Tag Archives: Postmaster General

International Archives Day 2010

In celebration of International Archives Day, Archivist Helen Dafter looks at our international collection.

The name British Postal Museum & Archive may not initially suggest an internationally focused collection, yet the British Post Office has a long history of transmitting and receiving mail from overseas. The records in our archive shed light on the development of international mail services and the British Post Office’s involvement with them.

A report to the Postmaster General on smuggling on packet boats

A report to the Postmaster General on smuggling on packet boats

An overseas mail service has been in operation in Britain since 1580 – pre dating the inception of Royal Mail as a public service – and in 1619 the position of Postmaster General for Foreign Parts was established, however the foreign mail service was fairly small in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At this time the only way of sending mail abroad was by ship.

By 1840 commercial shipping companies had begun to be contracted to carry post. The archive holds copies of the contracts awarded to these shipping companies in POST 51. We also hold a range of reports and minutes relating to the operation of packet ships. These include reports on smuggling (POST 39/2), and quarantine regulations (POST 29/264a). One of the ships licensed to carry mail was RMS Titanic, and the archive also holds blueprints of the ship, and telegrams relating to its sinking. These records reflect the conditions under which packet ships operated and how long it took for mail to reach foreign countries.

Poster: South and East African Air Mail - Make every day posting day

South and East African Air Mail - Make every day posting day, poster advertising airmail from 1937

In the twentieth century packet ships have gradually been replaced by airmail. The first overseas airmail was in 1918 and operated from Folkestone to Boulogne. In April 1924 Imperial Airways was established, initially handling air mail for Europe it later expanded to cover destinations further afield such as India, Singapore and Australia. Many of the destinations for airmail were countries within the British Empire and with this in mind the Empire Air Mail Scheme was established in 1937. This scheme aimed to carry all first class mail throughout the British Empire for 1½d per ½ ounce, with a charge of 1d for postcards. (More information about the history of airmail can be found in our information sheet. Records of the development and operation of overseas airmail can be found in POST 50.)

Clearly the operation of an international mail service involves many factors outside the control of the British Post Office. The effective transmission of mail overseas involves close cooperation with other postal administrations. POST 46 consists of Conventions and Articles of Agreement for overseas mail. It includes conventions for the execution of the treaty concerning the formation of The General Postal Union, or Universal Postal Union as it was later known (POST 46/57).

One difficulty with operating an international postal system is that events in other countries can significantly impact on the transmission of mail. The greatest disruption in often caused by war – the outbreak of hostilities can result in well established mail routes needing to be revised at short notice. Evidence of this can be seen in POST 56 (War and Civil Emergencies) as well as the registered files in POST 33 and POST 122.

Political difficulties can also disrupt the circulation of mail, for example in the 1960s the deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan resulted in difficulties with transmitting mail via these countries. The natural environment may also impact on the international postal system. Most recently this has been seen in the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, which in addition to stranding many holidaymakers also disrupted airmail services.

This gives just a taster of the international nature of the records held by The British Postal Museum & Archive. To find out more please consult our online catalogue: www.postalheritage.org.uk/catalogue.

Join us on Twitter to tweet about International Archives Day 2010 by using the hashtag #IAD10.

Walking Tours of GPO London

Our ever popular walking tours are running again this year, between May and September. Guided by our curators, these tours will visit the key postal history locations in the City of London, including former coaching inns, and the sites of early and important Post Offices buildings.

As part of London 2010: Festival of Stamps we will also be offering highlights walking tours, lasting half the length of our regular tours. The highlights tours will conclude at the Guildhall Art Gallery, enabling attendees to visit the exhibition Empire Mail: George V and the GPO. Full length tours lasting three hours will also run this year.

One key postal heritage location visited on the walking tour is the former site of the office of the Postmaster General in Lombard Street. In 1680 this was the only place in London at which mail could be posted. At this time there were only 77 workers employed by the Post Office in London, and only 316 Post Office staff in the entire country!

The courtyard of the General Post Office, London, 1700s

The courtyard of the General Post Office, London, 1700s

As the Post Office expanded and became an increasingly important institution, larger buildings were needed. In 1829 GPO Headquarters moved to St Martins-Le-Grand. Here the mail coaches for other parts of the country departed each night, a spectacle which drew crowds of curious onlookers, as documented by the artist James Pollard.

