Tag Archives: Post Office

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

Pop it in the Post: NEW family touring exhibition

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

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

Early pillar box designs

Early pillar box designs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future exhibition venues:

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

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

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

‘Built for Service, Post Office Architecture’ – an eye-opening read

Recent addition to the BPMA, Emma Jhita (Head of Fundraising), reviews volunteer Julian Osley’s book on Post Office architecture.

I’ve always been fascinated by post-war architectural design so when I was browsing the books on sale on the shop page of the BPMA website my attention was grabbed by the striking image of Plymouth post office in the 1950s on the cover of Julian Osley’s book ‘Built for Service, Post Office Architecture’. British architecture, from the range of styles, the (sometimes deceptive) history of the buildings themselves, and even more so our own relationship with the architecture, tells us a lot about the social changes in British society from the communications revolution that took place as a result of the first postage stamp to the present day.  And on opening the book I very quickly realised that it is a gateway to these stories and what is essentially a hidden world, as is the dedicated website: http://britishpostofficearchitects.weebly.com

Front cover image: Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Front cover image: Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Design opportunities were limited for Frederick Palmer, the architect employed by the PO, although his design for Minehead survives in the archives

Design opportunities were limited for Frederick Palmer, the architect employed by the PO, although his design for Minehead survives in the archives

Author Julian Osley opens our eyes to two things in this book. Firstly just how vital Post Offices were to the towns and cities in which they opened, both in terms of the jobs created and the convenience for the local community. Post offices really were a lifeline to the outside world – the internet provider of their day. Also whether built under the Office of Works or a re-development of an existing building, all major towns and cities in Britain have a legacy of buildings that enhance their surroundings, from ‘post office Georgian’ offices sitting comfortably on high-streets to buildings that proudly champion the Edwardian Baroque style.

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Many of the Post Offices discussed in the book are no longer standing, or are perhaps unrecognisable in their new guise as a pub, restaurant, housing, or in the case of ‘The Mailbox’ in Birmingham a shopping centre. This includes the old Northern District Post Office on Upper Street, next door to our office in Islington which is soon to be developed into housing and shops. Even with the buildings that remain as functioning Post Offices we often remember the interior more clearly inside of better – the queues to buy a stamp, a Postal Order, withdraw or deposit money… how times have changed!

Henry Tanners elevation design for Leeds

Henry Tanners elevation design for Leeds

Leeds Post Office today. Photograph © David Dixon via Geograph and licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence

Leeds Post Office today. Photograph © David Dixon via Geograph and licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence

An old post office now a pub. “The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

An old post office now a pub. “The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

Whether we realise it or not, I truly believe we have a very familiar relationship to Britain’s network of post office buildings – whether we’re queuing to post a letter, using a Bureau de Change or sitting down to tuck into a pizza!

Get Built for Service: Post Office Architecture for just £3.50 including postage and packaging! Enter discount code BUILT4SERVICE at checkout.

Hounded from Pillar to Post: The Experiences of FWW Conscientious Objectors

This Thursday join Ben Copsey, Manager of the “Objecting to War” Project at the Peace Pledge Union, as he explores the lives and experiences of the 20,000 British Conscientious Objectors during the First World War. In today’s post we give you a sneak peak at a relatively unknown topic.

With the introduction of Conscription in 1916, men who believed they could not fight in the war were left with a difficult choice. Abandon their principles and take up arms, or face ridicule, arrest, assault and prison as Conscientious Objectors.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

Over three hundred Post Office workers from around the country made the difficult decision to refuse to fight and kill in the First World War. Whether religious, political or ethical men, each one made a stand on the principle that noone should be forced into the army – a stand that for many would lead to years in prison, ostracism, and for some, death. Their motivations, experiences and opinions make a fascinating collection of sometimes odd, often passionate and always interesting stories of resistance and dissent. Post Office COs came from every area and community – from Jewish Sorters in the East end and Anarchist Postmen in Glasgow to Quaker Telegraphists in Liverpool – and experienced everything that could happen to an objector during the war, whether working with an ambulance service, going on the run or stubbornly refusing to compromise from the inside of Wormwood Scrubs, the men of the Post Office who stood up to say “No” to war provide a perfect snapshot of Conscientious Objection.

