Tag Archives: Ian Wilkinson

The Post Office in Chesham

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

As part of our commitment to providing access to Britain’s postal heritage, BPMA occasionally loans objects from its collection to other museums in order to help support displays relating to the social history of the Post Office across the country, and ensure as many people as possible are able to enjoy and learn from them.

Postal van postcard (2009-0081/671).

Postal van postcard (2009-0081/671).

Chesham Museum currently has an exhibition about ‘The Post Office in Chesham’ which uses photographs and objects to examine the history of Chesham post office and its place within the community. Followers of our blog may remember that the Wilkinson collection, which was catalogued in 2009, is a collection of postal ephemera, primarily model letter boxes and vehicles collected by one Ian Wilkinson, resident of Chesham. The exhibition at Chesham Museum features a section on Ian Wilkinson as ‘Chesham’s little known collector of Post Office memorabilia’ and BPMA has leant a few objects from the Wilkinson collection to help tell this story.

Chesham model letter box (2009-0081/035).
Chesham model letter box (2009-0081/035).

Amongst these is a model letter box with the Chesham coat of arms on the front which is thought to be one of the first items collected by Ian Wilkinson. Also on loan is a postcard in the shape of a postal van (pictured above) and one of my favourite items from the Wilkinson collection, a ceramic letter rack in the shape of an envelope addressed to Ian Wilkinson at his Chesham address in ‘Germaines Close’ [now Germains] not far from Chesham Museum. The letter rack was made around 1985 either by, or for, Ian Wilkinson and is typical of the quirky individual nature of the collection. BPMA has also leant some handstamps from our collection relating to places within Chesham such as Ashley Green and Great Hivings to illustrate the wider history of Chesham post office.

If any of you wish to see these objects and many more from Chesham’s own collection, the exhibition continues until Wednesday 19 October and can be visited on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 11am until 3pm. Please see Chesham Museum’s website for further details.

The Wilkinson Collection on Flickr

Model letter box cigarette holder

A model letter box made of metal and brown leather. Quite decorative in style, it may well have been used to hold cigarettes.

Today we added some photos of items from the Wilkinson Collection to Flickr. The Wilkinson Collection is named after the late Ian Wilkinson, who collected over 3000 objects related to post boxes and the postal service. Amongst the items are money boxes, model letter boxes and model vehicles; some feature characters such as Snoopy, Mickey Mouse or Postman Pat, or were manufactured by companies such as Lego, Fisher Price or Dinky.

The BPMA’s predecessor, the National Postal Museum, received the Wilkinson Collection in 1989, but it is only in the past year that it has been catalogued by Collections Cataloguer Emma Harper, and made available on our online catalogue (read more about this in Emma’s blogs).

The photos we’ve put on Flickr today show some of the Collection’s highlights and oddities, from a Mickey Mouse money box to a letter box cigarette holder. There really is something for everyone in the Wilkinson Collection!

Wilkinson Secondary Collection and Issues of Disposal

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections) 

You may have noticed that since my last blog around 850 objects from the Wilkinson Collection have been added to our online catalogue. These are the objects that I have been cataloguing in the past months; however, these are not the full extent of the collection. In the case of the Wilkinson collection we thought that the sheer size of the collection meant that it was unlikely we would catalogue every single object. Moreover, as I have stressed throughout my blogs, the collection is very diverse and contains things that were often not directly relevant to our collecting policy. For this reason we decided to catalogue what we saw as the core of the Wilkinson collection, the model letter boxes and vehicles, which could also include some of the more ‘popular’ items such as the Postman Pat objects. Which begs the question, what have we done with the rest?

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

Over 1000 objects have been kept at what we are calling a ‘Secondary Collection’ level. These are objects which we do not consider are the ‘core’ of the collection, things that Ian Wilkinson began to collect later on in his life, rather than those objects that were the original inspiration for the collection. These include items such as mugs, plates, books, badges, key-rings, and ephemera such as birthday and greeting cards. All of these objects have some reference to the postal world on them, even if it was sometimes a challenge to find them!

Information is still recorded about these objects, such as a description of the object (including any defining features), measurements and their present location. However, instead of cataloguing them on the database, this material is kept in the object history file and electronically on our computer system. As a result, if anyone does want to see any of the objects in the secondary collection we can initially provide them with information about the object and, if they want to, arrange for them to view the object itself. This system gives us as a museum much more flexibility. Whilst we will obviously still care for the objects to the same standard as if they were catalogued, we can be a little freer with their use. They can, and hopefully will, be used as a handling collection, and in education sessions, to give people a wider experience of museum objects without them or us worrying as much about damage or breakages.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

As a result, the Secondary Collection not only includes those items that are less relevant but also some objects that fall into the core groups but are not in quite as good condition. Condition of an object is an important issue to consider when cataloguing objects. Some materials can deteriorate quickly and actually affect the condition of other objects as they do so. As a result, some objects, if they were severely damaged, or deteriorating and would continue to do so at a rapid pace, would not be catalogued and would instead be disposed of.

