Tag Archives: history

Stamps Celebrate British Sporting Legends

The 16th of July 2015 will mark 60 years since legendary British racing car driver Stirling Moss won his first Grand Prix at Aintree, becoming the first British man to win on home turf. With this month’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone and Andy Murray’s efforts at Wimbledon I thought we could take a moment to look at the stamps that celebrate our sporting men and woman.

As an avid Formula 1 fan (“Come on Jenson!!”) we can’t forget the developments of F1 and the dangers those earliest drivers put themselves under. The 2007 Grand Prix Racing Car stamps depict Stirling in his 2.5L Vanwall, which when compared to the modern day Mercedes has very little protection for the driver. He paved the way for British racing car drivers and now the World Championship has been won by a British man 15 times.

Grand Prix 2007 Stirling Moss - 1st NVI

Grand Prix 2007 Stirling Moss – 1st NVI

Mercedes F1 W06 Hybrid 2015

Mercedes F1 W06 Hybrid 2015

In 2012 Britain was lucky enough to host The Olympic and Paralympic Games showcasing the talents of British sportsmen and women. I myself was glued to the TV, watching sports I’d never seen before but was fascinated by the skill of the professionals. As a country we were able to boast a total of 65 Olympic medals and 120 Paralympic medals. The Gold Medal Winner stamps from 2012 celebrate the achievements of these individuals/teams and act as symbols of national pride.

Team GB Gold Medal Winners 2012 Bradley Wiggins - 1st NVI

Team GB Gold Medal Winners 2012 Bradley Wiggins – 1st NVI

Paralympics Team GB Gold Medal Winners Ellie Simmonds 2012 - 1st NVI

Paralympics Team GB Gold Medal Winners Ellie Simmonds 2012 – 1st NVI

Stirling Moss may have been the first to win a race on home soil but Andy Murray in 2013 conquered Wimbledon after a 77 year gap since the last Brit had managed it. Fred Perry won that tournament in 1936 and since then it has been dominated by the likes of; Björn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. It was electric watching the winning point followed by the triumphant celebrations across the court and the surrounding grounds. As a celebration of his achievements four 1st class stamps were produced of Murray at Wimbledon

Andy Murray - Gentlemen's Singles Champion Wimbledon 2013 - 1st NVI

Andy Murray – Gentlemen’s Singles Champion Wimbledon 2013 – 1st NVI

It is not only individual sporting achievement that is recognized on our postage stamps but also national teams. Miniature sheets were produced when England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 and when the England Cricketers took home the Ashes in 2005. These products hopefully inspire young children to follow in their footsteps.

England's Victory in Rugby World Cup Championship, Australia 2003 Miniature Sheet

England’s Victory in Rugby World Cup Championship, Australia 2003 Miniature Sheet

England's Ashes Victory 2005 Miniature Sheet

England’s Ashes Victory 2005 Miniature Sheet

Depicting sports men and woman on stamps not only celebrates their achievement but becomes a historical record. These products will be collected and remembered for years to come. It also highlights that people from all walks of life can appear on stamps, it is not their heritage but there contribution to national achievement that is commemorated. 

– Georgina Tomlinson Philatelic Assistant

Stamps: Why the Portrait?

As an Art Historian (now Philatelic Assistant) I have always been fascinated by the portrait and a stamp in itself is a miniature piece of art. To understand why the Queen’s head appears as it does on GB stamps we need to first understand the significance of the portrait historically.

Some of the earliest profile portraits were produced by the Romans for their coins and medals.  Images of the Emperors illustrated their power and importance and thus the profile became synonymous with these characteristics. It was also a way of distributing the face of their leader, who many would never have seen.

Roman Coin

Roman Coin

We can see the influence of these artefacts in the work of Renaissance artists who tried to recreate this sense of power in their portraits of the wealthy. This is evident in the portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife by Piero della Francesca who are both depicted in profile facing one another. Yet this composition had to be used as the Duke had previously lost his right eye in a tournament. You can also see the significance of the medal in Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo De Medici’ c.1474-75.

