Tag Archives: Last Post – Remembering the First World War

From research to panel: how my research made its way to the Last Post

Victoria Davis is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student who is conducting her research with the BPMA’s collections. In her first blog post for us, she talks about translating her research to two new panels for the Last Post exhibition. Last Post opens up this Friday in Ironbridge at the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

History PhDs have traditionally been non-collaborative based so the opportunity to work with the archive and gain practical experience within the heritage sector is something I relish. Moreover, given the First World War centenary fast approaching, it seemed fitting to be bringing the Post Office’s role during the war to the public eye.

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam, at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916. © IWM (Q 692)

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam,
at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916, as seen in Last Post panel. © IWM (Q 692)

The brief from the HLF was open to interpretation with the theme being stories of empire during the war to be displayed on two new pop-up exhibition panels. In an initial meeting, Sally (Learning Officer), Dominique (Exhibitions Officer) and I quickly came to the conclusion of ‘how long is a piece of string?’ The Post Office is a seemingly ubiquitous but often overlooked institution and during the war this was no different. With limited copy available – each panel containing a maximum of 300 words of text – the content would be something the general public could relate to. Panel one comprised the process of mail reaching the front lines.

Section of panel that Victoria contributed to for the Last Post.

Section of panel that Victoria contributed to for the Last Post.

Panel two considered the problems of shipping mail to the empire including the use of coded memos.

Section of panel on Delivering mail to the Empire.

Section of panel on Delivering mail to the Empire with research by Victoria.

What I love most about research is the jigsaw puzzle element, of just choosing documents to see what they offer and this project was no different. I was given free rein to find the most suitable sources for the two panels and the somewhat tricky task of finding an image that linked war, post and empire, in a timeframe of a mere six working days fitted in around my own research. The BPMA has a wealth of documents and I quickly established using the catalogue how much related to the transportation of mail. Armed with my list of catalogue references, I called up those that appeared to the most relevant. This is akin to a game of Russian roulette – you are never quite sure what will happen. Some were less than informative, the shipping contracts had little reference to the routes and problems faced. Others contained vast amounts of detailed information and statistics relating to mail services between 1914 and 1919. Whilst detailed sources are great, I did not have the space of thousands of words to do so in (unlike a thesis) and managed to contain the research to 5000 words. This may seem small – less than half a thesis chapter – but producing concise text to be used as copy with limited editing was a hard task.  Newspapers and periodicals were delivered only a mere 24 hours after publication at the height of the war!

My favourite two documents were POST 33/1211A and POST 56/5. The former contains statistic lists showing the amount of mail posted to the front lines between 1914 and 1919. Shamefully, I had never considered the volume of mail that the Army Postal Service handled. Moreover, I never thought stats would excite me but I spent one evening making a spreadsheet to show the weekly, monthly and yearly averages.

Map of Postal services in the Calais area, March 1918 (POST 56/5).

Map of Postal services in the Calais area, March 1918 (POST 56/5).

Between 1st October and 31st December of 1914, 1.2 million letters were delivered to troops (on top of the 3,477,800,000 letters and 132,700,000 parcels being handled as normal mail in 1914[1]).  POST 56/5 is a leather bound volume offering a detailed history of the Army Postal Service including hand drawn maps of how post was transferred once in France, complete with delivery times and mode of transport. Once my research had been emailed over, my part of the process had finished. I saw one version of the approved panel copy to double check facts and figures but the look, design and images used were to be a surprise. I felt quite nervous walking into the V&A that Friday evening, not knowing what to the expect. Seeing the panels and the full exhibition was a surreal moment. It was my research being read by the general public, something I will not forget. I am thankful that the BPMA gave me the opportunity and keeping me involved from start to finish. PhD students rarely see their research used publicly and it has spurred me on to widen the audience of my thesis research. -Victoria Davis, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student


[1]House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1913-1914 [Cd. 7573] Postmaster General Report of 1913-1914 p.1

World War I exhibition on tour

Last Post: Remembering the First World War, an exhibition curated by the BPMA and the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms, is once again on tour. The exhibition explores the vital role played by the Post Office during the First World War, telling the stories of postal workers at war and on the Home Front, and examining the essential role played by postal communications.

Last Post is currently on display at two venues, the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire, and the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Fife, Scotland. Later this year it will travel to the Guildhall Library, London, and Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum is a particularly apt venue for this exhibition on wartime communications. While Andrew Carnegie is best known for using his huge fortune to build libraries and cultural venues, and found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his early years he worked as a telegraph messenger.

At the aged of 13 Carnegie emigrated from Scotland to Pennsylvania with his family, securing a job two years later as a telegraph messenger boy at the Ohio Telegraph Company. Carnegie was quickly promoted to telegraph operator, but left aged 18 to work at the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company. By the time he was 20 Carnegie was investing in railway companies and learning about how they were managed; he was later to become rich through investments in the oil and steel industries.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries telegraphy was an important – and the fastest – means of communication, and Post Office telegraphists were vital to wartime communications. Last Post: Remembering the First World War examines the impact of telegraphy on the war, and includes rarely-seen images of frontline telecommunications from the BPMA and Imperial War Museum’s collections.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Visit our website to see the tour dates for Last Post: Remembering the First World War.

