Tag Archives: penny black

Pop it in the Post: NEW family touring exhibition

Over 160 years ago novelist Anthony Trollope suggested an idea which would change how people communicated forever – the UK pillar box! The first box was installed in 1852, in Jersey, in the Channel Islands. We have never looked back and the iconic red pillar box is now known as a national icon.

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To mark Anthony Trollope’s momentous suggestion and the bicentenary of his birth – we have developed a brand new family exhibition that looks at the communications revolution that followed the introduction of the world’s first stamp, and the UK’s first pillar box  (so-called because of its resemblance to a pillar or to a column).

Early pillar box designs

Early pillar box designs

Pop it in the Post: The World at the end of your street opens at Islington Museum on Saturday 28th March, until 2nd May.

For over 160 years, people in Britain have been able to stick a stamp on a letter and post the letter into a pillar box- sending their news to friends and family across Britain, and then further afield. The exhibition begins by exploring life before stamps and pillar boxes, when only the privileged few could afford to send letters.

We then look at the ground-breaking introduction of stamps, and pillar boxes. The popularity of pillar boxes and other post boxes grew throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Post boxes of all shapes and sizes were soon available in cities, towns and villages. Meet the individuals who made this possible, and discover how millions of people’s lives were changed. The world was now available to everyone – simply through the pillar box at the end of your street.

Street letter box number 1855, corner of Fleet Street and Farringdon Road

Street letter box number 1855, corner of Fleet Street and Farringdon Road

This small exhibition will include original Victorian pillar boxes, replica Victorian letter carrier uniforms available to try on, and also activities and games available for families and children. Throughout the exhibition run there will also be some fun daytime drop-in sessions for children on selected days. Please check our website for more information nearer the time or contact BPMA Exhibitions Officer on 0207 354 7287.

Future exhibition venues:

3 October to 21 November 2015
Mansfield Museum
Leeming Street, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire NG18 1NG

6 January – Saturday 26 March 2016
Havering Museum, Essex
19-21 High Street, Romford RM1 1JU

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

3D Scanning moves into its final phase

Over the last fortnight we have been undertaking the latest stages of scanning of our 3D philatelic objects as part of our Share Academy funded project – from vault to view.


Scanning the flintlock pistol.

We took a number of dies, including the Old Original die of the Penny Black, and the Silver Wyon Medal, over to UCL to be photographed in a PTM dome. The dome is opaque and is fitted with 84 flash lights arranged in rings around the hemisphere. Each flash is activated one at a time and a photograph taken. Once all 84 flashes have been triggered the resulting 84 photographs are processed together into one image so that all the lighting conditions can be observed via a special viewing computer program. The observer can manipulate the lighting condition to reveal hidden features – the engraving, the scratches on a die, etc

The activity described above is part of a series of techniques for a process known as Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI). You can find out more here – http://culturalheritageimaging.org/Technologies/RTI/


Scanning at UCL

The results of this test are still being processed, but the images we’ve seen so far are impressive and we’re very excited by them.

Last week UCL’s 3D specialist, Mona Hess, visited the BPMA bringing a portable 3D laser scanner with her. This was to be the last set of trials with laser scanning and we wanted to try the same set of objects which were digitised by the PTM dome. This time around, the results were more mixed as the laser had difficulty with the shiny surfaces of the dies and medal. We also tried scanning the flintlock pistol we had scanned previously with the large laser scanner at UCL and the results were slightly better. The scanner rendered the wooden parts of the handle and stock, but struggled to render the metallic parts, such as the barrel and the firing mechanism.


Latest tests at the BPMA

The preliminary findings of the tests show that the PTM dome renders the most useful images of metallic objects from the stamp printing process. We have one day of scanning left to complete in this fascinating project and we will then make the results of the whole project publicly available.

