Tag Archives: postal workers

Illness and Absence in the Victorian Post Office

Oliver Carter-Wakefield, a research student at Kings College London, gave a talk at The Royal Mail Archive recently on disease and occupational illness amongst Post Office staff during the latter half of the 19th Century. It may not sound like the most interesting of subjects but Oliver’s talk generated a great deal of comment from our audience, and you can now hear a recording of it on our podcast.

Oliver’s findings were discovered through his research at The Royal Mail Archive. Consumption, necrosis and mental derangement were just some of the conditions Victorian postal workers suffered.

Victorian postmen.

Victorian postmen.

This and other previous talks we’ve presented are available to download for free from our website or from iTunes. Amongst the speakers you can hear are Tony Benn and the designer Brian Webb. Other podcasts cover topics including wartime, poster design, women’s suffrage and the production of stamps.

Foreign Postal Workers

Like many Museums and Archives, we have a number of items in our collection which we don’t know very much about. The recent cataloguing of lantern slides, mostly dating from the early 20th Century, brought to our attention a number which show images of postal workers from around the world. While many are illustrative of the British Post Office’s international operations (there are a few showing Indian postal workers and the Indian Post Office was under British control at this point) it is unclear exactly why these lantern slides were produced.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a group of men and women Post Office officials. (2012-0030/19)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a group of men and women Post Office officials. (2012-0030/19)

One theory is that they could have been shown to students at the London Postal School (LPS), which trained postal workers in a variety of duties. Perhaps the slides were used to highlight to the trainees that by working for the General Post Office (GPO) they were part of a global communications network? However, this does seem a little counter to the very practical emphasis at LPS, where a typical lesson saw students role-playing various scenarios, including counter transactions.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a Landes postman on stilts delivering a letter to a woman, France. There is another woman standing on the door-step behind and a man seated in front of a spinning wheel in the bottom right hand corner. (2012-0030/04)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a Landes postman on stilts delivering a letter to a woman, France. There is another woman standing on the door-step behind and a man seated in front of a spinning wheel in the bottom right hand corner. (2012-0030/04)

Another theory is that the slides were used in magic lantern slide shows, which were a very popular form of entertainment at the turn of the 20th Century. Lanterns shows could cover a variety of subjects, and slides such as the ones in our collection may have been produced for GPO lantern shows or acquired from other shows due to their postal connection.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a parcel postwoman standing beside the horse of the horse-drawn mail coach, Germany. (2012-0030/02)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a parcel postwoman standing beside the horse of the horse-drawn mail coach, Germany. (2012-0030/02)

Whatever the reason for their existence, these slides give us a fascinating insight into postal operations around the world, including the myriad of uniforms and modes of transport employed by different postal administrations. One particularly nice example shows a postman in a top hat riding a donkey!

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a rural postman in Dominica, British West Indies, wearing a light blue top hat, white trousers and a blue jacket whilst riding a white donkey. (2012-0030/16)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a rural postman in Dominica, British West Indies, wearing a light blue top hat, white trousers and a blue jacket whilst riding a white donkey. (2012-0030/16)

In addition to the images illustrating this blog we have uploaded a number to our Flickr site. Search our online catalogue to see more of our lantern slides.

Solent Male Voice Choir

On Saturday 18th August, at 7pm, the Lumen Church will be hosting a summer concert alongside the BPMA exhibition currently on display there – The Post Office in Pictures.

Staying with the postal theme of the exhibition, we are delighted to announce that performing at the Lumen will be the Solent Male Voice Choir – also known as the Postman’s choir! This remarkable group of postmen formed the choir in 1961, whilst working at the Head Post Office in Portsmouth.

Solent Male Voice Choir

Solent Male Voice Choir

The idea came about when the postal workers found out how much they enjoyed singing whilst sorting the mail, and went on to form a choir. The original name of the choir was the Portsmouth Post Office Choir; whilst the name of the choir and its members, have since seen some changes, they are still proud of their roots as singing postmen. On the night they will be singing an eclectic repertoire from Verdi to Elvis Presley. There will also be a special ensemble performance in honour of the postal theme of the evening, of ‘Return to Sender’.

