Tag Archives: Post Office Rifles

The Battle of Festubert: 100 year anniversary

The Post Office Rifles is an often forgotten battalion, formed largely of postal workers, that fought on the Western Front during the First World War, their story is one of the many that will be told in The Postal Museum. Our Head of Collections, Chris Taft, tells us about their first experiences on the Front Line.

In May 1915 the Second Battle of Artois was launched to try and push the German line eastwards and improve communications between Northern France and Paris. The campaign, which was to last over a month, would see many casualties and a number of smaller battles, including the first engagement for the Post Office Rifles.

Post Office Rifles Regiment

Post Office Rifles Regiment

The Post Office Rifles had been formed long before the outbreak of war in August 1914, fought in conflicts such as the Boer War. Recruitment to the 8th Battalion City of London Regiment, as they were officially known, was almost exclusively from men of the British Post Office and in March 1915 after months of training at home the battalion left for France. In May 1915 they moved close to the village of Festubert, located between Béthune and Lille, which at the time was on the Front Line.

Recruitment poster

Recruitment poster

On 9 May the main battle began with an attack by the British Army at Aubers in support of a French attack at Vimy Ridge. The attack was a failure and casualties were high. The battle however continued and further attacks on German positions were planned. The Post Office Rifles were to see their first action when, along with the 7th Battalion of the City of London Regiment, they were to attack the German line. One member of the Battalion involved in the battle, Thomas May, kept a diary of the events, which we hold here at the BPMA, and he recalls:

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

The battle dragged on: the Germans launched a counter-attack and the Post Office Rifles were now holding a front line trench position and were subjected to day after day of heavy bombardment which, combined with poor weather, created thick mud and appalling conditions as May records:  ‘Very heavy shelling of our trenches all the day and also it rained all the day’.

Some days of stalemate followed as the artillery bombardment continued for days on end in an attempt to weaken the German front line. Thomas May described the scene: ‘Most awful sights. Dead and wounded laying about … We all were gasping for water and food but could not obtain any.’

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

On 20 May the offensive was resumed and eventually the objective was captured by the British, but not without heavy casualties; in the Battle of Festubert alone over 16,000 British troops were killed. The Post Office Rifles lost over half their men as May’s diary records:

I must say that during the last few days we have lost nearly half the battalion also losing six officers and several suffering with slight wounds and nervous breakdowns. It was heartbreaking to see the boys return from the trenches, the boys were knocked to the wide, and some platoons who numbered about 61 men only about 14 left in some cases.

The Battle of Festubert was to be the Post Office Rifles first engagement, but there were many more in the following years of war. Festubert, however, remains synonymous with the Battalion and many of the dead from the battle are buried in the British Military Cemetery in the village, which is now officially called, the Post Office Rifles Cemetery.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

Daily Life at the Front Line: Thomas May Diary

Last month we introduced you to Thomas May, a member of the Post Office Rifles (PORs), who fought in the First World War 100 years ago.  Thomas’ diary is in BPMA’s collection and through it we can gain an insight into his personal experience of the war during his station in France in 1915. Histories of the First World War tend to focus on the action: the battles, the excitement and, of course, the horrors. However, there was another side, one full of parades, drills, inspections and endless marching. This daily drudgery is more than apparent throughout Thomas’ diary and will be the focus of today’s blog.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. Post Office Rifles changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Inspections and Exercises

Troops generally worked to a pattern of two days at ‘the front line’ in the trenches and two days at rest, in Thomas’ case usually in Bethune, a French mining town. These rest days were by no means peaceful however. Rising at 6am Thomas would frequently have to prepare kit and weapons for inspections. On Sunday 18 May, after the men had been in France for over a month, Thomas notes that it was the ‘first time I have ever paraded with rifle’. Two days later his morning consisted of ‘Rifle, Ammunition Inspection, Bayonet fighting exercises’. This is a stark reminder not only of the realities of warfare 100 years ago – where hand to hand combat was still a distinct possibility – but also of the relative inexperience of these young men.

Marching through the Land

Throughout the diary there are several days where May and the troops seem to spend most of the time marching, either because they were moving off to a new base or billet, or simply on a route march as on Wednesday 28 April: ‘Route march from 9.30am to 2.30pm. Distance 12 miles. Weather very hot and roads very bad for marching. Properly knocked on return.’