Andrew Carnegie’s life was commemorated on a United States postage stamp in 1960 – see it on Flickr.

Remembering the First World War in Hampshire

From today until Friday 27th September 2013 our exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War will be on display at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire.

Last Post explores the effect of the events of 1914-18 on the Post Office and its people and the contribution of postal communications to the war effort.

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. Many of the services that were reduced because of the war were never the same again. The volume of mail increased dramatically between 1914 and 1918, rising from 700,000 items in October 1914 to 13 million at its height.

Men sorting bags of parcels. (POST 56/6)

Men sorting bags of parcels. (POST 56/6)

The Post Office actively encouraged their staff to join the war effort. Over 75,000 men left their jobs to fight in the First World War. Of these, 12,000 joined the Post Office’s own battalion, the Post Office Rifles.

The Post Office Rifles on parade. (POST 56/6)

The Post Office Rifles on parade. (POST 56/6)

Postal communications played a vital role in the war effort. The Post Office set up telecommunications between Headquarters and the front line. It also ran an internal army postal system. During battle telegraphs and telephones were the main means of communication between the front line and Headquarters. Over 11,000 Post Office engineers made this possible throughout the war, using the skills they had acquired as civilians.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Many soldiers had relatives and friends fighting in other units. From December 1914, the Post Office ran a postal service that carried mail between units. Writing and receiving letters and parcels were a vital part of sustaining morale and overcoming the boredom, which was a feature of trench life.

Mail being sorted at a Field Post Office. (POST 56/6)

Mail being sorted at a Field Post Office. (POST 56/6)

There is a charge for admission to the Museum of Army Flying, with entry to Last Post included in the admission price. For more information on opening times and prices please see the Museum’s website: www.armyflying.com.

Last Post on Tour

Last Post at the Museum of Army Flying is the first stop on its tour, as we move towards the commemoration of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 2014. Our twin exhibition version of Last Post is to be exhibited at Aysgarth Railway station heritage site, North Yorkshire, for the weekend of 4th to 8th May 2013. On leaving the Museum of Army Flying in September 2013, Last Post is then being exhibited for the month of October at the Guildhall Library, London. Also in October 2013 its twin exhibition version will be at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

From Spring 2014 our flagship Last Post exhibition will be on display for a year at Coalbrookdale Museum, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust site, accompanied by loans from other museums and organisations. Last Post is also being exhibited at Mansfield Museum from April to June 2013, Guildford Museum from June to September 2014 and finally Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight from September to December 2014.

– Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

If you would like to share your feedback on Last Post or for more information on any of the exhibition dates, please contact the BPMA Exhibitions Officer on dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk.

View our online version of Last Post: Remembering the First World War on our website.

Welcome to 2013

This year will be an exciting year at The British Postal Museum & Archive. While many staff are working hard to develop our new museum and archive others are continuing to organise events and exhibitions.

Talks

The first of our talks takes place next month and features Chris West, author of First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps. In his talk Chris will discuss the book and go in depth on some of the stories. Last year Chris wrote a blog for us about how he came to write his book, and you can buy a copy from our online shop or purchase one at the event.

In March Oliver Carter-Wakefield of Kings College London will speak on Illness and Absence in the Victorian Post Office. Consumption, necrosis and mental derangement were just some of the reasons Victorian postmen called in sick – and they weren’t always skiving!

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

In April David Bramwell will present a slide-show talk on how the postal system was used for the purposes of mischief making, and in June BPMA Curator Emma Harper will explore a less weird but just as wonderful use of the Royal Mail when she explores the culture of letter writing in 19th and 20th Centuries.

Tickets for all our talks are only £3.00 (or £2.50 concession) and can be booked online.

Tours

Our ever popular tours will be held throughout 2013. Bookings are now open for three tours of the Royal Mail Archive and six tours of our Museum Collection. These guided tours are led by our archivists and curators, who will give you a rare behind the scenes look at our collections storage facilities and an insight in to what they care for. Book now for these tours as they sell out quickly!

Walking tours of postal London run once a month and are operated by our partners Cityguides. Tours start at Farringdon Station and end at Bank, taking you in to the City of London which was once the heartland of the British Post Office. There is no need to book for these tours – just turn up on the day. See our website for details.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

Special Events

The Museum Store, where we are house our full of collection of pillar boxes and vehicles, will play host to two special events this year. The first, Pillar Box Perfection, taking place on 6 April, will offer a range of activities for all ages based around the iconic pillar box. The second, Museums at Night at the Museum Store, is part of an initiative taking place in May in which museums stay open in the evening. We’ll tell you more about this event nearer to the time. Both of these special events are free of charge.