Before and after the choir performance, visitors will also be able to view The Post Office in Pictures exhibition on display at the Lumen Church. The exhibition showcases 30 iconic photographs taken from the vast archives of the BPMA, dating from the 1920s right through to the 1980s. The photographs focus in particular on the intrepid and unusual conditions often faced by postal workers as they deliver the mail. It is certainly fitting that both the exhibition and the choir can be enjoyed together, on what promises to be a fantastic evening.

Solent Male Voice Choir

Solent Male Voice Choir

The photographs in the exhibition are as pioneering as the postal workers they portray. In 1934 the General Post Office (GPO) established its Public Relations Department. Headed by the entrepreneurial Sir Stephen Tallents, its aim was to promote good relations with the public, to provide a guide to postal services, and to gather and interpret customer use and opinion to help shape the work of the GPO.

One of the key tools used by the PR Department to reach and engage with the general public was through photography. In order to supply the Post Office Magazine with interesting, professionally-produced photographs, members of the GPO Photographic Unit began to accompany the magazine’s journalists, creating visually appealing, informative and often humorous articles recording daily life in Britain.

From pastoral climes to the industrial heartland of the county, The Post Office in Pictures shows the Post Office doing what it does best – serving the nation in times of need and in times of leisure.

Please join us for what promises to be a fantastic evening of music and photography.

Doors open at 6.30pm on Saturday 18th August. The Choir begins at 7pm, with an interval scheduled. Free entry, donations welcomed. Visit our website for further information on the event.

The Post Office in Pictures exhibition runs at the Lumen Church until August 31st 2012.

Our paintings on Your Paintings

The BPMA is the custodian of two main collections: the archive of the Royal Mail and the BPMA Museum Collection. The vast influence the postal industry has had in shaping British society, and the world, is reflected throughout our collections. They include photographs, films, ephemera, weapons, uniforms, vehicles, trains and letterboxes – and artwork, including a number of works in oil.

The subject matter of our oil paintings includes portraits of people who had a significant impact on postal services, such as past Postmaster Generals or Secretaries of the Post Office, as well of those of unnamed postal workers.

Portrait of a Postman (Alex Buchanan) by Thomas Patterson (2004-0077)

Portrait of a Postman (Alex Buchanan) by Thomas Patterson (2004-0077)

Specific historical events are depicted, such as the bombing of Mount Pleasant Parcel depot in the Second World War, while others are more general scenes of times past, including extensive representations of the Mail Coach era.

The Halfway House: A Mail Coach outside the 'Greyhounds Inn' by James Pollard (OB1995.519)

The Halfway House: A Mail Coach outside the ‘Greyhounds Inn’ by James Pollard (OB1995.519)

Changing transport methods, from the seas to the skies, and road to rails, is also captured in these works.

Mobile Post Office, Henley by Adrian Keith Graham Hill (POST 109/203)

Mobile Post Office, Henley by Adrian Keith Graham Hill (POST 109/203)

Landmark buildings – such as the GPO Tower and the old GPO building in the City of London – sit next to depictions of local post offices and more domestic scenes; the excitement of receiving a letter is portrayed more than once.

The Postman by Thomas Liddall Armitage (OBB 1997.5)

The Postman by Thomas Liddall Armitage (OBB 1997.5)

Recently our collection of oil paintings was made available on the Your Paintings website, a partnership between the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation which aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings. Paintings from thousands of museums and other public institutions appear on the site.

Visit the BPMA page on Your Paintings to see our collection of works in oil, or search the site to view postal-themed paintings from other institutions. We like Army Post Office 3, Boulogne by John Lavery from the Imperial War Museum, and Post Office, Port Sunlightby Keith Gardner from The Port Sunlight Museum. What’s your favourite?

