Tag Archives: General Post Office

The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive

On Thursday 8 August we will be marking 50 years since The Great Train Robbery with a talk by Andrew Cook and a touring exhibition. Exhibitions Officer Dominque Gardner blogs today on the background and story of this famous crime…

The Travelling Post Office

Mail was first carried by trains in Britain in November 1830. The first Railway Post Office, later known as the Travelling Post Office (TPO), was soon introduced. TPOs ran from 1838 to 2004.

TPOs were specially adapted railway carriages. Post Office workers sorted mail whilst travelling to their destination, at speeds of up to 70mph. Workers sorted the mail, in often cramped conditions, and, until 1971, transferred mail on the move via a bag exchange apparatus.

Travelling Post Office bag exchange apparatus. (POST 118/5192)

Travelling Post Office bag exchange apparatus. (POST 118/5192)

The trains often carried large quantities of high value material. This combined with a relative lack of security on board made them a target in 1963 for the heist that became known as the Great Train Robbery.

The Great Train Robbery

In the early hours of Thursday 8th August, 1963, the Up Special TPO was travelling from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston. At 3am, it was held up by a gang of criminals in an orchestrated attack and around £2.6 million was stolen. The audacity of the attack and the brutality used stunned the GPO and the general public.

The TPO carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police.

The TPO carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police.

The TPO coach was carrying 128 sacks of High Value Packets, all with noticeable- and easily identifiable- red HVP labels attached. A staggering 120 sacks containing 636 High Value Packets were stolen in the Robbery. The money enclosed in the missing packets totalled £2,595,997.10s.0d. The £2.6 million stolen is equivalent to over £45 million today.

The banks offered an unprecedented reward of £250,000 for information about the robbery. £10,000 was added to the reward by the Postmaster General who rushed back from holiday after hearing about the crime.

The Investigation

The movements of the 77 PO employees on board the TPO on the night of the robbery were scrutinised. Many were interviewed at length, as were other staff that happened to live in or near the vicinity of the home of a robber. Within The Royal Mail Archive held at The BPMA there are witness statements of the TPO staff (POST 120/106-8) and files devoted to those Post Office employees suspected of potential ‘leakage of information’ (POST 120/128-9).

Despite intense speculation and the enquiries by the Post Office Investigation Branch (later Investigation Department) no proof has ever been found of a Post Office insider.

Wanted poster of the robbers and their associates. This was produced not long after the robbery and was widely distributed. (POST 120/95)

Wanted poster of the robbers and their associates. This was produced not long after the robbery and was widely distributed. (POST 120/95)

Arrests

Twelve suspects were tried and convicted within nine months of the Robbery thanks to the combined efforts of Buckinghamshire Constabulary, the Transport Commission Police, the Post Office Investigation Branch and New Scotland Yard. Many of those convicted were given maximum sentences of 30 years for armed robbery to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

Aftermath

The investigations that took place in the wake of the Great Train Robbery of 1963 were part of this long history of detecting crime in the postal service. Those playing a vital role in Royal Mail Group Security today are successors to those who helped apprehend the most notorious train robbers in history.

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

The investigations of the Post Office Investigation Branch into the Great Train Robbery are documented in a report prepared by Assistant Controller Richard Yates in May 1964. This report can be found in The Royal Mail Archive at The BPMA (POST 120/95). The BPMA also holds many other files concerning the Robbery including several detailing bank losses and property eventually recovered (POST 120/112-9) and observation reports (POST 120/130-3).

The exhibition will be on display in the BPMA Search Room on the 8th August to mark 50 years since the Robbery took place, from 10am to 7pm, followed by a talk by author Andrew Cook. The exhibition then goes on tour around the country. Full listings of the venues hosting the exhibition can be found on our website.

Please contact The BPMA Exhibitions Officer on 0207 354 7287 or dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk for more information or if you would like to hire the exhibition.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border

On Thursday 11 July Dr Scott Anthony will give a talk here at the BPMA on the classic film Night Mail which will be accompanied by a screening. In this blog Dr Anthony talks about Night Mail‘s timeless relevance.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.

Night Mail – the 1936 cinematic account of the travelling post office, to text by WH Auden – is the most famous film from the GPO documentary unit. It’s as evocative of the 1930s as Battersea Power Station, the Shell Guides and Agatha Christie.

For much of the past 20 years Night Mail has also been deeply unfashionable. It’s liable to be seen as the kind of thing that might have starred Harry Enfield’s Mr Chumley Warner.

