Tag Archives: Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Postmasters General

The head of the Post Office has been known by many different titles, but from 1657 to 1969 the holder of this position was called the Postmaster General. Postmasters General were Cabinet-level ministers, selected by the Prime Minister from amongst the members of Parliament or the House of Lords.

One notable Postmaster General was Henry Fawcett, Member of Parliament for Hackney under Prime Minister William Gladstone. Although only Postmaster General for four and half years (1880-1884), Fawcett was responsible for introducing the Post Office Savings Bank savings stamp, the Parcel Post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, amongst other things. A Liberal, Fawcett was also Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University, an early supporter of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and the husband of suffragist and political activist Millicent Garrett Fawcett. In 2009 Philip Jeffs of the Royal National Institute of the Blind blogged for us on Fawcett’s disability; having been blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25 Fawcett reportedly told his father: “Well, it shan’t make any difference in my plans of life!”

Henry Fawcett, Postmaster General 1880-1884. (2012/0129-02)

Henry Fawcett, Postmaster General 1880-1884. (2012/0129-02)

Other famous Postmasters General include Neville Chamberlain, Postmaster General 1922-1923 and Prime Minister 1937-1940, Clement Attlee, Postmaster General 1931 and Prime Minister 1945-1951, and Tony Benn, who was Postmaster General from 1964-1966 and later held a number of other cabinet positions including Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in 1974. Tony Benn’s tenure as Postmaster General is remembered as being a time of change, when the portrait of the monarch was removed from stamps in favour of the cameo head.

Tony Benn, Postmaster General 1964-1966. (P9183)

Tony Benn, Postmaster General 1964-1966. (P9183)

In 1969 the Post Office became a Corporation headed by a Chairman, and government responsibility for the organisation came under the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. When that ministerial position was abolished in 1974 postal services came under the Department of Industry. Today Royal Mail Group is overseen by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, and headed by Chairman Donald Brydon and Chief Executive Moya Greene.

For a complete list Postmasters General and the holders of other senior positions see our webpage on Leadership of the Post Office. Photographs of a number of Postmasters General and Assistant Postmasters General can be viewed on Flickr. For more on 20th Century Postmaster General see Adrian Steel’s blog post The Office of Postmaster General: Its holders in the Twentieth Century.

Human Letters: The Post Office and women’s suffrage

Earlier this year Dr Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society spoke at the BPMA about women’s suffrage and other equality campaigns. This talk is now available through our podcast. But if the connection between the women’s suffrage movement and the British postal service doesn’t seem immediately obvious, all will be explained. 

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street, in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the West Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Another connection to both the Post Office and women’s suffrage was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the wife of the political economist, suffrage campaigner, Liberal MP and Postmaster General (1880-1884) Henry Fawcett. At the time of the human letters incident Millicent was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She and her organisation were more moderate campaigners than the Women’s Social and Political Union, but eventually they achieved their goal.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Achievement series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Distinction series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett is regarded as having been instrumental in the campaign for votes for women, in particular the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed women over 30 the right to vote if they were married to a member of the Local Government Register, as well as women to enter parliament on an equal basis with men.

Garrett Fawcett’s work and that of the NUWSS lives on in the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. In her talk, Dr Katherine Rake outlines the Society’s work, giving both a sobering and optimistic appraisal of what has been achieved.

To find out more about this and our other podcasts visit www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

The education pack Messages Through Time (suitable for Key Stage 3 history students) contains colour facsimile archive documents related to the human letters and can be downloaded from our website.