Tag Archives: mail bag

Of even more boxes and reams of pink tape…

Some of our regular blog readers may remember my previous blog post on the Museum Store audit. Since a year has passed since the start of the project, I thought I would add a quick update and share a few of the items that I have uncovered along the way.

During my first few weeks on the project, I worked on a number of shelves containing mailbags; a seemingly endless number of bags… of all shapes and sizes from small orange ones to large hessian sacks with bold, black stencilling. Among them were several bags commemorating notable dates, including this example marking a Coronation Day flight from Sydney to London on 2nd June 1953.

Coronation Day Flight Mailbag. (2007-0057/9)

Coronation Day Flight Mailbag. (2007-0057/9)

As with any new subject, when I first started at the BPMA back in 2011 there were many terms that meant very little to me – one example was the phrase ‘dead letters’. So you can imagine my amusement when the shelf I was auditing one afternoon held a real ‘Dead Letter’ box, which had come from a Post Office in Walton on the Naze. For me, one of the wonderful things about working directly with the collection is being able to tie elements of postal history to ‘real’ objects that can add that extra level of understanding.

Dead Letters Box from Walton on the Naze Post Office. (2002-572/3)

Dead Letters Box from Walton on the Naze Post Office. (2002-572/3)

I was particularly taken with this illuminated badge, partly because I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. That it had once lit up was clear – you could see the connecting wires at the end – but exactly how it would have been used had myself and Barry – one of the BPMA volunteers – puzzled.

Illuminated Badge. (E6709)

Illuminated Badge. (E6709)

We speculated whether it might have been attached to the front of a telegram messenger’s motorcycle, but that’s didn’t feel quite right. Duly audited, repacked and the badge returned to its shelf, I made a mental note to try and find out more. One of my colleagues in the Curatorial team said that he had previously seen a photograph with someone wearing a similar badge in the Archive. It was shortly after that I realised the answer was – quite literally – in front of me, as we have an enlarged version of the photograph on display at the Museum Store that I had been walking past each morning!

Telegram Messenger wearing an illuminated badge. (POST 118/0424)

Telegram Messenger wearing an illuminated badge. (POST 118/0424)

The badge was used by telegram messengers at mainline train termini, presumably to help you spot one on a crowded platform if you wished to send that last-minute telegram. It was great to see the item in use and even more satisfying to – at least partially – answer the question ‘What was this used for?’

Telephone sign. (OB2001.39/2)

Telephone sign. (OB2001.39/2)

A similar thing occurred when auditing a ‘TELEPHONE’ sign and metal bracket. That it was a rather lovely item was certain, but I did wonder what one might have looked like when it was in active use.

Whilst preparing a short talk for a local Rotary club in June, I came across my answer – a lantern slide image of a postman entering a K2 telephone kiosk, with a ‘TELEPHONE’ sign, like the one I had wrapped a few months previously, attached to a post on the left hand side. It can be easy to forget that museum objects had a working life, particularly if they are removed from their original context, so it was nice to have a visual clue as to how these signs would have been used.

Lantern slide with postman, kiosk and sign. (2011-0443/6)

Lantern slide with postman, kiosk and sign. (2011-0443/6)

A year on from the start of the project, I am delighted to report that the number of shelves audited and repacked has steadily increased to 290 shelves (or 57%) of our small mobile racking. This has been due in no small part to the assistance of volunteers Don and Barry, as well as the further help of my colleague Emma and the efforts of placement student Flora, who spent some time working at the Store during her student placement in April 2013.

Given the scale of the project, progress could occasionally feel misleadingly slow but the sight of steadily multiplying bays filled with pink tape shows that all that effort has produced a tangible result. More importantly, by assessing the condition of items and ensuring their packaging materials are suitable, we are ensuring that they are protected from their environment and remain in a stable condition to be enjoyed by visitors and researchers in years to come.

– Sarah Jenkins, Project Coordinator

Mail Trains book

Now available from our shop is the book Mail Trains, telling the fascinating story of the development and history of carrying mail by rail, from the 1800s until today. The book is written by Julian Stray, one of our Assistant Curators.

Mail Trains by Julian Stray

Central to the prompt delivery of the nation’s mail is its efficient and speedy transit the length and breadth of the country. From 1830, the Post Office relied ever more heavily on the overland rail network to provide what was for decades the ideal form of transport. Railway Post Offices, Sunday Sorting Tenders and District Sorting Carriages were amongst the services introduced.

Railway Post Offices, carriages dedicated to sorting mail in transit, became known as Travelling Post Offices (TPOs). TPOs received mail at the start of their journey and at stations or bag exchange points en route. Mail bags were opened by travelling postal staff and the contents sorted and included in new mail bags made up en route and despatched at the appropriate station. One of the most remarkable aspects of TPOS was the bag exchange apparatus. This enabled mail trains to pass stations of minor importance yet still exchange mail bags without halting.

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

During the Second World War mail volumes carried by rail increased. Letters were essential for maintaining morale and connecting families separated by wartime. The rail network carried immense quantities of mail; in 1943 British railways carried 25 million mail bags and over 90 million parcels.

The final TPO service ran in 2004 and although the volume of mail carried is considerably diminished, mail trains continue to form an important part of the United Kingdom’s postal service to this day.

Mail Trains is available from our online shop. Order before 10 April 2012 and obtain a 10% discount by entering the code BPMAW3BS1TE when you make your payment.

Visit our website to find out what life was like on the TPO in our Travelling Post Office online exhibition.

Hear Julian Stray’s recent talk on Mail Trains by downloading our free podcast. Download the podcast on our website or subscribe to the podcast via Tunes.

Morten Collection Object of the Month: January 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

This month’s object: Travelling Post Office Mail Bag Apparatus

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

The Travelling Post Office (TPO) was first introduced in January 1838, travelling on the Grand Junction between Birmingham and Liverpool. The TPO is closely linked with Rowland Hill’s penny postage, which led to an increase in letter writing and the need to transport more mail at speed. The TPO ceased operation in 2004 as more and more people used emails rather than letter writing to communicate.

Travelling Post Offices functioned as mobile sorting offices, allowing post officers to sort up to 2000 mails an hour while on the move. In its heyday there were some 77 services from London to Plymouth, Bristol, Newcastle and others.

In 1936 the GPO Film unit produced a film about the TPO entitled Night Mail that contained a poem by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten.

The picture featured here shows a wooden and metal model of a mail bag exchange apparatus and forms part of a set consisting of track, carriages, a hut and smaller items relating to the Travelling Post Office.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses like this were used between 1852–1971 on Travelling Post Offices to pick up and put down mails without the need for trains to stop. The concept of exchanging mail whilst in transit is nothing new to railways and was used before where mail bags were often thrown onto and off coaches while in motion.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses operated in the following way: Mail was simply put into leather pouches weighing between 20lb and 60lb that were attached to an arm which would suspend it 5ft above the ground and 3ft away from the carriage side. The carriage was equipped with an extendable net, fitted to the body side, with an opening into the carriage behind it to catch incoming pouches.

It is alleged that the duty of putting the bags on poles was so unpopular that some postmen paid others to do the duty for them.

For more on TPO’s see the BPMA’s online exhibition The Travelling Post Office.

The Travelling Post Office

Travelling Post Offices (or TPOs) were railway carriages specially adapted for Post Office workers to sort mail in whilst it was being carried to its destination. They were introduced in 1838, a mere eight years after the first public railway (which ran between Liverpool to Manchester) was opened and proved to be a faster and more efficient method of delivering mail than Mail Coaches.

The layout of TPOs evolved very early on, driven by the unique nature of the work involved. The sorting frames were normally on the right looking towards the engine with a well table (sunken recess to hold mail) below for emptying mailbags into. Opposite this were metal pegs with destination bag labels attached in readiness to hang mail bags for sorted mail.

Early TPOs were quite primitive in their facilities with oil lighting, low, flat roofs and no heating or toilets! In the 1860s, gradual improvements were made as ventilators and better lights were installed and arched roofs introduced along with floor matting, padding and seats.

The TPO service ran until early 2004. It had been in a gradual decline since World War 2, with Dr Beeching’s 1963 report on the railways having a particular impact on the service. Transport technology was changing too, with it becoming more economical to move mail by road or air. Problems with service level agreements and concern for the health and safety of staff were the final nails in the coffin.

In 1999 the BPMA purchased a TPO dating from 1908, which was restored at the London & North West Railway (LNWR) workshop at Crewe. It is on display at The Crewe Heritage Centre, which is open on weekends and bank holidays from Easter to the last weekend in September.

The BPMAs TPO: before restoration.

The BPMA's TPO: before restoration.

The BPMAs TPO: after restoration

The BPMA's TPO: after restoration

For more information on TPOs please see our Online Exhibition The Travelling Post Office.