It’s true that, for a documentary, parts of Night Mail are not that realistic. For a start, the scenes of travelling post office workers sorting the mail were filmed on the GPO’s lot in Blackheath with the posties urged, Star Trek style, to sway gently from side to side.

Still from Night Mail.

Still from Night Mail.

Indeed, Night Mail is actually the film of a train set. The GPO had commissioned the exquisite Bassett-Lowke to produce a miniature travelling post office for display at exhibitions. The miniature proved so popular with the public that it then became a documentary. When people say that Night Mail portrays a model post office, they’re more right than they know.

However, the genesis of Night Mail – the corporate promo – was far from straightforward, and it began with the future Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee. Pressure was growing for the reform and part-privatisation of the GPO. Besieged by criticism, the then postmaster-general Attlee hired the publicity expert Sir Stephen Tallents to project an image of the GPO as the “outstanding example of collective capitalism”.

Previously, the British establishment had frowned on government advertising during peacetime; it was considered something indulged in only by dubious continental regimes. Now, though, state innovations were to be unveiled with dramatic showmanship. During 1934’s Telephone Week speakers were erected in Trafalgar Square to blare out Jack Hylton’s jazz band as they were flown over London in an Imperial Airways plane. Tallents commissioned the artist Macdonald Gill to design a new brand logo for the GPO. The introduction of the speaking clock, telephone chess and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s redesign of the Jubilee telephone kiosk followed.

The classic Night Mail poster.

The classic Night Mail poster.

Night Mail was part of Tallents’ effort to use emerging new media to promote an up-to-date concept of Britishness. Films such as Night Mail and Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time are testament to Tallents’ collective method of developing an appropriate identity for Britain’s burgeoning social democracy.

But such nostalgic risks reducing Night Mail to the status of a tatty-eared Penguin classic, when those who commissioned, made, starred in and watched the film were confronting some startling contemporary dilemmas. Grappling with public service reform, technological, social and economic change, as well as the growth of internationalism, is a tricky task. Just ask the Communication Workers Union. Or Vince Cable.

Visit our website to purchase tickets for Dr Scott Anthony’s talk and the film screening of Night Mail.

Night Mail is available on DVD from our online shop.

Countdown to Sotheby’s: George VI stamps

On 11 July the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) will be selling 191 lots of surplus, duplicate philatelic material at Sotheby’s auction house. The proceeds of the sale will support the significant fundraising efforts currently being undertaken by the BPMA to deliver an important new postal museum and archive in Central London. In this blog Alison Bean, Web Officer at The British Postal Museum & Archive, chooses her favourite lots.

Most of the lots in The British Postal Museum & Archive auction are stamps from the reign of King George VI. All of this material comes from registration sheets, which were an official record (normally imperforate) taken from the beginning of the print run. Other than the fact that they are imperforate and have various manuscript or typescript markings they are exactly the same as the issued stamps. Some were registered at Somerset House, then the home of the Inland Revenue (the department of British government responsible for taxation), and the rest came to be held in the Royal Mail Archive. It is duplicates of the officially archived registration material that we are selling in this auction.

While this material is interesting from a philatelic perspective it’s the designs of the low value definitives that most excite me. Produced between 1937 and 1947 these stamps are a dazzling riot of colours and patterns displayed as a collage in Sotheby’s auction catalogue.

Pages from Sotheby’s auction catalogue, showing Lot 46 – 1937-47 ½d to 1s, set of 16 vertical marginal blocks, estimated at £120,000-£150,000.

Pages from Sotheby’s auction catalogue, showing Lot 46 – 1937-47 ½d to 1s, set of 16 vertical marginal blocks, estimated at £120,000-£150,000.

The stamps were designed by two artists, Edmund Dulac and Eric Gill. Dulac is responsible for the portrait of The King, and in the BPMA collection we hold his original plaster model.

Plaster model of King George VI’s head, by Edmund Dulac.

Plaster model of King George VI’s head, by Edmund Dulac.

King Edward VIII 2½d stamp.

King Edward VIII 2½d stamp.

As with the portrait on the stamps of King Edward VIII, King George VI’s portrait is simple and striking. Yet in Dulac’s portrait George VI is shown as benevolent, almost smiling, while in Hugh Cecil’s portrait of Edward VIII The King seems more severe, almost sad.

It’s questionable whether one portrait can portray a person’s character, but it’s difficult not draw a connection between the anger and sadness in Edward VIII’s face, and his difficult decision to abdicate to be with the woman he loved, American divorcee Wallis Simpson. By contrast, George VI, who is usually framed by history as a reluctant King, looks every bit the regal figure as rendered by Dulac.

