Tag Archives: human letters

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.

A Curious Culture of Letter Writing

In December 2011, as some of you may remember, BPMA and the BBC produced a collaborative radio series entitled the People’s Post. One episode of that series focussed on the culture of letter writing. Ever since this episode I have been intrigued by this subject and the many different forms letters have taken, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Century. As a result I decided to delve into the BPMA collection to see whether a culture of letter writing was reflected in the objects and files in the collection.

On Thursday 20th June at 7pm I’ll be giving a talk in which I use objects from our collection as a basis to explore how postal reform helped the development of this culture of letter writing and sharing some of the weird and wonderful things I’ve discovered.

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Some of the broader themes I’ll be looking at are the introduction of the penny post, the development of envelopes and postcards, as well as the sending of cards for special occasions such as Christmas. I am by no means a postal historian and this is much more an introduction to some of the main changes in the 19th Century postal system and how these are reflected in the objects I’ve found within the BPMA’s collection and the social history they tell.

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

These objects range from various Curious Addresses – the name given to envelopes where the address is presented in a different format such as a poem or a picture; Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; the Express Delivery form used by suffragettes to post themselves as ‘human letters‘ and an account of a kitten being sent through the post as well as numerous postcards and letters.

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

Come along to the Phoenix Centre, London, on Thursday 20th June at 7pm to find out more…

– Emma Harper, Curator

See images from the Curious Culture of Letter Writing on Flickr.