The great unsolved crime

This month sees the 60th anniversary of a daring robbery from the Post Office mail van. This attack occurred in the early hours of the morning of 21st May 1952, when a mail van carrying High Value Packets (HVPs) was ambushed in Eastcastle Street, London.

The mail van had collected its consignment from the Travelling Post Office at Paddington Station and was returning to the Eastern Central Delivery Office when the attack took place. The usual route travelled along Oxford Street, but due to traffic works a diversion was in place taking traffic along Berners Street and Eastcastle Street. At this point a car pulled in front of the van preventing its progress, while another vehicle pulled up behind it. The staff (a driver, guard and a sorter) were forcibly pulled from the van and attacked. The van was then driven away by the gang and later abandoned in Augustus Street, about one mile away. A total of £236,748 10s had been stolen.

The scale of the robbery and precision with which it was executed led to suspicion that a Post Office employee had acted as a contact for the gang;

There must inevitably be grave suspicion that a Post Office servant is implicated in the theft. It is considered doubtful whether an operation so well planned could (or would) have been executed without an up to date knowledge of the internal arrangements.

(POST 120/88)

Those staff on board the mail van came under particular suspicion. There were several anomalies which gave cause for concern; firstly the siren which the van was fitted with and which should be used in case of attack was not deployed and was found to be deactivated when the van was recovered, secondly the driver had not handed the keys to the guard as was protocol but instead left them on the seat, and thirdly one of the doors was not secured properly. The driver was responsible for these omissions, and was also largely uninjured in the attack caused suspicion. However the police decided that none of the staff on the mail van at the time of the attack were involved in its organisation.

The number of Post Office staff who had some knowledge of the operation of the HVP mail vans was significant. There were 800 Postmen Higher Grade, and 2300 Postmen working in the Eastern Central Delivery Office at the time. A further 680 Postmen Higher Grade, and 375 Postmen worked in the Foreign Section, located in the same building. Several hundred more staff were involved with administrative, supervising and clerical duties and many motor mail van drivers also had access to the site. This combined with the high turnover of temporary staff meant that a large number of people could potentially have leaked information. Therefore the police and the Post Office Investigations Department focussed their attentions on those staff with direct involvement with the mail vans at the time of the attack, and those with criminal records.

William (Billy) Hill, a notorious gangster was suspected of orchestrating the attack. It was believed that the robbery was planned weeks beforehand. Once the mail van was seized and taken to Augustus Street, the mail bags were transferred to a ‘railer’ (a lorry with railed sides) and concealed with apple boxes.

Billy Hill photo

Billy Hill photo

In July 1952 Robert Kingshott and Edward Noble were arrested in connection with receiving stolen money in relation to the Eastcastle Street robbery. Noble had previously been dismissed from the Post Office for larceny. However after much deliberation the jury found them both not guilty. No one else was ever charged or convicted in connection with this robbery.

Edward Noble’s police record (POST 120/90)

Edward Noble’s police record (POST 120/90)

In the aftermath of the attack the Post Office worked closely with the police to review their security procedures. There was some discussion of the possibility of the police providing additional protection for HVP vans operating to and from London stations. Due to the limited resources of the police this was not felt to be feasible. However the Assistant Commissioner did advise;

He saw no objection, and in fact he advocated the provision of a common weapon i.e. (truncheons) to the Post Office staff travelling on these vans. He further indicated that the staff so provided should be instructed to have no hesitation in using them if they were attacked.

(POST 120/93)

In spite of all investigations into Post Office employees, and the review of security procedures an Inspector in the Investigations Department summed the situation up when he pointed out;

whatever protective or preventative measures are suggested in the matter of HVP Mail Vans, none will be of the slightest use unless supervising officers ensure that they are carried out

(POST 120/93)

This remains a valid consideration for any organisation considering security measures today.

Information from this blog was drawn from the records of the Post Office Investigations Department, available in POST 120.

Helen Dafter – Archivist

Night Mail: a classic?