Royal Mail Archive added to UNESCO Memories of the World Register

Recently the BPMA has received some exciting news. The Royal Mail Archive, which we look after, has been added to UNESCO’s Memories of the World Register. The archive spans the years 1636 to 1969 and covers a wide range of items from promotional posters to the Penny Black and employment records to telegrams about the Titanic.


Telegram telling of the sinking of the Titanic

UNESCO was impressed by the unique insight the archive offers into the development of communication within the UK and abroad and the way it reflects the social and personal impact that the postal service has had upon people across the country.


GPO poster

Head of Archives Vicky Parkinson tells us about being added to this year’s list of inscriptions:

“Back in 2011 my colleagues attended that year’s inscription reception following the successful nomination of the work of the GPO film unit, which was a joint application with our colleagues in the BFI and BT. On the back of that success we felt that the Royal Mail Archive was worthy of inscription and the nomination paperwork was submitted in January of this year.

We were delighted to hear that the UNESCO committee agreed with us and on the 19 June 2014 Helen Forde, Chair of our Board of Trustees, and I travelled to Edinburgh to attend the award ceremony, along with the other successful nominees.

Vicky and Helen

Vicky and Helen at the reception. Photo by Lesley Ann Ercolano

The reception, hosted by Lloyds Banking Group at their iconic site on the Mound in Edinburgh, was about celebrating the UK’s outstanding history and raising awareness about some of the country’s documentary riches. For me it was a wonderful reminder of how the archive, and the work we do to look after it and make it available, fits into the bigger picture of how history, and more importantly the original records, still play a vital role in today’s society.


One of the thousands of photos in the collection – women mending parcels at the Home Depot during the First World War

For those of us lucky enough to work with the archive on a day to day basis it’s easy to see just how significant the collection is, documenting the vital role the postal service has played in the UK. Having that importance recognised by schemes such as UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register and the Arts Council’s Designation scheme is a vital way of spreading awareness of the riches we have in our custody.”

It is these stories and more that will be told in The Postal Museum when it opens in 2016. To hear some of these fantastic stories, and see the wealth of objects all of our collections hold, before then keep an eye on the blog. Over the coming months BPMA staff will be telling you all their favourite stories and showing you all manner of intriguing and enticing objects.

From Vault to View: Object Selection

Earlier this year we announced  our 3D scanning project with UCL to capture objects from our philatelic collection. Over the past month, the Philatelic team has been selected just a few objects from its vast collection to scan. Joanna Espin, our Philatelic Assistant, introduces the objects in this post.

We have a large collection of three dimensional objects to do with the production of postage stamps; ranging from metal dies and transfer rollers, to printing plates. There are also three dimensional objects to do with the design of stamps and other aspects of postal operations. We have chosen a range of objects, of various sizes and materials, which are important to understanding postal history.

The objects selected are some of the most treasured in the Philatelic collection, and concern the history of the Penny Black, Machin Head and letterpress printing.

Wyon Medal, 1838

The Wyon Medal was the inspiration behind the engraving of Queen Victoria featured on the Penny Black.

Wyon Medal front

Wyon Medal front.

Wyon medal reverse

Wyon medal reverse.

‘Old Original’ Penny Black Die, 1840

The ‘Old Original’ Penny Black die, from which all Penny Black plates and most Penny Red plates were made.

‘Old Original’ Penny Black Die, 1840.

‘Old Original’ Penny Black Die, 1840.

Elizabeth II Machin head plaster cast, 1966

Arnold Machin intended his portrait of Queen Elizabeth to allude to the Penny Black: both were designed from a relief portrait and both monarchs are wearing the George IV State Diadem.

Elizabeth II Machin head plaster cast, 1966

Elizabeth II Machin head plaster cast, 1966

Machin Stamp roller, 1968

This object’s shiny surface has prohibited successful digital rendering. 3D scans would, in connection with the Machin curved plate, explain recess printing.

Machin Stamp roller, 1968

Machin Stamp roller, 1968

Machin curved plate, 1968

The 1968 high value Machin £1 stamp recess printing plate.