King George VI, 1937-47, 8d bright carmine example from unique set of 17 horizontal marginal Registration blocks, estimated at £400,000-£500,000.

King George VI, 1937-47, 8d bright carmine example from unique set of 17 horizontal marginal Registration blocks, estimated at £400,000-£500,000.

Eric Gill, possibly better known for designing the Gill Sans typeface, designed one of the frames which surround the King’s head on the George VI definitive stamps. This incorporates the Crown and floral symbols of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and makes use of Gill’s Perpetua font for the words “POSTAGE REVENUE” and the denomination.

Lot 191 - 6d stamp from a collection of King George VI issues, estimated at £75,000-£100,000.

Lot 191 – 6d stamp from a collection of King George VI issues, estimated at £75,000-£100,000.

Dulac designed another frame, hexagonal in shape, which was used on the higher denominations. These stamps are printed in a number of vivid colours, including turquoise-blue, bright carmine and emerald-green.

Detail of Lot 47 - King George VI, 1937-47, 8d bright carmine example from unique set of 17 horizontal marginal Registration blocks, estimated at £400,000-£500,000.

Detail of Lot 47 – King George VI, 1937-47, 8d bright carmine example from unique set of 17 horizontal marginal Registration blocks, estimated at £400,000-£500,000.

While many of his subjects knew that George VI was a shy man with a severe stammer who loathed public speaking, the design of these stamps gives no clues to that. Dulac’s simple hexagonal border presents George VI as a strong leader, with the dark background and the thick border making him the focus of the design.

Please visit Sotheby’s sale page to find out more about the lots on offer.

Discovering a Slice of London Life

After last month’s archive stocktake, I’ve returned to my ongoing cataloguing project. Today I’ll tell you about a terrific discovery I made on the repository shelves.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

This is a set of four record books. Three are from the 1930s, while the fourth covers 1941-1956. They’re not labelled with ownership details but, after studying the contents and cross-referencing with other archives in our collections, I believe they originated from the South West (SW) London District Office, which was in Victoria Street at that time.

The books were used to keep records on the sub-post offices in the SW London District. As you may already know, there are two main kinds of post offices in Britain: crown offices directly managed by the Post Office, and sub-post offices operated by independent businesspeople under contract from the Post Office.

The books are divided into many sections, headed with each sub-post office’s address. The three 1930s volumes cover the entire District between them, while the 1940s volume is a partial continuation. Confusingly, the contents aren’t all arranged alphabetically!

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

What makes these books a treasure is the staggering amount of detail. There are notes of customer complaints, audit records, specifics of equipment installed, and particulars of disciplinary cases. Every note is dated. This is what you’d expect from the central supervision of agents carrying out work for the General Post Office. But there’s so much more.

Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses often performed postal work alongside another business. The volumes record precise details of any interruptions in postal work. The main motivation was to monitor revenue, but the notes also reflect SW London’s changing streets. The record below is a good example:

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

This note states that the 412 Brixton Road office was damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941, and reopened at new premises in the local Bon Marché store. There are also records of crimes at sub-post offices, often including dates when staff were absent to attend the ensuing identity parades and police court sessions. Take a look at the note below:

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

This brief report of a foiled break-in is notable for giving the full name of the lady who was living above the office! We can glimpse here the locality that the office served. Often the addresses of customers who complained are also recorded.

Finally, there’s genealogical information. Dated records were kept of sickness absence and compassionate leave taken by sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses. Whenever an office transferred to a new sub-postmaster, the exact handover date and the departing sub-postmaster’s new home address were recorded. There are also family stories:

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster's death. (POST 22/386)

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. (POST 22/386)

This note records the date (and time!) of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. His son was acting sub-postmaster for a few months, then his widow took over the business. All these records were kept for purely business reasons, but the research uses are so much wider than that.

Hopefully, similar records for other areas will be discovered. As I catalogued the record books, I wrote a searchable index of all the sub-offices listed in the notes, with their respective sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. This will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

GPO Britain in pictures

The BPMA is the custodian of a photographic collection which includes about 100,000 individual photographs; the earliest is from the late 19th century and the latest ones date from the 1990s. In a previous blog on our photography collection and a talk now available as a podcast we have presented some of this fascinating material and the stories behind it, and our exhibition The Post Office in Pictures features some of the most striking images.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The photographs depict life in Britain at the time of the General Post Office (GPO) with its contrasts between modern urban areas and the industrial heartland, and the remote rural regions where the postman or postwoman presented a vital connection to the outside world. We have selected six of the most intriguing images for a new postcard set which is now available from the BPMA Shop.

