Tag Archives: Post Office Magazine

GPO Britain in pictures

The BPMA is the custodian of a photographic collection which includes about 100,000 individual photographs; the earliest is from the late 19th century and the latest ones date from the 1990s. In a previous blog on our photography collection and a talk now available as a podcast we have presented some of this fascinating material and the stories behind it, and our exhibition The Post Office in Pictures features some of the most striking images.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The photographs depict life in Britain at the time of the General Post Office (GPO) with its contrasts between modern urban areas and the industrial heartland, and the remote rural regions where the postman or postwoman presented a vital connection to the outside world. We have selected six of the most intriguing images for a new postcard set which is now available from the BPMA Shop.

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Many of these photographs have been published in the Post Office Magazine (POST 92), which was first issued in 1934 in order to promote postal services and good relations with the public, aimed at the large postal workforce, their families and friends. The articles often presented the modernity and efficiency of the GPO’s services, such as the Post Office Savings Bank – “Everybody’s Bank” with ten million accounts, according to the author of an article in the September 1935 issue. The story on the bank, which holds “the small savings of ordinary not-very-wealthy folk in the hamlets and towns and cities of Britain”, is accompanied by several images of banking clerks entering the 120,000 daily transactions in the newly adopted accounting machines. The clerks’ efficiency in dealing with the amount of correspondence and day to day business clearly impressed the author – he dubs them ‘super clerks’.

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

Other sections of the magazines were regularly dedicated to news from the different UK regions. These focussed on the local postal staff and their achievements, activities and work in their local community, which, to today’s readers, provides some authentic insights into rural British communities in the 1930s and 1940s. The October 1938 Northern Ireland section, for example, features the image of a postman with a pony and trap on a rural road: “The Glenarm Bay postman goes on his delivery in a trap presented to him by local residents” (POST 118/903).

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Other issues show postmen wading through rivers on horseback (January 1939) to reach the next village or town, or recount the peculiar history of whale bones decorating the post office exterior at Cley-next-the-Sea (March 1938).

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

The GPO Britain postcard set is now available from the BPMA Shop for £3.75.

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Who Do You Think You Are? Live

On 24-26 February we will be attending Who Do You Think You Are? Live at London Olympia. This is the largest family history show in the world and is a great opportunity to meet lots of family history organisations under one roof.

BPMA at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

BPMA at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

This will be the sixth year that the BPMA has attended this event and we have always enjoyed meeting new people and telling them about our family history sources. Last year we had over 550 people visit our stand over the weekend and this year we would love to meet even more.

BPMA resources at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

BPMA resources at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2011

As well as having our usual stand in the Society of Genealogists section of the show (tables 116-117), we will also be participating in the new ‘Our Working Past’ area. This area examines the working lives of people in the past. We will have historic uniforms, photographs of postal workers on duty, and staff magazines available for handling and consultation. The staff magazines, in particular, provide a fascinating insight into life in the Post Office and include accounts of social events, stories and jokes.

We look forward to seeing you there!

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

See the Family History Research section of our website to find out how we can help you search for your postal ancestors.

The Post Office in Pictures opens

Our photo exhibition The Post Office in Pictures is now open! It showcases a selection of inspiring images sourced from our vast collections.

Down Wapping Way

Down Wapping Way, 1935 - Part of the Post Office Magazine series ‘The Postman Everywhere’, which demonstrated the wide ranging experiences of postmen across the country. Postman Mr J Anthony is shown here in an area of Wapping, East London. The author of the accompanying article described the area as ‘narrow, dirty and unsalubrious...’ (POST 118/252)

From strange creatures sent through the post, to the daily deliveries by land, sea and air to every corner of the country, the photos featured offer a fascinating series of windows on Britain from the 1930s to 1980s – including some of the more unusual, unexpected and unseen activities of the Post Office and its people.

Public House & Post Office

Public House & Post Office, c. 1989 - A pint, a pie... and a pension at the Swan public house in Little Totham, near Maldon, Essex. Publican’s daughter Christine Baxter serving a postal customer in the bar of her parents’ pub. (010-018-002)

The exhibition is at The Post Modern Gallery in Swindon until 5 November. The Gallery is open from 11am to 5pm Monday to Saturday – for full details see our website.

Special drop-in events accompanying the exhibition include:

Explore The Post Office in Pictures
Wednesday 12 October, 6pm to 8pm
Craft Session & Late Opening
Join us for an evening exploring crafty connections between the photographs on display and a range of arts and crafts techniques. Enjoy a glass of wine, see practical demonstrations, and then have a go at something yourself, inspired by the fascinating images featured in The Post Office in Pictures.

