Tag Archives: Post Office telephones

They came to do a job and they did it

Head Postmaster of Dover AWB Mowbray kept a typed account of the Blitz years in what became known as ‘Hell’s Corner’, recounted here by BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes.

Mowbray wrote with pride when a member of his staff, Miss W N Scanlan, was awarded the British Empire Medal in October 1941. This was announced in the London Gazette alongside a notice that the same award was awarded to two other female supervisors in charge of Post Office telephone exchanges.

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Little more is known of these women’s particular acts of bravery, aside from what is written in the newspaper:

These three Supervisors of Women Telephone Operators have, by their courage and devotion to duty, set a fine example to their staffs. Throughout the air raids in the areas where they work, they have maintained an efficient telephone service during periods of constant danger.

According to the General Post Office press release, eight other female supervisors and telephonists had previously received awards and commendations.

Over 100,000 women had been employed by the GPO by November 1941 – more than one-third of the total staff. Due to the shortage of manpower, women worked a range of duties including some previously considered ‘male’ occupations – such as telephone engineers and the first ever female motorised van driver.

Mowbray describes how, in Christmas 1941…

… the kaleidoscopic effect of the multi-coloured jumpers and overalls of the women temporary sorters who fluttered about like so many butterflies was unmarred even by 2½ hours of shelling in one evening…they came to do a job and they did it regardless of the large quantity of roof glass.

Additionally, one-third of the Sub Post Offices in the country were controlled by women. It is clear that without them, the vital communication networks cared for by the Post Office could not have been maintained.

In addition to these examples there are many other notable tales of bravery by postal staff during the Blitz. A total of 27 post office staff died on duty in 1941. By the end of that year, over 100 men and women had received commendations and awards from the King, while on Civil Defence or Post Office Duty. These ranged from 38 British Empire Medals to eight George Medals.

Mowbray himself was to be included in the New Years Honours list in 1942, as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In 1941, 117 staff were also commended by the Postmaster General for their work on the home front. For every Post Office worker who won an award, there were countless others behind them who received no official recognition. Miss Scanlan announced the award to her staff by flourishing the letter and saying ‘Girls we’ve got the British Empire Medal’. And, as Mowbray himself readily acknowledges, it was the co-operation of the police, fire, transport and military services, and the cheeriness of the population that helped his staff cope with the strain of war.

We do not like the phrase “We can take it”. It would be more honest to say “It’s forced on us”, but the Dover people and Dover Post Office staff do their utmost to make the best of decidedly unpleasant circumstances.

Vyki Sparkes’ podcast The Post Office and the Blitz can be downloaded for free from the BPMA website, iTunes or SoundCloud.

See Shells Over the White Cliffs and Harder times in Hell’s Corner for more from the AWB Mowbray accounts.

The ringing red icon – a whistle-stop look at telephone boxes

You may wonder why a blog is being written by The British Postal Museum & Archive about telephone kiosks. The reason behind it is that 100 years ago, in 1912, the General Post Office (GPO) took over the majority of the UK’s private telephone service – and were responsible for the telephone service until responsibility for this was taken on by the newly formed British Telecom in the 1980’s.

Street furniture

With the increasing popularity of the telephone in the early 20th century, it was only a matter of time before telephones kiosks were seen in the street. Telephone kiosks based inside hotels, stations and other handy places already existed and were known as Silence cabinets.

Those placed on the streets took on various, often ornate guises. The GPO needed to develop its own street furniture in order to open up the service to the general public but also advertise the GPO simultaneously. In 1920, the first telephone kiosk under the GPO was introduced, the K1 (Kiosk 1). Whilst K1’s remained on our streets for many years they were made out of concrete, rather than the GPO’s preferred medium of cast iron. Although relatively cheap to produce they were not seen as an attractive addition to the streets. Some councils even tried putting thatched roofs on top of K1’s to improve their appearance! Though the K1 was never a permanent solution thousands were produced with a handful surviving today.

Grand style statement

K2 telephone kiosk and pillar box.

K2 telephone kiosk and pillar box.

The GPO’s quest for a telephone kiosk that was hard wearing and aesthetically pleasing was answered in 1924 when architect Giles Gilbert Scott designed the cast iron K2. GPO officials deemed that the now iconic K2 was to be red – standing proud as the colour of pillar boxes.