Whilst marching is the most common of any army exercise, as Thomas shows it could be tiring work, particularly in the hot French weather which these English men were far from used to.

The Jolly Old Weather

Unsurprisingly comments on the weather are frequent in this Englishman’s diary. In the first couple of months the weather was ‘very warm for marching’ as we have just seen, but May brought heavy rain. This coincided with a major offensive by the Post Office Rifles at Festubert, making for horrid conditions. On 17 May Thomas writes ‘Still it was raining and we were up to our necks in mud…wet through to the skin and covered in mud, also cut about in trying to get through the German barb wire.’

Taking a Bath

Hygiene was an important concern as these muddy, dirty conditions at the front meant fleas and lice were common, as well as more serious illnesses. Some of the billets also left something to be desired. On 23 April Thomas was billeted in ‘a dirty old barn. Inside the barn was rats, mice, chickens, ducks and one bull, but all the boys slept soundly’.  Thomas does not seem to have relished the opportunities for a bath however: ‘Paraded 5.50am for Bathing much to our disgust’.

Ensuring an entire Company of men stayed clean cannot have been an easy task however and on some occasions the activity seems to have taken most of the day:

‘Bathing parade at 9.30am after marching all round France found baths at 1.30pm. Allowed 10 mins for bath. Returned home at 5pm.’

Extracts such as this from the personal diaries of those who experienced the war first hand support the themes that came through the printed media of the time. A famous postcard designed for the officers and soldiers of the 4th Division was entitled ‘Fighting Fleas in Flanders’.

Action and Inaction

Daily life at the front was full of such frustrations and the dichotomy of being ready to spring into action at a moment’ s notice and waiting in this state for hours on end is a powerful one.

20 May : ‘Stood by ready to move off at a moment’s notice. But all orders were cancelled.’

Nights were often interrupted with ‘Stand to arms 2.0am’ and on occasion full night operations made for a long day: ‘Paraded 1-30pm for trench digging, home 6.15pm. Night operations. Paraded 10-30pm. Trench digging, home 3-15am next morning.’

On May 7 at 5pm Thomas ‘was ordered to dig dugouts in readiness for a bombardment. Wind up all round, and had to sleep with boots and putees on. Nothing occurred.’

Food and Drink

Thomas’ subtle wit can be seen throughout the diary as on May 16 he writes ‘Since the exciting evening of May 7th had nothing else but bullied beef and biscuits also no boots and puttees off’. Bullied beef and biscuits was the staple diet for the Rifles, and although Thomas complains about it, he also realised that sometimes a bland diet was a blessing. On 29 March after one of the first shellings that the PORs experienced May writes ‘For once had a good dinner, but was spoilt owing to the horrible sight’. On 4 May dinner was accompanied by ‘Plenty of Champagne because of leaving for trenches’ May tellingly puts in brackets after this ‘(Usual Occurrence)’. Alcohol was often used to try and lift morale and create cohesion between the men of the fighting unit as well as aid in the transition between extreme fighting situations and the ‘rest’ days. In contrast to the front, there were concerns back at home that alcohol was harming the productivity of war workers and thus the war effort.

These were some of the components that made up the daily life of Thomas May and his fellow Post Office Rifles while at the Front. It was often frustrating, boring and tiring yet, as we will see in the next blog, the preparation was vital if the Post Office Rifles were to be successful in their first major offensive, that of the Battle of Festubert in May 1915.

– Emma Harper, Curator

New objects at Last Post exhibition!

Our year-long exhibition, Last Post, is currently at Coalbrookdale Gallery, one of the museums at Ironbridge Gorge. Many of the paper items that have been shown over the last six months have been removed and replaced with other items that have never before been displayed.

The two original manuscript poems- ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, and ‘The Letter’, written by Wilfred Owen, that were on loan from the British Library have been taken off display and replaced by identical facsimile versions. The continued display of these ground breaking poems in facsimile form will enable the story of Shropshire-born Wilfred Owen to remain central to  the exhibition, until it closes on 30 March 2015.