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Many of these photographs have been published in the Post Office Magazine (POST 92), which was first issued in 1934 in order to promote postal services and good relations with the public, aimed at the large postal workforce, their families and friends. The articles often presented the modernity and efficiency of the GPO’s services, such as the Post Office Savings Bank – “Everybody’s Bank” with ten million accounts, according to the author of an article in the September 1935 issue. The story on the bank, which holds “the small savings of ordinary not-very-wealthy folk in the hamlets and towns and cities of Britain”, is accompanied by several images of banking clerks entering the 120,000 daily transactions in the newly adopted accounting machines. The clerks’ efficiency in dealing with the amount of correspondence and day to day business clearly impressed the author – he dubs them ‘super clerks’.

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

Other sections of the magazines were regularly dedicated to news from the different UK regions. These focussed on the local postal staff and their achievements, activities and work in their local community, which, to today’s readers, provides some authentic insights into rural British communities in the 1930s and 1940s. The October 1938 Northern Ireland section, for example, features the image of a postman with a pony and trap on a rural road: “The Glenarm Bay postman goes on his delivery in a trap presented to him by local residents” (POST 118/903).

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Other issues show postmen wading through rivers on horseback (January 1939) to reach the next village or town, or recount the peculiar history of whale bones decorating the post office exterior at Cley-next-the-Sea (March 1938).

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

The GPO Britain postcard set is now available from the BPMA Shop for £3.75.

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Countdown to Sotheby’s: Rare and colourful – the King Edward VIII accession issue

On 11 July the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) will be selling 191 lots of surplus, duplicate philatelic material at Sotheby’s auction house. The proceeds of the sale will support the significant fundraising efforts currently being undertaken by the BPMA to deliver an important new postal museum and archive in Central London. In this blog Julia Lee, Assistant Editor at Stamp Magazine gives her thoughts on the auction.

I’m very excited about the Sotheby’s sale. It will be the first major sale I’ve been to since the Sir Gawaine Baillie sale, and I can’t wait to see what some of this material goes for. And, of course, to write screaming headlines about it.

The BPMA asked me to pick an item to talk about, and while the journalist in me wants to highlight the most expensive, it’s the King Edward VIII 2 1/2d registration sheet that I’d buy if I had the chance.

Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

In fact, King Edward VIII helped me get the job as Assistant Editor on Stamp Magazine. ‘What happened with his stamps?’ I wondered in the interview.

Now I know the answer. A set of four stamps was issued in September 1936, at a time when, even though there was a voluntary press blackout on King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson‘s relationship, the General Post Office must have known a constitutional crisis was looming. In fact, three months later, in December, the GPO was asked by the Cabinet Office to bug the King’s phones.

The stamps’ simplicity and the very obvious break with the previous florid tradition appeals to me. They’re also very much of their time, with the clean styling of head, crown and value.

The 2½d bright blue registration sheet makes a real impact on the page. We didn’t have space to put it in our June issue, but I wish we had. It’s a great colour – far better than any bistre or olive-green!

Detail of Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

Detail of Lot 18: King Edward VIII registration block of 48 (2½d value, blue), estimated at £100,000-120,000.

And while all postal history of any kind tells a story, Edward VIII’s references a very specific period in British history. Almost anyone you show the stamps to will grasp their significance immediately and ask you whether or not they were issued.

Like all the best stamps, it provides an easy way to suck people into the historical and social stories philatelists know are lying under the surface of our hobby.

Please visit Sotheby’s sale page to find out more about the lots on offer. And don’t forget to follow Stamp Magazine on Twitter!

Stock-take 2013

Our more regular users may have noticed that we have been closed for two weeks during May for our annual stock-take; an important housekeeping exercise that allows us to focus on tasks we find difficult to fit in during the normal course of the year.

I may speak only for myself in describing stock-take as an almost therapeutic experience (‘housekeeping’ may not be everyone’s cup of tea), but carrying out audits, weeding out duplicate material, and boxing and listing uncatalogued material are all necessary tasks, requiring a methodical approach and producing gratifying results.

Auditing Second Review files.

Auditing Second Review files.

Archives Assistant, Penny McMahon, assisting with the Second Review audit and reboxing.

Archives Assistant, Penny McMahon, assisting with the Second Review audit and reboxing.