Night Mail holds an iconic place in British culture. Say the words ‘this is the Night Mail crossing the border’ and you’ll likely get the response, ‘bringing the cheque and the postal order.’ But critics haven’t always been so impressed. There’s a strand of thinking that says Night Mail is a classic of British documentary by virtue of being the one that everyone knows. This is a critical assessment worth picking apart, because Night Mail is far more than the film of the poem.

Commissioned in 1935 to commemorate the centenary of the travelling post office, Basil Wright sought to apply the lessons of silent Soviet cinema to inter-war Britain. Viktor Turin’s Turksib was an important model. Borrowing techniques from Hollywood (Turin was obsessed by Westerns) Turksib tried to turn social, political and technological exposition into an exciting tale of progress. He cast the train between Turkestan and Siberia in the role of the lone gunslinger bringing order to the frontier. Night Mail apes this approach, albeit modestly, it illustrates how Britain is socially, economically and technologically bound together.

However, Wright’s love of the expressive grammar of silent cinema was disrupted by co-director Harry Watt, who wanted to focus on the life of the postal workers. It is creative tension in the best sense of the term. Interestingly, Watt’s eagerness to get across a flavour of the workers’ lives meant that the train interior had to be shot in a studio. Night Mail’s ‘realism’ was achieved by building a set of the travelling post office and scripting the workers’ dialogue.

Night Mail was also funded by the GPO to help improve morale. Beset by the industrial disputes of the slump era, the film was supposed to help staff understand how even the most humdrum of jobs could be of crucial importance. Not only is Night Mail probably the greatest train film of all time then, it’s also possibly also the greatest training film.

Night Mail’s unique sensibility remains key to its appeal. The dialogue may be flat, and the acting might be wooden, but the film retains a whiff of authenticity. ‘There’s something in these bags all right, Bert’, a postman says at one point, to which the sparring reply is, ‘must be old Fred’s coupon night’. There is something about the dialogue that makes you believe it, and more than that, makes you trust the sentiment that underpins it. Then again, Myles Burnyeat has argued that the meaning of great works changes over time. The fact that every time you watch Night Mail it says something different might be what, in the end, makes it a classic.

– Scott Anthony

Dr Scott Anthony is a Fellow of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, and co-editor of a new book The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit.

The BFI have produced a new DVD The Soviet influence: From Turksib to Night Mail, featuring GPO films.

Telegrams

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

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

In this blog, former Post Office worker Les Rawle looks back at the telegram. Les started in the Post Office as a messenger when he left school at 14 in 1939. After he was called up for the War, he returned to work as a sorting clerk in the North District Post Office. In 1948 he passed the exams to work at the counter. He remained working for the Post Office until his retirement.

Greetings Telegram

Greetings Telegram

“Seeing these telegrams has brought back memories. During the 1950s I worked in the South Tottenham Post Office. The wooden counter was L-shaped and the bottom end was used for parcels. Beyond that a door into a room which had the tele-printers which received and sent the telegrams. Beyond that a further room where the Messengers sat before going out.

For telegrams, people paid you the money, so you stuck stamps to the value of that on the forms. The forms were in a box. They wrote their telegrams and brought it to the counter. You’d count the words. I think a minimum was 1/6d and then so much a word, stick the stamps on. Then I’d take it to the tele-printer room. You’d have to allow for those stamps when you cashed up.

Both men and girls worked in the tele-printer room. Holloway and Finsbury Park had a pipe system, compressed air tubes, which sent the telegram upstairs to the tele-printer room. At South Tottenham, there was a partition between the Post Office Room and the tele-printer room. There was an opening with a vee-shape in it, and you’d put the telegram form in there, and they’d see it or hear it, take it out and type it.

They were like large typewriters, electronic, with spools of white gummed tape and as the message appeared on the tape, they’d tear it off, stick it on a form, envelope it and the Messenger would take it out. For elsewhere in the country the tele-printer room would send it electronically to the Delivery Office nearest the address.”