For the first time ever, we will be displaying a Princess Mary tin, sent through the post as a Christmas gift to all serving soldiers during Christmas 1914. This was the initiative of the then 17 year old Princess Mary, daughter of King George V. A public appeal was launched to raise the money for the manufacture the tins and to buy the contents which included items such as tobacco or chocolate inside. Over 426,000 Princess Mary tins were posted to those serving on Christmas Day 1914.

Princess Mary tin

Princess Mary tin

We are also delighted to be displaying a First World War diary, recently acquired by the BPMA. The diary was written by a Post Office Rifle, Sergeant Thomas May, in 1915. Thomas May entered the Post Office as a Telegram Messenger Boy aged 14. His diary details his time in the Post Office Rifles  as he made his way to the Fighting Front in France. May was badly wounded during the War, but survived, and returned to work at the Post Office. A full transcription of the diary will be available in the exhibition for visitors to read.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Three embroidered cards rounded up the changes to the exhibition. Embroidered cards were made by French women on the front for soldiers to send back to loved ones as momentos. The often contained a little message hidden inside an embroidered flap.

Three of the embroidered cards on display.

Three of the embroidered cards on display.

You can find out more by visiting Last Post or viewing our online exhibition.

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Teachers! Review our First World War learning resource to win free copies for your school

We’re looking for Primary and Secondary teachers to review our new FREE First World War learning resource for Key Stages 1 – 3. In return for your time we’ll enter you into a prize draw to win copies of the resource for your school.

Front Cover Image

Last Post brings the story of the postal service in the First World War to life in your classroom. Wartime characters guide your pupils through the different topics. From the importance of female postal workers on the Home Front, to the telegram messenger boys tasked with delivering news of the fallen, pupils will discover how mail was sent to soldiers and find out about the sacrifices made by the Post Office Rifles regiment on the Front Line.

Take a sneak peek inside.

Letters Home Image

The resource contains:

• Lesson plans
• Teacher’s notes
• Over 100 activity ideas
• Image galleries
• PowerPoints for whiteboards

Timeline Image 1

Download our learning resource

Review our learning resource.

If you have any questions about Last Post email learning@postalheritage.org.uk

Mount Pleasant Memorial Granted Listed Status

The Postal Workers’ War Memorial at Mount Pleasant sorting office has been listed at Grade II.  This is part of an English Heritage scheme to list up to 500 war memorials a year over the next five years to mark the centenary of the First World War.

4 August commemoration event at the Mount Pleasant Memorial.

4 August commemoration event at the Mount Pleasant Memorial.

Postal Workers War Memorial at Mount Pleasant.

Postal Workers War Memorial at Mount Pleasant.

The war memorial commemorates 130 postal workers of the Western District who lost their lives in the First World War.  Originally constructed at the Wimpole Street Post Office by their colleagues with funds raised from the staff of the district, it was unveiled on New Year’s Day, 1920.  A further plaque was added listing 56 workers who lost their lives in the Second World War.

When the Wimpole street office closed in 1981, the memorial was moved to the delivery offices at Rathbone place, and then to the sorting office in Mount Pleasant in 2013.

4 August - First World War commemoration ceremony at Mount Pleasant memorial.

4 August – First World War commemoration ceremony at Mount Pleasant memorial.

4 August - First World War commemoration ceremony at Mount Pleasant memorial.

4 August – First World War commemoration ceremony at Mount Pleasant memorial.

You can find out more information about the Mount Pleasant memorial along with information about Post Office war memorials around England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

4 August 1914: Commemorating the First World War

To commemorate today, 100 years since England entered the First World War, Head of Collections Chris Taft reflects on the essential role of the Post Office and its people at home and on the front.