It was a successful stock-take, with a number of tasks being completed. These included the much needed creation of more space in our repository by reorganising shelves, and the auditing of ‘second-review’ material (we are gradually undertaking a process whereby records that have not been archived, and which are more than 25 years old, undergo an appraisal of their historical value and retention needs). In addition, a number of boxes of miscellaneous material were appraised (always an interesting foraging exercise), photographic negatives of GPO/PostOffice/Royal Mail posters were digitised for our online catalogue, and a large number of records from our Museum Store at Debden were relocated to the Royal Mail Archive at Freeling House.

Ultimately, our stock-take work is aimed at making our archive collections more accessible to the public by accounting for records, getting them in order, and then on to our catalogue. These processes are all the more important in light of our move to Calthorpe House, planned for 2015.

POST 110/3084, c.1980s - Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/3084, c.1980s – Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2746, c.1989 - Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2746, c.1989 – Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2813, c.1946 - Poster scanned for archive catalogue.

POST 110/2813, c.1946 – Poster scanned for archive catalogue.

Stock-take is beneficial not only to the efficient functioning of our archives, but also to staff, in providing a break from normal routine and ongoing projects. It also allows staff to work with unfamiliar areas of the collections, and to re-engage with the grass roots of the archives, the records themselves! Indeed, being an archivist doesn’t necessarily mean that you spend your time poring over old records since much of the process of maintaining an archive is also administrative.

One of the major benefits I derive from stock-take is acquainting myself with areas of our archives with which I have little contact (being a primarily cataloguing archivist, I tend to work on specific collections). The most entertaining find I came across was a 1998 Royal Mail good practice guide on ‘Dealing with Dog Attacks’!, covering ‘ultrasonic dog deterrent devices’ (‘not to be directed at humans’) and listing goats and geese as animals to potentially ‘ferocious’ animals! Obviously less amusing when you acknowledge that it was a serious guide for a genuine threat to postmen (626 of whom suffered serious dog bites in 1997 alone).

Staff guide on dealing with dog attacks, 1998.

Staff guide on dealing with dog attacks, 1998.

Given that there are always records to be appraised, sorted and catalogued, and a long list of preparations we need to make for our move to our new home in 2015/16, there will be plenty of work to get our teeth stuck into in next year’s stock-take, and I gladly hand the baton over to the next willing coordinator!

– Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

The Last Straw: a brief look at complaints

Whilst I was working on some uncatalogued documents, I came across a file regarding the gumming of postage stamps. Not necessarily the most engaging of topics, you might think, but what attracted my interest was a number of letters to the General Post Office (GPO) dating from the 1950s to the 1970s. These were written by customers complaining about the poor quality of the gum used to affix stamps to mail. Some were very entertaining, and got me thinking about the nature of complaint. It’s a commonly-held belief that modern life in Britain isn’t a patch on “the good old days”, but as these letters show, the people of the past often held the same view.

Complaint: Postmaster General, G.P.O., London.

In the early 1970s, the Post Office decided to switch the adhesive used on stamps from gum Arabic to Polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. However, this didn’t go down well with the public, as it appeared that the glue was not the best quality, and often came loose from the paper. In 1973, complaints ranged from the light-hearted (“do you think you may spare a lick more glue on 3p stamps?”) to the exasperated (“it is not a habit of mine to write and complain – but this is the last straw!”). A confused postal sorter asked “is it the gum or the lack of spit?” One customer was enraged by the GPO’s reply stating that as 7,000 million stamps were produced per year, some defective ones were bound to “slip through”, and huffily replied that as he had experienced this problem constantly for the past 8 weeks, it seemed rather to be the general standard. It wasn’t just the gum that was causing annoyance; the perforations came in for criticism too: “until now I had been disturbed by the feeling that lavatorial jokes based on the line ‘nothing tears along the dotted edge’ were founded in myth”.

Dear Sirs, General complaint about stamps. What's happened to the glue?

I found it interesting to see how complaints can be timeless; one dissatisfied customer lamented that “the Britain of the past seems to have gone, everything is inferior, most of the employees have no time for doing a proper job for having strikes”. Going back further in time, to the First World War, I discovered a letter from a union of discharged soldiers complaining that men were being refused postal employment in favour of women, who the writer believed were being hired because their wages were cheaper. You can well imagine someone making a similar complaint today.

Dear Sirs, I am writing to complain about the quality of the 2 1/2p and 3p stamps. I find repeatedly that the gum is inadequate and the stamps will not stick to good quality cream wove envelopes. Also the paper or perforation is not what it used to be, and I am frequetnly damaging stamps in tearing them off from sheets. Whilst I realise that the Post Office must make all reasonable economies, any economies effected in this direction must be very small indeed, and give trouble to the user.

