Tag Archives: GPO

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

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

ALLIED EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

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. 

Sincerely,

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Behind the object: the seemingly, uninteresting GPO truncheon

In this post, we asked Curator Emma Harper to talk about her favourite object. You will be surprised about what she came up with!

Asking a Curator to pick their favourite object is a bit like asking a child what they’d like to be when they grow up, in most cases the answer will change from day to day!

Should I choose the earliest letter box in our collection used in trials on the Channel Islands; the pneumatic rail car that was used to test the idea of using an underground railway to move the mail; or perhaps our recent acquisition of the diary of Post Office Rifleman, Thomas May, written when he was fighting in France in 1915.

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma's favourite object)

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma’s favourite object)

All of these are fascinating objects which help to illustrate the many interesting stories that our collection can tell. Instead however, I have chosen a truncheon. Now this may seem a lot less interesting than the items I’ve listed above but it is often the unassuming, apparently ‘boring’ items that can surprise us and this item, in my opinion, does just that.

A runner-up for Emma's favourite object: 19th century pneumatic railcar.

A runner-up for Emma’s favourite object: 19th century pneumatic rail car.

It is a fairly plain wooden truncheon with the handle painted white and the rest painted black. If you look closer however it not only has ‘GPO’ [General Post Office] inscribed on the back but also bears the coat of arms of the City of London, Queen Victoria’s cipher and a date ‘10/ APRIL/ 1848’. 1848 has become known as a year of revolutions and this particular date in April was the date of the Chartist’s mass demonstration on Kennington Common and procession to present their third National Petition to Parliament.  The Chartist movement was named after the People’s Charter which demanded political and electoral reform and in particular called for all males over the age of 21.

William Edward Kilburn - View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

William Edward Kilburn – View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

It was feared by the government that the Kennington Common rally would spark revolution not just in London but across the country and that government organisations such as the General Post Office could well be targeted. As the Illustrated London News stated on 15 April 1848: ‘the speeches of those gentlemen [the Chartists] had led the public to anticipate some serious disturbance of the peace of the metropolis, the Government and the civil authorities had made some extensive and well-arranged preparations to suppress effectually any violation of order or tranquility, should such be attempted.’ As a result, the government issued GPO staff with truncheons, including the one now in our collection, in order to protect themselves and Post Office property.

In the end the day passed off with relatively few violent outbreaks and, as far as I know, no direct attempts on the GPO.  While it may never have seen action, I hope I have shown how even the plainest of objects can add to our knowledge and understanding of history and our collection.

-Emma Harper, Curator

Explore the Post Office in Conflict

The Post Office has always played a key role in keeping people in touch with their loved ones. During times of conflict this role is especially apparent. Alongside the personal correspondence carried by the mail service there is also a wealth of official correspondence enabling the smooth operation of government in times of crisis.

20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard during an 'Invasion' exercise on 29th June 1941.

20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard during an ‘Invasion’ exercise on 29th June 1941.

The Post Office has kept communications going during World War One, World War Two, the Falklands war, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also played a key role during civilian disturbances such as the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

On Thursday 14 November 2013 the British Postal Museum & Archive will be exploring the role of the Post Office in conflict through a series of activities.

Throughout the day there will be a display of archive and museum items relating to the Post Office in conflict. Members of staff will be on hand to discuss these items and can also direct visitors to further relevant material in the collections.

At 4.30pm there will be an opportunity to explore Behind the Scenes. This Archivist led tour will take in some of the highlights of the archive collection.

Artwork for poster by R. Coombs

Artwork for poster by R. Coombs (POST 109/334)

A highlight of the day will be the opportunity to bring along your own correspondence to be scanned by a member of staff. Between 4.00pm and 6.30pm we will be scanning correspondence relating to all aspects of conflict (war and civil disturbance). The original items will remain your property and will be handled with the utmost care by our trained staff. You will also receive a copy of the scanned image for your records. This is a fantastic opportunity to make use our high quality equipment and receive digital images to share with your family. The scanned images we collect will also be considered for use in future exhibitions in our New Centre.

To round the day off there is an evening lecture by Sian Price entitled ‘If you’re reading this: last letters from the front line’ at 7pm.

The day forms part of the Explore Your Archive campaign. It offers an easy introduction to some of the diverse resources available in our archive. We hope this will inspire you to further explore archives and to discover more about subjects of interest to you.

