Tag Archives: Joanna

The Story behind Five Postal Uniforms

Ahead of next week’s talk, ‘Unstitching the Uniform’, Joanna Espin shares the fascinating stories behind five postal uniforms.

1/ Protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen I’ll start at the very beginning, with the first Royal Mail uniform, issued to Mail Coach Guards in 1784. Bold, militaristic and scarlet red, the Mail Coach Guard uniform was a symbol of authority; protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen, the guards had to look powerful. 1 The Mail Coach Guard cut an imposing figure but also generated a reputation for being popular with the ladies. The early 19th century song ‘The Mail Coach’ tracks a Mail Coach Guard’s journey through various pubs and his encounters with various women, including the ‘sweetheart so snug at the bar’, and the ‘sweet little girl in the moon’. In 1837, when a GPO uniform was issued to London Two Penny Postmen, its supposed effect on women was commented on in a leading periodical, which recommended the abolition of ‘this very martial attire, which elevated the Postman into a formidable rival to the policeman in his little flirtations with our female servants’.  Here’s an image from ‘The Mail Coach’ song sheet, depicting the Mail Coach Guard with ‘sweet Nan at the star’.

2/ ‘Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ As well as being a symbol of authority, uniform can be the object of derision, as demonstrated in this satirical cartoon of the Two Penny Postmens’ uniform. In 1837, Two Penny Postmen were issued with a coat, waistcoat and hat. Can you see what’s missing? Trousers. That’s because employees were expected to supply trousers themselves and so, very often, there was a juxtaposition between the smartness of the supplied uniform and the condition of the trousers. In the illustration here, the woman at the door exclaims ‘Goodness! Mr Doubleknokk. Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ To which the letter carrier replies: ‘O no mum! It’s the government dress. Hat, coat & waistcoat & no trousers.’ 2

3/ A dangerous job and Dr. Merrit’s medical gussets Mail has been delivered by many methods across greatly varying terrain and one interesting example of this is the River Post of the Port of London. Established in 1800 and continuing until 1952, the job of delivering post to vessels anchored in the Thames was a dangerous one: both the first person appointed to the post and his assistant died in separate accidents. Early River Postmen were issued with a unique, scarlet, full skirted frock coat, trimmed with brown velvet, and incorporating ‘Dr. Merritt’s medical gussets’, for ventilation. Here’s a fantastic early 20th century lantern slide of Thames river postman, George Henry Evans, on his rounds in a more simple uniform. Can you see Tower Bridge in the background? 3

4/ The first full uniform for postwomen War was a catalyst for two developments in postwomen’s uniform: the introduction of the first full uniform and, later, the introduction of trousers. In the First World War, thousands of married and single women were employed in temporary positions for the duration of the conflict, in roles previously reserved for men. In 1916, the first full uniform was issued to postwomen, though women had been working for the GPO in small numbers since the 18th century. By comparison, the entire male delivery force had been uniformed since 1872. Here 12 postwomen model the new uniform. 4 5/ Women wearing the trousers A further development in women’s uniform came during the Second World War: in 1941 postwomen were permitted to wear trousers instead of skirts. First requested by a Scottish Postwoman, Jean Cameron, the idea was quickly taken up by the GPO and proved popular, with more than 500 pairs of trousers ordered in two months. By November 1943, 14,000 pairs of women’s trousers, or ‘Camerons’ as they were referred to in reference to their pioneer, had been issued. Jean Cameron spoke of her excitement at being the first postwoman to wear trousers because “I shouldn’t be a woman if I wasn’t pleased to be the first to start a fashion”.  Female counter staff were still required to wear skirts, with the concession that they could forgo stockings, due to the ‘need for economy in clothes’. Here’s an image from 1941 of a postwoman in her Camerons. 5     I hope you can make it to my talk at 6pm on Thursday 26 March at Guildhall Library. There’ll be free wine!

#AskaCurator: Day in the life of a BPMA Curator

This Wednesday Curator Joanna Espin will be available to answer any questions you might have on Twitter for #AskACurator day! In today’s blog, she gives us an idea about what it means to be a BPMA Curator.

The main purpose of my job is to prepare the museum collection to move to our new museum.

Opening a box

Opening a box

I arrive at about 8:30am and my first task is to check the work progress spreadsheet, which shows all of the shelves in the repository and is colour coded to mark which shelves are ready to move and which ones are yet to be completed.  We are 93% of the way through housing aisles B-F and need to be at 100% by the end of the year.

Aisle F

Aisle F

This is my first job as a Curator and it is a fantastic opportunity to handle and house an amazingly diverse collection. I have re-housed so many interesting objects, including original evidence from the Great Train Robbery. I follow a strict procedure for auditing the collection, re-housing objects and updating their location.

Before it has been prepared for the move.

Before it has been prepared for the move.

As I am still quite new to the role, a part of the day may be dedicated to training. I have recently received manual handling training, and can proudly say that I can move a telephone kiosk when called to do so!

I moved to my current role from the BPMA Philatelic team and I spend one day a week with the Philatelic department, assisting with preparations to move the stamp artwork collection to a new storage facility. Our next task is to tie approximately 600 boxes with pink archival tape, to ensure the security of the boxes during the move.

I finish work at about 5pm. At the weekend I go home to Yorkshire and spend some time in the countryside with my border terrier.

Chester outside of the BPMA

Chester outside of the BPMA

Have any questions for me or the rest of the curatorial team? We would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below and we will answer you on Wednesday.

-Joanna Espin, Curator