Tag Archives: GPO Photographic Unit

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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The Post Office in Pictures and the BPMA Photography Collection

BPMA’s Digital Content Development Manager Martin Devereux gave a talk in June as part of our photography exhibition The Post Office in Pictures. This talk is now available to download for free as a podcast.

The talk looks at the foundation of the General Post Office Photograph Library in the 1930s, its subsequent development and re-establishment when the Post Office became a statutory corporation in 1969, through to its closure in the 1990s. The Photograph Library’s contents are now part of BPMA’s archive collection (aka the Royal Mail Archive), and in recent years Martin and other members of BPMA staff have been working to make the photographs more accessible.

Cow of Knockcloghrim - A photographer working for The Post Office Magazine in the 1930s tried to make this photo of the village post office more exciting by posing a cow which was grazing nearby in the foreground. Unfortunately the cow kept moving out of shot, hence this rather unimpressive result.

Cow of Knockcloghrim – A photographer working for The Post Office Magazine in the 1930s tried to make this photo of the village post office more exciting by posing a cow which was grazing nearby in the foreground. Unfortunately the cow kept moving out of shot, hence this rather unimpressive result.

You can find the photos dotted about our website, available to browse on our online catalogue, and uploaded to social network sites such as Flickr and History Pin. The photos have also found new lives as greetings cards and print-on-demand products, and been used in several of BPMA’s recent exhibitions including Designs on Delivery, Empire Mail and, of course, The Post Office in Pictures.

In his talk Martin Devereux discusses some of his favourite images from The Post Office in Pictures exhibition and the wider collection, and tells some of the stories behind them.

Noel Edmonds promoting television licensing via a helicopter.

Noel Edmonds promoting television licensing via a helicopter.

Download The Post Office in Pictures and the BPMA Photography Collection podcast for free from www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

Solent Male Voice Choir

On Saturday 18th August, at 7pm, the Lumen Church will be hosting a summer concert alongside the BPMA exhibition currently on display there – The Post Office in Pictures.

Staying with the postal theme of the exhibition, we are delighted to announce that performing at the Lumen will be the Solent Male Voice Choir – also known as the Postman’s choir! This remarkable group of postmen formed the choir in 1961, whilst working at the Head Post Office in Portsmouth.

Solent Male Voice Choir

Solent Male Voice Choir

The idea came about when the postal workers found out how much they enjoyed singing whilst sorting the mail, and went on to form a choir. The original name of the choir was the Portsmouth Post Office Choir; whilst the name of the choir and its members, have since seen some changes, they are still proud of their roots as singing postmen. On the night they will be singing an eclectic repertoire from Verdi to Elvis Presley. There will also be a special ensemble performance in honour of the postal theme of the evening, of ‘Return to Sender’.

Before and after the choir performance, visitors will also be able to view The Post Office in Pictures exhibition on display at the Lumen Church. The exhibition showcases 30 iconic photographs taken from the vast archives of the BPMA, dating from the 1920s right through to the 1980s. The photographs focus in particular on the intrepid and unusual conditions often faced by postal workers as they deliver the mail. It is certainly fitting that both the exhibition and the choir can be enjoyed together, on what promises to be a fantastic evening.

Solent Male Voice Choir

Solent Male Voice Choir

The photographs in the exhibition are as pioneering as the postal workers they portray. In 1934 the General Post Office (GPO) established its Public Relations Department. Headed by the entrepreneurial Sir Stephen Tallents, its aim was to promote good relations with the public, to provide a guide to postal services, and to gather and interpret customer use and opinion to help shape the work of the GPO.

One of the key tools used by the PR Department to reach and engage with the general public was through photography. In order to supply the Post Office Magazine with interesting, professionally-produced photographs, members of the GPO Photographic Unit began to accompany the magazine’s journalists, creating visually appealing, informative and often humorous articles recording daily life in Britain.

From pastoral climes to the industrial heartland of the county, The Post Office in Pictures shows the Post Office doing what it does best – serving the nation in times of need and in times of leisure.

Please join us for what promises to be a fantastic evening of music and photography.

Doors open at 6.30pm on Saturday 18th August. The Choir begins at 7pm, with an interval scheduled. Free entry, donations welcomed. Visit our website for further information on the event.