Mail coach and horses departing from the General Post Office white neoclassical building designed by Smirke and located in St Martins-le-Grand. Some boys run alongside, waving hats and hands. The men in the painting wear top hats.

The Royal Mail's departure from the General Post Office, London by James Pollard

In 1910 GPO Headquarters moved again, to King Edward Building on King Edward Street. This grand building had a façade of Portland stone and a 160 x 60 foot public office on the ground floor, which boasted a full-length mahogany counter and marble floors. Since 1997 this building has been the London home of Merrill Lynch, but the statue of postal reformer Rowland Hill still stands outside.

King Edward Building Public Office, 1947

King Edward Building Public Office, 1947

Walking Tours 2010

Extended Walking Tours
Saturday 8 May, 2-5pm
Sunday 5 September, 2-5pm

Highlights of GPO London Tours
Saturday 26 June, 2-3.30pm
Tuesday 13 July, 2-3.30pm

Booking details on our website

Greetings Telegrams

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist

Greetings telegrams were introduced in Great Britain on 24 July 1935; for the payment of an extra 3d (three pence) people could have their telegrams delivered on a specially illustrated form complete with a golden envelope.

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service: "A new way of saying Many Happy Returns"

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service (POST 104/15).

Greetings telegrams had already proved popular in other countries and they were an instant hit with the British public with nearly 25,000 telegrams being sent in the first week.

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service: "Send a Greetings Telegram"

Advertisement for the Greetings Telegram service (POST 104/15).

For the Post Office, greetings telegrams were a means of revitalising the telegraph service; according to E T Crutchley in his book ‘GPO’ (p140), it gave the service ‘a chance to play its part in the joyful occasions of life’, helping it to ‘dispel that atmosphere of dread and sorrow with which the telegram was so often surrounded in the past’.

In 1935 George V sent a message to the Postmaster General congratulating him on the 300th anniversary of the Post Office, he chose to send his message via the recently launched Greetings Telegram service on a form designed by Margaret Calkin James.  This message was reproduced and displayed in post offices around the country in order to advertise the service.

A reproduction of the greetings telegram sent by George V to the Postmaster General used as advertising in post offices.

A reproduction of the greetings telegram sent by George V to the Postmaster General used as advertising in post offices (POST 104/14).

The Post Office employed several key artists to produce telegrams; these included Frank Newbould, Claudia Freedman, Edward Ardizzone and Rex Whistler. Whistler designed the very first St Valentine’s day greetings telegram in February 1936; it proved popular and thereafter St Valentine’s day greetings telegrams were issued annually.

The St Valentine's day telegram is bordered with cherubs holding arrangements of leaves and fruits.

St Valentine’s day greetings telegram form 1936 designed by Rex Whistler (POST 104).

The Post Office also issued exhibition souvenir greetings telegrams.

A souvineer telegram from the Post Office Exhibition, Portsmouth & Southsea, 1936. The telegram has a thick blue border and a drawing of a telegram messanger boy aboard a motorcycle.

Souvenir greetings telegram from the Post Office Exhibition, Portsmouth & Southsea, 1936 (POST 104/26).

The telegram has a blue and red border featuring a Christmas tree and an image of a telegram messenger boy.

Souvenir greetings telegram from the Young People’s Post Office Exhibition (POST 104/26).

In 1937, Macdonald Gill was commissioned to produce a special telegram to celebrate the coronation of George VI. In 1953, this idea was used again when Harold Lynton Lamb designed a telegram to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II.

The telegram is bordered by the monarch's coat of arms, surrounded by official flowers of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland

George VI coronation telegram designed by Macdonald Gill, 1937 (POST 104).

Up until December 1940, greetings telegrams were delivered in a distinctive golden envelope, this colour was intended to emphasise the special nature of their contents. The outbreak of war necessitated the introduction of a new envelope, which was printed on white paper in blue to enable telegram delivery boys to read the addresses more easily during blackout periods.

