Tag Archives: GPO uniforms

New Exhibition: Unstitching the Uniform

A new exhibition entitled ‘Unstitching the Uniform’ is now open in our Search Room, inspired by, and including objects from, our recent community project with The Amies.  You may remember our Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, has previously written about our work with this group of ten trafficked women brought together by PAN Arts and The Poppy Project, an organisation providing support, advocacy and accommodation for trafficked women.

During the project, the group investigated the design history of the postal service; a particular favourite focus became the huge variety of ever-changing uniforms worn by postal workers. Inspired by their own experiences and the objects and stories explored, the group responded in creative ways, including sewing their own versions of key uniform items from our collection, and collaborating with the artist Ella Phillips from October Gallery and textiles facilitator Susie Foster. It is this work that formed the inspiration and basis for the ‘Unstitching the Uniform’ exhibition.

The Amies together, © Brendan Foster Photography

The Amies together

From cloth caps to hessian bags, uniform has always been designed for durability, protection and identification and this theme is explored throughout the exhibition using original objects from BPMA’s collection such as caps, badges and telegram pouches. Also featured are those workers who pioneered a change in uniform, from Jean Cameron’s call for postwomen’s trousers to Mr Sant Singh Saneet’s successful campaign for the turban to become an accepted item of headgear.

Female horse and cart drivers, First World War, POST 118

Female horse and cart drivers in uniform, First World War (POST 118)

Alongside the objects and archival images are art installations by Ella Phillips and Susie Foster. Susie has created a jacket and skirt inspired by both the postwoman’s uniform and the design work of The Amies during workshop sessions. Ella charts the progress of The Amies throughout the project, telling some of their remarkable stories. Included on display is a pouch sewn by one of group, similar to one used by a Post Office telegram messenger boy.

Admiring some handiwork

Admiring some handiwork

The Amies at work

The Amies at work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We do hope you’ll come along to see this exhibition during our opening hours to follow The Amies on their journey, unravelling stories held within our collection, and to see the work that they inspired.

For more information about other amazing social enterprises involving the Amies group, visit www.flowerpress.org.

-Emma Harper, Exhibitions Officer

NEW PODCAST: Unstitching the Uniform

Last week Curator Joanna Espin gave a talk on the hidden stories behind our uniform collection at the Guildhall Library. In case you missed it, here is the podcast along with the accompanying slideshow.

The Story behind Five Postal Uniforms

Ahead of next week’s talk, ‘Unstitching the Uniform’, Joanna Espin shares the fascinating stories behind five postal uniforms.

1/ Protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen I’ll start at the very beginning, with the first Royal Mail uniform, issued to Mail Coach Guards in 1784. Bold, militaristic and scarlet red, the Mail Coach Guard uniform was a symbol of authority; protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen, the guards had to look powerful. 1 The Mail Coach Guard cut an imposing figure but also generated a reputation for being popular with the ladies. The early 19th century song ‘The Mail Coach’ tracks a Mail Coach Guard’s journey through various pubs and his encounters with various women, including the ‘sweetheart so snug at the bar’, and the ‘sweet little girl in the moon’. In 1837, when a GPO uniform was issued to London Two Penny Postmen, its supposed effect on women was commented on in a leading periodical, which recommended the abolition of ‘this very martial attire, which elevated the Postman into a formidable rival to the policeman in his little flirtations with our female servants’.  Here’s an image from ‘The Mail Coach’ song sheet, depicting the Mail Coach Guard with ‘sweet Nan at the star’.

2/ ‘Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ As well as being a symbol of authority, uniform can be the object of derision, as demonstrated in this satirical cartoon of the Two Penny Postmens’ uniform. In 1837, Two Penny Postmen were issued with a coat, waistcoat and hat. Can you see what’s missing? Trousers. That’s because employees were expected to supply trousers themselves and so, very often, there was a juxtaposition between the smartness of the supplied uniform and the condition of the trousers. In the illustration here, the woman at the door exclaims ‘Goodness! Mr Doubleknokk. Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ To which the letter carrier replies: ‘O no mum! It’s the government dress. Hat, coat & waistcoat & no trousers.’ 2

3/ A dangerous job and Dr. Merrit’s medical gussets Mail has been delivered by many methods across greatly varying terrain and one interesting example of this is the River Post of the Port of London. Established in 1800 and continuing until 1952, the job of delivering post to vessels anchored in the Thames was a dangerous one: both the first person appointed to the post and his assistant died in separate accidents. Early River Postmen were issued with a unique, scarlet, full skirted frock coat, trimmed with brown velvet, and incorporating ‘Dr. Merritt’s medical gussets’, for ventilation. Here’s a fantastic early 20th century lantern slide of Thames river postman, George Henry Evans, on his rounds in a more simple uniform. Can you see Tower Bridge in the background? 3