Exactly 100 years ago today the world descended into chaos and changed forever, as England declared war on Germany. In the words of Wilfred Owen, poet and soldier, the ‘Winter of the World’ closed in. Every person in Britain was to be impacted as was every industry. For no industry can this be truer than for the British Post Office, it touched the lives of everyone. For many it was an employer, for even more it was a part of their community and for everyone it was the primary means of communication. By 1914 the Post Office was managing postal communication, telephones and the telegraph. It was also a central point of contact with government departments where people could collect forms, licences and pensions. Any global event was to have an impact on such a key organisation, and certainly the First World War was to.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May (second from left on front row) of the Post Office Rifles with the rest of his company outside some tents. (2013-0021/3)

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May (second from left on front row) of the Post Office Rifles with the rest of his company outside some tents. (2013-0021/3)

As the European or Great War as it was known at the time broke out the Post Office was immediately called up. On the day war broke the Postmaster General was instructed that the Post Office was to take charge of censorship, initially this was just for letters coming from or going to Germany but gradually this role expanded until by later in the War censorship became a major weapon in the fight.

The duties expected of the postal service were many, from censorship already mentioned to managing the separation allowances, relief fund, war bonds and ration books. All this on top of the ordinary duty of delivering mail, as well as the massively expanded task of delivering mail to a World at war.

OB1995.162 30 01

The role the Post Office was to play in the First World War is explored on our online exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War. The story is also told in the Last Post Exhibition which is currently on at the Coalbrookdale Gallery at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum and touring at venues around the country.

The biggest impact however was to be in respect of the people. Over 75,000 men of the Post Office went off to fight. Over 8,000 of these men were to never return. After the war, memorials began to be erected up and down the country to colleagues who lost their lives, today there are over 350 such memorials to postal and telecommunication workers.

Home Depot, Armistice Dat 11 November 1918 (POST 56/6)

Home Depot, Armistice Dat 11 November 1918 (POST 56/6)

As the men left to fight tens of thousands of women took on new role helping to keep the communications lines open both by delivering mail at home and helping to sort the mail for the troops in sorting offices in Britain and in Northern France and Belgium. Their contribution was immense.

As we remember the dawning of the ‘Winter of the World’ we must most of all remember all those people who played their part in the war that was meant to end all wars.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

To commemorate the beginning of the First World War, we have added all new content to our online exhibition, Last Post.

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. To mark the year of the centenary, our First World War exhibition, Last Post, is now open at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group.

The exhibition explores the contribution of millions of people to wartime communication and the far reaching role of thePost Office on both the battlefield and the home front.

Field Post Office

Field Post Office

An Oxo tin among other things

Demonstrating the huge variety of items that could be sent through the post in wartime, you can see on display an OXO tin posted home from the fighting front by William Cox, a former Post Office worker. He posted the OXO tin back to his brother and sister, containing a button from the tunic of a fallen soldier and a piece of shrapnel.

Cox's OXO Tin

OXO tin sent home by Cox

Battlefield will and a favourite plant

You can also view the story of Private Leonard Eldridge of the 8th London Regiment (The Post Office Rifles). Soldiers were encouraged to write battlefield wills whilst on the Front. Private Eldridge’s will is on display in the exhibition.

Eldridge writes: ‘everything I possess except the aspadastras plant of mine, I give to you. The plant, I, with my last wish, leave it, and must be given to, Miss Florence Smith… She must be treated in my absence as my lover with every respect.’

Post Office Rifles

8th London Regiment – The Post Office Rifles

Wilfred Owen

Also on display in the exhibition are two original poems written by local Shropshire-born First World War officer and poet Wilfred Owen, kindly lent to us for the exhibition by The British Library.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, perhaps Owen’s most iconic poem, is on display. The poem was written in October 1917 and revised a few months later, in early 1918. Owen sent the poem to his mother, Susan Owen, with the message: ‘Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final).’

Field Post Box

Soldiers waiting for post

We also fittingly have on display Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Letter’. The poem depicts a soldier writing a letter to his wife back home. Whilst writing the letter, the soldier is fatally hit, and a comrade finishes the letter off for him.

The poem highlights the importance of letter writing to soldiers and also the danger present at all times in the trenches. It also illustrates that the contents of letters home may not have accurately depicted the conditions of everyday life for soldiers.

 

The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, until 27th March 2015 and entrance is free.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition in person, we have launched a simultaneous online exhibition in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.

Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

New acquisitions

A few weeks ago we were very fortunate to have a visit from someone wishing to donate a group of material to the BPMA museum collection. The group of material related to a Thomas William Ernest May, the donor’s father. We have subsequently been able to trace something of his Post office service through the Archive records. May joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman and just a couple of years later, in 1913, was appointed as a Sorter at North District Office in Islington, very quickly transferring back to his old role as postman but at the North West District Office. Just one year later with the outbreak of the Great War as it was known, Thomas, like many other Post Office workers, joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles at the age of 20. He later returned to work at the Post Office, rising to the rank of Assistant Superintendent by the time of his death in 1953.

The objects donated to the BPMA relate both to May’s time in France with the Post Office Rifles as well as his Post Office work. Amongst these are several very personal objects, including a green leather bound pocket journal given to May before he embarked for France in 1915. It includes a map of Flanders, various helpful French and German phrases, a calendar for 1915 and different methods of working out your position in day and night: all to aid the soldier should he get lost or separated from his battalion. The journal itself is written by Thomas in pencil and covers his posting to France as well as his thoughts and feelings in the midst of campaigns on the front line. We are hoping to work on a project to scan and transcribe this journal to chart May’s time during the war, so do look out for that on this blog in the coming years, as well as many other items relating to the Centenary of the Great War.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

There are also photographs of May with other members of the Post Office Rifles, both in official uniformed shots as well as more informal photos of them with their brooms and rifles. May received the 1914-1915 Star Medal and the British War Medal, both campaign medals routinely given to those who served and they are also included within the collection as is the slightly more unusual Silver War Badge. The Silver War Badge was given to soldiers who had to return from the war due to injuries, the badge states ‘FOR KING AND EMPIRE SERVICES RENDERED’. It was to be worn on civilian clothing and was proof that they had been honourably discharged and meant they could avoid being given a white feather for supposedly shirking their duty.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

As previously mentioned, May returned work at the Post Office following his experiences in the war and the final object of this blog dates from 14 March 1929 when he was still at the North District Office. It is a large hand-illustrated card in the form of a postcard and shows a man pushing a child in a pram on the front in a street scene with a cinema and dancing hall in the background. The caption reads ‘You will have to cut all that out now! Daddy’ and features ‘Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes from NDO’ on the birth of his daughter, who has now generously donated these objects to BPMA.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

This is such a wonderful group of personal items relating to Thomas Ernest William May and we are very grateful to his daughter for donating them so that Thomas’ story can be added to the others told through our collection.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

Stories from the Store

Last week we invited the public to venture off the beaten track and explore the treasures of our Museum Store at a special after-hours event as part of Museums at Night 2013.

Our Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits including vehicles and letter boxes. These objects and the stories they tell were brought to life by the Big Wheel Theatre Company in the guise of a suffragette “human letter” and a World War I soldier postman.

Visitors also had the chance to get crafty in workshops with Craft Guerrilla, see our new “Blitz Hill Box”, which contains artefacts from World War II, and indulge in some tea-party style refreshments. Scroll down to view photos from the night.

Before Museums at Night we asked you to guess ‘What’s in the suitcase?’ All was revealed at our Stories from the Store event on Thursday 16 May.

Before Museums at Night we asked you to guess ‘What’s in the suitcase?’ All was revealed at our Stories from the Store event on Thursday 16 May.

The suitcase opened to reveal the story of how the post office went to war. In 1939 the General Post Office was the biggest employer in the country. It played a vital role to keep communication going on the home front and abroad.

The suitcase opened to reveal the story of how the post office went to war. In 1939 the General Post Office was the biggest employer in the country. It played a vital role to keep communication going on the home front and abroad.

Two visitors explore the suitcase, and share their memories of the ‘Save for Victory’ campaign. This public appeal encouraged people to save for the war effort.

Two visitors explore the suitcase, and share their memories of the ‘Save for Victory’ campaign. This public appeal encouraged people to save for the war effort.

Throughout the event stories from the postal past were brought to life by Roland and George from the Big Wheel Theatre Company.

Throughout the event stories from the postal past were brought to life by Roland and George from the Big Wheel Theatre Company.

Roland and George enlisted help from the audience to tell the story of the ‘human letter’. In 1909 two suffragettes ‘posted’ themselves to 10 Downing Street.

Roland and George enlisted help from the audience to tell the story of the ‘human letter’. In 1909 two suffragettes ‘posted’ themselves to 10 Downing Street.