Daytime activities (including the scanning event) are free, drop in events.
There will be a limited number of places available on the archive tour, you will be able to sign up for these on the day.

Tickets for the evening lecture are priced at £3.00 per person (£2.50 for concessions), complimentary tickets will be provided to those bringing along items to be scanned. Tickets can be booked in advance here.

Full details of the day’s activities can be found at our website.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

Broken windows theory: why suffragettes attacked the Post Office

There is an intriguing file in the Royal Mail Archive titled “Malicious damage to Post Office premises by suffragettes” (reference number: POST 30/2528A). Detailed within it are several small stories from the big fight for Vote’s For Women

On 27 June 1912 Miss Jane Short, an art student from Letchworth, broke 11 of the small leaded lights of the front office windows at Hitchin Post Office with a hammer and several stones. Mr Tully, the office’s overseer, found the woman outside being held by a man named Russell, who had taken the hammer from her. The Police then came to take Miss Short to the police station.

Miss Short gave an assurance that she would commit no more damage, but stated that she desired to be locked up. At the insistence of the Postmaster, Mr Gadd, she was not locked up but seen home to Letchworth by a police constable. Miss Short had previously broken the windows at Baldock Post Office for which she was committed for trial.

At about 3am on 28 June 1912 a different woman broke the windows at Ludlow Post Office, causing approximately £5 worth of damage. A newspaper report of her appearance before the magistrates the next morning described her as follows:

The prisoner appeared in the dock stylishly dressed in a blouse, skirt and hat, and appeared to be a young lady of superior education of about 20 years of age. She had a pleasant face and somewhat gentle bearing.

The pleasant-faced lady in question gave her name as Elsie Rachel Helsby of Shrewsbury, but there was some question over her identity as she had given the name Miss Holmes of Hampstead at a local hotel. She was granted bail but refused it, and she was remanded in Shrewsbury Prison.

A subsequent newspaper report details that Miss Helsby smashed the windows with a hammer to which was attached two labels, one reading “Votes for Women”, the other a protest against the force-feeding of suffrage campaigners on hunger strike.

In her defence at the trial Miss Helsby stated that she had been motivated to break the windows because of the treatment of women at Holloway and other prisons, and “in defence of poorly paid women and unhealthy and over-worked children”. She saw the hammer as her only weapon in this fight.

The magistrates decided that Miss Helsby could either be fined for costs and damages or sentenced to 28 days hard labour. Miss Helsby elected for the hard labour and was sent back to Shrewsbury prison.

Also detailed in the file is correspondence concerning who should cover the damages. Ludlow was a sub-post office and its premises were leased by the sub-postmaster. The landlord of the premises, Mr Chubb, was liable for the damages to the window but refused to pay arguing that it had been an institution of government (the General Post Office) which had been attacked in this instance. This argument was eventually accepted by the GPO.

A hand-drawn diagram of the broken window at Ludlow Post Office. (POST 30/2528a)

A hand-drawn diagram of the broken window at Ludlow Post Office. (POST 30/2528a)

In the early 20th Century the state-owned GPO was one of the largest businesses and employers in the world. It controlled the mail, telegraph and telephone services throughout the United Kingdom, and was vital to everyday life. With a post office branch a feature of almost every high street in the country it was one of the most visible signs of government and authority, and was thus an ideal target for suffrage campaigners. The First World War interrupted the suffrage campaign, and it would not be until 1928 that women in the United Kingdom had the same voting rights as men.

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

130 years of the parcel post

Today marks the 130th Anniversary of the Parcel Post, which began on 1st August 1883. At the time, the service was regarded as the greatest revolution in the postal system since the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage some 40 years previously.

The BPMA Archives contains a wealth of material on the Parcel Post and this blog is by no means intended to be an exhaustive account. Instead, I hope to give a brief overview of the context behind the introduction of the service and some idea of its impact.

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

The idea for a Parcel Post was suggested by Rowland Hill as early as 1842 and was raised again by Hill’s younger brother Frederick in the 1860s. In the meantime, the Post Office did go some way towards a parcels service by launching the popular Book Post service in 1848 followed by the Pattern Post (a service for posting manufacturer’s samples, a sort of early version of catalogue shopping) in 1863.

It was of course possible to send a parcel before 1883 and there were several large courier companies operating nationwide parcel services using stage coaches. By 1850, the Railway Companies had monopolised the market, making them a powerful opponent to any Post Office enterprise. The Post Office had previously tried at length to negotiate with the Railway Companies during the late 1860s, but to no avail.