The K2’s domed roof was believed to echo the ornate design of the tomb of Sir John Soane, a fellow architect. The K2 was beautifully designed and functional. Rain water was directed off by vertical grooves down its sides. The ventilated crown at the top was handily placed far enough away from the speaker so that their conversation could not be heard outside, whilst still providing fresh air. Another design feature included was a sloped floor… to offset possible unsavoury use as a urinal. Many K2’s remain in the street today, predominantly in London. This was partly the downfall of the K2 – it was too expensive to produce in bulk to send out across the country. All K2’s today are listed.

Everything to everyone

Let us pass swiftly by the K3, the cream concrete version of the K2, (although there is one still inside London Zoo), and only briefly mention the K4, designed in 1925. The K4 tried to be everything to everyone – a combination telephone kiosk, stamp vending machine and post box. Sadly, it was not practical. Making a phone call in a kiosk that was next to a noisy road (enabling a quick collection of letters by the postal worker) simply did not work. An ideal site for a kiosk was not necessarily the same for a post box. Only 50 K4’s were made.

Two views of the K4 telephone kiosk, currently on show at our Museum Store.

Two views of the K4 telephone kiosk, currently on show at our Museum Store.

Triumphant (and cheaper)

I will also miss out altogether the prototype K5 and come instead to 1935 when the now Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed the K6. The triumphant (and cheaper) alternative to the K2 had been found.

The K6, designed in King George V’s Silver Jubilee year and referred to as the Jubilee Kiosk, eventually hit our streets in 1936. At least 60,000 were produced and can still be seen up and down the country today. Many councils disliked the red colour and as long as the bars across the doors remained red, the box itself could be painted a more muted colour such as grey or green.

The K6 was a slimmer, less fancy version of the K2; and, of course, it was practical. The central horizontal panes of glass on the doors of the K6 were elongated- to allow internal advertising to be viewed through the doors. In short, the K6 was a triumph.

Reflecting a newer, post-war era

The K8 telephone kiosk.

The K8 telephone kiosk.

The K6 stood the test of time. It was not until the early 1960’s when another prototype, the K7, was introduced, and it was 1968 when a successor, the K8, was introduced as an alternative. The K8, the last of the cast iron kiosks, was designed by Bruce Martin. Glazed on 3 sides with a large single glass panel per side, it reflected a newer, post-war era. Gone is the crown, coinciding with discussions about whether the Queen’s head should be removed from stamps, and also with the crown being removed from pillar boxes.

An end to kiosks under the GPO

From 1981 BT took over the telephone communication service and the GPO’s involvement ceased. The kiosks and the telephone service still remain an important part of the BPMA’s story, however, highlighting the visible face of the GPO and its importance in the fabric of communication. The BPMA’s treasure trove Museum Store in Debden holds examples of many of the kiosks discussed in this article. The only way to easily distinguish between the kiosks is to come and view them side by side at our Store! Come and decide on your favourite- mine is the K2.

Dominique Gardner – Exhibitions Officer

See our website for the schedule and booking details for Guided Store tours, or alternatively please contact Curator Emma Harper for enquiries about bespoke tours emma.harper@postalheritage.org.uk.

The National Telephone Kiosk Collection is held at the Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove.

Ringing the Change: Post Office promotion of the telephone and telegraph service, 1925-1939

On Thursday 8 November the BPMA are delighted to host our guest speaker, David Hay, Head of Heritage at BT Group PLC. David Hay will be exploring the radical change in Post Office telephone marketing strategy in the 1930s in a talk entitled Ringing the Change.

"Telephone rates" publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

“Telephone rates” publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

Between 1925 and 1928 the Post Office invested almost £1 million a month in the telephone network as it began the roll-out of automatic telephone exchanges, enabling subscribers to make local calls directly without involving a telephone operator. The result of this new technology, together with the introduction of new mass-produced telephone instruments using early plastics, was that the cost of having a telephone gradually began to fall. The Post Office also introduced new services during this period, such as the first transatlantic radio telephone service in 1926, direct telephone communications with countries in Europe and the expansion of the public telephone kiosk network.

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

However, much of this innovation went unnoticed by the public. Indeed, despite the enormous investment in new technology, there was widespread concern by 1931 that Britain was lagging behind other countries in Europe in the take-up of the telephone. Up to 25 per cent of the capacity of the telephone network was lying idle.

"Always at your service", telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

“Always at your service”, telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

This richly illustrated talk will explore the early attempts of the Post Office to address this and to market the telephone to a wider part of society then before, efforts which were revolutionised in 1933 by the recruitment of Sir Stephen Tallents as the Post Office’s first Public Relations Officer. The decade before the Second World War was in many ways a golden period for GPO marketing, not least in the publicity machine unleashed by Tallents who had a passionate belief in the role of the arts promoting what were then Government services. Tallents and his team commissioned artists, designers, film makers and photographers to project a modern view of the Post Office to its customers and to its own employees.

"Come on the telephone", telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

“Come on the telephone”, telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

The result was that by the end of the inter-war era many of the GPO’s products and services – such as the Jubilee red telephone kiosk designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the Speaking Clock and the 999 Emergency Service – had become iconic parts of the nation’s cultural fabric, and remain so to this day. And the Post Office itself, which entered the decade criticised on all sides for failing to promote its telecommunications services and communicate its role generally, was ultimately respected as a national asset vital to the country’s success.

We hope you will join us for what promises to be a fascinating talk!

Tickets are £3 per head or £2.50 for concessions, and can be bought on the door on the night or you can book tickets online.

Open Day with the Post Office Vehicle Club

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Post Office Vehicle Club (POVC) whose members document, preserve and operate a wide range of postal and telephones vehicles. On Saturday 15th September there is a rare opportunity to see some these vehicles exhibited alongside items from our own collection at an Open Day at our Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

The Museum Store is where we house our larger exhibits, including letter boxes, sorting equipment, furniture and vehicles. Until we are able to provide a full museum experience at our new home at Calthorpe House the Museum Store offers the only opportunity to get up close to our collection. We run regular guided tours of the Store but these are very popular and only a few tickets are available for the remainder of this year. The Open Day will offer a great opportunity to see items from our collection as well as some of the vehicles preserved by POVC members.

Morris series Z telephone utility in original wartime colours with blackout markings.

Morris series Z telephone utility in original wartime colours with blackout markings.

On display will be 18 vehicles from POVC members including a wartime Morris series Z GGY 20 telephone utility (in original wartime colours, complete with blackout markings), the unique Commer Avenger/Harrington mobile telegraph unit SLO 24, a newly restored Minivan mailvan PTV 231M, and a Bedford HA mailvan KCJ 759P. A selection of Morris Minors and BSA Bantam telegram motorcycles are expected, while two Morris JB mailvans from the 1950s are promised along with a restored Dodge Spacevan television detector van CNJ 423T in arctic blue livery.

Dodge Spacevan television detector van in arctic blue livery.

Dodge Spacevan television detector van in arctic blue livery.

The Open Day with the Post Office Vehicle Club is a free event to which all are welcome. For the enthusiast there will be illustrated presentations from POVC members and our Curator Julian Stray, whilst children will be able to enjoy a range of family-friendly activities.

Pillar boxes at our Museum Store in Essex.

Pillar boxes at our Museum Store in Essex.

For further details of the event and information on how to get to the Museum Store, please see our website.

Archive stock-take 2012: Transfer of material to BT Archives

Our annual stock-take is a necessary period of spring-cleaning for our archive service and collections, allowing us to tackle important jobs we don’t otherwise get time for.

My task this year was to identify, pull together and check off records that have been awaiting transfer to their more rightful home at BT Archives.

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

As a consequence of the British Telecommunications Act, 1981, which transferred the responsibility for telecommunications services from the Post Office to British Telecom, a lot of material has been transferred by us to BT Archives since they were established in 1986. They have their own collecting policy, which essentially concerns historical material reflecting the development and operations of BT and its predecessors.

The records set aside for transfer to BT during stock-take clearly fall under this remit, including some wonderful posters dating from the 1930s to the 1950s promoting telephonist jobs, advising on wartime telephone usage, and advertising overseas telegrams and radiotelegrams to ships at sea. The material also includes telegraph training manuals for the early twentieth century, telephone service instructions for the 1930s, and a large number of files relating to a gas explosion in the telegram-conveying pneumatic tube line beneath Holborn in 1928. There are numerous interesting claims files submitted by local residents, plus one for Fred Astaire and his sister, who were starring in a production of Funny Face at the Princes Theatre (now Shaftesbury Theatre), which was suspended for several weeks as a result of the explosion.

Vital paperwork needs to be completed before a transfer of archive material can take place to ensure accountability and good house-keeping. A complete list of all the records was compiled on a spreadsheet, which was then approved by the BPMA’s Head of Archives and Records Management. This material can then be copied into an Exit/Receipt form, which will then be signed by myself, our Head of Archives and Records Management and the Heritage Collections Manager at BT Archives, a copy of which I will place in a registered file for safekeeping at the BPMA.

All the listing and transfer approval has been dealt with in advance of stock-take to allow sufficient time for any hitches. So what’s left to do now? Essentially carefully packaging and boxing up the material ready for a short taxi ride down to the old Holborn telephone exchange (where the BT Archives are houses), and then updating our records (including those on our catalogue where necessary) to show that the material has been transferred.

Material ready for transfer.

Material ready for transfer.

The transfer of material to BT is by no means a finite process, as our uncatalogued records may well contain telecoms material that will only appear as we work through our backlog. However, as we attempt to get our house in order prior to our big move to Calthorpe House, this upcoming transfer will help to make sure we only take with us material designated for long-term preservation at the BPMA, whilst clearing some much needed space in our repository.

Although I’m sorry to see those lovely telephonist and telegram posters go, at least they will be going to a very good home! Keep your eyes peeled for them on the BT catalogue!

The telephonist has an interesting job - poster by Dorrit Dekk

The telephonist has an interesting job – poster by Dorrit Dekk

Anna Flood – Archivist (Cataloguing)

For an overview of Telecommunications in our collection please visit our website.

The Post Office and British Broadcasting

The Royal Mail Archive isn’t just about letters and stamps; recently catalogued records in the series POST 89 illustrate the part played by the Post Office in the history of British broadcasting.

The Post Office regarded telegrams as electronic letters.

Not many people would associate the Post Office with broadcasting, but until 1922 it held a monopoly on electronic mass communication. When telegraphy, and later, the telephone were developed, the Post Office argued that it controlled anything which involved delivery from a sender to a receiver. Telegraph and telephone switching stations were defined as electrical post offices, with the messages or calls regarded as electronic letters. Wireless telegraphy, originally used to send short coded messages, was also viewed in this manner, but later, when the technology started to be used for audio broadcasts, the medium, now known as radio, no longer fitted the sender/receiver definition.

In 1920 a number of commercial companies were granted licences by the Post Office to make experimental broadcasts. These were halted when the Armed Forces complained of interference with their communication systems, but as more and more radio services were beginning in many other countries, the Post Office came under pressure to reverse this decision and open up broadcasting to commercial interests.

In 1922 the Post Office was involved in the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company, a commercial radio broadcaster financed by six large electronics manufacturers. The Company began transmissions on 14 November 1922 (more details of this can be found in POST 33), but the Post Office continued its involvement in broadcasting for many years to come.

POST 89 includes the minutes and papers of some of the broadcasting committees which the Post Office contributed to – the Sykes, Crawford, Selsdon, Ullswater and Beveridge committees. These provide an insight into the development of British broadcasting and the introduction of the licence fee system. The papers cover issues such as the impact broadcasting may have on traditional newspapers, whether broadcasting sporting events would affect attendance at such events, and the benefits and drawbacks to commercial broadcasting (especially appropriate given the recent discussion of product placement).

A 1967 poster recommending the purchase of licences for televisions and radios, designed by Kenneth Bromfield

The Sykes and Crawford committees (which sat in 1923 and 1925-1926 respectively) considered the development of the British Broadcasting Company. The Crawford committee (whose members included the author Rudyard Kipling) ultimately recommended that the British Broadcasting Company be replaced by a non-commercial, Crown chartered organisation – the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The Selsdon committee (1934-1935) and Ullswater committee (1935) were concerned with the introduction of television and how this would be financed, while the Beveridge committee (1949-1950) conducted a review of broadcasting in the United Kingdom and recommended regional devolution, broadcasting of minority views, more political broadcasting and trade union recognition.

Another contribution made by the Post Office to broadcasting was that it was responsible for administering the licence fee system, and POST 89 includes various papers on this subject. These include reports on planned publicity campaigns and evasion statistics (for more on this topic see our previous blog on TV detector vans).

So the next time you think about The Royal Mail Archive remember that it is about more than letters and stamps – although we do have some very interesting stamps!

Four stamps issued in 1972 to celebrate 50 years of the BBC