Throughout the museum sector there is a strong presumption against disposal. However, it is recognised that in some circumstances disposal is the sensible option for the benefit of the museum collection as a whole, as well as the individual object. In the past museums have often collected anything and everything without any clear idea of why or how they can benefit the museum. This has often led to problems of space and stretched resources. Nowadays, museums are much more aware of these problems and put in place measures to ensure that nothing is collected or kept that cannot be properly cared for, or might damage other objects in the collection.

The BPMA’s ‘Acquisition and Disposal’ policy states that ‘Material will not usually be acquired if identical, or significantly similar, items already exist in the Collections’ and that ‘Existing collections [eg. Wilkinson collection] will be subject to regular professional reviews to ensure they are in line with [this] current collecting policy.’

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

It is this review process that I have been carrying out as I have catalogued the Wilkinson Collection. Many of the objects in the collection were duplicated either within the Wilkinson Collection itself, or occasionally in the wider BPMA collection. When I found a duplicated object I would get both objects out of the store to compare their condition. If one was in a worse condition than the other, for example, in the case of the model letter boxes, if one was more scratched or the paint work was peeling, then I would put that object to one side to consult with the curator what the next step should be.

Once a decision had been made as to whether an object should be disposed of, all relevant information about the item is recorded: this includes a description of the object, whether copyright is known; measurements are taken and the object is photographed. All of this information is stored physically in the Wilkinson collection’s history file, and electronically on our computers, like the Secondary Collection. As you can see, the disposal process is very similar to the cataloguing one. This way, we still have a lot of the information about the object but the condition and/or material of the object is not a threat to the collection.

Popular characters in the Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

In my last blog there was a picture of a letter box with Mickey Mouse on it. This is just one of many items in the Wilkinson Collection that has images of characters from popular culture on it. Some of these have specifically postal links, the most obvious being Postman Pat, others are there because the objects are primarily directed at children. It may be that you collected objects with Disney characters on, or were a fan of Danger Mouse when you were younger, or still do now! I know I was particularly excited when I found a money box tin in the shape of the old Police public call boxes only to find that it was in fact a model Tardis with none other than Tom Baker as Doctor Who on the front, complete with his iconic long stripey scarf, something that brought back memories of my own childhood. There are many items like these in the Wilkinson Collection.

Danger Mouse Talc Container

Danger Mouse Talc Container

After Postman Pat, the most postally relevant popular character to appear in the Wilkinson Collection is Danger Mouse and his side-kick, Penfold, named after the designer of one of Britain’s best loved pillar box. Despite the name Penfold, the pair actually lived in an Anonymous pillar box and it is this that ensured their inclusion in the collection. One of the items that features the pair is a model plastic letter box which was also a bubble bath container. Another is a container for talcum powder (left) which shows Penfold holding onto a rope inside the letter box with Danger Mouse standing next to him. That a programme such as Danger Mouse can use a letter box as the hero’s home shows how instantly recognisable letter boxes are and makes an everyday object part of another world.

Some of the model letter boxes in the collection are also musical boxes. One of these shows the dog ‘Dougal’ from the television series ‘The Magic Roundabout’. However, this object also has a more serious message as on the back is a decimal currency conversion chart complete with pictures of the new coins. This is another common theme used on model letter boxes made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, – the period when Britain changed from an imperial to a decimal currency – and shows how important an issue it was. Indeed, the post office itself was involved in organising aspects of the change-over.

Ian Wilkinson also collected model post vehicles (pictured below), one of which shows a US mail car being driven by the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip character Snoopy. The car has paw prints on it and ‘SNOOPY/ US MAIL’ is inscribed on the sides. Maybe seeing their favourite cartoon character drive a mail car inspired some children to work as a postman/ woman when they were older, I’m sure Postman Pat must be responsible for a few recruits! Other popular characters that appear throughout the collection are Paddington Bear, Felix the cat and Spot the dog. There is also a tin depicting Coronation Street, which includes a letter box!

A group of vehicles from the Wilkinson Collection, including a US mail car with Snoopy

A group of vehicles from the Wilkinson Collection, including a US mail car with Snoopy

I had a lot of fun cataloguing these items as not only were they things I had enjoyed as a child, but they were also not what I had expected to find in the collection. This highlights how diverse and unusual collections can become. If you recognise any of the objects mentioned here, or have similar ones do please respond with your own memories!

Different uses of objects in the Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

I mentioned in my last blog that a large number of objects in the Wilkinson Collection, whilst collected because they had a letter box on them, also had a particular use or function. It is this wide ranging group that I thought I would focus on in this blog.