The Post Office in Pictures exhibition runs at the Lumen Church until August 31st 2012.

Digitising the GPO Photograph Library

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

Photographs are always exciting to work with. A visual record of the past, they evoke an immediate response from viewers that written records, for the most part, cannot. Their ability to present the past visually makes them such an important part of any archive.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

BPMA holds approximately 100,000 unique photographic images across both the museum collection and the Royal Mail Archive. From postmen and women on delivery, to bombed-out sorting offices; from mail vans to air mail; from marketing material to reference photographs for sorting office equipment – the Post Office has documented its activities for the last 100 and more years.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

For the most part, these are held as part of POST 118: The GPO Photograph Library. Highlights of this POST class include:

  • Publicity photographs created for public relations activities, such as posters and, in particular, for the Post Office Magazine, from 1934 through to the 1970s. Approximately 2800 survive as part of the collection, from a series which once contained over 10,000 photographs.
  • Photographs commissioned or acquired by the GPO Photograph Library from 1964 through to the late 1990s. Approximately 3000-4000 images survive from this series which once boasted nearly 20,000 documented images.
  • Colour transparencies – mostly dating from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. These images were used mostly for advertising, marketing and communications. This series consists of approximately 30,000 individual photographs.
  • Courier prints – files of photographs used for Royal Mail’s internal staff magazine from the late 1960s through to the 1970s.

At present, only 1868 of these images are currently available for public consultation via the online catalogue, although an additional 1000 will be available shortly.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Photographs are very difficult to store and to organise. They are also particularly difficult to describe in an accurate manner. One of the barriers to the description work is the lack of context – in most cases, very little information survives about the subject, or when the photograph was taken, and by whom.  Funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has been used to develop access to the photographic material via three main activities:

  1. Research into the photographs and the context and purpose of their creation. Very early on in the cataloguing we realised that many images featured in the Post Office Magazine which ran from 1934 through to the 1960s (with a small gap during wartime). A recent partnership project with the University of the Third Age (more on this in a future blog) was an attempt to identify connections between articles featured within the Post Office Magazine and the photographs in the collections. Teams of volunteers reviewed the Post Office magazines in the Search Room and compiling a database of articles. Volunteers also searched our catalogue for photographs and, when a photograph matches those in the magazine’s articles, add the reference of the catalogued photograph to the database. It has not been an easy task and, as the online catalogue is incomplete, the fruits of this indexing labour will not be realised for a little while to come. Ultimately, the database will reveal a larger contextual picture of the Post Office and the use of photography in its public relations activities.
  2. Digitisation of glass plate negatives and other photograph material. Up until now, we have scanned only those photographs for which prints exist. Photographs that exist only as glass plate negatives or as transparencies have not been scanned as BPMA has lacked the facilities and expertise to carry this out without harm to the material. The funding from MLA has enabled us to contract the services of a reputable digitisation company to carry this out on our behalf. Over 1500 photographs are currently being scanned and processed to a high resolution and these will shortly be made available via the online catalogue.
  3. Better equipment to create and manage digital photographic images. A significant part of BPMA’s ability to make available to the public its photographic collections comes from its efficient management of digital images. Prior to funding from MLA, images have been managed in a fairly unsophisticated manner.  We now have the appropriate hardware to carry out scanning of larger photographic material and other artwork in the collection. We have also established an Image Management server. This will hold all of our digital images and allow us to search and make available images as they are created or digitised for use by members of the public and by our staff.

Virtual Advent Calendar – 11th December

In the lead-up to Christmas we are showcasing some of the festive items in our collection across our social networks. Behind the door of our virtual advent calendar today is…

King Edward Building Foreign Section, Christmas mails for the empire – airborne traffic (1938)

King Edward Building Foreign Section, Christmas mails for the empire - airborne traffic (1938)

See larger images of all the items in our Virtual Advent Calendar on Flickr.

Picture Post in Swindon

The Picture Post project has moved to Swindon! On Saturday 6th November, Andy from the BPMA travelled west to introduce the project to participating families from the Swindon area.

The Platform Youth Centre was the venue for the morning, and our base was an old First Class train carriage. The building used to house the railway museum, prior to their move across the tracks to become STEAM.

