Tag Archives: Great War

New acquisitions

A few weeks ago we were very fortunate to have a visit from someone wishing to donate a group of material to the BPMA museum collection. The group of material related to a Thomas William Ernest May, the donor’s father. We have subsequently been able to trace something of his Post office service through the Archive records. May joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman and just a couple of years later, in 1913, was appointed as a Sorter at North District Office in Islington, very quickly transferring back to his old role as postman but at the North West District Office. Just one year later with the outbreak of the Great War as it was known, Thomas, like many other Post Office workers, joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles at the age of 20. He later returned to work at the Post Office, rising to the rank of Assistant Superintendent by the time of his death in 1953.

The objects donated to the BPMA relate both to May’s time in France with the Post Office Rifles as well as his Post Office work. Amongst these are several very personal objects, including a green leather bound pocket journal given to May before he embarked for France in 1915. It includes a map of Flanders, various helpful French and German phrases, a calendar for 1915 and different methods of working out your position in day and night: all to aid the soldier should he get lost or separated from his battalion. The journal itself is written by Thomas in pencil and covers his posting to France as well as his thoughts and feelings in the midst of campaigns on the front line. We are hoping to work on a project to scan and transcribe this journal to chart May’s time during the war, so do look out for that on this blog in the coming years, as well as many other items relating to the Centenary of the Great War.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

There are also photographs of May with other members of the Post Office Rifles, both in official uniformed shots as well as more informal photos of them with their brooms and rifles. May received the 1914-1915 Star Medal and the British War Medal, both campaign medals routinely given to those who served and they are also included within the collection as is the slightly more unusual Silver War Badge. The Silver War Badge was given to soldiers who had to return from the war due to injuries, the badge states ‘FOR KING AND EMPIRE SERVICES RENDERED’. It was to be worn on civilian clothing and was proof that they had been honourably discharged and meant they could avoid being given a white feather for supposedly shirking their duty.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

As previously mentioned, May returned work at the Post Office following his experiences in the war and the final object of this blog dates from 14 March 1929 when he was still at the North District Office. It is a large hand-illustrated card in the form of a postcard and shows a man pushing a child in a pram on the front in a street scene with a cinema and dancing hall in the background. The caption reads ‘You will have to cut all that out now! Daddy’ and features ‘Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes from NDO’ on the birth of his daughter, who has now generously donated these objects to BPMA.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

This is such a wonderful group of personal items relating to Thomas Ernest William May and we are very grateful to his daughter for donating them so that Thomas’ story can be added to the others told through our collection.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

Remembering the Post Office Rifles

On Saturday 3rd November 2012, I was fortunate enough to attend a reunion event at the home of the British Forces Post Office (BFPO). This was held to commemorate the organisation as a whole but specifically the Battle for Wurst Farm Ridge, Ypres, Belgium, in which the 2nd/8th Battalion London Regiment, known as the Post Office Rifles took part. Many serving members of the modern day BFPO and Postal and Courier Services Officers’ Association were also present to remember their predecessors’ actions.

In 1917 the company was sent to Ypres and in September they began training for what was to be the Battle for Menin Road Ridge. Their objective was to capture a portion of this ridge, known as Wurst Farm in attempt to cut the Germans off and force a surrender. One of the prominent individuals in this battle was Sergeant Alfred Knight, from the Engineers Department of the Post Office. Knight had joined the Post Office Rifles at the outbreak of World War One in 1914 and served throughout the war along with other Post Office volunteers.

Sergeant Alfred Knight

Sergeant Alfred Knight

Mrs Ann Turrell, granddaughter of Alfred Knight, was also present at the lunch and gave a vivid and detailed account of his actions that day. There was also a reading from Charles Messenger’s book Terriers in the Trenches:

He rushed through our own barrage, bayoneted the enemy gunner, and captured the position single handedly. Later, twelve of the enemy with a machine gun were encountered in a shell-hole. He again rushed forward by himself, bayoneted two and shot a third, causing the remainder to scatter. Subsequently, during an attack on a fortified farm, when entangled up to the waist in mud, and seeing a number of the enemy firing on our troops, he immediately opened fire on them without waiting to extricate himself from the mud, killing six of the enemy.