Wartime exigencies brought about the suspension of the Greetings Telegram service on 30 April 1943; prior to this, economies had been made, with telegrams being issued in a more basic format to save on ink and paper.

The service was not reintroduced until November 1950 when the end of paper rationing saw the launch of a new greetings telegram form, designed by Claudia Freedman, together with a new yellow envelope, printed with red and black.

The return of the Greetings Telegram service was welcomed and the ensuing years saw designs by eminent artists such as, Eric Fraser, Balint Stephen Biro and John Strickland Goodall.

On 1 March 1957, in an attempt to boost usage of the service, a special ‘deluxe’ style of greetings telegram was introduced; this was a large folded card which came with a matching envelope, similar to a greetings card. The first of these, designed by Elizabeth Corsellis, was a wedding congratulations telegram, this was the first in a range of telegrams intended for specific occasions including birthdays and new births.

In 1982 the Inland Telegram service was axed by BT, although the Telemessaging service, which involved the sending of special occasion cards containing telephoned or telexed messages, continued to fulfil a similar function to the greetings telegram.

The book Bringers of Good Tidings by Ruth Artmonsky explores the Greetings Telegram is more detail. It is available now from our online shop.

40th Anniversary of the Post Office Act 1969

On Tuesday 13th October we will be welcoming author and historian Duncan Campbell-Smith to the BPMA to deliver a talk on the Post Office Act 1969. Duncan Campbell-Smith is well placed to speak on this topic as he is currently researching an authorised history of the British Post Office, due to be published in 2011.

The logo of the General Post Office

The logo of the General Post Office

The Post Office Act 1969 brought about one of the most momentous changes to the Post Office since Charles I allowed his subjects to use the postal service (or Royal Mail) in 1635. The 1969 Act meant that the General Post Office ceased to be a government department and became a statutory corporation. The office of Postmaster General was replaced by a Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, and the word “General” was dropped from the organisation’s name. At the same time telecommunications were split from postal services, resulting in two separate entities with two separate budgets – Post Office Telecommunications and the Post Office – allowing each organisation to focus on its area of specialty.

Over the next four decades there were further structural and names changes, one of the most significant being that in 1981 postal and telecommunications services were separated entirely, resulting in British Telecommunications and Royal Mail (responsible for post and parcels, Post Office counters and National Giro). This complicated business history and the reasons behind it will no doubt be fully examined in both Duncan Campbell-Smith’s talk on the Post Office Act 1969 and his upcoming book.

To book for the talk 40th Anniversary of the Post Office Act 1969 please see our website.

Human Letters: The Post Office and women’s suffrage

Earlier this year Dr Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society spoke at the BPMA about women’s suffrage and other equality campaigns. This talk is now available through our podcast. But if the connection between the women’s suffrage movement and the British postal service doesn’t seem immediately obvious, all will be explained. 

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street, in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the West Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Another connection to both the Post Office and women’s suffrage was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the wife of the political economist, suffrage campaigner, Liberal MP and Postmaster General (1880-1884) Henry Fawcett. At the time of the human letters incident Millicent was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She and her organisation were more moderate campaigners than the Women’s Social and Political Union, but eventually they achieved their goal.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Achievement series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Distinction series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett is regarded as having been instrumental in the campaign for votes for women, in particular the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed women over 30 the right to vote if they were married to a member of the Local Government Register, as well as women to enter parliament on an equal basis with men.

Garrett Fawcett’s work and that of the NUWSS lives on in the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. In her talk, Dr Katherine Rake outlines the Society’s work, giving both a sobering and optimistic appraisal of what has been achieved.

To find out more about this and our other podcasts visit www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

The education pack Messages Through Time (suitable for Key Stage 3 history students) contains colour facsimile archive documents related to the human letters and can be downloaded from our website.

The Battle of Britain stamps controversy

David Gentleman, whose many British stamp designs are currently being exhibited in our Search Room, is no stranger to controversy. In 1965 he wrote to Postmaster General Tony Benn (who had announced a new policy for stamp issues in late 1964 and was seeking suggestions) and requested that the design limitations of having to include the monarch’s head on stamps be addressed. Benn, a republican, was keen to remove the monarch’s head, and saw Gentleman’s design limitations argument as an excellent – and non-political – way to achieve this objective. 