Piero della Francesca 'Duke of Urbibo' c1467-1470

Piero della Francesca ‘Duke of Urbino’ c.1467-1470

Sandro Botticelli 'Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder' c1474-75

Sandro Botticelli ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder’ c.1474-75

However the initial portrait of Queen Elizabeth II used for postage was not in fact a profile. Instead it was a three quarter view of Her Majesty photographed by Dorothy Wilding in 1952. Though adequate as a Definitive stamp –  the Wilding design was found to be overly challenging for many stamp designers as it took up to one third of the stamp’s area and subsequently compromised the design of the stamp.

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

As a solution to this problem Tony Benn (Post Master General 1964-66) along with designer David Gentleman introduced the idea of removing the Queen’s head altogether. Initial ideas were produced, however in 1965 the Queen decided she wished to remain on the stamp. This led to the small profile silhouette on commemorative stamps being used instead, reminiscent of those produced in the 18th century of the English high society.

1965 Churchill Commemorative

Churchill Commemorative without the Queen’s Head 1965

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

To produce a profile portrait of the Queen, The Royal Mail approached the British sculptor Arnold Machin. He took inspiration from the simplicity of the Penny Black portrait, which was based on a medal of Queen Victoria by William Wyon. This again acknowledges the historical importance of the profile.

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

William Wyon Medal

William Wyon Medal

The image of the Queen we see today is not only practical for producing stamps but also evokes the idea of power and importance, circulating her image to the nation. The significance of the portrait on a stamp is not merely a representation of the person but as a symbol of their significance. Commemorative stamps elevate the importance of an individual by allowing them to feature prominently on the stamp, though the Queen still remains dominant as the accompanying silhouette.

Winston Churchill 1st (October 14 2014)

Winston Churchill 1st NVI (October 14 2014)

Next time you see a photograph of yourself have a think what you would look like on a postage stamp?

– Georgina Tomlinson Philatelic Assistant.

The Royal Mail – Past and Present

Join me, Duncan Campbell-Smith, on the 24th October at the Guildhall Library where I will be giving a fascinating talk addressing some of the great innovations of the past that have reshaped the Royal Mail. Reviewing the origins of the post as a state-owned service and subsequent moves to reform it from time to time, I will show why some of the most important postal reformers – from Ralph Allen and John Palmer to Rowland Hill himself – might have identified strongly with the logic behind this month’s privatisation.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

Turning to the 20th century, I will look at the attempts to launch a privatisation of the Mail and examine some of the reasons why it did not come sooner. The demands of the Second World War and the security of the state postponed serious consideration of any sale until the 1960s, but it then became a recurring theme of the postal story for more than a half-century.

The talk will use the ups and downs of the privatisation debate as a way of surveying the broad trends in postal history over the centuries. As the author of the Royal Mail’s official history, Masters of the Post, I will also be sure to include some of my favourite anecdotes from the book.

– Duncan Campbell-Smith

Book for Duncan’s talk The Royal Mail – Past and Present via EventBrite. There will be a drinks reception from 6pm, following by the talk from 7pm.

What the privatisation of Royal Mail means to us

Our Director Adrian Steel gives a historical perspective on today’s announcement that Royal Mail will soon be privatised.

The human need to communicate is ever present. But to give a historical perspective on the British postal service – details of the sale of which have been announced today – the usual starting point is the creation of the office of ‘Master of the Posts’ in 1512, its endorsement in 1517, or the Royal Proclamation of 31 July 1635 which effectively saw the opening of the ‘Royal Mail’ to public use. The last of these is most frequently given as the start of what is now the Royal Mail business.

The King's Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail's origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

The King’s Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail’s origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

Throughout most of its existence the service has been the subject of public and political debate. The tension between the need for it to run as a business and turn a profit (which at times in the 17th century was paid to those who bought what was effectively the ‘farm’ of revenue for a part of the service – we have the accounts in the Royal Mail Archive), and the need for it to provide a socially necessary service, is ongoing and – as underpins Duncan Campbell-Smith’s authoritative 2011 history Masters of the Post – recurrent.