It was these actions that earned Sergeant Knight the Victoria Cross, the only Post Office rifleman to achieve this, the highest British Decoration for Gallantry. The medal is now in the BPMA’s collection along with other medals won by Knight throughout his service. As part of the day, the BPMA arranged for the Victoria Cross to be displayed alongside BFPO’s painting by Terence Cuneo, showing Knight in action at the battle. These, coupled with Ann’s account of her grandfather really made the day a very special one and many thanks to both her and Major Chris Violet at the BFPO for making it so.

BPMA Curator Emma Harper prepares Sergeant Alfred Knight’s Victoria Cross for transport to the event.

BPMA Curator Emma Harper prepares Sergeant Alfred Knight’s Victoria Cross for transport to the event.

Amongst those posing with the Victoria Cross are (left to right) Anne Walsh (Sgt Knight's grand-daughter), Ann Turrell (Post Office) and Col Stephen Heron (BFPO).

Amongst those posing with the Victoria Cross are (left to right) Anne Walsh (Sgt Knight’s grand-daughter), Ann Turrell (Post Office) and Col Stephen Heron (BFPO).

The Post Office Rifles were a remarkable unit and it is important that their role, and stories such as Alfred Knight’s, are remembered. It is perhaps one of the lesser known aspects of the history of the postal service and really highlights the breadth and depth of BPMA’s collection. It is treasures such as these that we hope to be able to share with the public in our new home in Calthorpe House.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

The exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War can be viewed online, and will be on display at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire from 25 March – 27 September 2013, and Aysgarth Station Heritage Site, North Yorkshire 4 – 8 May 2013.

Welcome to 2013

This year will be an exciting year at The British Postal Museum & Archive. While many staff are working hard to develop our new museum and archive others are continuing to organise events and exhibitions.


The first of our talks takes place next month and features Chris West, author of First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps. In his talk Chris will discuss the book and go in depth on some of the stories. Last year Chris wrote a blog for us about how he came to write his book, and you can buy a copy from our online shop or purchase one at the event.

In March Oliver Carter-Wakefield of Kings College London will speak on Illness and Absence in the Victorian Post Office. Consumption, necrosis and mental derangement were just some of the reasons Victorian postmen called in sick – and they weren’t always skiving!

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

In April David Bramwell will present a slide-show talk on how the postal system was used for the purposes of mischief making, and in June BPMA Curator Emma Harper will explore a less weird but just as wonderful use of the Royal Mail when she explores the culture of letter writing in 19th and 20th Centuries.

Tickets for all our talks are only £3.00 (or £2.50 concession) and can be booked online.


Our ever popular tours will be held throughout 2013. Bookings are now open for three tours of the Royal Mail Archive and six tours of our Museum Collection. These guided tours are led by our archivists and curators, who will give you a rare behind the scenes look at our collections storage facilities and an insight in to what they care for. Book now for these tours as they sell out quickly!

Walking tours of postal London run once a month and are operated by our partners Cityguides. Tours start at Farringdon Station and end at Bank, taking you in to the City of London which was once the heartland of the British Post Office. There is no need to book for these tours – just turn up on the day. See our website for details.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

Special Events

The Museum Store, where we are house our full of collection of pillar boxes and vehicles, will play host to two special events this year. The first, Pillar Box Perfection, taking place on 6 April, will offer a range of activities for all ages based around the iconic pillar box. The second, Museums at Night at the Museum Store, is part of an initiative taking place in May in which museums stay open in the evening. We’ll tell you more about this event nearer to the time. Both of these special events are free of charge.


Visitors to the Royal Mail Archive in London can still see our Diamond Jubilee display of stamps from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. We also have a permanent exhibition, The Museum of the Post Office in the Community, at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shorpshire. The Museum is located above a recreated Victorian post office – a fascinating place to visit in itself – and is free to visit as part of your entry to Blists Hill.

Part of our much-loved collection of General Post Office posters from the 1930s-1960s will go on display at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon in March. This is part of the Paintings in Hospitals scheme, and the public may visit the exhibition in the Hospital’s designated display area during their opening hours.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley - this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley – this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Also on tour is our exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which can be seen at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire from March and at Aysgarth Station Heritage Site, North Yorkshire in May. The exhibition looks at the role of the Post Office during the Great War.

Visit our website for full details of our programme of events and exhibitions.

Mail to troops fighting the First World War

In wartime one of the most important means of maintaining troops’ morale is provision of an efficient mail service. Letters from family and loved ones are eagerly awaited, as is news from the front to those at home.

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

300 members of the Army Postal Service travelled with the British Expeditionary Force to France in August 1914, but by the end of the war this had grown to nearly 4,000 across all spheres of conflict.

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Lantern slides, recently catalogued by our curatorial team and volunteers, show some of these personnel at work. A field post office established at the side of a road in France is typical of the makeshift facilities employed to run the service.

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

Other images show foreign troops receiving their mail.

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

As artefacts, these lantern slides are fascinating for many reasons. The crude colourisation of some of them tells us about the technology of the time, and the desire of the image-makers must have had to show us the world as it is – in colour. But more interesting are the glimpses of the conditions endured by the troops, even when they weren’t fighting at the front, and the expressions on their faces, showing obvious delight at receiving news from home.

Visit Flickr to see more of our First World War lantern slides.

Bath Postal Museum King George V Exhibition

An Air Mail cover on display at the exhibition

An Air Mail cover on display at the exhibition.

As part of the London 2010 Festival of Stamps, the Bath Postal Museum’s King George V Exhibition opened on 1st February.  The overall Festival marks the centenary of the accession to the throne of King George V, and Bath’s display shows through stamps and other memorabilia the important events of his reign and how these were either affected by the postal service or influenced the post.  

Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition Wembley

Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition Wembley

Included in the exhibition are rare items from the first flights to carry air mail in the UK between Hendon and Windsor in 1911.  The Great War caused problems for the Post Office and inflation meant huge increases of 50% and more in the cost of sending a letter.  But better times followed and by 1924 the British Empire Exhibition had been created with the first commemorative stamps being issued in the UK.  Many souvenirs were created for the exhibition which lasted for two years and some of these are on show.

special preview of this exhibition is now on the London 2010 Festival of Stamps website.

The exhibition runs until 30th October at Bath Postal Museum, 27 Northgate Street (corner of Green Street), Bath BA1 1AJ, http://www.bathpostalmuseum.co.uk/. Bath Postal Museum is open daily from 11am to 5pm (last entrance 4.30pm). Entry is Adults £3.50, Concessions £3.00, Children £1.50. There are reductions for groups of 10 or more.

Image courtesy of The Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum

The Post Office during the First World War

The fourth in our series of podcasts is now available and features researcher Peter Sutton speaking about the Post Office during the First World War. This talk was recorded at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms in March as part of the exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which is still on a national tour.

War Graves Cemetery, The Somme as seen on a stamp in 1999

War Graves Cemetery, The Somme as seen on a stamp in 1999

At the start of 1914 the General Post Office was one of the largest employers in the world, with a workforce of more than a quarter of a million, but the Great War had a significant impact on the service. Many postal workers left to serve on the front, either as fighting men or as part of army postal and telegraph services. With its workforce massively depleted, the Post Office reduced services at home and employed women in large numbers for the first time. The Post Office also participated in a massive censorship operation and was involved in the mass distribution of items such as army recruitment forms, ration books and advertising material for war bonds.

These and many other aspects of World War 1 are covered in Peter Sutton’s talk, which can now be downloaded from http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast or iTunes.

Conducting Family History Research at the BPMA

by Richard Wade, Archives Assistant

As Royal Mail or the GPO, as it was known, was at one time the largest employer in the country, many people find they have a relative that was employed in some regard by them. Luckily, the GPO kept records of its staff which were organised centrally, and consequently the majority have survived. This means that they are a great resource for researching the lives of past family members, at least as far as their employment was concerned.

There are records of most staff from postmen and sorters to the Postmaster General, as well as the various clerks and officers in between. There are also records of telegraph staff as it would not have been possible to separate these out from those for postal staff. All of these records are held here at Freeling House.

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestors career

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestor's career

The most important and informative of the staff records are the pension records. We have these for the majority of staff from 1859 to 1959. You can usually find out from these the places people worked, the job they did and a brief history of their employment, including their various positions throughout their careers and the associated salaries. There will also be information about any particularly good conduct and any notable events or actions made during their careers, for example, if they went to fight with the Post Office Rifles (the Post Office’s own battalion) in the Great War, or work related achievements, such as gaining a long service award. Conversely, the records will also mention any black marks gained or anything they did they could be less proud of, such as drinking on the job. What you won’t find out from them are any personal details such as private addresses or information about their next of kin.

