Tag Archives: parcels

Newly-catalogued oddities in WW1 postal censorship

During the First World War, the GPO handled mail sent to and from prisoners of war. These included captured soldiers and civilians who had been in the wrong place at the outbreak of hostilities. Before mail reached its recipient, it would be examined by censors on both sides of the conflict.

I’ve just catalogued a set of nearly 40 GPO files from the First World War all about the censorship of mail for POWs. Many of the files deal with really specific problems. Here are two of my favourites:

BREAD DESTRUCTION OUTRAGE:

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

POST 56/243 (1916) concerns a series of complaints from the fabulously-named Bedford Bread Fund, a charity that sent parcels of bread to British POWs in German camps. The loaves were being sawn in half by the British censors to inspect them for concealed messages, leaving them entirely inedible by the time they arrived. The file also documents the censors’ trials of loaf-prodding by bone knitting needle. While less invasive, the needles alas broke off inside the loaves.

PENMANSHIP CRITIQUE EFFRONTERY:

The GPO's reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

The GPO’s reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

POST 56/212 (1915) contains complaints forwarded by a countess from her POW husband. A concern was that mail was arriving at the camp with pencilled comments from censors, asking the prisoners to persuade their families to write shorter letters, and to write more neatly. Censors, he said, had no right to express this kind of stylistic criticism. As you can see from the GPO reply (above), the comments were apparently left by the German censors who, after all, had a job to do too.

I love these two files. They seem absurd, and yet they’re perfectly logical and justified under the circumstances. Other favourite cases include an intercepted parcel of construction textbooks sent to a French POW, and a query about whether letters to Russian POWs could be written in the Russian alphabet.

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

The censorship records are part of a collection of around 500 files that I’m cataloguing. The files document the Army Postal Service from the 1900s to the 1970s, including both World Wars, and are genuinely global in scope. Much of the material originated from the Royal Engineers Postal Section, a forerunner of today’s Royal Logistic Corps that drew many of its men from GPO staff. All these files will appear on the Archive catalogue in the next few months.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

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.

How to pack for the parcel post

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looked at how retailers benefited from the cheaper postage rates brought about by postal reform. Circulars, delivered to people’s homes at low cost by the General Post Office (GPO), advertised products that wouldn’t necessarily be available to the public on their local high streets – and interested buyers could even place their order by return post, paying for it with stamps.

Manufacturers, farmers and a variety of other services and enterprises also began to use the Post Office on a large scale, but this presented a problem: if you’re a brewer, or a bee breeder, or a berry grower, how do you get your beer or bees or berries to whoever wants them in perfect condition?

Parcels showing bad packing, 1945 (POST 118/1605)

Parcels showing bad packing, 1945 (POST 118/1605)

The Royal Mail Archive holds dozens of files detailing the problems which beset both senders and the GPO, but as far as the GPO was concerned this was almost always the fault of the sender. From inadequately-packed liquids which damaged other mail, to postal workers’ concerns about handling badly-wrapped parcels containing pathological specimens and samples of bacteria, it was clear to the GPO that senders needed to be educated.

Front of Wills' cigarette card number 28 showing a parcel hospital at G.P.O., London, c. 1911-1936 (2010-0383/28). The back of the card reads “In every large post office provision is made for the repacking of parcels which have suffered damage in transit, in almost every case the result of insufficient packing. When the damage is limited to the packing paper being torn, repair is easy, but articles are sometimes so smashed or broken that compensation, not exceeding £2, is voluntarily given”.

Front of Wills' cigarette card number 28 showing a parcel hospital at G.P.O., London, c. 1911-1936 (2010-0383/28). The back of the card reads “In every large post office provision is made for the repacking of parcels which have suffered damage in transit, in almost every case the result of insufficient packing. When the damage is limited to the packing paper being torn, repair is easy, but articles are sometimes so smashed or broken that compensation, not exceeding £2, is voluntarily given”.

Over the years the GPO and Royal Mail have produced a number of leaflets and posters giving advice on how to send everything from butter to tennis rackets. They even produced educational material for use in school science classes:

Word card for use in schools describing an experiment to determine which materials are good for wrapping and packing, c. 1969 (POST 110/0404)

Word card for use in schools describing an experiment to determine which materials are good for wrapping and packing, c. 1969 (POST 110/0404)

The publication Packing Parcels for the Post, published 1955, (which you can see in full on Flickr) noted that:

Last year the Post Office had to re-pack about one parcel in every 500 because it had either been so badly packed, or so damaged by some else’s badly-packed parcel that it could not be sent safely on its way.

In an emotive ploy for proper packing it continued:

At one side of Mount Pleasant Sorting Office is the damaged parcel section, popularly known as “Heartbreak Corner” because it may represent so many heart-breaks for people whose parcels do not arrive properly… One collection of property which could not be delivered because the goods had escaped from their parcels included 300 parcels, 110 wallets, more than 100 shopping baskets and bags, 39 cigarette lighters, razors, dry shavers, soap and toothbrushes.

  Mount Pleasant Parcel Office - Returned Parcels Section, 1938. Items found in the Returned Parcels Section are displayed on a table. Items include dead animals and birds, bottles of beer and various foodstuffs. (POST 118/939)

Mount Pleasant Parcel Office - Returned Parcels Section, 1938. Items found in the Returned Parcels Section are displayed on a table. Items include dead animals and birds, bottles of beer and various foodstuffs. (POST 118/939)

The advice within such publications was often surprising – not just in terms of what you could send but how you should send it. If you wanted to post a rabbit in the 1930s this was how to do it:

GAME (including rabbits) may be posted with a neck label only (which must be securely tied), provided no blood or other liquid is exuding or likely to exude, and that the game is not so “high” as to taint other packets. Liability is not accepted for loss arising from the detachment of a tie-on label.

(Inland Parcel Post, c. 1930s, POST 30/3356A)

As for posting living creatures, here’s some advice from Wrap up well. Packaging for the post – a general guide, 1987 (POST 25/94)

Live bees, leeches and silkworms can be sent through the post but must be enclosed in boxes constructed to avoid all risk of injury to Post Office staff or damage to other packets. Certain parasites and destroyers of noxious insects intended for the control of such insects can only be sent by first class letter post by or between recognised institutions.

Other harmless living creatures such as mealworms, earthworms, ragworms, lugworms, caterpillars, maggots and so on may be sent with prior permission of and in packaging approved by Post Office Headquarters.

Today you can still post a wide variety of items (Royal Mail’s current packing advice can be found here), but the key point remains: to prevent your parcel from ending up in Heartbreak Corner, please pack it properly.

Properly packed parcels please, February 1965 (POST 110/2640)

Properly packed parcels please, February 1965 (POST 110/2640)

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

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