One of the best things about working at the BPMA is that you can get the chance to see little snippets of human life such as these, as well as the records of policy and administration we hold. It’s a great way of seeing how society has progressed, or, in some cases, has remained exactly the same.

– Robin Sampson, Archives/Records Assistant

Archive material used:

POST 52/1052 – “Complaints about PVA Gum on stamps”

POST 47/64 – “Complaint that Men have been Refused Employment at the Home Depot in Favour of Women”

This blog was researched at the Royal Mail Archive, located at BPMA’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. There are millions of stories to uncover at the Royal Mail Archive, see our website for Archive opening hours and visitor information.

Maejima Hisoka, The First Postmaster General of Japan

We recently had a film crew in the search room from the production company, Freepit Inc, who are making a documentary about Maejima Hisoka, the first Postmaster General of Japan. Mr Maejima visited Britain in 1870. He went on a fact finding mission to study the workings of the British General Post Office. Because of this the Japanese postal system was similar to the British postal system in the Victorian times. According to our curators it was not uncommon for civil servants from other countries to visit Britain to observe how things were done, then report back and vice versa.

The film crew were interested in interviewing our Philatelic Curator, Douglas Muir, and filming records and artefacts that the BPMA has connected with the postal reforms from around the 1840s. This included one of our sheets of Penny Blacks and the pamphlet that Rowland Hill wrote in 1837 titled, ‘Post Office Reform its Importance and Practicability’ , a copy of which is available in the search room reference library and the Archive.

Philatelic Curator Douglas Muir (right) with the Japanese film crew.

Philatelic Curator Douglas Muir (right) with the Japanese film crew.

They were also interested in what the exterior and interior of Post Offices would have looked like at the time of Mr Maejima’s visit. As 1870 is still very early days in terms of photography we provided them with a coloured print c. 1890 ‘Familiar Scenes for Object Lessons. A Post Office’ by W & A K Johnston and a drawing of the Post Office building, G.P.O. West.

Familiar Scenes for Object Lessons. A Post Office by W & A K Johnston

Familiar Scenes for Object Lessons. A Post Office by W & A K Johnston

As well as the postal system Mr Maejima also observed the Post Office Savings Bank and Money Order services and took some of these ideas back to Japan.

We also carried out some research on Freepic Inc’s behalf looking for a record of Mr Maejima’s visit to the UK in the archive. Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful, however, we did find copies of correspondence from Mr Maejima and a speech written by Mr Maejima from when he became Postmaster General of Japan. The spelling of his name is slightly different but it is definitely the same man.

Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 46/28)

Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 46/28)

Proposed Postal Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 29/231)

Proposed Postal Convention between the General Post Office and the Post Office of the Empire of Japan. (POST 29/231)

We’ll let you know when the documentary is released.

Women in the Post Office

On International Women’s Day we look at women’s employment in the Post Office.

The postal service is considered to be a pioneer of women’s employment in the UK. From the late 19th Century it employed women in large numbers, starting in 1870 when the General Post Office (GPO) took control of the telegraph service. The telegraph service employed large numbers of female telegraphists, and records from this time held in the Royal Mail Archive indicate that the employment of these women by the Post Office was viewed as an “experiment”. Happily the experiment was judged to have been successful, and as the telephone network expanded women staffed telephone exchanges.

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Before (and after) 1870 women were employed by the GPO in rural areas, as postmistresses and letter carriers. Margaret Birkinshaw’s blog post from 2011 describes the work these women undertook and the stamina they required. Some women held positions in the GPO for decades, such as Mrs P. L. Matthews who was photographed for the Post Office Magazine in 1935 and described as “Cornwall’s oldest postwoman. Has walked 11,400 miles in 35 years.”

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

In 1876 the Post Office introduced a “marriage bar” which required most female employees to resign upon marriage and forbade the employment of married women in the majority of positions. During the First World War the Post Office suspended this rule as female labour was required to fill positions vacated by men. This saw women working in a variety of non-traditional roles such as driving horse-drawn mail carts.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

During the First World War more than 75,000 men left their positions in the Post Office in order to join the war effort. By November 1916 the Post Office employed more than 35,000 women and girls, but most lost their jobs after the war ended. The marriage bar was finally abolished in 1946.

For more on this topic see our webpage Women in the Post Office, or view archive images of female postal workers on Flickr.