The impetus for the Post Office to re-enter negotiations with the Railway Companies was provided by the Universal Postal Union Conference, held in Paris in 1880. Delegates proposed the establishment of an International Parcel Post, to commence in 1882. In order to participate, the British Post Office would first need to establish an Inland Parcel Post service.

This task fell to the then Postmaster-General Professor Henry Fawcett. Fawcett was a strong advocate for Parcel Post and in a letter to his father in April 1883, he cited the Parcel Post as top of his list of 5 things he felt needed to be done within the Post Office. His main concern was to prevent any ‘dislocation of the letter service’. Fawcett was assisted in the negotiations by Mr F.E. Baines, who was appointed the Inspector General of Mails in 1882 and had the honour of sending the first parcel by ‘Parcel Post’.

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption 'Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption ‘Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

The Railway Companies eventually agreed to terms which would give them 55% of the gross postage of all parcels carried by rail and The Post Office (Parcels) Act was passed on 18th August 1882, with nearly a full year passing until the service could be brought into operation in 1st August 1883. Given the scale of the preparations involved, it is rather remarkable that this was achieved in only a year!

The introduction of the Parcel Post meant rebuilding or adapting nearly 1,000 Head or Branch Post Offices, as well as arranging collection and distribution in more than 15,000 postal districts. It also meant an immediate change to the workload of the former letter carriers – now to be known at postmen.

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

Wicker baskets and handcarts were required for sorting and transporting parcels, each Post Office counter required scales and were issued with specifically designed cork handstamps to cancel the stamps on parcels. Every letter carrier’s walk had to be altered so they did not have too heavy a load and allowances were made for the use of a horse and cart, tricycle or pony to aid parcel delivery.

Crucially, the public had to be made aware of the new service and four-page handbills were distributed to every household in the British Isles notifying the changes.

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

The scale of the task facing the Post Office was described – rather poetically – by the Telegraph in July 1883:

Never before did any Commercial House leap all at once into so gigantic a concern, with 15,000 agencies and thirty-five million possible in these three kingdoms, never before, it is thought, was a Government department put to so severe a test as that which, twelve days hence, will await the one over which Professor Fawcett presides.

The launch attracted a significant amount of press attention, with the Daily News concluding on 2nd August 1883 that:

on the whole, the very important and very anxious experiment of yesterday seems to have passed off satisfactorily.

Fawcett himself appears to have been similarly understated in his conclusion, and his account three days after the launch of the service stated that

the only difficulty has arisen from the public inexperience in the art of packing.

Parcel Post saw the introduction of variety of carts and cycles as new ways of transporting the heavy mails had to be found. It also prompted a return to long distance haulage by road and the introduction of horse-drawn parcel mail coaches in 1887, which were operated under contract. This service carried parcels overnight along the principle routes out of London, which for such heavy mails were a cheaper alternative that the railways.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

Rather amusingly, it would appear that the public were quick to test the limits of the new service, with the Daily News reporting that:

At Leicester Square a colander was posted to a resident in the Temple, and one or two wooden spoons. At Euston, half a ham was found in one of the mails and at the Waterloo depot, cricket bats and tin kettles were among the articles dealt with.

Accounts also include a coffin shaped package sent from a Poplar undertaker to a workhouse master in Norfolk… Perhaps my favourite ‘strange enclosure’ tale is that of a gentleman who requested that the Post Office deliver a snake! After an initial refusal, the customer explained that the snake was in fact a pet ‘who had been on a visit’ (sadly the account does not specify where it had been!) and it was subsequently delivered by special messenger.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Parcel Post was not a financial success at first. The estimates for both the number of parcels sent and the average weight  – estimated by Baines at 7d a parcel, but on average only 5½d – were higher than those realised. By 1885, the Post Office was handling 26.5 million parcels per annum, increasing to 50 million by the 1890s.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the now Royal Mail were still the number one parcel carrier, processing and delivering 175 million packages annually, using 30 special parcel sorting centres and a fleet of 27,000 vehicles. Competition from private competitors has had a significant impact on parcel services, but many the innovations brought about by the introduction of the Parcel Post helped to shape the modern Post Office and the organisation which most of us are familiar with today.

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce's major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce’s major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

– Sarah Jenkins, Curatorial Assistant

Visit us on Flickr to see images of the Parcel Post dating from the 1880s to the 1980s.