4/ The first full uniform for postwomen War was a catalyst for two developments in postwomen’s uniform: the introduction of the first full uniform and, later, the introduction of trousers. In the First World War, thousands of married and single women were employed in temporary positions for the duration of the conflict, in roles previously reserved for men. In 1916, the first full uniform was issued to postwomen, though women had been working for the GPO in small numbers since the 18th century. By comparison, the entire male delivery force had been uniformed since 1872. Here 12 postwomen model the new uniform. 4 5/ Women wearing the trousers A further development in women’s uniform came during the Second World War: in 1941 postwomen were permitted to wear trousers instead of skirts. First requested by a Scottish Postwoman, Jean Cameron, the idea was quickly taken up by the GPO and proved popular, with more than 500 pairs of trousers ordered in two months. By November 1943, 14,000 pairs of women’s trousers, or ‘Camerons’ as they were referred to in reference to their pioneer, had been issued. Jean Cameron spoke of her excitement at being the first postwoman to wear trousers because “I shouldn’t be a woman if I wasn’t pleased to be the first to start a fashion”.  Female counter staff were still required to wear skirts, with the concession that they could forgo stockings, due to the ‘need for economy in clothes’. Here’s an image from 1941 of a postwoman in her Camerons. 5     I hope you can make it to my talk at 6pm on Thursday 26 March at Guildhall Library. There’ll be free wine!

Volunteer Flora and the ‘box of doom’

My name is Flora, and I’m an MA Museum Studies student at the University of Leicester. Over April, I spent some time at BPMA, helping to audit and pack objects in preparation for the move.

Flora auditing and packing the museum collection.

Flora auditing and packing the museum collection.

I spent most of the time at Freeling House, delving into the archive downstairs. This included badges, ties, postcards, letters, publicity leaflets, and lots of other things. The postcards were particularly interesting, especially trying to make out the messages on the back of some of them. Less fun was counting a large number of duplicate badges for disposal – the total was 666 (as well as a small saxophone badge and a clip that looked as if it was from a pair of dungarees), so I think that definitely qualifies as a ‘box of doom’. We also found an old sign ‘In Case of Alarm of Fire’, with separate instructions for male and female employees (women were supposed to file out in pairs – I wonder what happened if there was an odd number?!).

Two days a week were spent out at the Museum Store in Debden, which is home to the larger (and often more unusual) objects. I can’t quite decide on my favourite; it’s a tie between the model of the HMS Queen Mary (complete with tiny moving lifeboats), parts of the Travelling Post Office (including a water boiler and food heater), or the Post Office ‘L’ Plates – I had no idea that the Post Office used to teach their own drivers.

Model of the HMS Queen Mary.

Model of the HMS Queen Mary.

One day involved packing lots of vehicle parts, helpfully listed as ‘assorted unknown parts’; luckily, another volunteer with an extensive knowledge of cars was on hand to help us identify what we were actually packing. There were definitely a few more challenges out in Debden – lots of oddly shaped objects that, just as you thought you’d finally wrapped them up, would burst back through the acid-free tissue paper and make a bid for freedom. I also got to dust a couple of post boxes and post vans which was fun – leading to complaints from my mum about my reluctance to dust at home.

I also spent two days down in the corner of the archive checking the old uniforms for signs of moth activity. There were a few false alarms (including a set of disintegrating shoulder pads in one of the jackets), but luckily, no signs of infestation (I did find one jacket with a few worn patches, but decided that moths probably haven’t yet developed the intelligence to eat in a completely straight line!). The range of uniforms hiding in the corner was astounding: I found Danish uniforms (both town and country, and summer and winter – clearly the Danes like their uniforms), as well as Canadian and Swiss ones. There were also Foreign Office uniforms, from when the General Post Office won the contract to dress some departments of the Civil Service as well as their own employees. It was amazing (and slightly terrifying) to be touching fabric that was over one hundred years old in some cases, but it was all remarkably well preserved. I also never realised quite how heavy overcoats were, especially the thick woollen ones.

Flora condition checking the uniform collection.

Flora condition checking the uniform collection.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and it’s been a great introduction to the practical side of collections documentation and management (rule number one: the collections database CALM is anything but!). I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Emma and Sarah for putting up with me (and for the plentiful supply of tea, biscuits and occasional cake out at Debden!)

See our Volunteers page to find out about volunteering at BPMA.

