Tag Archives: Masters of the Post

The Royal Mail – Past and Present

Join me, Duncan Campbell-Smith, on the 24th October at the Guildhall Library where I will be giving a fascinating talk addressing some of the great innovations of the past that have reshaped the Royal Mail. Reviewing the origins of the post as a state-owned service and subsequent moves to reform it from time to time, I will show why some of the most important postal reformers – from Ralph Allen and John Palmer to Rowland Hill himself – might have identified strongly with the logic behind this month’s privatisation.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

Turning to the 20th century, I will look at the attempts to launch a privatisation of the Mail and examine some of the reasons why it did not come sooner. The demands of the Second World War and the security of the state postponed serious consideration of any sale until the 1960s, but it then became a recurring theme of the postal story for more than a half-century.

The talk will use the ups and downs of the privatisation debate as a way of surveying the broad trends in postal history over the centuries. As the author of the Royal Mail’s official history, Masters of the Post, I will also be sure to include some of my favourite anecdotes from the book.

– Duncan Campbell-Smith

Book for Duncan’s talk The Royal Mail – Past and Present via EventBrite. There will be a drinks reception from 6pm, following by the talk from 7pm.

What the privatisation of Royal Mail means to us

Our Director Adrian Steel gives a historical perspective on today’s announcement that Royal Mail will soon be privatised.

The human need to communicate is ever present. But to give a historical perspective on the British postal service – details of the sale of which have been announced today – the usual starting point is the creation of the office of ‘Master of the Posts’ in 1512, its endorsement in 1517, or the Royal Proclamation of 31 July 1635 which effectively saw the opening of the ‘Royal Mail’ to public use. The last of these is most frequently given as the start of what is now the Royal Mail business.

The King's Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail's origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

The King’s Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail’s origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

Throughout most of its existence the service has been the subject of public and political debate. The tension between the need for it to run as a business and turn a profit (which at times in the 17th century was paid to those who bought what was effectively the ‘farm’ of revenue for a part of the service – we have the accounts in the Royal Mail Archive), and the need for it to provide a socially necessary service, is ongoing and – as underpins Duncan Campbell-Smith’s authoritative 2011 history Masters of the Post – recurrent.

The political importance of the postal service is by and large a constant. For a good part of its early history there were two Postmasters General – (usually) one Whig and one Tory – as shown by our POST 67 archive series containing appointment Letters Patent. The 19th century expansion as a result of postal reform was a transformative national event, one that saw what had by then become known as the Post Office permeate literature from Dickens to Trollope (who was himself a Surveyor for the Post Office and credited with the creation of the pillar box). In the early 20th century the service grew to encompass the infant telephone system, saw politicians such as Austen and Neville Chamberlain and Clement Attlee cut their teeth in government as Postmaster General, and the first extended thought on whether a government department really was the right vehicle for what the Post Office did. Harold Wilson’s government – whose Postmaster Generals include the only surviving holder of this office, Roy Mason and Tony Benn – converted the Post Office into a state-owned corporation via the 1969 Post Office Act. After that, the telephone service was separated and later sold as British Telecom, and in the past 15 years two Postal Services Acts have again changed the status of the organisation. The most recent, that of 2011, is the legislation that has led to today’s announcement.

Central Telephone Exchange - telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

Central Telephone Exchange – telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

During the debates on the 2011 Act, concern was expressed across the political spectrum that Britain’s postal heritage, as cared for by the BPMA, should be safeguarded. At the time I took part in correspondence with a number of interested politicians and Ministers and we had visits from All-Party Groups, individual Peers and MPs from all parties (and none), and from Coalition ministers. Amendments were tabled and discussed and eventually a clause added to what was already in the then Bill, ensuring that the heritage of the postal service was properly cared for and reported to Parliament upon even after a privatisation such as was announced today. With this protection and support behind us, plans for our new home well advanced, and ongoing support from politicians, Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, BPMA looks forward to providing a first class home for this great service’s history for generations to come.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

For more on the history of the Royal Mail see our online exhibition The Peoples Post.

Duncan Campbell-Smith, author of Masters of the Post – The Authorized History of the Royal Mail will speak on The Royal Mail Past and Present at the Guildhall Library on 24 October 2013.

Masters of the Post wins award

The Business Archives Council (BAC) has announced that the winner of the 2011 BAC Wadsworth Prize for British Business History is Duncan Campbell-Smith for Masters of the Post – the Authorized History of Royal Mail. The prize was presented to Mr Campbell-Smith by the Chairman of the BAC, Dr Terry Gourvish, on 8 November.

Duncan Campbell-Smith blogged for us last year on the process of researching the book at the Royal Mail Archive. You can also see a video of Duncan Campbell-Smith at the Archive on YouTube.

Masters of the Post is the first complete history of the Royal Mail up to the present day. It presents the whole story of Britain’s postal service — how it was built, how it led the world for two hundred years and how it has struggled to survive in the face of mounting odds since the arrival of the internet.

Masters of the Post - The Authorized History of the Royal Mail

Purchase your copy of Masters of the Post from our online shop.

Great Train Robbery: opening files among the records of the Post Office Investigation Department

2013 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Train Robbery. Around 3am on Thursday 8th August 1963 just under £2.6 million was stolen from a Travelling Post Office (TPO) en route from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston. The attack on the train stunned the nation because of the enormous amount of money stolen and the highly organised style of the robbery. The event has proved to have enduring public appeal via books and films as well as continued fascination with the robbers themselves.

A Travelling Post Office, 1958 (POST 118/5269)

A Travelling Post Office, 1958 (POST 118/5269)

At the start of 2011 I discovered that some entire files related to the robbery within POST 120 (the section of records in the Royal Mail Archive for the Post Office Investigation Department) had continued closure date stickers on them (50 years post the date of the last document in the file, so from 2013 to around 2020). The precise reasons for closure proved difficult to ascertain. I felt it was important that as interest increases in the run up to the anniversary we were clear about what was and what wasn’t open.

The first thing we did is collect up all the relevant files and with my colleague Helen Dafter I started going through them noting down any personal details that might fall foul of data protection legislation. We also asked for assistance, liaising with The National Archives (TNA). TNA recommended the preferred method of closure to be redaction, so removing names and details on a surrogate of the original document rather than closing whole files. Current Royal Mail Group Security staff came in to examine the files and we consulted with Scotland Yard.

Second page of a confidential list of 28 suspects given to the Post Office Investigation Branch by the police. Note ’27’ and ‘28’ (‘Two Post Office men – not named’) and the handwritten addition of ‘Ronald Arthur Biggs’. (POST 120/95)

Second page of a confidential list of 28 suspects given to the Post Office Investigation Branch by the police. Note ’27’ and ‘28’ (‘Two Post Office men – not named’) and the handwritten addition of ‘Ronald Arthur Biggs’. (POST 120/95)

In the end we decided that very little justified continued closure since many of the people involved are now dead. Data protection, not disclosing information that would cause individuals distress if it were revealed, after all only applies to the living.

What the files reveal is the story of the Post Office Investigation Branch’s (IB) investigation and how significant this was to tracking down the culprits. They also shine light on an issue mentioned by Postmaster General Reginald Bevins immediately after the event, that there might have been an ‘insider’ at the GPO providing information to the robbers. The IB carried out observations of suspected individuals for years following the crime but no evidence of involvement was found.

First page of a report into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’ who may have assisted the criminals (from POST 120/128). None of the suspects were found to have any connection with the robbery.

First page of a report into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’ who may have assisted the criminals (from POST 120/128). None of the suspects were found to have any connection with the robbery.

Over 2011 interest in the material has continued to grow with Duncan Campbell Smith including a chapter on the robbery in his Masters of the Post and the historian Andrew Cook carrying out research for a proposed book in 2013. Researchers from BBC Radio 4’s The Peoples Post have consulted the files and Lion TV have made a documentary for Channel 4, which airs tonight.

– Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives and Records Management

Masters of the Post – Video

Economic journalist and researcher Duncan Campbell Smith discusses how he researched his book Masters of the Post – the Authorized History of the Royal Mail at The British Postal Museum & Archive.

Masters of the Post is the first complete history of the Royal Mail up to the present day. It presents the whole story of Britain’s postal service — how it was built, how it led the world for two hundred years and how it has struggled to survive in the face of mounting odds since the arrival of the internet.

Purchase your copy from our online shop.

Masters of the Post

As the author of a new history of the Royal Mail (Masters of the Post, published by Penguin Allen Lane today), I have to say that no book could possibly capture more than a fraction of the riches to be found in the archives held by the BPMA. Just penning this blog on my own experience in the archive has left me feeling only too aware of all the extraordinary records to which I could only devote the tiniest amount of space.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

Duncan Campbell Smith in the BPMA archive search room.

What marvellous tales, for example, must still lie undiscovered in those 1,185 volumes of the Treasury Letter Books (all in POST 1)! What charming stories have yet to be extracted, from the wonderful Peover Papers – the letters of Colonel Whitley written to postmasters all over the country in 1672-7, and so conveniently for us turned into modern typescripts by the Post Office in 1902 (see POST 94/12-24)! And what a chronicle of the First World War yet remains to be written, on the basis of the thirteen confidential reports on the work of the Royal Engineers Postal Service units (see POST 33/5506)!

Photo of letter to Mr Watts from the Peover Papers

Photo of letter to Mr Watts from the Peover Papers

My challenge in attempting a general history, of course, was always about how to make extensive use of the postal records without drowning in them. Step One was to take full advantage of the BPMA’s comprehensive library of secondary sources, to assemble a broad outline of each historical episode as I came to it – then to draw on the generous help of the BPMA’s staff in compiling lists of the archive files most likely to bear on the narrative of that episode. And in reading through those files, I always tried to leave myself plenty of time to call up other, perhaps only loosely related papers that might just harbour surprises. Pot luck accounted for some of my happiest discoveries.

Photo of a REPS unit on the Western Front in WW1 (POST 56/6)

Photo of a REPS unit on the Western Front in WW1 (POST 56/6)

I hope the resulting book will, at the very least, provide a useful chronology of postal history for those approaching the archive in future. Those with very specific family queries might appreciate a bit of wider context. And those in search of their own narrative may find Masters of the Post can help them define the broad questions they want to answer. The scale and depth of the BPMA’s archive is all very well. But for those with less than a single lifetime to explore it, productive research needs to start with an outline agenda. That’s what converts an open ocean, merely to swim in, into a river that can be fished.

– Duncan Campbell Smith

Images from the BPMA collection which appear in Masters of the Post can be seen on Flickr. Charts and statistics which illustrate the fluctuating fortunes of the Post Office and Royal Mail over the past 170 years can be found on our website.