Machin curved plate, 1968

Machin curved plate, 1968

Edward VII Die, 2d Tyrian Plum, 1910

Almost 200,000 sheets of this iconic stamp were printed yet only one was ever used, as King Edward VII died before the stamp was issued. We plan to scan the die and box.

George V Die for striking leads. 1½d postage British Empire Exhibition, 1925

This object incorporates interesting shape, detail and colour. It connects with the 1924 Wembley slogan die and letterpress printing.

George V Die for striking leads. 1½d postage British Empire Exhibition, 1925

George V Die for striking leads. 1½d postage British Empire Exhibition, 1925

Downey Head ½d Skin, 1911

The first definitive stamps of King George V’s reign were based on a photograph taken in 1910 by W. & D. Downey. The Downey Head skin we plan to scan is an important part of the history of letterpress printing.

Downey Head ½d Skin, 1911

Downey Head ½d Skin, 1911

Edward VII embossing punch, 1902

Successfully capturing the detail and embossing on the punch would enable effective demonstrations of embossing technique.

Flintlock Pistol, 1816 – 1841

This object demonstrates the diversity of the BPMA Philatelic collection. A 3D rendering of the pistol will highlight the engravings on the end of the barrel, which state that the gun was for official GPO mail coach use.

Flintlock Pistol, 1816 - 1841

Flintlock Pistol, 1816 – 1841

Aerial Handstamp, 1911

The world’s first scheduled airmail service began in 1911 as part of the celebrations for the coronation of King George V. This handstamp, commemorating the event, has wide historical appeal. The object’s shape and material make it ideal for 3D scanning, as reflective surfaces are notoriously difficult to capture.

Aerial Handstamp, 1911

Aerial Handstamp, 1911

Slogan Die, Wembley, 1925

Issued as part of the celebrations marking the British Empire Exhibition, this slogan die has wide historical appeal and, due to its shape and material, is another interesting object on which to experiment 3D scanning techniques.

We will initially test various techniques, a process expected to take several hours for each object, and compare the results to existing two dimensional photographs. The processes to be employed are highly experimental and will shape recommendations for a standardised approach to 3D imaging. The results will enable ground-breaking access to treasured objects in the Philatelic collection and, ultimately, audiences will virtually handle important postal history objects.

Stay tuned next week to find out about the different techniques we will be using!

–  Joanna Espin, Philatelic Assistant

Stamp printing plates, dies and rollers: from vault to view

Over the next year, our Philatelic and Digital teams will be working with UCL’s Mona Hess, Research Associate and PhD candidate at UCL, to digitise objects from our collections, including printing dies, rollers and plates. These objects are difficult to photograph and not available for consultation by the public. This project, funded by Share Academy, will provide access to these important objects through a combination of a number of technologies. The final output will be set of 3D digital objects for use by philatelic enthusiasts, researchers and the general public. This blog will regularly update you on what is happening along the way.

Mona discusses various imaging techniques and engagement outputs for the 3D objects. A stamp plate sits at the centre of the table.

Mona discusses various imaging techniques and engagement outputs for the 3D objects. A stamp plate sits at the centre of the table.

Last Friday (24 January), we held a kick-off meeting for our Philatelic 3D digitisation project, a Share Academy project partnership with UCL. Because of the highly-reflective surfaces of these objects, a combination of technologies will be trialled to see which works best.  Some of the objects can be captured at the BPMA’s premises using techniques such as photogrammetry. Others, however, may need to be transported to UCL to be digitised with their large-format 3D scanning device.

Original Heath die of Penny Black with various other dies. (POST 118/1733)

Original Heath die of Penny Black (centre) with various other dies. (POST 118/1733). The reflective and finely-engraved surface makes them difficult to photograph.

Another highlight of the meeting was the demonstration of a possible output for the 3D objects: a mobile/tablet application. The Petrie Museum engages visitors using an application that explores the history of the Nile Valley with 3D digitised objects that can be manipulated by users.

