Tag Archives: human letter

Suffragette “human letters”

This week there have been a number of commemorations and memorial events marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffrage campaigner who famously ran on to the course at the Epsom Downs Derby and was knocked down by the King’s horse. While Davison’s was one of the most extreme acts of protest in the campaign for votes for women, other lesser-known stunts are just as noteworthy.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the East Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street, 23rd February 1909.

A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street, 23rd February 1909.

The Royal Mail Archive holds a file on this event (POST 30/1655a), which includes a Post Office Express Service form showing that the suffragettes were charged 3d and that the recipient did not sign for the “letters” delivered by A.S. Palmer.

Post Office Express Service form for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

Post Office Express Service form for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

As per Post Office regulations, Palmer had to write a report explaining why he had not obtained a signature for the delivery of the “letters”. This is also within the file; it reads:

23 February 1909

The Postmaster,

Sir, I beg to state in reply to the above report that I took the Ladies to Mr Asquith’s house but the police would not let them go in. I went in but the butler would not sign the form because he did not have the letters to sign for, because the ladies themselves said they were the letters. And Mr Asquith refused to see them.

I am

Sir

Your Obedient Servant

A.S. Palmer

[Messenger number] 25

A.S Palmer's report explaining why he did not obtain a signature for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

A.S Palmer’s report explaining why he did not obtain a signature for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

This fascinating and little-known story of women’s suffrage was the subject of a podcast featuring Dr Katherine Rake. Listen and download BPMA Podcast #3 – Human Letters for free from BPMA Podcast, iTunes or Soundcloud.

See large scans of the documents mentioned in this blog in our Flickr set Human Letters.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post

From pepper in the letters to postcard propaganda, the history of suffragettes has more sticky situations than a book of stamps.

US stamp commemorating Votes for Women

US stamp commemorating Votes for Women

The new foyer display at The Women’s Library, Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post, explores how suffragettes saw the Post Office as both a means of mass communication and a symbol of the oppressive male Government; as friend and simultaneously foe.

During the campaign to win women the vote, militant and moderate suffragettes alike used and attacked the postal system to increase the momentum of their campaign and to ensure frequent media coverage. And with over 32,500 pillar boxes in place by 1900, the scope for direct action was almost without limits.

Militant Tactics

A letter damaged by suffragette action

A letter damaged by suffragette action

Members of the WSPU, including the Pankhursts, smashed post office windows, poured acid in pillar boxes, set fire to post boxes and put pepper in letters addressed to anti-suffrage MPs.

The suffragettes Daisy Solomon and Elspeth McClellan even posted themselves to Prime Minister Asquith, with demands for the vote written across them like human letters.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post includes a fascinating selection of postcards, stamps and audio accounts from those who took part in some of the most daring postal dramas as well as the world’s first suffrage stamp, the prison diary of a suffragette charged with smashing post office windows, newspaper cuttings and the world’s earliest known suffrage postcard.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post is at The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT until October. For further details please see the Women’s Library website.

Fe:MAIL Event: Suffrage Postal Campaigns
Tuesday 11 May, 7pm (60 minutes)
£8/£6 concessions

Norman Watson, postal historian and co-curator of Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post, explores one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of the post: how the suffrage movement exploited the mail service. Using postcards, letters and photographs he examines the insightful and sometimes curious ways in which Edwardian campaigners embraced this new mass communication system.

For further information on this event please see the Women’s Library website.

The man who posted his dog and other reasons to visit a stamp show

by Jennifer Flippance, London 2010 Project Officer

Stamp shows are an important element of philately and stamp collecting, providing an opportunity for collectors to catch up with friends, purchase items, exchange material, attend society meetings and enter their collections in competition.

Visitors and traders at Westbex 2009

Visitors and traders at WestBex 2009

Last weekend, I took a trip out to the first show of the year to be held by one of the regional federations of the Association of British Philatelic Societies, the Thames Valley & District Philatelic Federation stamp show – Westbex 2009.  It was hosted by the Thatcham and District Philatelic Society, a popular stamp club of over 80 members who meet twice a month.  The show took up two halls in a local school, which were mainly filled with dealers, catering for a wide range of tastes and budgets.

In addition there were prize-winning displays from members.  Stamp collecting has an active competitive element.  Enthusiasts collect, write up and display a topic of their choosing and these displays can be entered into a variety of classes.  These range from the more formal classes like traditional philately and postal history, but also include thematic classes and open classes where a much wider range of material, beyond stamps, can be displayed.

The National Philatelic Society also held a meeting where members could present a small selection of their collection.  These covered a broad range of subjects, from Machin stamps to posted autographs, to the history of the Post Office Savings Bank.

Viewing the competition entries, WestBex 2009

I found one prize-winning exhibit particularly interesting.  Its subject was W. Reginald Bray (1879-1939), who experimented by sending items through the post that challenged the postal system, for example, by being unusual objects or through having challenging addresses.

Bray posted himself (he is actually believed to be the first ‘human letter’) and the family dog, along with less animated items such as a turnip, sheep’s skull and bowler hat.

Some of the fascinating items on display from this eccentric individual included postcards made from shirt cuffs and others addressed, ‘to a resident of…‘ followed by an image of the town cut from a picture postcard with no other clue as to where it might be.  Some letters had addresses written in verse or picture puzzles.  Many were returned, officially stamped (and you can imagine the rather vexed postal employee) ‘CONTRARY TO REGULATIONS’ or ‘INSUFFICIENTLY ADDRESSED’. 

Next year, ABPS regional shows like WestBex, will form part of the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, aiming to attract new members to this rewarding hobby.  The dates of 2010 shows are available at www.london2010.org.uk/exhibitions-and-events