal belonging to Edward Randall Pascoe Crop

Signature and Seal belonging to Edward Randall Pascoe

Further appointment records showed that Mr Pascoe later captained a Steam Packet (a steam-powered, mail-carrying ship, which gradually took over the trade from 1815) at Port Patrick, Scotland. Our enquirer could fill in one blank – that business partner William Molland was in fact Edward’s father-in-law – but what about the captain’s sad death in 1827? I could not find a record of a Death Gratuity, a kind of compensation payment for those killed in service, so it seemed that his fate would remain a mystery.

As luck would have it, however, I discovered that we had been asked about Mr Pascoe a few years before by another of his descendants, who had in fact written a book about his family. I got in touch with her and she completed the story: taking a ship to Holyhead, Wales, for repair, Edward was injured at sea, and died of a fever shortly after completing the crossing.

Steam Packet

Painting of the SS Great Britain Steamship

We were able to put these two researchers (and distant relatives) in touch with each other for the first time, and they have been able to enjoy sharing their discoveries. I wonder what Edward Randall Pascoe would make of it all!

While it’s a sad truth that most of our family-history-seekers don’t find such intriguing tales – and some of them find nothing at all – we have to celebrate the success stories. It makes you wonder: who might find each other in a few hundred years’ time piecing together your own life?

Ashley March – Archives Assistant

Vintage GPO Posters go up for online Auction

As regular readers will have seen here at the BPMA we have a stunning poster collection. The General Post Office (GPO) was a trendsetting organisation, particularly when it came to marketing, and in the 1930s it broke the mould with its innovative poster designs.

James Mawtus-Judd

Poster on careful packing by James Mawtus-Judd

This Thursday (9 July) we’ll be offering the public a rare opportunity to own a piece of iconic design when we put a significant selection of vintage GPO posters (duplicate to our collections) up for online auction via Onslows Auction House.

John Vickery (2)

Poster from the Outposts of Empire series by John Vickery

These stunning images come from this golden age of public relations at the GPO, between the 1930s and 1960s. Some of the most prominent artists and designers of the time vied for commissions, creating striking posters on a range on subjects from airmail through to pleas for the careful packing of parcels.

Harry Stevens

Poster calling for careful packaging by Harry Stevens

The posters to go on sale include works by Edward McKnight Kauffer, Tom Eckersley, John Armstrong, Jan Le Witt and George Him. Many of these artists went on to take commissions at places such as London Transport and the Ministry of Information where they created iconic designs to support the war effort during the Second World War.

Edward McKnight Kauffer

Poster from the Outposts of Britain series by Edward McKnight Kauffer

The money raised at auction will go towards delivering The Postal Museum and Mail Rail, where posters, and design more generally, will play a vital role in telling the remarkable stories of how the British postal service helped to shape our social and communications history.

Please visit Onslows website to view the full auction catalogue.

70th Anniversary of D-Day: a letter to the GPO from General Eisenhower

As countries around the world commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day (the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on 6 June 1944) news channels fill our screens with moving and horrifying images and footage of troops readying themselves on the shores of southern England, planes on bombing runs across the channel and landing craft coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy. The films show the military hardware, the explosions and exchanges of gun fire, and the people on the front line of the successful offensive. But what they do not show is the immaculate and comprehensive pre-planning that went into that crucial day, seen as the point in which the war turned in the favour of the Allies.

Number of bags of mail sent on D-Day and the following days from Army Council Secretariat minutes (POST 47/770)

Number of bags of mail sent on D-Day and the following days from Army Council Secretariat minutes dated 19 June 1944 (POST 47/770).

One of the organisations involved in that planning was the General Post Office. Its work both in the lead up to, and aftermath of, D-Day was of major importance. Flicking through our files, it’s amazing what we uncover. Alongside some interesting information detailing the GPO’s activity both before and after D-Day itself in POST 47/770, we also unearthed a letter printed in the Post Office Circular of Wednesday 28 June, 1944.

The letter, dated 22 June 1944, thanks the GPO for its work in constructing “…a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom” and makes a point of offering the author’s appreciation of “their contribution… and [for the] excellent cooperation they have given towards our success”.

Letter from General Eisenhower reprinted in the Post Office Circular (POST 47/770)

Letter from General Eisenhower reprinted in the Post Office Circular (POST 47/770)

Not only does this give us an insight into the vital role the GPO played in D-Day itself, but it shows how important the contribution was deemed at the time. Perhaps most excitingly, the letter is signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander.

The full transcript can be seen below:

Supreme Headquarters


Office of the Supreme Commander

22 June, 1944

Dear Captain Crookshank [sic]

The build up of the necessary forces for the current operations has involved the construction of a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom. The greater part of this work has been undertaken by the Engineers and Staff of the General Post Office.

It is my great pleasure, on behalf of the Allied Expeditionary Force, to ask you to pass on to them my sincere appreciation for their contribution and for the long hours they have worked and for the excellent cooperation they have given toward our success. 


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Newly-catalogued oddities in WW1 postal censorship

During the First World War, the GPO handled mail sent to and from prisoners of war. These included captured soldiers and civilians who had been in the wrong place at the outbreak of hostilities. Before mail reached its recipient, it would be examined by censors on both sides of the conflict.

I’ve just catalogued a set of nearly 40 GPO files from the First World War all about the censorship of mail for POWs. Many of the files deal with really specific problems. Here are two of my favourites:


GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

POST 56/243 (1916) concerns a series of complaints from the fabulously-named Bedford Bread Fund, a charity that sent parcels of bread to British POWs in German camps. The loaves were being sawn in half by the British censors to inspect them for concealed messages, leaving them entirely inedible by the time they arrived. The file also documents the censors’ trials of loaf-prodding by bone knitting needle. While less invasive, the needles alas broke off inside the loaves.


The GPO's reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

The GPO’s reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

POST 56/212 (1915) contains complaints forwarded by a countess from her POW husband. A concern was that mail was arriving at the camp with pencilled comments from censors, asking the prisoners to persuade their families to write shorter letters, and to write more neatly. Censors, he said, had no right to express this kind of stylistic criticism. As you can see from the GPO reply (above), the comments were apparently left by the German censors who, after all, had a job to do too.

I love these two files. They seem absurd, and yet they’re perfectly logical and justified under the circumstances. Other favourite cases include an intercepted parcel of construction textbooks sent to a French POW, and a query about whether letters to Russian POWs could be written in the Russian alphabet.

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

The censorship records are part of a collection of around 500 files that I’m cataloguing. The files document the Army Postal Service from the 1900s to the 1970s, including both World Wars, and are genuinely global in scope. Much of the material originated from the Royal Engineers Postal Section, a forerunner of today’s Royal Logistic Corps that drew many of its men from GPO staff. All these files will appear on the Archive catalogue in the next few months.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)