Exhibitions

Visitors to the Royal Mail Archive in London can still see our Diamond Jubilee display of stamps from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. We also have a permanent exhibition, The Museum of the Post Office in the Community, at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shorpshire. The Museum is located above a recreated Victorian post office – a fascinating place to visit in itself – and is free to visit as part of your entry to Blists Hill.

Part of our much-loved collection of General Post Office posters from the 1930s-1960s will go on display at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon in March. This is part of the Paintings in Hospitals scheme, and the public may visit the exhibition in the Hospital’s designated display area during their opening hours.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley - this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley – this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Also on tour is our exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which can be seen at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire from March and at Aysgarth Station Heritage Site, North Yorkshire in May. The exhibition looks at the role of the Post Office during the Great War.

Visit our website for full details of our programme of events and exhibitions.

Last Post at the Royal Engineers Museum

by Amy Adam, Assistant Curator, Royal Engineers Museum

Today Last Post: Remembering the First World War opens at the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham Kent. This temporary exhibition has been curated by The British Postal Museum & Archive and the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms and features objects from the Royal Engineers Museum Postal and Courier Archive.

Letters sent by Royal Engineers during the war

Letters sent by Royal Engineers during the war

The exhibition tells the stories of postal workers at war and on the Home Front. But this is not just an exhibition about stamps! Learn about the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office’s own battalion or hear about the tens of thousands of women who joined the Post office workforce temporarily. The role played by the Royal Engineers Postal and Courier Section is brought to life through the objects on display and you can even have a go at writing your very own trench post card.

Write a postcard from the trenches

Write a postcard from the trenches

A key object of the exhibition is a biscuit that was posted from the trenches back to Great Yarmouth. This hardtack biscuit was delivered in tact despite the fact it was sent with no wrapping, it just had the address and stamped fixed straight onto the item of food!

Hardtack biscuit posted from the trenches.

Hardtack biscuit posted from the trenches.

Also on display are some of the original postal distribution maps used on the Western Front. These beautifully drawn maps show the routes that the mails took to get to those on the Front Line and are displayed alongside photographs of the men who distributed the post.

An original postal distribution map used on the Western Front

An original postal distribution map used on the Western Front

Last Post opens today, Wednesday 8 June 2011 and runs through ‘til Thursday September 1 2011.

The Royal Engineers Museum is open every day except Mondays. For further information on the Royal Engineers Museum please visit www.re-museum.co.uk, or our Facebook page ‘Royal Engineers Museum’. You can also email us at mail@re-museum.co.uk or call 01634 822312.

The Post Office during the First World War

The fourth in our series of podcasts is now available and features researcher Peter Sutton speaking about the Post Office during the First World War. This talk was recorded at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms in March as part of the exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which is still on a national tour.

War Graves Cemetery, The Somme as seen on a stamp in 1999

War Graves Cemetery, The Somme as seen on a stamp in 1999

At the start of 1914 the General Post Office was one of the largest employers in the world, with a workforce of more than a quarter of a million, but the Great War had a significant impact on the service. Many postal workers left to serve on the front, either as fighting men or as part of army postal and telegraph services. With its workforce massively depleted, the Post Office reduced services at home and employed women in large numbers for the first time. The Post Office also participated in a massive censorship operation and was involved in the mass distribution of items such as army recruitment forms, ration books and advertising material for war bonds.

These and many other aspects of World War 1 are covered in Peter Sutton’s talk, which can now be downloaded from http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast or iTunes.

New podcast goes online: The Post Office during the Second World War

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Earlier this year several talks were given at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms to tie-in with the exhibition Last Post – Remembering the First World War. These covered various wartime and postal history topics, including talks on the Post Office during the First and Second World Wars. The talk The Post Office during the Second World War, given by Mark Crowley, is now available to download as a podcast.

Mark Crowley is a PhD student conducting research at the BPMA, who has previously written for this blog on The Post Office Home Guard. His talk presented a number of interesting insights into Post Office operations during World War 2.

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The Post Office played a vital communications role during the War, providing both postal and telegram deliveries, and telephone services. With many Post Office workers now in the forces, women were employed in large numbers to deliver and sort mail, drive Royal Mail vans and maintain the telephone network. Mark’s talk is peppered with stories of the bravery of some of these workers, who managed to keep telephone exchanges and sorting offices running even as the enemy bombs rained down.

Vital infrastructure such as post offices, sorting offices and telephone exchanges were often targets for enemy bombers, and many suffered bomb damage. Mobile Post Offices, offering telephone and counter services were set up in effected areas.

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

Unfortunately, many of the archive images referred to in the talk cannot be included with the podcast due to copyright reasons, but we hope to make some of these available in the future.

The British Postal Museum & Archive Podcast can be downloaded through iTunes or from our website. Last Post – Remembering the First World War is currently on a national tour.