Tag Archives: London

The FOUR openings of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. At 189m, the Tower was the tallest building in London until 1980 and is still an iconic part of the capital’s skyline. Rather than look at the build, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT David Hay recounts the story behind its FOUR official openings and the drama that ensued.

The planning for the Tower opening ceremony, documented at BT Archives, reveals a little known story of inter departmental rivalry and public image concerns. Construction on the Tower began in 1961, and as early as 1963 thought was being given to an official opening. The Postmaster General of the time, J R Bevins, was keen for a ceremony in 1964 “as soon as the shell has been completed”. A major concern was that the project should be seen to be led by the Post Office. The actual construction was managed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and Bevins was “determined to do something about this by the start of March, without M.o.W. [Ministry of Works]” and that “there must be no question of his [MoW] minister organising shows.”


The GPO Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, had to point out that there was little point in organising an event before any equipment had been installed in the Tower, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.”

O’Brien’s preferred date for the opening ceremony was April or May 1965 with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding. In case there were delays, Bevins’ successor, Tony Benn, decided to invite Prime Minister Harold Wilson to officiate instead. In his letter, Benn asked Wilson to “draw attention to the role of the Post Office as the central nervous system of the United Kingdom dealing in the transmission of all sorts of information on which the economic life of the community depends”. Downing St was given the choice of April or October and, to O’Brien’s dismay, Wilson gave an October date as his preference. The Post Office had wanted a ceremony sooner rather than later because the physical construction of the Tower had been completed in 1964, and O’Brien was concerned that the public would be wondering why it had not been opened already.

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The October date – preferred by the GPO Engineering Department to ensure that all the latest equipment was installed – was seen to be a better option, “it would be rather unfortunate if we were to try to show the way in which the Post Office is installing the most up to date equipment in the world if we had so important a person as the Prime Minister opening the Tower when little equipment is there.”

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Ultimately, perhaps reflecting a typical British compromise, there were actually FOUR opening ceremonies:

  • The topping out ceremony on 15 July 1964 marking the formal end of the construction, where a Minister of Public Building and Works made a speech “confining himself to the building achievements.”
  • The operational opening of the Tower on 8 October 1965.
  • An official visit by HM Queen Elizabeth hosted by Tony Benn on 17 May
  • The opening of the public areas of the Tower (the restaurant and the observation floor) on 19 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Sir Billy Butlin (who had been awarded the licence to operate the restaurant).

The files also reflect a little of the characters of some of the key players in the Tower’s story. J R Bevins, who had been instrumental in the building of the Tower, declined his invitation because it had been incorrectly addressed to him as ‘Mr’ rather than “the Right Honourable J R Bevins – after all I am a Privy Councillor”. And following the ceremony Tony Benn wrote to O’Brien requesting that special arrangements be made to ensure that official drivers received refreshments at future events, “I believe there was some difficulty about this in connection with the opening of the Post Office Tower”.

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Whatever day you see as the ‘official opening’, the BT Tower (formerly the Post Office Tower) is still an iconic landmark in London today and an innovation from the General Post Office.

You can read more on the history of the BT Tower on the BT Archives website

Autumn 2015 Stampex is coming!

How time flies…Autumn Stampex 2015 is just around the corner and will return to the Business Design Centre on Wednesday 16th September. Admission is FREE and we are delighted to once again have a stand at the show.

You can find us at stand 118A on the Village Green at Ground Floor level, listed as ‘The BPMA & Friends’ and under ‘S’ in the exhibition guide.

The opening times are:

Wednesday 16th September 11.30 to 19.00
Thursday 17th September 10.00 to 18.00
Friday 18th September 10.00 to 18.00
Saturday 19th September 10.00 to 17.00

View of the Village Green. London 2015 Europhilex

View of the Village Green. London 2015 Europhilex

We will be giving away a limited number of FREE goodie bags to visitors, including a one-off postcard on the theme of Sea Transport produced especially for Stampex, so you’ll have to be quick!

Map of the world with lines running from the British Isles, showing steamship routes. Illustration by Macdonald Gill

Map of the world with lines running from the British Isles, showing steamship routes. Illustration by Macdonald Gill

We will also be available to answer questions and provide updates on the development of The Postal Museum, as well as share news about our upcoming events and activities.

On Thursday 17th September, Naomi Games, daughter of designer Abram Games, will be giving a talk about her father’s stamp designs. So, if you are coming to the show, round of your trip by joining us for what promises to be fascinating talk!

As usual, there will be a great selection of BPMA shop stock to purchase such as items from our popular homeware range. There will also be Post & Go products coinciding with the introduction of the new Heraldic Lion Post & Go stamp to the BPMA Post & Go+ machine.