Mickey Mouse money box

Mickey Mouse money box

The most common functional item that Ian Wilkinson collected is the money box in the shape and design of a letter box. These are as varied in their design as letter boxes themselves, and probably deserve an entire blog post. Some have characters such as Mickey Mouse on them, others are traditional reproductions. Most have a small plastic plug in the base to retrieve the money. However, some designers seemed to have forgotten this important item, resulting in a few of the money boxes having scratch marks around the apertures from attempts to rescue the money.

Sammy the Stamp Bug stamp wetter

Sammy the Stamp Bug stamp wetter

Some of the functions of the model letter boxes are postally relevant. For example, there are a couple of models that also act as letter racks as well as some letter openers with models of the Penfold letter box at the end of the handle. Perhaps the most postally relevant and unusual item is the model letter box that is a portable stamp wetter. This consists of a plastic container in the shape of a letter box in red and black. On one side is inscribed the instruction ‘Fill capsule with water and use to wet your stamps’. This ingenious device also features ‘Sammy the Stamp bug’ who was a promotional feature of the Royal Mail Stamp Bug Club, founded in 1980 to encourage young people to collect stamps. After the first six months the club already had 25,000 members; the cost of joining was just 50 pence.

Postman Pat pencil case

Postman Pat pencil case

Other model letter boxes have uses across many different areas. For example, in the kitchen you might find a letter box teapot, jug, or salt and pepper shakers. In the office you could keep your letters in a letter box letter rack and keep your papers tidy with a letter box paperweight. Brush your hair with a letter box comb; keep your place in your favourite book with a letter box bookmark. Kids can keep their pens and pencils in a letter box pencil case with Postman Pat on the front, and finally, when you leave the house, you can lock the door with your keys firmly attached to a letter box key ring!

All of these items and more can be found in the Wilkinson Collection. This not only shows the wide ranging influence of the letter box but also shows the many different directions that collecting can take you in. I’m sure Ian Wilkinson had little concept of the diverse range of objects that portrayed letter boxes when he started to collect them, yet the collection is all the more interesting for it.

A group of novelty items in the Wilkinson Collection

A group of novelty items in the Wilkinson Collection

The Wilkinson Collection – Model china letter boxes.

By Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

A large part of the Wilkinson Collection consists of model china letter boxes and it is these that I have been cataloguing over the past weeks. Although many of the objects collected by Ian Wilkinson were collected for their visual interest – the fact that they depicted a letter box in some way – they were normally manufactured as partly functional objects, such as money boxes. However, the model china letter boxes are unusual, in that they are purely decorative.

Plate 1: Chesham model letter box

Plate 1: Chesham model letter box

One of the main jobs of a cataloguer is to describe each object as well as possible without spending a day on each object! The main aspects that are recorded are the size, material, colour and condition of the object as well as any distinguishing features such as inscriptions. This information helps to identify objects and allows potential researchers to judge whether an object is of relevance or interest to their research. This also prolongs the life of the objects, as it decreases handling, which can affect an object’s condition.

Plate 2: Good Luck from Worthing

Plate 2: Good Luck from Worthing

The object in plate 1 shows the standard form these models take. They are usually, but not always, white, with some form of decoration and motto on them. Many of them celebrate a particular town or county and it is easy to see how they would be attractive to residents as well as holiday momentos for tourists. The two common mottos found on these letter boxes – ‘I can’t get a letter from you so send you the box’ and ‘If you haven’t time to post a line, here’s the letter box’ – also suggest that these were bought almost as 3D holiday postcards. Indeed, the letter box in plate 2 says ‘Good Luck from Worthing’ on the top.

Plate 3: Rugby model letter box

Plate 3: Rugby model letter box

The letter box in plate 1 celebrates the town of Chesham, where Ian Wilkinson lived. As is the case here, a lot of the model china letter boxes show a coat of arms for the town or county in question. These can be useful for dating the objects as for some places their coats of arms were granted relatively recently. For example, plate 3 shows a letter box with the coat of arms for Rugby, which was granted in 1932. However, in the mid 1970s the borough was enlarged and a new coat of arms was granted in 1976. As a result it is likely that this letter box (bearing the old coat of arms) was produced sometime between 1932 and 1976. However, dating objects using this method is not always reliable as the coat of arms shown on Chesham letter box (plate 1) is a different coat of arms than the official one used by Chesham.

Having said that these model china letter boxes take a standard form this is not to say that they are all the same. As plate 4 shows they come in different shapes, some have apertures (letter slots) on the front, some have inscriptions on the top, some on the back, some are quite elaborate, others quite plain. As with the Wilkinson collection as a whole, variety is the spice of life!

Plate 4: Different model china letter boxes from the Wilkinson Collection

Plate 4: Different model china letter boxes from the Wilkinson Collection