The political importance of the postal service is by and large a constant. For a good part of its early history there were two Postmasters General – (usually) one Whig and one Tory – as shown by our POST 67 archive series containing appointment Letters Patent. The 19th century expansion as a result of postal reform was a transformative national event, one that saw what had by then become known as the Post Office permeate literature from Dickens to Trollope (who was himself a Surveyor for the Post Office and credited with the creation of the pillar box). In the early 20th century the service grew to encompass the infant telephone system, saw politicians such as Austen and Neville Chamberlain and Clement Attlee cut their teeth in government as Postmaster General, and the first extended thought on whether a government department really was the right vehicle for what the Post Office did. Harold Wilson’s government – whose Postmaster Generals include the only surviving holder of this office, Roy Mason and Tony Benn – converted the Post Office into a state-owned corporation via the 1969 Post Office Act. After that, the telephone service was separated and later sold as British Telecom, and in the past 15 years two Postal Services Acts have again changed the status of the organisation. The most recent, that of 2011, is the legislation that has led to today’s announcement.

Central Telephone Exchange - telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

Central Telephone Exchange – telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

During the debates on the 2011 Act, concern was expressed across the political spectrum that Britain’s postal heritage, as cared for by the BPMA, should be safeguarded. At the time I took part in correspondence with a number of interested politicians and Ministers and we had visits from All-Party Groups, individual Peers and MPs from all parties (and none), and from Coalition ministers. Amendments were tabled and discussed and eventually a clause added to what was already in the then Bill, ensuring that the heritage of the postal service was properly cared for and reported to Parliament upon even after a privatisation such as was announced today. With this protection and support behind us, plans for our new home well advanced, and ongoing support from politicians, Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, BPMA looks forward to providing a first class home for this great service’s history for generations to come.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

For more on the history of the Royal Mail see our online exhibition The Peoples Post.

Duncan Campbell-Smith, author of Masters of the Post – The Authorized History of the Royal Mail will speak on The Royal Mail Past and Present at the Guildhall Library on 24 October 2013.

Mr Poppleton’s Horse

One of the most popular items in our collection is this sick note issued for a horse in 1898. “Mr T C Poppleton’s horse of The Post Office is suffering from sore shoulders and unable to perform his official duties” the note reads.

Horse's sick note, 1898 (POST 10/334)

Horse’s sick note, 1898 (POST 10/334)

By the late 19th Century the volume of mail delivered every day by horse was huge – and growing. And in this pre-motor vehicle era it’s no wonder horses had to be signed-off due to over work.

Our Senior Curator Julian Stray will give a talk at the Royal Mail Archive on Thursday 19th September about the role played by horses in the Post Office. He’ll tell the full story of the sick note for Mr Poppleton’s horse alongside tales (and tails) stretching from Roman Britain to the post-war era. This promises to be a fascinating evening of history, with a little bit of horsing around!

Horse-drawn mail van, 1887.

Horse-drawn mail van, 1887.

Book now for Julian Stray’s talk Mr Poppleton’s Horse: The History of Horse-Drawn Mails. See a selection of images depicting Horse-Drawn Mail on Flickr.

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.

Historic Duplicate Stamp Sale to Benefit New Home for The British Postal Museum & Archive

  • Sotheby’s will stage an historic auction featuring duplicate stamps from the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA)
  • Important sale, estimated by Sotheby’s to bring in excess of £5 million, will support a spectacular new home for the British Postal Museum & Archive, set to open in early 2016
  • State-of-the-art centre will represent an exciting addition to London’s cultural landscape, showcasing the BPMA’s world-class collections and celebrating a unique aspect of British heritage
  • New museum will serve as a key cultural hub as part of a major regeneration scheme in Camden & Islington

On 11th July 2013 Sotheby’s will stage an historic auction featuring surplus duplicate stamps from the British Postal Museum & Archive. The auction will provide essential funds for a state-of-the-art new home for the BPMA, representing an exciting addition to London’s cultural landscape when it opens in 2016.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

New Home for Britain’s Postal History

Described by Mayor of London Boris Johnson as “a national treasure of global importance”, the BPMA is the leading resource for all aspects of British postal heritage. It cares for the visual and written records of 400 years of British postal, social and design history, comprising over 60,000 artefacts and 2.5 miles of archives. Together, the collections and archive tell a fascinating human story of British communication, industry and innovation, illuminating and celebrating a unique and integral part of the nation’s heritage.