Please note that some Post & Go products may not be available for sale at the stand until late morning on Weds 16th.

We look forward to seeing you at Stampex!

Sarah Jenkins – Fundraising Events Officer

Volunteer Week: Spotlight on Post Office Architecture expert Julian Osley

Our volunteers have a range of interests, from design to postal history and everything in between. Some of these interests are what motivate them to join us, others they discover while here. To celebrate volunteer’s week Julian Osley tells us about Post Office architecture, a passion he discovered while volunteering at the BPMA.

The Uniform Penny Post prompted an enormous increase in the level of business, however the Post Office was slow to provide suitable premises in which to manage the transaction of business.

By 1840 major post offices had been built in London, Edinburgh and Dublin but, it was not until the 1860s that serious attention was given to improving the quality of post office buildings in provincial urban areas. For the most part these buildings were designed by architects in the Office of Works, and followed prevailing architectural fashions, such as the Italianate style of design which can be seen today in the former post offices at Derby, Maidstone, Sheffield, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hull and Wakefield, to name just a few.

Maidstone post office

Maidstone post office


Typical of the more flamboyant Edwardian era are the buildings at West Hartlepool, Aldershot, Esher, Canterbury and Sheffield. After the First World War, for reasons of economy, and also to foster the image of post office as an approachable, yet solid and dependable institution, the style known as “Post Office Georgian” was adopted, its characteristics being the use of brick on a domestic scale in order to achieve harmony with the local environment.  A ‘Brighter Post Office’ campaign was launched in the late 1920s in order to make post office interiors more attractive. For a few years after Second World War, new post office buildings followed the Georgian tradition (although in a stripped-down format), but following the Festival of Britain of 1951, this was finally abandoned in favour of a modern approach.

Wakefield post office

Wakefield post office

Because the post office became so important in the lives of a community after the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, the opening of a new building was an event to be celebrated. Often it was made available for inspection before the official opening ceremony, to be attended by Post Office officials and local dignitaries, who would make congratulatory speeches; on occasion, the architect would be invited to give a tour of the building, and then tea would be taken in the sorting office. A programme of the day’s events might be printed, and the local newspaper would report the proceedings at length, while at the same time providing a detailed description of the building. Critics would use the correspondence pages of the paper to air their views over the poor location of the building, the lack of an external clock and inadequate street lighting, but in general these buildings were praised for their “commodious” accommodation and regarded as having contributed significantly to civic pride.

Maidstone post office

Maidstone post office

To find out more about volunteer’s week visit http://volunteersweek.org/about or head to our twitter page see what other exciting things our volunteers get up to.

Getting ready for Europhilex 2015

BPMA newbie and Fundraising Assistant Cat shares all that has gone into preparing for the largest stamp event in Europe – Europhilex 2015

I have just had my two month anniversary working for the BPMA and what a busy two months it has been! I don’t think I could have joined the BPMA at a better time with so many events coming up and it being such a crucial time in the run up to the opening of The Postal Museum and Mail Rail. At the moment, my work has been largely focusing on philately (my new favourite word) and the upcoming Europhilex show. I have been working really closely with our Fundraising Events Officer, Sarah Jenkins who having worked on the regular Stampex shows, has been my philately guru and mentor.

Reading through our article in the London 2015 newsletter

Reading through our article in the Europhilex newsletter

Together, we have made our way through what has sometimes seemed a never-ending to-do list to prepare the BPMA stand at Europhilex. One of the highlights of my first week was watching Sarah and our Marketing and Commercial Assistant Katie use their creativity to map out the stand space in an empty office, using any objects they could find. I think it was at this point that I realised this job was going to be an interesting and unique one!

One lucky winner will go home with a print from the original Penny Black die - visit our stand this week for more details

One lucky winner will go home with a print from the original Penny Black die – visit our stand this week for more details.

I have been amazed at just how much work goes into every event that the BPMA hold. Talks about Europhilex began months before I even started. For the stand, we have worked to a strict timetable with regular meetings discussing all of the details in turn.  I will admit this now;  in these meetings I often found myself writing words in my pad and referring to my good friend Google….the nod and smile tactic was used quite a lot. There have been a lot of discussions around the star of the show – the Machin cast – which will have its own spotlight and plinth. Treatment fit for a Queen!

The Star of the Show - the Machin Cast

The Star of the Show – the Machin Cast

Alongside planning the stand, I have also been organising bits ‘n bobs for events we are holding around Europhilex week including an Afternoon Tea for invited guests. I constantly made the error of ordering cakes and canapés for these events before lunch. I never knew a job could also make you so hungry. This experience has been an incredible one and I am just so excited to see it all in action next week at Europhilex. Wish me luck!