Gentleman, and his wife Rosalind Dease, had already been commissioned to design stamps commemorating the death of Winston Churchill and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and supplied Benn with versions of the designs without the Queen’s head. Ultimately, it was decided that the monarch’s head should remain on British stamps (you can read the full story by downloading the PDF The David Gentleman Album from our website), but this was not the end of the controversy as far as the Battle of Britain stamps were concerned.

More than a month before their release date a number of newspapers published images of the stamps, with several tabloids highlighting two of the eight stamps, which showed German aircraft. The first of the two stamps in question showed the wing-tip of a Messerschmitt fighter overshadowed by the wing-tip of a Spitfire; the other stamp showed a Dornier bomber sinking into the sea while Hawker Hurricanes flew above it. The reason for the focus on these stamps was that the German aircraft pictured featured German military emblems, the Balkenkreuz (cross) on the Messerschmitt and the swastika on the Dornier.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The inclusion of these emblems, particularly the swastika, caused great concern, with several Members of Parliament and the House of Lords speaking against the stamps. At the same time, representatives of a number of organisations, and many members of the public wrote letters to The Queen, the Prime Minister and Tony Benn, requesting that the Battle of Britain stamps be withdrawn.

A London Rabbi, writing to Benn on behalf of 775 families of his congregation, wrote “Please don’t allow swastika on our stamps. They are the 20th Century symbol of persecution, oppression, suffering and all that is evil”. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr S. Teff, also expressed his concerns in writing to Benn: “The Board has already received numerous complaints from members of the Jewish community to whom the sight of the swastika in any form is offensive in the extreme.”

A common theme amongst many of the complainants, in particular those who had served in the war, was that issuing a stamp bearing the swastika was an insult to the war dead. Others objected to the swastika appearing alongside the Queen’s head.

Withdrawing the stamps would have been very difficult for the Post Office as the Battle of Britain issue was the first set of stamps to be commissioned since Benn had changed the policy to include stamps commemorating important anniversaries. Indeed, the Battle of Britain stamps had come about partly due to lobbying from the Royal Air Forces Association and a number of Members of Parliament. The issue was also the largest issue of commemorative stamps to date.

Benn and his department took the view that the reason for the objections to the stamps was that the tabloid press articles which had highlighted the stamps featuring German aircraft, had not made clear the purpose of the stamps, and that black and white images of the stamps which appeared in various publications did not effectively convey the subtlety of the designs.

“The purpose of the stamp is to commemorate the victory over Nazism and I am sure that when the stamp is seen in colour it will be quite apparent that the swastika on the tail of the Dornier bomber is both split and half covered by water; the shattered Dornier is sinking in the English Channel and high above four RAF fighters, objective achieved, are flying back to base” wrote one official, in reply to a member of the public.

“In effect, the stamp is meant to be symbolic of the crushing of the Nazis and all that they stood for. We hope you will agree that within the limits of stamp design, it is difficult to do justice to a subject without introducing features of this kind into a series illustrating the Battle of Britain…”

Benn himself said in one letter “I feel that the stamp is a true reflection of that period in our history and…will be seen as a reminder of a great victory over the evil of Nazism. Because of this I do not propose to withdraw it.” He also argued that no objections were raised to the swastika being seen in newsreel footage of German planes, and that the RAF had displayed and flown captured Nazi aircraft on numerous occasions.

Eventually criticism died down, and despite threats to boycott the stamps sales were healthy, although the GPO arranged for adequate stocks of ordinary small size stamps to be available for those who did not wish to purchase the Battle of Britain issue.

Writing in his 2002 book Design, David Gentleman reflected “the tabloids [made] a great furore over the inclusion of a swastika and an iron cross. But without an enemy there would have been no battle and, as the stamps showed the Germans getting the worst of it anyway, the whole manufactured fuss quickly died down.”

The British Postal Museum & Archive holds many files relating to the Battle of Britain stamp issue. Details of these can be found on our online catalogue.

Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms

If there is one man who can be said to have changed the face of the postal service forever it is Rowland Hill. Hill was a noted reformer in the Victorian era, pioneering pupil-focused mass education and working for the South Australian Colonisation Commission, but he also had an interest in the postal service. In 1837 he published and circulated the pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. During the 1830’s there were growing calls for postal reform and Hill’s pamphlet proved influential, ultimately leading to the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, in 1840.

A cross-written letter

A cross-written letter

Prior to 1840 the postal system was expensive, confusing and seen as corrupt. Letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender, and were charged according to the distance the letter had travelled and the number of sheets of paper it contained. As a result cross-writing, the practice of writing in different directions, was a common method of saving paper and money, and envelopes were rarely used.

For ordinary people the cost of receiving a letter was a significant part of the weekly wage. If you lived in London and your relatives had written to you from Edinburgh you would have to pay one shilling and one pence per page – more than the average worker earned in a day. Many letters were never delivered because their recipients could not afford them, losing the Post Office a great deal of money.

But while ordinary people scrimped and saved to use the postal system, many items, such as newspapers, were not subject to charge, and Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords had the right to frank and receive letters for free. Well-connected individuals could thus ask their MP to frank their mail for them, further reducing Post Office revenue.

After the Napoleonic Wars postage rates were high – a sly method of taxation – and there were many other anomalies and a number of local services with different charges. The system was ripe for reform.

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill’s solution was prepayment, and a uniform rate of one pence for all letters weighing up to one ounce. Hill made no mention of the method of prepayment but later proposed the use of stamped covers (an idea previously suggested by Charles Knight). At an official inquiry into the Post Office, Hill outlined his ideas further and suggested that “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash” be used. When the inquiry reported it recommended Hill’s plan to reduce postal charges and appended samples of stamped covers to the report.

The establishment of a parliamentary Select Committee chaired by fellow postal reform campaigner Robert Wallace followed, and at the same time a Mercantile Committee on postage was set up by merchants to campaign for lower postal rates. Rowland Hill was a member of the Mercantile Committee.

The Select Committee recommended Hill’s ideas in early 1839, but favoured a uniform rate of 2d. After public pressure was put on the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, the uniform rate was reduced to 1d, and on 15th August 1839 a bill was passed in favour of a universal penny post. The same bill abolished free franking and introduced prepayment in the form of stamped paper, stamped envelopes and labels.

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee the implementation of the bill and the uniform penny post was introduced on 10th January 1840. Covers, envelopes and the world’s first adhesive stamps, the Penny Black and Twopence Blue, were introduced in May 1840. The stamps quickly proved themselves to be most popular method of prepayment.

Rowland Hill’s idea for a universal penny post was quickly vindicated. The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically. The Post Office’s revenue was initially cut but with the increase in the number of letters it soon recovered.

Adhesive postage stamps were gradually introduced throughout the world and with the change to charging by weight, envelopes became normal for the first time. Hill’s brother Edwin invented a prototype envelope folding machine, enabling increased production to fulfil the growing demand.

The rapid increase in the use of the postal service is also partly credited with the development of the transport system, particularly the railways, and improved opportunities for businesses in the Victorian era and beyond. The lower charges also had wide social benefits and the increasingly literate working classes took full advantage of the now affordable postal system.

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Rowland Hill continued to influence the Post Office, becoming Secretary to the Postmaster General in 1846 and Secretary to the Post Office in 1854. During this period Hill established the Post Office Savings Bank, which encouraged more people to save, and introduced postcodes to London – essential in a city made up of lots of little villages all growing into each other, where streets in different parts of the city often had the same name.

Fittingly, Rowland Hill and his reforms have been celebrated on several postage stamps, including four stamps released to mark his death centenary in 1979, and the 1995 Communications stamps which commemorate the campaign for a universal penny post and the introduction of the Penny Black. Rowland Hill has also been honoured by three public statues and is buried in Westminster Abbey, a mark of how important his work was. There is also an awards scheme named after Hill for innovation, initiative and enterprise in the field of philately, and the Rowland Hill Fund, established in 1882, offers financial aid to past and present Royal Mail workers in times of need.

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

For more on postal history during the Victorian era please see our online exhibition Victorian Innovation.