Under a scheme endorsed by the Government and backed by Britain’s leading heritage organisations, the BPMA is planning a new Postal Museum and Archive to provide a first class home for its archive and collections, which are currently held in storage and largely inaccessible to the general public. The new centre will be situated in Calthorpe House, in the London Borough of Camden, adjoining the country’s oldest mail centre at Mount Pleasant.

World-class Archive and Collections

As well as featuring a purpose-built archive repository, the new Postal Museum and Archive will feature spectacular exhibition spaces to showcase the BPMA’s archive and collections, which range from postal vehicles to pillar boxes, staff records, posters, photographs, uniforms, weapons and the world’s greatest collection of British stamps.

Poster: 79,242 Postmen, Duncan Grant, 1939.

Poster: 79,242 Postmen, Duncan Grant, 1939.

Highlights include every British stamp issued from 1840 to the present day; original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial; the world’s first commercial Christmas card produced in 1843; a 1930s art-deco Mobile Post Office; Valentine’s Day cards dating from c. 1790; telegrams relating to the Titanic disaster; weapons used to protect the mail against theft or piracy; a digital Oral History collection recounting the personal stories of hundreds of current and retired postal staff from around Britain; a first edition of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, intercepted in the post for being obscene; uniforms of Victorian River Postmen; a Travelling Post Office railway coach; films produced by the iconic GPO film unit; telegrams sent by the royal family; medals awarded to Post Office Employees including a rare Victoria Cross; and posters, prints and paintings by celebrated artists including Edward Bawden, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

Understanding and celebrating Britain’s postal heritage and wider social history

The new Postal Museum and Archive will feature a state-of-the-art education centre and extensive research facilities, designed to encourage school children, students and the wider public to learn from and be inspired by postal heritage in all its depth and context. The new education space will increase the BPMA’s annual educational engagement from 2,000 to 12,000 pupils, representing a 600% increase on its current offering.

Key examples of how the BPMA’s collections reflect Britain’s social history:

  • In 1840 the launch of the Penny Black, the world’s first prepaid stamp, encouraged people to write and became a vehicle for education, friendship and commerce
  • The opening of Post Office Savings Bank backed by the Government in 1861 encouraged people of all walks of life to save money safely and to help combat debt
  • W. Reginald Bray became the first ‘human letter’ when he posted himself, later emulated by two suffragettes who attempted to have themselves delivered to Downing Street
  • During WW1 the Post Office co-ordinated all army mail and by 1918 had 22,000 pigeons carrying messages to the front
  • In 1943 the world’s first programmable electronic computer was built by the GPO’s Tommy Flowers, helping to break many German encrypted codes during WW2

Mail Rail: London’s Best Kept Secret

As an added visitor attraction, the BPMA is exploring plans to convert a section of Mail Rail, the former underground Post Office railway network. Introduced in 1927 and operational until 2003, Mail Rail was the world’s first driverless electrified railway, which revolutionised the delivery of mail in the UK. To this day it remains the world’s only dedicated underground mail transport system, representing an important and largely unseen element of Britain’s industrial heritage.

Poster design: Post Office Tube Railway, Edward Bawden, c. 1935.

Poster design: Post Office Tube Railway, Edward Bawden, c. 1935.

Subject to sufficient funding, the Mail Rail depot at Mount Pleasant will be transformed into an immersive visitor centre, introducing a fascinating 15 minute ride on the Mail Rail network on newly-designed trains through the existing tunnels.

Benefitting the local area and contributing to an improved sense of community

Bridging the boroughs of Camden and Islington, the new Postal Museum and Archive will serve as an important cultural hub and community resource. As well as offering cultural and training opportunities for young people, the BPMA will organise out-of-school cultural opportunities and strong community outreach programmes, contributing to a vibrant Camden and Islington.

Historic Stamp Sale

The project to develop the new Postal Museum and Archive will cost approximately £22 million and a fundraising campaign is currently underway, with considerable support from Royal Mail and Post Office Limited. Other funding is in place from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from the BPMA itself.

