Tag Archives: penny post

TALK: Glad Tidings: A history of the Christmas card

For our annual Christmas talk, we are welcoming Curator Steph Mastoris of the National Waterfront Museum. As a social history curator he has been fascinated for over two decades by the custom of sending Christmas greetings to family and friends, and the billions of cards that are produced. Get a sneak peak at what to expect from his Christmas talk next Tuesday.


The Christmas card has been very close to the heart of the British postal service from just after the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. Moreover, the Half-Penny Post of 1870 was an important catalyst for the widespread popularity of the Christmas card. Starting as a wealthy middle class novelty, the tradition of sending Christmas cards became and still is a massive activity.


In my talk I will discuss how very recent research is suggesting that the first published Christmas cards were produced some years before the famous one commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843.


As the history of the Christmas card is fundamentally about how people have used them, I will talk about projects that look into how we use the postal service over the holiday season. One of the current projects, People’s Post, gives you the chance to share your memories of receiving cards and gifts in the post. After the talk, there will be an opportunity for the audience to contribute their stories. The information provided may well get built into the interpretation of the new Postal Museum when it opens in 2016!

Join us next Tuesday (2 December) at 7pm at the Phoenix Centre to find out more!

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.

Rowland Hill & the Penny Black

Rowland Hill, the great postal reformer, was born in Kidderminster, near Birmingham, in 1795. Originally an educationalist, it was in 1837 that he published his seminal pamphlet Post Office Reform; Its Importance and Practicability.

As heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, before 1840 postage rates were very high, and they were normally paid by the recipient. Charges were by distance and by the number of pages in the letter, rather than by weight. To send one sheet from London to Edinburgh cost 1s 1½d, a considerable sum in those days. The cost to the Post Office, however, was calculated by Hill at a fraction of 1d. There were also a number of anomalies whereby MPs’ mail, for example, was carried free, a system which was widely abused.

'Sir Rowland Hill' – oil painting attributed to Mary M Pearson, 1836 (2004-0154)

'Sir Rowland Hill' – oil painting attributed to Mary M Pearson, 1836 (2004-0154)

Hill’s proposal was three-fold: that postage should be prepaid; that it should be based upon weight, not distance or the number of sheets; and that the basic cost should be drastically reduced to a uniform 1d, making it affordable to all. The first mention of a label for prepayment – later the adhesive postage stamp – came in a reply to an official enquiry:

a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.

In fact, Hill suggested four types of prepayment, all confusingly referred to as “stamps” – lettersheet, envelope, label and stamped sheets of paper.

Penny Black stamp used on the first day of issue, 6 May 1840 (POST 141/04, Phillips Collection - Volume IV)

Penny Black stamp used on the first day of issue, 6 May 1840 (POST 141/04, Phillips Collection - Volume IV)

Afraid of fraudulent imitation of the labels Hill said

there is nothing in which minute differences of execution are so readily detected as in a representation of the human face…I would therefore advise that…a head of the Queen by one of our first artists should be introduced.

That portrait of Queen Victoria was based upon a medal by William Wyon and was engraved by Frederick Heath, with the labels being printed by Perkins, Bacon & Petch. The Penny Black was put on sale in London on 1 May 1840, becoming valid for postage on 6 May. The experiment was a great success and was eventually imitated throughout the world.

In our collections at The British Postal Museum & Archive we hold unique treasures illustrating the history of postal reform and the design and production of the stamps. These include proofs, the Old Original die from which all the printing plates were made, and the only sheets of Penny Blacks in existence.

Old Original Die (Penny Black)

Old Original Die (Penny Black)

For his services Hill received many accolades and was knighted in 1860. When he died in 1879 he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

– Douglas Muir, Curator of Philately

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

Cruchley’s Postal District Map, 1859

Each month we present an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

This month, Bruce Robertson, a retired town planner from East London, who has been a volunteer working on the postal history collections at Bruce Castle Museum, chooses his favourite object:

Cruchley's Postal District Map, 1859

Cruchley's Postal District Map, 1859

“As a town planner interested in postal history, one of the postal maps was always going to be my favourite object.

Cruchley’s Postal District Map of 1859 was produced when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Rowland Hill’s postal reform, postage stamps, the Penny Black and universal Penny Postage – and District Post Offices – were all part of everyday life. The use of ‘the post’ had grown so much, and there used to be three or four deliveries a day. To aid the sorting of the mail, London had been divided into postal districts – the start of the post-code system we use today”.

Postal Uniforms: 1855

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections)

To continue from my last blog on early postal uniforms, the adoption in 1840 of a Uniform Penny Post and other related reforms initiated by Rowland Hill encouraged the development of the Post Office; this growth was reflected in the increasing workforce and the amount of uniform needing to be issued. In 1851 it was estimated the amount of individuals being supplied with post office uniforms had risen to about 1,700.

Parisian postman circa 1850

Parisian postman circa 1850

1855 marked the replacement of the previous cut-away tail coat by a skirted scarlet frock coat. The wearer’s identification number was no longer on the buttons but had now transferred to being worn on the collar, while the beaver hat was replaced by a glazed hat modelled on one used by the Parisian postmen.

Though scepticism over its practicality was present from the start, even from those involved with its production; a contemporary English contractor suggested that the hat would probably not be very comfortable to wear owing to ‘its lack of resiliency’, even being quite impractical due to ‘its attraction [sic] the rays of the sun; in cold weather the japann becomes so brittle that the least pressure or fall would cause it to crack’.