If you want to follow our progress next week then stay tuned to the BPMA on Twitter, where I will be posting updates all week.’

Mail Rail Book Reading Event

With building works to transform Mail Rail into an exciting and immersive national visitor attraction as part of The Postal Museum set to begin in the next few months, opportunities to show off this extraordinary and inspiring space in all its mothballed glory are becoming increasingly limited. Hannah Clipson, BPMA Community Learning Officer tells us about a recent event which did just that…

From 1927 to 2003, Mail Rail transported huge volumes of post under the streets of London, beneath the feet of millions of blissfully unaware commuters and tradesmen going about their daily business 70 feet above. Opened in an age when the horse and cart ran alongside new-fangled automobiles, it was a technological innovation that kept people in touch across ever-greater distances and at ever-greater speed. Since the last shift when workers downed their tools in 2003, the Mail Rail has sat, silently gathering dust. Until now!

On 25 March, a lucky group of visitors were granted access to this hidden landmark as the Mail Rail Car Depot, where trains from across the network were brought for repair, became the dramatic backdrop for a very special BPMA event.

In collaboration with Cityread London 2015, an annual celebration that encourages all of London to pick up the same book and read it together, Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Sunday Times best-selling urban fantasy/crime fiction series Rivers of London, unveiled a special new short story, King of the Rats, read by comedian, rapper and entertainer Doc Brown, aka Ben Bailey Smith.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, 'King of the Rats'.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, ‘King of the Rats’.

“When a self-styled King of the Rats crashes a corporate do hosted by Fleet and Tyburn naturally the Folly are called in.  Peter and Kumar have to determine whether his majesty is the legitimate ruler of the rat nation or a sad man with a rodent fixation.

And they’d better do it fast before irate Rivers decide to embark on a bit of DIY pest control.”

After being treated to this new instalment, fans were able to pick the author’s brain during a lively Q&A session!

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

The evening marked the start of Cityread’s 2015 season. Over the next month Rivers of London will be the theme behind a programme of exciting events across all 33 London boroughs.

You can hear the full story, read by Doc Brown, below

‘To Warwick with Love’ – The Private Postcards of an Aristocratic Family, 1914-1917

This Thursday we welcome Aaron Manning from the Warwick Castle History Team as he gives his evening talk ‘To Warwick with Love’ – The Private Postcards of an Aristocratic Family, 1914-1917.

Upon arrival enjoy a complimentary glass of wine and experience the nostalgic music of the First World War era. Then, sit back and allow Aaron to reveal, for the first time, a century-old hidden story from the castle.

First World War era postcard

First World War era postcard.

For nearly a hundred years a box of postcards lay hidden and untouched in the living quarters of the castle. A box of postcards that would tell the tragic story of how war tore apart the family of the Earl of Warwick. These intimate messages, sent between mother, father and children during the First World War, will be shared by Aaron in this fascinating, poignant talk.

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Finish off your evening by further immersing yourself into the story through investigating first hand a selection of these copied postcards, with our speaker Aaron on hand to answer any of your questions.

To book your place:

Online at: http://postalheritage.org.uk/page/to-warwick-with-love-2
Phone us on 020 7239 2570

Event details:

Students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Massachusetts visit the BPMA

We are a group of four students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. At the beginning of the summer, from May 12th to June 28th, we had the privilege of working with the British Postal Museum and Archive to develop better visitor evaluation strategies. The goal of our project was to help improve visitor evaluation within their exhibitions which primarily focused on the Last Post Exhibition.

Mail Rail

WPI Students take a tour of Mail Rail

The overall experience was fantastic, filled with opportunities and memories. We were able to visit and explore some of the most popular museums in London including the Natural History, Victorian and Albert, and Science museums. At these museums, we observed visitors to identify what they enjoyed and see how the set up can affect visitor engagement.


Nysa at Last Post Coalbrookdale

We also had the pleasure of working with BPMA visitors. Getting to know those who enjoyed the BPMA’s work, and asking them for helpful insight into what they learned and what they think would improve the sites. Working at events and visiting the Last Post exhibition at Mansfield and Coalbrookdale was a thrilling experience; we not only learned about the exhibitions but also were able to test many different evaluation methods such as interview, surveys, creative writing/drawing activities and observations.


Shuyang with the postal uniform display

We gathered some informative and gratifying feedback, for example one visitor said she “…learned so much more about a city [she had] lived in for 40 years.” Others said that they “did not realize the extent of Post Office involvement in the First World War.” The feedback we gathered was helpful and greatly aided our research objectives.