Over the next month, our Philatelic team will be selecting various objects to be captured in the trials (due to take place from March), as well as planning any transportation of objects, where necessary, to UCL.

Are there any particular objects in the Philatelic collection that you want to see as 3D objects? 

-Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager

Queens’ anniversaries

This June not only marks the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on 2 June 1953 but also 175 years since another female British monarch was crowned; the young Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom on 28 June 1838. Both queens have celebrated a Diamond Jubilee and are the United Kingdom’s longest serving monarchs – a remarkable achievement, which is also reflected in the eventful periods that mark their reigns spanning over decades of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Victoria oversaw a whole era of innovation, which was particularly true in postal affairs. The world’s first postage stamp, The Penny Black, was issued during her reign on 6 May 1840 and featured the young queen’s portrait.

The Penny Black and "Machin" stamp designs.

The Penny Black and “Machin” stamp designs.

Since Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne in 1952, many ground-breaking changes have taken place in every part of British life. In stamp design, the Queen’s head was almost removed from pictorial stamps but finally a new timeless and classic design was finally commissioned for definitive stamps: the “Machin stamp”, featuring Queen Elizabeth II’s effigy. Based on the white cameo relief created by Arnold Machin this iconic design has been reproduced on stamps over 200 billion time since 1965.

To commemorate these two extraordinary anniversaries, the British Postal Museum & Archive Shop is now offering a unique set of Wedgwood Jasperware plates featuring the two classic portraits of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II from stamp design. A Black Basalt plate shows Queen Victoria’s portrait from The Penny Black, and a Portland Blue dish features Queen Elizabeth II’s image from the “Machin Head”. The plates are 11cm in diameter with a white wreath of laurel leaves on the border and come beautifully presented in a Wedgwood box. You can now purchase this ideal souvenir of the coronation anniversaries in 2013 as a set for £17.50 from the BPMA online shop (plus P&P).

Wedgwood Jasperware Set.

Wedgwood Jasperware Set.

A Cup of Tea and its Consequences

Chris West explains how he came to write the book First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps.

Chris West

Chris West

Like many of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I had a stamp collection. A rather mediocre one… But one Sunday, I went to tea with my great uncle.

I happened to mention that I collected stamps, and Uncle Frank said he’d done that too. He disappeared and came back with a dark blue ‘Lincoln’ album. Inside was a treasurehouse of stamps featuring Edward VII and Queen Victoria – including a Penny Black (it had a corner missing, but still…) Frank then said that he didn’t really bother with them any longer – did I want them? The album became my pride and joy. I even took it to school to show everybody. Sadly, one viewer was so impressed that he stole half the stamps. The collection never felt the same afterwards, and vanished into an attic. Forty years later, I was cleaning out the attic when I came across the album. For a moment an old fury came back, but then I decided that a much healthier reaction was to reassemble the collection.

The 'Seahorse' stamp.

The ‘Seahorse’ stamp.

British Empire Exhibition 1924 stamp, 1d value.

British Empire Exhibition 1924 stamp, 1d value.

As I did this, I found myself ever more intrigued with the stamps, as items of beauty but also as tiny pieces of history. Who stuck this Penny Black on an envelope, and what was in the letter? More generally, what was Britain like at the time? I found envelopes that had been sent in Ireland around the time of the appalling famine, a Seahorse sent just before World War One, a stamp celebrating the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (an event I had never heard of, but which was as big as the Olympics in its day), an envelope that had enclosed a censored letter from World War Two, the classic 4d stamp celebrating the 1966 World Cup win… Stamps, I realised, tell stories.

Finally, I assembled these stories into a book, that would tell the nation’s tale through its stamps – or 36 of them, anyway. It’s been a joy to research and write. And all thanks to my great uncle and a cup of tea one Sunday afternoon.

First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps by Chris West (cover)

First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps is available from the BPMA online shop.

Chris West will give a talk based on First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps at the BPMA on Thursday 21 February 2013.