Nevertheless, the counter plea won with the response that what was satisfactory in France should prove satisfactory in Britain. The vogue for this hat soon waned as the predicted problems became apparent; in 1859 the glazed hat was superseded by a hard felt hat, which later was replaced by the single-peaked shako.

A letter carrier in the new uniform, The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855

A letter carrier in the new uniform, The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855

Other additions to the uniform included the issuing of a waterproof tippet (cape) to protect the easily soiled coat. But most importantly the outfit included grey trousers – the letter carriers no longer had to wear their own much maligned, tattered and unmatching trousers. This resulted in a much neater appearance which saved the letter carriers blushes – and if a letter from the wives of postmen addressing the Queen with the request that their husbands be given trousers is to be believed, their wives too (POST 92/1144).

Reaction to the new uniform was mixed; on the one hand it was admired for its smarter more coherent look, contemporary newspapers even going as far to say that ‘The unmarried portion of the corps will now have so many admirers that doors will open spontaneously, knockers will rust on their hinges, and bells will only be rung to celebrate the merry peal and the utter extinction of bachelors in red habiliments. We have heard that all the domestic servants are now in a flutter of excitement when the double knock is heard.’ (The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855).

'The Postman's Knock' - Colour lithographic song sheet. c.1860

'The Postman's Knock' - Colour lithographic song sheet. c.1860

But on the other hand there was criticism of the new outfit. Punch (1855) found the uniform to ‘glaring’ and ‘more fitted for the Fire Brigade’ and couldn’t ‘comprehend the taste which has pinned a large pair of scarlet skirts to the coat of the postman, and caused us to mistake him for a sentinel off his post, by his resemblance to a Foot Guardsman’. This criticism of the military aspect of the frock coat design can be seen in others derisive comments, for example one paper questions whether ‘the coats or the [scarlet] cloth at least, must have been cabbaged from the Crimea.’

Regardless of the criticism, 1855 can be regarded as the first collective post office uniform that created a smart and more coherent look for the Post Office, as it successfully brought the London District and the General Post letter carriers (who up until then had worn separate uniforms) into line, as both classes now appeared in the same scarlet uniform. Over the next few years this issue gradually spread to the provinces until the next significant uniform change in 1861.

‘Centuries of Innovation and Industry’ at Royal Mail Letters

An early pillar box on display at Rathbone Place

An early pillar box on display at Rathbone Place

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

Recently a small display of objects from the BPMA’s collection was installed in the new reception area of Royal Mail Letters at Rathbone Place. Rathbone Place is a busy mail centre and this hopefully means that the display will be seen by many people, both from within Royal Mail itself as well as any external visitors to the building.

On their website Royal Mail describe themselves as having ‘centuries of innovation and industry making our business what it is today’ and it is this theme that we have taken as the basis for the display. This includes looking at ‘First Innovations’ such as the introduction of the Penny Post, letter boxes and standard time; a section entitled ‘From Land to Sky’ charting the many different forms of transport that have been used to carry mail; and, linked to this, ‘Mail by Rail’ concentrating on the Post Office underground railway (aka Mail Rail) that connected sorting offices in London to mainline railway stations.

Emma Harper installs objects at Royal Mail Letters, Rathbone Place

Emma Harper installs objects at Royal Mail Letters, Rathbone Place

Highlights of the objects on display include a model Mail Coach, a Mail Guard’s timepiece, a railway sign that used to hang on the Post Office railway station at Rathbone Place and an early example of a letter box. We hope these objects will not only show how important Royal Mail’s heritage is, but also promote our role in preserving and presenting their long history. It is for this reason that we are always pleased to work with Royal Mail on displays such as this and hope that it will be enjoyed by those who see it.

New to our online catalogue

Over 4,000 descriptions were uploaded to the online catalogue last week, bringing the total of records available for public consultation to 87,635. The latest batch of records available include:

From the Royal Mail Archive

  • POST 109 – an additional 900 records of publicity artwork and designs;
  • POST 68 – 1250 records of rules and instructions;

From the Museum collection

  • Approximately 1800 descriptions of handstamps;
  • Approximately 120 descriptions of badges and buttons;
  • And an additional 69 book titles to the Search Room library.
One of David Langdon’s cartoons on safe driving

One of David Langdon’s cartoons on safe driving (POST 109/564)

The latest records show a great variety in the collections held by the BPMA. Handstamps were items in everyday use at post offices and sorting offices across the country and our collection includes a cross-section of the types of handstamps used. From special event handstamps, such as the Littlewoods Challenge Cup 1989 Wembley handstamp (2010-0033/2) to the local penny post handstamps, such as the Aycliffe handstamp from early –mid nineteenth century (2009-0334).

Post 109 new entries include David Langdon’s series of cartoon artwork on safe driving (POST 109/564-567) and Jan Lewitt and George Him’s artwork for “x-mas” postings (POST 109/602-605).

Post 68 includes a broad range of instructions, manuals, rule books and circulars from all areas of the Post Office. This series of records will prove interesting to anyone wishing to know more about Post Office operations and services. Some of these rules also contain a surprising wealth of personal and local information, such as the instructions for the postmaster of Garn Dolbenmaen (POST 68/920) which contain details about the postmen’s walk schedule in 1880.