The Post Office in Pictures Family Fun Days
Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 October, 11am to 4pm
Half-Term Activities
Come to The Post Office in Pictures during half-term for a host of free family activities:

  • Put yourself in the Picture and create your own magazine front cover with you as the star! Use real post office uniforms for added authenticity.
  • Create your own Finger Puppet Postman from felt, and make a cap badge or armband based on what you can see in the exhibition. Real objects will be available to handle for added inspiration.
  • Why not bring along your camera to the fun day and take part in our Photographic Scavenger Hunt? Pick up the clues from the Post Modern, search Swindon for the postal items and snap as many as you can, and then return to the gallery to record your time – the fastest family over the two days will win a fantastic prize.

For more on The Post Office in Pictures see our online exhibition. Large versions of the images from the exhibition can be seen on Flickr. Photos from the exhibition are available to buy from our Print on Demand website.

Jobs for the Girls – Women in the Post Office

The follow blog is based on a talk given by U3A volunteer Margaret Birkinshaw, and draws on her experience of working with editions of The Post Office Magzine.

Fanny Biggerstaff

Fanny Biggerstaff

“Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his little black cat” – most people are familiar with this children’s song. The choice of the name “Pat” is striking, because it is a woman’s name as well as a man’s –and it seems that, from its early days, unusually for the time, the Post Office was employing women in post offices and as letter-carriers. The Act establishing the Post Office was passed under Oliver Cromwell in 1657 but it was not until 1840, with the introduction of Rowland Hill’s prepaid penny post, that a massive increase in the use of the post occurred[1]. The importance of the work of women at this stage is shown by the fact that, as early as 1838, a portrait was drawn of Fanny Biggerstaff, then aged 62, with the inscription “during the past thirty-seven years she has been an honest, punctual and trustworthy postwoman from Thame to Brill and the surrounding villages. Any correspondence she could not deliver to users she used to leave in the family pews in church”.[2]

Considerable information on post office work can be gleaned from the book “Lark Rise to Candleford” by Flora Thompson which, unlike the recent television series of the same name, is factual and gives details of the author’s life in the post office and as a postwoman in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of that century any work outside the walls of the home was taboo for a woman who had any pretension to refinement. However as time went on post office employment became largely the preserve of ministers’ and schoolmasters’ daughters, mainly because the pay of a learner in a large office was very small and not nearly sufficient to live on away from home. This did not apply to letter-carriers, who usually came from a different stratum of society. Flora Thompson describes how every morning the postman who had brought the mail sorted out his own letters for the village delivery and the two women letter-carriers, who did the cross-country deliveries to outlying homes and farms, then did their own sorting.[3]

There does not appear to have been any sort of uniform in those days. Postwomen wore thick stockings, stout shoes, long skirts and coats, shawls, a pull-on felt hat in winter or a sunbonnet in summer.[4] They were hard-working, dedicated and loyal. In fact all post office staff had to sign a Declaration before a magistrate which began “I do solemnly promise and declare that I will not open or delay or cause to suffer to be opened or delayed any letter or anything sent by the post”.[5] Another benefit arising from the employment of women is the fact that they live longer than men. By the end of the nineteenth century males born in the UK could expect to live to around forty-five and females to forty-nine.[6] The Post Office Magazine refers to a number of women still working at a great age. For example in 1947 Miss Parry, sub-postmistress of Handsworth, had worked there sixty years[7] and in the same year there is reference to Jane Williamson, who was then Scotland’s oldest postmistress. She celebrated her ninetieth birthday that year and had no intention of retiring. Even more unusual was the fact that she was only appointed to the post at the age of 85.[8]

Fanny King

Fanny King

However women were appreciated not just for their longevity but also for their resourcefulness and their stamina. A couple of examples are Mrs Rogers who, in the mid-twentieth century, was postmistress of Tristan da Cunha, an island 1,500 miles from South Africa and South America. Mrs. Rogers date-stamped the letters and placed them in a bag which hung on a nail in her bedroom. When a passing steamer was spotted there was a cry of “sail ho” and a boat was rowed out to the ship and the mail bundled aboard.[9] And consider Fanny King, a postwoman in the Cotswolds at the same period who, at 65 years of age, was still trekking nine miles every morning delivering to isolated farmsteads. “I think I should die if I didn’t have my morning delivery” she said.[10]

From the mid 20th century onwards women’s achievements did not gain so much publicity and their work was taken for granted – though brave women foiling raiders still made the news. The request, made in 1961 by the Postmasters Association, that the title Postmistress be discarded and that all officers controlling sub-offices be entitled to the title Postmaster was agreed to[11] – however even today the national press still uses the term postmistress.

And does work in the post office still appeal to women? Yes, it seems that it does. An item in The Times in October 2010 tells how a British doctor, Helen Joannidi, is moving to Goudier Island in Antarctica, the southernmost Post Office in the world to run it for five months (the Daily Mail also covered the story). The building has no central heating, running water or electricity and the average daytime temperature in summer is minus 12 degrees.[12] You cannot get more dedicated to post office work than that.


[1] Hutchinson Encyclopaedia
[2] Post Office Magazine June 1939 p.285 (portrait owned by Mrs. Graham of Highfield)
[3] “Lark Rise to Candleford” – Flora Thompson, 1939
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Office of National Statistics – Social Trends no. 34
[7] Post Office Magazine – November 1947 p. 348 (vol. 1946-8)
[8] Post Office Magazine – December 1947 p.10
[9] Post Office Magazine – July 1946 p. 7
[10] Post Office Magazine – March 1939 p.104
[11] Post Office records – POST 122/8082
[12] “The Times” – 9 October 2010

U3A Shared Learning Project

 Over 10 weeks from September 2010, BPMA welcomed a group of 10 volunteers from the University of the Third Age (U3A). BPMA was taking part in its first Shared Learning Project with the U3A which culminated in a presentation day in January.

The U3A volunteers.

The U3A volunteers.

U3A Shared Learning Projects are research projects that take place between a group of U3A members and an organisation like a museum, gallery or library. The topic of the research can be proposed by the group or the organisation and the work should be beneficial to the volunteers and the organisation. U3A has worked on projects like this with the British Museum, The Foundling Museum, Museum of London and others.

The group spent the 10 weeks with us researching copies of the Post Office Magazine, the staff magazine which ran from 1934 into the 1950s. BPMA has an extensive photograph collection, much of which is catalogued and available online.

A page from the May 1939 issue of the Post Office Magazine.

A page from the May 1939 issue of the Post Office Magazine.

There are many photographs which we don’t have very much background on and the project team were tasked with both indexing articles from the issues of the Post Office Magazine and also noting any photographs in them which also appeared in the online catalogue.

Photograph of a postman and two beefeaters at The Tower of London, as published in the Post Office Magazine, February 1939.

Photograph of a postman and two beefeaters at The Tower of London, as published in the Post Office Magazine, February 1939.

This project has been hugely beneficial to the BPMA. Over 1000 records of articles have been created and around 200 links to photos on the catalogue have been found.

The group also researched a topic of interest related to our collections and presented their findings to each other and BPMA staff. The topics were varied and included Women and the Post Office, Art in the Post Office, The Postcode System and the Post Office Rifles.

John gives a presentation on the Post Office (London) Railway, also known as "Mail Rail".

John gives a presentation on the Post Office (London) Railway, also known as "Mail Rail".

We have also learnt a lot about carrying out a project like this which will help us in the future when we hope to run another Shared Learning Project with the U3A. We would like to thank all those involved in the project for their help in making it a success.

Shared Learning Project volunteer Margaret Birkinshaw’s presentation on Women and the Post Office will be posted on this blog on Friday.

Digitising the GPO Photograph Library

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

Photographs are always exciting to work with. A visual record of the past, they evoke an immediate response from viewers that written records, for the most part, cannot. Their ability to present the past visually makes them such an important part of any archive.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

A postman walking alongside the River Swale near Richmond, Yorkshire, 1938.

BPMA holds approximately 100,000 unique photographic images across both the museum collection and the Royal Mail Archive. From postmen and women on delivery, to bombed-out sorting offices; from mail vans to air mail; from marketing material to reference photographs for sorting office equipment – the Post Office has documented its activities for the last 100 and more years.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

Exterior view of Fowey Post Office, Cornwall, 1935.

For the most part, these are held as part of POST 118: The GPO Photograph Library. Highlights of this POST class include:

  • Publicity photographs created for public relations activities, such as posters and, in particular, for the Post Office Magazine, from 1934 through to the 1970s. Approximately 2800 survive as part of the collection, from a series which once contained over 10,000 photographs.
  • Photographs commissioned or acquired by the GPO Photograph Library from 1964 through to the late 1990s. Approximately 3000-4000 images survive from this series which once boasted nearly 20,000 documented images.
  • Colour transparencies – mostly dating from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. These images were used mostly for advertising, marketing and communications. This series consists of approximately 30,000 individual photographs.
  • Courier prints – files of photographs used for Royal Mail’s internal staff magazine from the late 1960s through to the 1970s.

At present, only 1868 of these images are currently available for public consultation via the online catalogue, although an additional 1000 will be available shortly.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Postmen load sacks of mail from the Ovaltine factory on to a mail van.

Photographs are very difficult to store and to organise. They are also particularly difficult to describe in an accurate manner. One of the barriers to the description work is the lack of context – in most cases, very little information survives about the subject, or when the photograph was taken, and by whom.  Funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has been used to develop access to the photographic material via three main activities:

  1. Research into the photographs and the context and purpose of their creation. Very early on in the cataloguing we realised that many images featured in the Post Office Magazine which ran from 1934 through to the 1960s (with a small gap during wartime). A recent partnership project with the University of the Third Age (more on this in a future blog) was an attempt to identify connections between articles featured within the Post Office Magazine and the photographs in the collections. Teams of volunteers reviewed the Post Office magazines in the Search Room and compiling a database of articles. Volunteers also searched our catalogue for photographs and, when a photograph matches those in the magazine’s articles, add the reference of the catalogued photograph to the database. It has not been an easy task and, as the online catalogue is incomplete, the fruits of this indexing labour will not be realised for a little while to come. Ultimately, the database will reveal a larger contextual picture of the Post Office and the use of photography in its public relations activities.
  2. Digitisation of glass plate negatives and other photograph material. Up until now, we have scanned only those photographs for which prints exist. Photographs that exist only as glass plate negatives or as transparencies have not been scanned as BPMA has lacked the facilities and expertise to carry this out without harm to the material. The funding from MLA has enabled us to contract the services of a reputable digitisation company to carry this out on our behalf. Over 1500 photographs are currently being scanned and processed to a high resolution and these will shortly be made available via the online catalogue.
  3. Better equipment to create and manage digital photographic images. A significant part of BPMA’s ability to make available to the public its photographic collections comes from its efficient management of digital images. Prior to funding from MLA, images have been managed in a fairly unsophisticated manner.  We now have the appropriate hardware to carry out scanning of larger photographic material and other artwork in the collection. We have also established an Image Management server. This will hold all of our digital images and allow us to search and make available images as they are created or digitised for use by members of the public and by our staff.

The GPO Photograph Library

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

Cataloguing the General Post Office’s Photographic Library at The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is a fascinating experience. There are an estimated 100,000 photographs in the collection, from the late nineteenth century to the late 1990s.

At the end of April we added 199 newly catalogued records and their images to the catalogue bringing the total now available to approximately 1900. These are from a collection of photographs dating from 1934 to the 1970s, known as the ‘P’ series. The ‘P’ stands for publicity and many of these images were produced to promote the work of the GPO in magazines, posters and newspapers. In particular, the creation of the library was specifically intended to provide the Post Office Magazine with photographs to accompany the articles written within. We also know that, in the early days, photographers belonged to the Engineer-in-Chief’s department and they frequently accompanied the magazine’s journalists as they went out and about. These photographs, alongside its posters, films and other media, helped establish ‘public relations’ as a vital aspect of GPO operations.

Hildenbourgh Sub-Post Office, 1935.

Hildenbourgh Sub-Post Office, 1935.

Due to the wide range of occupations and activities within the Post Office during this period, the photographs in the ‘P’ series show a great variety of subjects: sorting clerks busy at work, fleets of motor vehicles, historic letterboxes, notable GPO buildings, sorting machines, cable operators, engineers, counter clerks, travelling post offices and, of course, smiling postmen and women delivering letters across Britain.

In addition to the Photograph Library, there is also an expanding collection of photographs of postal subjects that have been submitted to the BPMA and its predecessor organisations from sources outside Royal Mail. These are often given to us by people who’ve discovered photographs depicting family members who were former Post Office employees. We also receive material from enthusiastic postal historians.

Work to catalogue and digitise the collection is ongoing and we hope to have the remaining photographs in the ‘P’ series available by this summer. We will then turn our attention to another of the main series of the Photograph Library.

During the cataloguing, we have relied on the dedication and hard work of two volunteers, Kathryn and Anne to re-house the photographs into suitable storage boxes, list the photographs, scan them and finally to create catalogue descriptions. Anne has now finished, but Kathryn continues to work hard on the project.

To find out more about Volunteering at the BPMA please visit our website.