Many of their experiences are coming to light for the first time, telling a fascinating tale of courage, resistance and conviction of men standing up for their principles and the right to refuse to kill. While myths of Conscientious Objection still paint them as cowards and traitors, this talk will discuss why ordinary men
made an extraordinarily brave decision – and what happened to them as a result.

Join us this Thursday (6 November) from 7pm-8pm at the Phoenix Centre to find out more. Book your ticket online today to avoid missing out!

Postal Workers and Sports

There is no question about it; the daily duties of the postal worker require a considerable level of fitness. They walk for miles, repeatedly lift heavy boxes and bags, use quick reflexes to avoid over protective pets, and that is just the beginning! With this in mind, it is no surprise that social clubs especially activities surrounding sport and fitness have been a huge part of Post Office culture.

A black and white photographic lantern slide of a group of five girls holding stacks of newspapers, magazines and books.

A black and white photographic lantern slide of a group of five girls holding stacks of newspapers, magazines and books.

Throughout postal history there have been clubs for almost every sport and fitness activity imaginable including football, bowling, golf, handball, tennis, netball, gymnastics, cricket, speed walking, boxing, swimming, cycling, and the list goes on! Here at the BPMA we have amassed a collection of over 100 trophies and awards won by the athletic men and women of the Post Office.

One of our oldest trophies, the Lambert Challenge Cup No. 3, is a fantastic tri-handled tankard which dates to 1873. It was first awarded to the E Company of the 49th Middlesex Post Office Volunteers for shooting competitions. It appears that Sergt R R Hoade had a particular skill for shooting as the trophy was awarded to him 5 times, 3 of which were consecutive wins!

The Lambert Challenge Cup No. 3 which was awarded to the E Company of the 49th Middlesex PO Volunteers for shooting competitions in 1873 (2005-0030).

The Lambert Challenge Cup No. 3 which was awarded to the E Company of the 49th Middlesex PO Volunteers for shooting competitions in 1873 (2005-0030).

In addition to trophies, our collection houses an assortment of objects which show how dedicated many Postal Workers were to their clubs. These objects include collection boxes, wall signs, membership books, and many more!

The Lambert Challenge Cup No. 3 which was awarded to the E Company of the 49th Middlesex PO Volunteers for shooting competitions in 1873 (2005-0030).

The Lambert Challenge Cup No. 3 which was awarded to the E Company of the 49th Middlesex PO Volunteers for shooting competitions in 1873 (2005-0030).

 

Tunbridge Wells Post Office Sports Club Collection Box (OB1994.111).

Tunbridge Wells Post Office Sports Club Collection Box (OB1994.111).

Melissa Collins, Collections Management Intern

Stories from the Archive: ‘Beauty Blackwood’

In this week’s post, Archives Assistant Robin shares the interesting life of Sir Arthur Blackwood, Secretary of the Post Office from 1880-1893, from a recent Search Room enquiry.

Whilst the Post Office employment records held by the BPMA can provide crucial information for family historians, helping to fill in the gaps of an ancestor’s career and whereabouts, it is often quite difficult to get a true sense of an employee’s personality from them. However, for certain senior employees we hold a number of biographies, obituaries and personal portraits that can really help to flesh out their characters.

I found this out for myself when answering an email enquiry from an academic researching the life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, later Sir Arthur Blackwood. I had previously not known anything about him, and his entry in the Establishment Books (below) didn’t give me much to go on, but a search of our catalogue made me aware of a number of interesting sources of information we hold (including a biography by H Buxton Forman and an obituary in the staff magazines) that really brought him back to life.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Sir Arthur Blackwood’s entry in the Establishment Book for 1893, the year of his death, with the name of his replacement added in pencil. POST 59/126

Sir Arthur, had apparently been somewhat dandyish in his youth (he was nicknamed “Beauty Blackwood”), but underwent a religious conversion whilst serving in the Crimean War and became a committed Evangelist, renouncing all worldly pleasures and taking up the study of Hebrew.[1] He had a reputation as a philanthropist, and was heavily involved with a number of Post Office charities and societies. He was the president of the Post Office Total Abstinence Society, which had almost 3,000 members and branches in 31 towns, and wrote a pamphlet advocating abstinence entitled “For the Good of the Service” (a copy of this Pamphlet is held at the Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey).[2] He was a patron of the Post Office Orphan Home, was the first president of the Post Office Musical Society, and was involved in promoting Boy Telegraph Messenger Institutes for a number of London districts. His biographer quotes one Messenger, a Barnardo’s boy, as saying Sir Arthur was “such a gentleman, and spoke to me as if he was my brother”[3]. His biography also notes that he took a great interest in the formation of the Post Office Athletics and Cricket Clubs, and having served in the army was also a keen supporter of the Post Office Rifles, distributing prizes in their annual ceremonies.[4]

Despite his towering 6ft3 height and sixteen stone frame, Sir Arthur was in poor health for much of his life, and his final years as Secretary were hampered by illness – he was delayed from attending the 1891 postal congress in Vienna due to ill health and took extended leave shortly before his death in 1893 from pneumonia.[5]

An obituary run by the January 1894 issue of St. Martins-Le-Grand, the Post Office Staff Magazine (available in POST 92 in the BPMA search room) calls him a “splendid specimen of manhood”.[6] However, elsewhere I learnt that Sir Arthur’s son, the fantasy and horror writer Algernon Blackwood, felt that his father’s Evangelism had led him to have a repressive and unhappy upbringing.[7] Sir Arthur could also be severe in the line of duty. His obituary tells the story of how in 1890 Sir Arthur quelled strike action at Mount Pleasant by “[speaking] to the assembled staff in the most earnest, severe, and appropriate manner, and in the name of the Postmaster General expelled them from the premises as well as from the Service.[8]” It is fascinating that we can get such a rounded portrait of Sir Arthur’s character from these various sources.

Perhaps the best example of the material we hold on Sir Arthur is a fantastic black and white print of him in his prime (object reference 2011-0008, below), which really gives an indication of his stern but genial character. I hope I have shown in this blog that even the collection of a business archive such as the BPMA can bring the personality of historical figures to life and are a fantastic source for genealogists and biographers alike.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008

-Robin Sampson, Archives Assistant

Special Offer: Get your very own limited edition Victorian Innovation Cover for only £1.99

[1] J. S. Reynolds, ‘Blackwood, Sir (Stevenson) Arthur (1832–1893)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/46635, accessed 23 July 2014]

[2] Blackwood, Mrs. (ed.), Some Records of the Life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, Hodder & Stoughton, 1896. p396

[3] Ibid. p397

[4] Ibid. p395

[5] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January 1894 p9

[6] Ibid. p1

[7] George Malcolm Johnson, ‘Blackwood, Algernon Henry (1869–1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31913, accessed 23 July 2014]

[8] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January p7

The Role of the Post Office in the First World War

Join us this Thursday from 7pm-8pm to learn more about the vital role of the Post Office during the First World War from delivering mail to setting up quick forms of communication through telgraph lines. In this quick post, Head of Collections, Chris Taft introduces what you can expect. You can book your place online.

Sorting mail in the Home Depot at Regents Park, London (POST 56/6).

Sorting mail in the Home Depot at Regents Park, London (POST 56/6).

At the outbreak of the First World War postal communication was a vital way of troops keeping in touch with loved ones at home. The British Post Office’s role in the war effort was therefore essential. Its role however was far broader than just delivering mail. Over 75,000 men of the Post Office went off to serve in the armed forces throughout the war years and the postal service at home had to carry on as well as expanding to deliver mail to a world at war. The contribution however went far beyond this and with the loss of men to the war effort the Post Office was employing thousands of temporary workers, including women taking on roles previously the reserve of men for the first-time.

Human Ladder For Telephone'. Two men in uniform, one standing on the other's shoulders.

Human Ladder For Telephone’. Two men in uniform, one standing on the other’s shoulders.

The Post Office was also managing the Separations Allowance and Relief Fund and of course managing the parcel traffic. This talk will explore the variety of these roles and the contribution the Post Office made as well as touching on the commemoration of the war that still plays a role in the modern Royal Mail.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

£3 per person. £2.50 for concessions*

* Concessions 60+ (accompanied children under 12 free)

Book online or via phone 020 7239 2570

Limited number of tickets available on the night.