The suffragettes took advantage of a clause in the postal regulations which allowed an individual to be delivered by express delivery. Their aim was to gain publicity for the campaign to gain the vote for women.

The suffragettes took advantage of a clause in the postal regulations which allowed an individual to be delivered by express delivery. Their aim was to gain publicity for the campaign to gain the vote for women.

An audience member takes on the role of the unwitting post boy charged with delivering his human letters to the prime minster.

An audience member takes on the role of the unwitting post boy charged with delivering his human letters to the prime minster.

The suffragettes were intercepted by a police constable who insisted the ‘letter’ had to be returned to the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

The suffragettes were intercepted by a police constable who insisted the ‘letter’ had to be returned to the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

After all that acting, our visitors were invited to a tea party, with complimentary refreshments served by Hannah, our glamorous Community Learning Officer.

After all that acting, our visitors were invited to a tea party, with complimentary refreshments served by Hannah, our glamorous Community Learning Officer.

Craft Guerilla were also on hand stitching up a storm, helping visitors sew their own suffragette rosette.

Craft Guerilla were also on hand stitching up a storm, helping visitors sew their own suffragette rosette.

Visitors could also wander amongst our collection and discover more stories from the store.

Visitors could also wander amongst our collection and discover more stories from the store.

Before home time there was one more performance from Roland, telling the story of the Post Office Rifles regiment in the First World War.

Before home time there was one more performance from Roland, telling the story of the Post Office Rifles regiment in the First World War.

We run regular tours of the Museum Store but these sell out quickly. More tickets will be available next week so keep checking our website for details.

From Pillar to Post: GPO London Walking tour

From Pillar to Post is a London walking tour centred on the history of the GPO (General Post Office), specifically its early presence and impact in central London. It is a brilliant way to spend a weekend morning, discovering the fascinating history hidden within London’s streets. The two hour tour starts in Farringdon and ends in Bank, uncovering along the way the rich postal heritage of London’s roads and buildings, interwoven with the City’s wider history.

The tour began outside the old Metropolitan Railway Parcels office at Farringdon station. Like today, there was no monopoly on the parcel post and you could pay many different companies to deliver your parcel for you. The various disparate railway companies provided a regular, well honed parcel service, if a little complicated and expensive when utilising more than one company at a time. In an endeavour to create a nationwide service the GPO commenced its own Parcels Post in 1883. They initially made a loss having overestimated the number of parcels that would be delivered.

The Metropolitan Railway Parcels Office is still part of Farringdon station.

The Metropolitan Railway Parcels Office is still part of Farringdon station.

The telephone kiosks introduced by the GPO are well illustrated in Smithfield meat market, with an eye-catching row of the iconic K2 and K6 red kiosks. Both were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (later Sir). Sir Gilbert Scott also designed Battersea power station and Bankside Power station, now Tate Modern. The K2 kiosk is almost certainly based on the tomb of Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect. Sir John Soane’s tomb is one of only two grade one listed tombs in London – the other tomb is that of Karl Marx.

K2 and K6 telephone kiosks in Smithfield's Market.

K2 and K6 telephone kiosks in Smithfield’s Market.

Next stop on the tour was St Bart’s Hospital, West Smithfield, where we passed an old and inconspicuous wall box. Companies would often have their own wall box for their mail that they would then pay the GPO to collect from. The large ‘A’ sized example at Bart’s not only incorporates two peculiar angled apertures, but also a door situated outside the hospital so that may can be collected even if the gates are shut.

Wall box front, St Barts Hospital.

Wall box front, St Barts Hospital.

We then came across the four huge buildings that formerly made up a GPO empire. The King Edward building, former GPO headquarters and previously a home to the National Postal Museum, is now owned by Merrill Lynch. A hint of its former GPO importance is indicated by a sculpture in the wall of the building depicting a Caduceus; a Staff with two entwined snakes, belonging to Mercury/ Hermes, messenger to the Gods. Around the corner stands the statue of a hero of the GPO, Rowland Hill – the creator of the Uniform Penny Post. This is known to most as that which gave us the 1d black postage stamp, the first in the World, helping to open the postal service to all.

Statue of Rowland Hill.

Statue of Rowland Hill.