An old First Class train carriage, now the Platform Youth Centre

An old First Class train carriage, now the Platform Youth Centre

Seats were very nearly fully-booked for the session, as around 15 people crammed into the carriage, and listened to Andy talk about the BPMA, our collections, and the photographs from the Royal Mail Archive that are the focus of the Picture Post project.

First up, Andy asked some eager volunteers to dress up as post people from the past, using a variety of uniforms from the BPMA Handling Collection.

Imogen, sporting a peaked postman’s cap from the GPO era

Imogen, sporting a peaked postman’s cap from the GPO era

Andy went on to talk about some of the more unexpected items we have in the BPMA collection, including blunderbusses and cutlasses, and then handed out just a few examples of the thousands of photos we have that show the work of the Post Office during the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Each person picked a favourite photo and thought about why they liked it. Esina was taken by this image of Chailey Post Office, particularly the familiar logo of Cadburys in the window.

Exterior view of Chailey Post Office, with a telephone box situated alongside, 1937

Exterior view of Chailey Post Office, with a telephone box situated alongside, 1937

Sheena, Sally and (the other) Andy from Artsite then took over the session, and asked the group to make collages using photocopies of the Archive images and a pile of other materials, including old stamps, elegant ink-pen script, stickers, patterned paper, and feathers.

Inside the train carriage, the group cutting and pasting.

Inside the train carriage, the group cutting and pasting.

Girls working on collages.

Girls working on collages.

Some of the marvellous works produced by the Picture Post-ers can be seen below, and the rest can be seen on Flickr.

Carinae's collage

Carinae's collage

Moesha's collage

Moesha's collage

Simone's collage

Simone's collage

Last Saturday, the group took a guided tour of the Swindon Mail Centre, and were taught to think like a photographer by the guys from Artsite. Some of the photos they took, of sorting machines, vehicles and postal workers, are now on Flickr. They will also be turned into postcards.

For more information about the work that Sheena, Sally and Andy do in providing a hub for the Swindon community to engage in, understand and appreciate contemporary art and culture, please visit the Artsite website, or visit the Post Modern Gallery (a converted Post Office) in Theatre Square, Swindon.

The GPO Photograph Library

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

Cataloguing the General Post Office’s Photographic Library at The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is a fascinating experience. There are an estimated 100,000 photographs in the collection, from the late nineteenth century to the late 1990s.

At the end of April we added 199 newly catalogued records and their images to the catalogue bringing the total now available to approximately 1900. These are from a collection of photographs dating from 1934 to the 1970s, known as the ‘P’ series. The ‘P’ stands for publicity and many of these images were produced to promote the work of the GPO in magazines, posters and newspapers. In particular, the creation of the library was specifically intended to provide the Post Office Magazine with photographs to accompany the articles written within. We also know that, in the early days, photographers belonged to the Engineer-in-Chief’s department and they frequently accompanied the magazine’s journalists as they went out and about. These photographs, alongside its posters, films and other media, helped establish ‘public relations’ as a vital aspect of GPO operations.

Hildenbourgh Sub-Post Office, 1935.

Hildenbourgh Sub-Post Office, 1935.

Due to the wide range of occupations and activities within the Post Office during this period, the photographs in the ‘P’ series show a great variety of subjects: sorting clerks busy at work, fleets of motor vehicles, historic letterboxes, notable GPO buildings, sorting machines, cable operators, engineers, counter clerks, travelling post offices and, of course, smiling postmen and women delivering letters across Britain.

In addition to the Photograph Library, there is also an expanding collection of photographs of postal subjects that have been submitted to the BPMA and its predecessor organisations from sources outside Royal Mail. These are often given to us by people who’ve discovered photographs depicting family members who were former Post Office employees. We also receive material from enthusiastic postal historians.

Work to catalogue and digitise the collection is ongoing and we hope to have the remaining photographs in the ‘P’ series available by this summer. We will then turn our attention to another of the main series of the Photograph Library.

During the cataloguing, we have relied on the dedication and hard work of two volunteers, Kathryn and Anne to re-house the photographs into suitable storage boxes, list the photographs, scan them and finally to create catalogue descriptions. Anne has now finished, but Kathryn continues to work hard on the project.

To find out more about Volunteering at the BPMA please visit our website.