50th Annual Postman’s Walk

This Saturday, staff from the BPMA participated in this year’s Postman’s Walk, the 50th annual walk since 1962.

The walk is open to postmen and women across the country, and 80 people participated including teams from York, Isle of Man, Edinburgh and London. It is a speed walking competition – strictly no running allowed, with officials around the circuit to ensure no cheating! The event is a very inclusive one, with all types of participants – from national and international standard athletes to the more novice, such as myself.

Some of the competitors get ready.

Some of the competitors get ready.

In the past, the route was around the City of London, the heart of the GPO but has now moved to a one mile circuit around Coram’s Fields.

All participants must wear uniform -previously postmen had to wear full uniform with no shorts, and carry a sack. As you may see from the photographs, these rules have been relaxed in more recent years. Not wanting to flout the uniform rules, myself and Andy Richmond from the BPMA wore historic styled postal uniforms from the handling collection. Whilst they made us very smart to look at, unfortunately they were not designed with exertion in mind, and did mean we got a little hot under the collar – and the brim – whilst attempting to keep up with the rest of the walkers. As a woman, I had a short walk of 3 miles, which I achieved in 40 minutes and 10 seconds. Andy however had a 6 mile circuit which took him 82 minutes. Compared to most other times achieved by the participants, ours look a little poor – although I am tempted to blame the three piece wool suit, top hat, and leather brogues for that!

Andy and Vyki on the walk.

Andy and Vyki on the walk.

It was a most enjoyable day, and we were delighted to participate and meet postal staff from around the country. Our uniform definitely caused a bit of interest, and we ended up posing for a lot of group photos. We also conducted some snap-shot collecting, collecting a 50th anniversary trophy for the collection, photographs of the event, and short oral history recordings. Together these add richness to our existing collections of sporting trophies, and will we hope prove of interest for future generations. We met a number of very interesting people who helped shape the social and sporting life of the GPO over the last few decades, and we plan to follow that up with more in-depth interviews in the future.

Some of the female competitors with Vyki.

Some of the female competitors with Vyki.

We had heard that this would be the last postman’s walk due to funding reductions, but were delighted to find out on the day that the 51st walk has now been planned for September next year. I hope to participate again next year, and improve my time – if not my attire.

Ray Middleton with Andy and Vyki.

Ray Middleton, winner of the 1st Postman's Walk, with Andy and Vyki.

See more photos from the event on Twitter.

– Vyki Sparkes, Assistant Curator

Postmen caricatures

Each month we present an item from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) have been working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

This month, Haringey resident Ken Gay chooses some caricatures showing postmen in uniform. Ken’s father worked as a postman in Stratford where the family then lived and these caricatures remind Ken of his father:

My father was born in 1888 and left school at 14 to work as a post office messenger boy in Whitechapel. He became a postman, mostly serving at Stratford E15 office. His brother, my uncle George, worked as a postman at Forest Gate E7 office. Born in 1923, I grew up in a post office family. My father wore a dark blue issue uniform with a red stripe along the sides of his trousers. He wore a helmet called a ‘shako’, a sort of peaked helmet. (I later learnt it was based on a Hungarian military helmet). In about 1936 the post office replaced these by a peaked cap. These smart uniforms seem to have vanished.

Caricatures of postmen from the Morten Collection

Caricatures of postmen from the Morten Collection

My father delivered letters in his round, or ‘walk’ from a white canvas sack he carried over his shoulder. Sometimes he brought one home empty after his work was finished. He worked shifts and at one time did an evening delivery, getting home about two in the afternoon. I came home from school after four and often found him asleep in his armchair. But this did not stop me waking him to ask for sixpence to go to the cinema with.

As an undergraduate I worked for two Christmases at my father’s Stratford office, working as a van boy on a hired vehicle delivering seasonal parcels. My son in his turn did this Christmas temporary work when he was a student, at Wood Green N22. So the family tradition has been kept up.

New records available on the online catalogue

Further records were added to our online catalogue last Friday, bringing the amount of searchable records available to over 90,000.

Records added to the catalogue include:

KEVIII 3d postage due labels, registration sheet, imperforate, 1937

KEVIII 3d postage due labels, registration sheet, imperforate, 1937 (POST 150/KEVIII/PL/1160)

A fleet of commercial vans in the yard at King Edward Building, 1931

A fleet of commercial vans in the yard at King Edward Building, 1931 (POST 118/5089)

A Scammell mail van, 1956 (POST 118/5239)

A Scammell mail van, 1956 (POST 118/5239)

Search the catalogue at http://catalogue.postalheritage.org.uk/