Enjoying London

WPI Students enjoying London

Aside from gaining new knowledge about museum goers, as a team we were able to improve our professional writing skills, communicate with a broad range of people, and work efficiently in a group setting. This experience also enabled us to grow as young professionals; we believe this project has added to a foundation of what the working world is like.  Living in London was an experience of a lifetime; adapting and working in a different culture will enable us to adapt to all presented opportunities and continue to broaden our understanding of the world.

Thank you,

Angela, Nysa, Shuyang and George

A Bloomsbury Tale

Since August we’ve been working with local communities as part of a project for the Bloomsbury Festival. Our recent work with children from the 1A Arts Centre has been filmed and will be part of A Bloomsbury Tale, made by artist Elaine Duigenan. Funded by a cooperative of Bloomsbury institutions including the Charles Dickens Museum, Holborn Community Association and BPMA, the film showcases the wonderfully diverse nature of the cultural and historical experiences the community has to offer.

A scene from A Bloomsbury Tale.

A scene from A Bloomsbury Tale.

Free tickets to a screening of the film on Sunday 20th October are now available, and you can enjoy a complimentary glass of wine as you view it in the beautiful surroundings of the Art Workers’ Guild. A limited number of tickets may be booked online, or alternatively you can simply turn up on the day.

Children from 1A Arts Centre being filmed for A Bloomsbury Tale.

Children from 1A Arts Centre being filmed for A Bloomsbury Tale.

The Bloomsbury Festival runs until 20th October 2013. BPMA is part of a number events for the Festival – see our website for full details.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition

Jonathan Bradley previews his exhibition Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition, which opens at the Royal Mail Archive today.

For three quarters of a century, one of the most successful underground railways in the world transported mail under the busy streets of London until its service was suspended in 2003. It remained largely unknown to the general populous aboveground.

Waiting in the dark - 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Waiting in the dark – 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

The Post Office Railway (AKA Mail Rail) is a unique and remarkable infrastructure, being the only dedicated driverless mail haul railway in the world. It came to my attention some two years ago while surveying for another framework environment for the ongoing People : Space work. People : Space is a human spatial study and finding appropriate environments to deliver an artistic treatment to is not an easy task. However, the Mail Rail had the necessary attributes and photography began in 2011.

Descent to the Mount - Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Descent to the Mount – Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

People : Space encourages viewers to look at spaces and areas that are or can be occupied by humans and visa-versa. Photographically capturing space is very challenging and this project often projects vistas that indirectly depict this. Frequently, the humanity element can be suggested. Within each of these pictures lies a distinct, tangible thread of humanity and though the photographs present and record a view of the railway in a quiescent state, the subtle compositional detail of the images lean the eye to regard these degrees of freedom – spaces that contained workers, movement and sound.

Relay board - 'Blue' relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Relay board – ‘Blue’ relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Consider the sound of footsteps, the noise of trains, mail being unloaded off conveyors and cherrys being clicked. Think of the people who walked the platforms, who loaded mailbags, the engineers and fitters tirelessly working in the car shed above Mount Pleasant Station, the section controllers shuffling levers and moving trains and the line crews who worked during maintenance hours who serviced the railway that is now dormant and silent. Contrast what was before with what you see today and consider these People and their Spaces.

Unable to Accept - Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Unable to Accept – Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is on display in The Royal Mail Archive, London. Entry is free.

A selection of exclusive prints signed by Jonathan Bradley are available from the BPMA online shop.

Book now to tour our Archives or Museum Store

Bookings are now open for our ever popular tours of the Royal Mail Archive and the British Postal Museum Store. Led by our archivists and curators these tours offer a unique opportunity to see behind the scenes and get up close to some of the fascinating items in our collection.

A tour of the Royal Mail Archive.

A tour of the Royal Mail Archive.

The Royal Mail Archive is based in Freeling House, part of the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre in Clerkenwell, Central London. The Archive collection is stored in 2.5 miles of shelving, and covers social, postal, and design history from 1636 to today. Our archivists will guide you around the repository and show you some of the highlights of the collection.

The British Postal Museum Store is located on the Debden Industrial Estate, Loughton, a short walk from Debden London Underground Station. The Museum Store holds postal vehicles, letter boxes, sorting equipment, bicycles and other items. Our curators will take you on tours around the Store and offer you some complimentary refreshments.

A tour of the British Postal Museum Store.

A tour of the British Postal Museum Store.

Tours of the Archive and the Museum Store are free, but donations are welcome. Book your place online now as these tours always sell out.