The tour continued on the other side of the road with a walk through Postman’s Park, adjacent to another former GPO Head office – GPO North. The park has a rich history of its own but it was so called because of its proximity to the former GPO buildings and the popularity of the park with GPO workers resting there between duties. In the park is also sited a memorial established by the painter George Frederick Watts. This consists of a series of plaques that commemorate those often unheralded elsewhere, who had performed heroic deeds (some of whom were children) and all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. As you exit the park be sure to notice the bench dedicated to ‘the Central Telegraph Office female staff who helped keep communications open during two world wars’.

We then passed close by St Paul’s station, previously called simply Post Office. Opened in 1900, this station was named Post Office because of its close proximity to the number of large, important and impressive GPO buildings in that area. At the time, another station nearby was known as St Paul’s, and has since been renamed Blackfriars.

The guide continued with stories of the days when the mail was carried by mail coaches across the country, revolutionising mail delivery and the speed at which it travelled and could be received. John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, conducted a successful trial run of a mail coach travelling from Bath to London in 13 hours (with the usual time taken being nearly triple this). From then on the time gained by delivering mail by mail coaches was clear and postal delivery was revolutionised. Many of the mail coaches set off from London along the Great Roads from The General Post Office. Just prior to the First World War this office was pulled down to widespread public outcry. Already proving too small for the increase in mail volume, it had earlier proved popular as a gathering point for the public who would assemble to observe the spectacle of the departing mail coaches. Smaller mail vans were hazardous to the unwary; Charles Dickens recorded the death of a pedestrian under the wheels of a galloping mail van in a neighbouring street in Little Dorritt.

The tour also touched on the Post Office Underground Railway that runs underneath some of the areas traversed on the tour. Work on the Railway began prior to the First World War, and was then halted due to the War – with the underground tunnels used to store artworks from museums and galleries such as the National Gallery. The railway opened in 1927. It was used to transport mail using driverless trains, underneath London, to the mainline stations which provided access across the country. Built partially to avoid the traffic congestion overhead, some might argue that little has changed in London today. However, with the closure of most of the large sorting and distribution offices, routing of mail outside London and cessation of use of the London railway termini for mail purposes meant that the requirement for a bespoke underground railway, by now renamed Mail Rail, was no more.

By the time of Mail Rail, the transport revolution had been going for many years with the GPO availing themselves of the opportunities available. Mail was first carried on overland trains in 1830. Again the innovation of the GPO is evident; mail carried by trains was instituted soon after experimentation with the railways and train travel first began.

We came across quite a few pillar boxes on our journey around London. The well known novelist, Anthony Trollope, is credited with the introduction of the first British pillar box, when working as a Surveyors Clerk for the GPO. The pillar box was trialled in the Channel Islands in 1852 and similar boxes were introduced to the streets of the UK mainland by 1853. The first pillar boxes appeared in London in 1855 though no examples of these survive today. Possibly one of the most popular of all the pillar boxes is the Penfold, the only pillar box named after its designer and famously used as the name of Dangermouse’s sidekick.

Towards the end of our tour we came across Post Office Court EC3 near to where the former Lloyds coffee house is situated. Lloyds coffee house provided the shipping news and therefore was very popular with those travelling overseas. Some of the many Coffee Houses in the area acted as Letter Receiving Houses for a burgeoning postal service, though there were many accusations of improper payments and favouritism.

Post Office Court EC3 street sign.

Post Office Court EC3 street sign.

The tour ends outside the National Exchange and the imposing Bank of England, by Bank station. Here stands a First World War memorial that also commemorates the role of the London Regiment, City of London Battalions and the 8th Battalion (Post Office Rifles), providing a fitting and sombre end to the tour.

War Memorial outside the Bank of England.

War Memorial outside the Bank of England.

I would very much recommend the walking tour for its fascinating overview of the City’s streets, buildings and secret histories. I have only touched on some of the subjects and sights experienced. A subsequent visit to our museum store in Debden is a great way to complement the tour and see the actual objects that are part of this rich tapestry of postal history.

The walking tours are run in conjunction with the BPMA, and led by Cityguides. The next tour is on Saturday 26 January at 11am. There’s no need to book, just turn up on the day. For more information please see our website.

– Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer