Tag Archives: mail

130 years of the parcel post

Today marks the 130th Anniversary of the Parcel Post, which began on 1st August 1883. At the time, the service was regarded as the greatest revolution in the postal system since the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage some 40 years previously.

The BPMA Archives contains a wealth of material on the Parcel Post and this blog is by no means intended to be an exhaustive account. Instead, I hope to give a brief overview of the context behind the introduction of the service and some idea of its impact.

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

The idea for a Parcel Post was suggested by Rowland Hill as early as 1842 and was raised again by Hill’s younger brother Frederick in the 1860s. In the meantime, the Post Office did go some way towards a parcels service by launching the popular Book Post service in 1848 followed by the Pattern Post (a service for posting manufacturer’s samples, a sort of early version of catalogue shopping) in 1863.

It was of course possible to send a parcel before 1883 and there were several large courier companies operating nationwide parcel services using stage coaches. By 1850, the Railway Companies had monopolised the market, making them a powerful opponent to any Post Office enterprise. The Post Office had previously tried at length to negotiate with the Railway Companies during the late 1860s, but to no avail.

The impetus for the Post Office to re-enter negotiations with the Railway Companies was provided by the Universal Postal Union Conference, held in Paris in 1880. Delegates proposed the establishment of an International Parcel Post, to commence in 1882. In order to participate, the British Post Office would first need to establish an Inland Parcel Post service.

This task fell to the then Postmaster-General Professor Henry Fawcett. Fawcett was a strong advocate for Parcel Post and in a letter to his father in April 1883, he cited the Parcel Post as top of his list of 5 things he felt needed to be done within the Post Office. His main concern was to prevent any ‘dislocation of the letter service’. Fawcett was assisted in the negotiations by Mr F.E. Baines, who was appointed the Inspector General of Mails in 1882 and had the honour of sending the first parcel by ‘Parcel Post’.

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption 'Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption ‘Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

The Railway Companies eventually agreed to terms which would give them 55% of the gross postage of all parcels carried by rail and The Post Office (Parcels) Act was passed on 18th August 1882, with nearly a full year passing until the service could be brought into operation in 1st August 1883. Given the scale of the preparations involved, it is rather remarkable that this was achieved in only a year!

The introduction of the Parcel Post meant rebuilding or adapting nearly 1,000 Head or Branch Post Offices, as well as arranging collection and distribution in more than 15,000 postal districts. It also meant an immediate change to the workload of the former letter carriers – now to be known at postmen.

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

Wicker baskets and handcarts were required for sorting and transporting parcels, each Post Office counter required scales and were issued with specifically designed cork handstamps to cancel the stamps on parcels. Every letter carrier’s walk had to be altered so they did not have too heavy a load and allowances were made for the use of a horse and cart, tricycle or pony to aid parcel delivery.

Crucially, the public had to be made aware of the new service and four-page handbills were distributed to every household in the British Isles notifying the changes.

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

The scale of the task facing the Post Office was described – rather poetically – by the Telegraph in July 1883:

Never before did any Commercial House leap all at once into so gigantic a concern, with 15,000 agencies and thirty-five million possible in these three kingdoms, never before, it is thought, was a Government department put to so severe a test as that which, twelve days hence, will await the one over which Professor Fawcett presides.

The launch attracted a significant amount of press attention, with the Daily News concluding on 2nd August 1883 that:

on the whole, the very important and very anxious experiment of yesterday seems to have passed off satisfactorily.

Fawcett himself appears to have been similarly understated in his conclusion, and his account three days after the launch of the service stated that

the only difficulty has arisen from the public inexperience in the art of packing.

Parcel Post saw the introduction of variety of carts and cycles as new ways of transporting the heavy mails had to be found. It also prompted a return to long distance haulage by road and the introduction of horse-drawn parcel mail coaches in 1887, which were operated under contract. This service carried parcels overnight along the principle routes out of London, which for such heavy mails were a cheaper alternative that the railways.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

Rather amusingly, it would appear that the public were quick to test the limits of the new service, with the Daily News reporting that:

At Leicester Square a colander was posted to a resident in the Temple, and one or two wooden spoons. At Euston, half a ham was found in one of the mails and at the Waterloo depot, cricket bats and tin kettles were among the articles dealt with.

Accounts also include a coffin shaped package sent from a Poplar undertaker to a workhouse master in Norfolk… Perhaps my favourite ‘strange enclosure’ tale is that of a gentleman who requested that the Post Office deliver a snake! After an initial refusal, the customer explained that the snake was in fact a pet ‘who had been on a visit’ (sadly the account does not specify where it had been!) and it was subsequently delivered by special messenger.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Parcel Post was not a financial success at first. The estimates for both the number of parcels sent and the average weight  – estimated by Baines at 7d a parcel, but on average only 5½d – were higher than those realised. By 1885, the Post Office was handling 26.5 million parcels per annum, increasing to 50 million by the 1890s.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the now Royal Mail were still the number one parcel carrier, processing and delivering 175 million packages annually, using 30 special parcel sorting centres and a fleet of 27,000 vehicles. Competition from private competitors has had a significant impact on parcel services, but many the innovations brought about by the introduction of the Parcel Post helped to shape the modern Post Office and the organisation which most of us are familiar with today.

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce's major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce’s major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

- Sarah Jenkins, Curatorial Assistant

Visit us on Flickr to see images of the Parcel Post dating from the 1880s to the 1980s.

Postal Mischief

On Thursday 18th April we will be welcoming writer and performer David Bramwell as he presents a talk exploring the curious history of postal mischief.

Using a slide show of fascinating images and video clips David will discuss the key mischief makers, including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson and Victorian prankster Reginald Bray. In addition, the musician Genesis P. Orridge who inadvertently changed the postal laws thanks to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards!

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

When you leave, indulge in your own postal mischief too – David will be hoping to inspire you to ‘post a flip-flop to someone you love’ by sharing his own exploits in mail art.

David has won a Sony Award for his work on Radio 3 and spoken at TED, Idler Academy and Alain de Botton’s School of Life. He runs the Catalyst Club in Brighton where everyday people talk about their passions in front of a live audience.

Visit our website to book for Postal Mischief.

Christmas Airgraphs

In the lead-up to Christmas we are sharing with you 12 Posters of Christmas, a dozen classic postal posters from the Royal Mail Archive. Today’s is…

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, 1944 poster by Leonard Beaumont. (PRD0392)

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, 1944 poster by Leonard Beaumont. (PRD0392)

This poster designed by Leonard Beaumont in 1944 promotes the airgraph service, a method of sending messages to servicemen by airmail during the Second World War. Messages were written onto a special form that was then given an identification number and photographed onto microfilm. The microfilm was flown to its destination, developed into a full size print, and posted to the recipient.

Airgraph form, Christmas 1943 (POST 52/692)

Airgraph form, Christmas 1943 (POST 52/692)

Sending 1600 airgraphs on microfilm weighed just 5oz compared to 50lbs for the same number of letters. Copies of the microfilm were kept so that if they were shot down the messages could be re-sent.

Christmas time is often the most difficult for serving military personnel and airgraphs were eagerly anticipated by troops. Today, the British Forces Post Office (BFPO) uses an electronic system called eBlueys – read more about it in this blog about our visit to the BFPO in 2009.

Visit our website for more on the Airgraph Service – did you know that Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother) sent the first airgraph?

Queen Elizabeth taking a look at an airgraph film. The Queen sent the first airgraph to launch the service in 1941.

Queen Elizabeth taking a look at an airgraph film. The Queen sent the first airgraph to launch the service in 1941.

Mail to troops fighting the First World War

In wartime one of the most important means of maintaining troops’ morale is provision of an efficient mail service. Letters from family and loved ones are eagerly awaited, as is news from the front to those at home.

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

300 members of the Army Postal Service travelled with the British Expeditionary Force to France in August 1914, but by the end of the war this had grown to nearly 4,000 across all spheres of conflict.

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Lantern slides, recently catalogued by our curatorial team and volunteers, show some of these personnel at work. A field post office established at the side of a road in France is typical of the makeshift facilities employed to run the service.

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

Other images show foreign troops receiving their mail.

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

As artefacts, these lantern slides are fascinating for many reasons. The crude colourisation of some of them tells us about the technology of the time, and the desire of the image-makers must have had to show us the world as it is – in colour. But more interesting are the glimpses of the conditions endured by the troops, even when they weren’t fighting at the front, and the expressions on their faces, showing obvious delight at receiving news from home.

Visit Flickr to see more of our First World War lantern slides.

The Last Post

The final episode of The Peoples Post reminded us of some of the postal service’s great innovations. These included William Dockwra’s Penny Post, the development of the Mail Coach system, Rowland Hill’s postal reforms, the invention of the postage stamp, and the introduction of curb-side letter boxes.

Exterior of a Sub-Post Office, Bristol, 1980 (H11401c)

Exterior of a Sub-Post Office, Bristol, 1980 (H11401c)

Throughout the series we have also heard about how the postcode has changed our lives, and the ways in which cheap postage and telecommunications, developed in Britain, have made it easier to keep in touch and send our love.

With Christmas just two days away many of us are preparing to travel to be with family and friends. Seeing people in person is the ultimate way to communicate, but if you can’t there’s always the post. Leave your views on The Peoples Post series as a comment below, on our Facebook page, or tweet us using the hashtag #PeoplesPost.

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Last Post. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Postal History Collection online

by Gavin McGuffie, Catalogue Manager

In March the BPMA started adding comprehensive listings of its Postal History Collection to its website for the first time and we’ve recently added some more. This Collection consists of more than 200 albums of postal markings dating from before and after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamp in 1840.

Dec.1830. Entire letter sent from Sydney to London showing two strikes in black of a framed ‘DOVER / INDIA LETTER’ handstamp – Robertson type IN3. One of the India Letter stamps has been overstruck with a stepped ‘SHIP LETTER / DOVER’ stamp – Robertson type S11 also in black.

Dec.1830. Entire letter sent from Sydney to London showing two strikes in black of a framed ‘DOVER / INDIA LETTER’ handstamp – Robertson type IN3. One of the India Letter stamps has been overstruck with a stepped ‘SHIP LETTER / DOVER’ stamp – Robertson type S11 also in black.

Postal markings include datestamps, rate markings and indications of the origin, route and arrival of mail. With more modern mail they also show evidence of automatic cancelling and sorting.

The collection has prompted significant amounts of research and this has been compiled into detailed lists which have been made into downloadable pdfs. The lists are being loaded onto the website in batches; currently we have listings for provincial penny post/5th clause, mileage marks and missent and misdirected mail marks, ship letters, India letters and ‘Paid at’ stamps. All of the listings have introductions illustrated with specific types. These can be found by either following the hyperlinks on the catalogue record for the Postal History Collection or on the postal markings webpage.

From the very beginning of the postal service in 1635, letters were charged according to the distance they were carried. To assist the Post Office in determining the correct postal rate, mileage marks were used from 1784. This principle continued until December 1839 when Rowland Hill’s reforms introduced a uniform rate of postage throughout the kingdom based upon weight.

S35 missent mark

S35 missent mark

The earliest known ‘missent’ handstamp is dated 1787 on a letter addressed to Newark in Nottinghamshire. From then on, a variety of ‘missent’ and ‘misdirected’ handstamps were used. They are known in several designs, both framed and unframed, and in various colours.

Before the advent of airmail all British mail going abroad, and coming from abroad, had to travel by sea. The earliest known handstamps were not recorded until early in the eighteenth century when the first handstruck stamps were issued by the General Post Office indicating that mail had arrived by sea.

For the great majority of Inland letters in the early days of the postal system the postage was usually paid on delivery by the recipient. Accordingly, “pre-paid” or “paid” handstamps were few and far between and did not exist, except for the Chief Offices in London, Edinburgh and Dublin and a few major cities like Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow.

The listings have been compiled by volunteers over a period of 15 years. For these sections, most listings and descriptions have been compiled by Mike Bament, the well-known postal historian and BPMA volunteer.

Over time more material will be made available online. Subsequent listings will include London markings and railway letters. Look out for updates on our website.

Walking Tours of GPO London

Anyone walking through the City of London will note weird and wonderful street names such as Cheapside, Poultry and Undershaft, or the more mundane Milk Street, Bread Street and Oat Lane, and get a sense of the Square Mile’s past history as part over-crowded slum, part burgeoning centre of trade. But the history of postal communication can also be seen in the City, with Postman’s Park and Post Office Court being merely the most obvious examples. These and other sites will be explored as part of the BPMA’s programme of GPO London walking tours.

In 1643 the first General Post Office was established in the City, with the site most likely to have been in Cloak Lane, near Dowgate Hill. This came just eight years after Charles I made the Royal Mail available to his subjects, although it was Oliver Cromwell who formally established the Post Office in 1657.

At this time Coffee Houses were considered more reliable mail providers than the newly formalised Post Office. Many Coffee House owners collected letters and made arrangements with ship masters for their delivery overseas. This practice was illegal for it infringed the Post Office monopoly, but the service continued to be popular. It is not coincidental that so many early Post Offices were also established in the City of London.

The site of the Garraways Coffee House (rebuilt 1874) and Lloyds Coffee House (1691-1785) will be visited on the tour, along with the sites of the former GPO Headquarters at Lombard Street and St Martin’s-le-Grand.

Other notable sites visited on the tour are King Edward Building (the former Chief Post Office now occupied by Merrill Lynch), and GPO North. Also in the vicinity was the Central Telegraph Office where Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated wireless telegraphy to William Preece, Engineer to the GPO.

There will also be an opportunity to explore a range of operational GPO street furniture from many eras, including manhole covers, telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The tours last around 3 hours and are conducted by BPMA Curators. For more information and booking details please see our website.

BPMA Walking Tours, 2009
GPO London – Tuesday 30th June 2009, 1.00-4.00pm
GPO London – Saturday 19th July 2009, 2.00-5.00pm
GPO London – Tuesday 26th September 2009, 1.00-4.00pm

What does the Post Office mean to you?

by Julian Stray, Assistant Curator

What does the Post Office mean to you? An interesting question and probably not one that we often consider. Is it the loss of our favourite local post office, or is it the continued success of this everyday resource with a friendly face behind the counter, where a single stamp is provided with the same enthusiasm as a bulk dispatch of eBay packages? What do you think of when a holiday postcard is dropped onto your doormat? It is unlikely that any of us spare a thought to the process that bought it from a resort to our house for the modest cost of a stamp. It is also unlikely that we view with such warmth the steady stream of monthly bills or ‘junk’ mail that invades our homes on a far too regular basis!

An oral history drop-in session in progress.

An oral history drop-in session in progress.

Many of us have spent a few weeks, possibly as a student, working as a ‘casual’ over the busy Christmas period. Or possibly you may have completed ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years service for the Post Office, Royal Mail, Parcelforce or Romec. These days, with a changing mails market, increasing numbers of people are actually employed by competitors within the mail business; employed by TNT, DHL, Business Post, City Link or one of the many others vying for space. How do you feel about these changes in the home mail market?

If you have an opinion on any of the above or other associated matters, The British Postal Museum & Archive are interested in your views. We will be hosting two ‘drop-in’ sessions in 2009 where the one big question will be asked: “What does the Post Office mean to you?” Speaking to one of the BPMA curators, we are offering the opportunity for anyone to have their view recorded, be it a three minute rant or a longer discourse on a fondly remembered service. It is the BPMA’s aim to capture a snap-shot of people’s views and opinions during the most radical shake-up of the domestic mail market seen in over 150 years.

The first of these sessions will be held at the BPMA Museum Store on 21 stMay 2009 (full details below). No booking is necessary; simply turn up to have your views recorded for posterity. Please note that some recordings may be closed from public access for a period of years if deemed necessary. So if you are an employee of Royal Mail, or of one of its competitors or simply an interested member of the public, come and tell us… ‘What does the Post Office mean to you?”

BPMA Oral History Drop-In Sessions 2009
May Drop-In Session – Thursday 21st May, 10am-3pm at the BPMA Museum Store
October Drop-In Session
- Tuesday 20th October, 10am-3pm at The British Postal Museum & Archive

Another tale of postie heroism

Wandering Genealogist’s recent blog on a mail coach accident involving his ancestor reminded us of two photos in our collection relating to another mail coach tragedy which occurred in Southern Scotland.

On the morning of 1st February 1831 mail coach driver John Goodfellow and mail coach guard James McGeorge set out from Dumfries to Edinburgh. This article on the Scottish Memories website relates:

Snow had begun to fall heavily as they boarded their mail coach bound for Moffat and they had occasionally to force the vehicle through deepening drifts to complete this stage of their journey: but both…were experienced middle-aged men with a strong sense of duty and “a bit of snow” was not going to stop them.

Having taken on two more horses and some extra passengers the coach continued through the intensifying snow until after a mile and a half Goodfellow and McGeorge were forced to abandon their efforts.

While two male passengers returned to Moffat on some of the horses to raise the alarm, and several female passengers sheltered inside the coach, Goodfellow and McGeorge decided to proceed on horseback with the mail. Tragically, both men succumbed to the snow after a few more miles, although their horses made it to a nearby farm.

Postie Stone as seen in 1938.

Postie Stone as seen in 1938.

A monument to the pair, shaped a little like post box and now known locally as Postie Stone, was erected in 1931 on the spot where the men died. Photos in the BPMA archive of the monument, which were taken in 1938 by the GPO Photographic Unit, show three men, one of whom is a postman, inspecting the memorial. The surrounding landscape looks bleak, although a more recent photo which appears on The Gazetteer for Scotland website shows the area to be green and verdant.

Sadly, this tragedy is one of many which have occurred in the history of the British postal service. But like the posties on the RMS Titanic, the commitment to deliver the mail shown by Goodfellow and McGeorge is notable.