People received pensions at the age of 60 in the Post Office, unless they retired early for ill health. Where women were concerned, they could not work once they were married, so we have marriage gratuities for them from the year in which they got married. If people died whilst they were still employed then there would have been a death gratuity. However, the death gratuity and marriage gratuity records are often only indexes, so you may not get as much information as what you would for ordinary pension records.

We also have appointment records for the vast majority of employees, but these are nowhere near as informative as the pension records, as they generally only give the name of the employee and the date of the appointment. In some cases, the position they were appointed to is given, but even this is not guaranteed.

Another resource that can be used is our collection of minute books, which have information about certain offices, arranged either by place or by department. There are also records within the minute books of dismissals, where you may find people you can not find elsewhere.

Another option is the Establishment books, which list some of the more senior staff by department. They were produced each year, so you can trace people through the years to try and work out when they left if you do not know already. Some of the later books also contain lists of Postmasters.

Establishment books list key members of GPO staff

Establishment books list senior members of GPO staff

Finally, it is sometimes worth looking in the Post Office magazines; unfortunately, these are not indexed in any way so it is a question of just trawling through them. They mention people who had gone over and above their duty, comic and bizarre requests from customers, staff who have done particularly long service, and sometimes list staff who have retired recently. It will be especially worthwhile looking at the staff magazines if you know of an ancestor being involved in any of the sports teams, or playing in one of the Post Office bands or something similar, as these feature heavily in the magazines and will tell you about a side of a person that you wouldn’t find out about from the more formal records.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

We also have a huge selection of photographs here, so if you wanted to find out about the type of clothing your relatives wore, or the type of places they worked in, you can do this too.

If you want to find out more about researching family history at the British Postal Museum & Archive, please see the Family History Pages of our website, which can be found in the visiting section – and while you’re there you can download our updated Family History Research Guide. If you wish to visit us and search our records, please do drop in and we’ll be happy to help.

The Office of Postmaster General: Its holders in the Twentieth Century

by Dr Adrian Steel, Acting CEO

The office of Postmaster General (PMG) was abolished upon the creation of the Post Office Corporation by the Post Office Act of 1969, forty years ago this year. BPMA is holding a talk about this great change in the Autumn. We are occasionally asked about some of the politicians who held the office and went on to great fame, notably Clement Attlee (Postmaster General in 1931, Prime Minister 1945-1951, and one of only two Labour Prime Ministers to use their given first name) and Neville Chamberlain (Postmaster General 1922-1923, Prime Minister 1937-1940). However, 32 politicians held the office between 1902 and 1969, and of the others there are some notable points of interest.

Neville Chamberlain’s half-brother Austen was PMG from 1902-1903, the only holder of the office to subsequently win the Nobel Peace Prize. He was honoured for his role in negotiating the Locarno treaties of 1925, aimed at bolstering peace and stability in post-Great War Europe, and the following year French and German statesmen were similarly recognised.

Sir William Joynson Hicks (PMG 1923) later became Home Secretary in Stanley Baldwin’s 1924-1929 Conservative government. As such, during the 1926 General Strike he was the hate figure of the trade unions, whose propaganda used the shortened name ‘Jix’ to enable better-rhyming abuse to be created. PMG in the 1924-1929 government, Sir William Mitchell-Thompson, was at the helm at the inception of television. Later, as Lord Selsdon, he chaired a 1930s commission on the introduction of public television and was one of few people to appear on the first day of BBC broadcast television in 1936.

As PMG under Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s, Ernest Marples oversaw the first Premium Bonds draw. He later found greater fame as the transport minister who appointed the railway-axing Dr Beeching to chair British Rail, and as the introducer of the parking meter. His life ended in controversy, he died in Monaco having fled Britain amid claims of tax evasion on a large scale.

Tony Benn is perhaps the most famous ex-PMG still alive, but at age 96 his successor, Edward Short, PMG from 1966-1968, and now Lord Glenamara, is at present the oldest living parliamentarian.

Tony Benn as Postmaster General

Tony Benn as Postmaster General