As part of the fundraising campaign, the BPMA is pursuing two sales of surplus duplicate philatelic material currently held in its custody though not part of its accessioned collections. The historic auctions will take place at Sotheby’s, which held the first ever stamp auction in Europe in 1872. The first sale, held on 11th July 2013, will comprise 191 lots and is estimated by Sotheby’s to bring in excess of £5 million.

One of the duplicate items for sale: Seahorse ‘Registration’ sheets, 1923, one of only two such sheets in existence.

One of the duplicate items for sale: Seahorse ‘Registration’ sheets, 1923, one of only two such sheets in existence.

Adrian Steel, Director of the BPMA, said:

Since we first announced our project to open a new first class home for Britain’s postal heritage in London last year we have received widespread support, and following last month’s announcement of this sale it has been great to receive encouragement from those who want to play their part in our fundraising campaign by participating in the auction. The BPMA’s collections are of the utmost richness in iconic British heritage and engaging personal stories, and from family historians to families who want to immerse themselves in something new as part of a day out in London, our new centre offers something sparkling with fascination and enjoyment for everyone. It will safeguard all our collections into the future, and by taking up the chance to own the rare philatelic specimens on offer at Sotheby’s, all potential buyers can feel proud that they are helping to safeguard the originals, and all our world class collections, from Penny Blacks to packet ship records, for the nation and the world to enjoy.

A Cup of Tea and its Consequences

Chris West explains how he came to write the book First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps.

Chris West

Chris West

Like many of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I had a stamp collection. A rather mediocre one… But one Sunday, I went to tea with my great uncle.

I happened to mention that I collected stamps, and Uncle Frank said he’d done that too. He disappeared and came back with a dark blue ‘Lincoln’ album. Inside was a treasurehouse of stamps featuring Edward VII and Queen Victoria – including a Penny Black (it had a corner missing, but still…) Frank then said that he didn’t really bother with them any longer – did I want them? The album became my pride and joy. I even took it to school to show everybody. Sadly, one viewer was so impressed that he stole half the stamps. The collection never felt the same afterwards, and vanished into an attic. Forty years later, I was cleaning out the attic when I came across the album. For a moment an old fury came back, but then I decided that a much healthier reaction was to reassemble the collection.

The 'Seahorse' stamp.

The ‘Seahorse’ stamp.

British Empire Exhibition 1924 stamp, 1d value.

British Empire Exhibition 1924 stamp, 1d value.

As I did this, I found myself ever more intrigued with the stamps, as items of beauty but also as tiny pieces of history. Who stuck this Penny Black on an envelope, and what was in the letter? More generally, what was Britain like at the time? I found envelopes that had been sent in Ireland around the time of the appalling famine, a Seahorse sent just before World War One, a stamp celebrating the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (an event I had never heard of, but which was as big as the Olympics in its day), an envelope that had enclosed a censored letter from World War Two, the classic 4d stamp celebrating the 1966 World Cup win… Stamps, I realised, tell stories.

Finally, I assembled these stories into a book, that would tell the nation’s tale through its stamps – or 36 of them, anyway. It’s been a joy to research and write. And all thanks to my great uncle and a cup of tea one Sunday afternoon.

First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps by Chris West (cover)

First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps is available from the BPMA online shop.

Chris West will give a talk based on First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps at the BPMA on Thursday 21 February 2013.

Masters of the Post wins award

The Business Archives Council (BAC) has announced that the winner of the 2011 BAC Wadsworth Prize for British Business History is Duncan Campbell-Smith for Masters of the Post – the Authorized History of Royal Mail. The prize was presented to Mr Campbell-Smith by the Chairman of the BAC, Dr Terry Gourvish, on 8 November.

Duncan Campbell-Smith blogged for us last year on the process of researching the book at the Royal Mail Archive. You can also see a video of Duncan Campbell-Smith at the Archive on YouTube.

Masters of the Post is the first complete history of the Royal Mail up to the present day. It presents the whole story of Britain’s postal service — how it was built, how it led the world for two hundred years and how it has struggled to survive in the face of mounting odds since the arrival of the internet.

Masters of the Post - The Authorized History of the Royal Mail

Purchase your copy of Masters of the Post from our online shop.