Walking back through 400 years of postal history

by Jennifer Flippance, London 2010 Project Officer

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

For the last three years BPMA has been running popular walking tours, which take you into the heart of old GPO London, exploring 400 years of postal history and developments in the iconic street furniture of telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The full tour lasts around 3 hours but next year, as part of our programme of activities to celebrate the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, we’re developing a ‘highlights’ version that will last around 1.5 hours and finish up at Guildhall Art Gallery. This will give you the opportunity to visit the fascinating exhibition, Empire Mail: George V and the GPO which will contain many significant objects and items of postal history from the reign of George V, when the GPO (General Post Office) was at its height.

Last week, Chris Taft, one of the curators at the BPMA who helped to develop and run the tours, took me out on the route of the new walking tour.

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1920s

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1935

It takes in the old GPO heartland around St Martin’s Le Grand, once the bustling hub of communication throughout the empire. This incorporates the majestic former GPO headquarters of King Edward Building – opened in 1910, the front of which is still standing today – and the sites of GPO North, the Central Telegraph Office and GPO East, from where crowds gathered each night to witness the spectacle of racing mail coaches leaving London.

Today King Edward Street is overlooked by a statue of Rowland Hill, the social reformer who revolutionised the postal service in 1840, making mail communication within reach of ordinary people for the first time.

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Then travel further back in time to the site where the ‘bishop mark’ the world’s first postmark was struck in 1661. Continue to the area of the City where many coffee houses clustered in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Coffee houses were significant in the development of communication because many had the facility for visitors to post letters. Due to the coffee shop owners’ close relationships with ship owners, this was considered a more efficient way of carrying letters overseas than using the Post Office.

A little further on is the site of the office of the Postmaster General. In 1680 this was the only place you could post letters in the country. By 1808 the office was called “the most important spot on the surface of the globe.”

Dates for the new walking tour will be announced later in the year.

The last full-length walking of 2009 takes place on Saturday 26 September (1.00 – 4.00 pm). Click here to find out how to book tickets

The Office of Postmaster General: Its holders in the Twentieth Century

by Dr Adrian Steel, Acting CEO

The office of Postmaster General (PMG) was abolished upon the creation of the Post Office Corporation by the Post Office Act of 1969, forty years ago this year. BPMA is holding a talk about this great change in the Autumn. We are occasionally asked about some of the politicians who held the office and went on to great fame, notably Clement Attlee (Postmaster General in 1931, Prime Minister 1945-1951, and one of only two Labour Prime Ministers to use their given first name) and Neville Chamberlain (Postmaster General 1922-1923, Prime Minister 1937-1940). However, 32 politicians held the office between 1902 and 1969, and of the others there are some notable points of interest.

Neville Chamberlain’s half-brother Austen was PMG from 1902-1903, the only holder of the office to subsequently win the Nobel Peace Prize. He was honoured for his role in negotiating the Locarno treaties of 1925, aimed at bolstering peace and stability in post-Great War Europe, and the following year French and German statesmen were similarly recognised.

Sir William Joynson Hicks (PMG 1923) later became Home Secretary in Stanley Baldwin’s 1924-1929 Conservative government. As such, during the 1926 General Strike he was the hate figure of the trade unions, whose propaganda used the shortened name ‘Jix’ to enable better-rhyming abuse to be created. PMG in the 1924-1929 government, Sir William Mitchell-Thompson, was at the helm at the inception of television. Later, as Lord Selsdon, he chaired a 1930s commission on the introduction of public television and was one of few people to appear on the first day of BBC broadcast television in 1936.

As PMG under Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s, Ernest Marples oversaw the first Premium Bonds draw. He later found greater fame as the transport minister who appointed the railway-axing Dr Beeching to chair British Rail, and as the introducer of the parking meter. His life ended in controversy, he died in Monaco having fled Britain amid claims of tax evasion on a large scale.

Tony Benn is perhaps the most famous ex-PMG still alive, but at age 96 his successor, Edward Short, PMG from 1966-1968, and now Lord Glenamara, is at present the oldest living parliamentarian.

Tony Benn as Postmaster General

Tony Benn as Postmaster General

The GPO Film Unit

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. The films produced during the relatively short existence of the Unit had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits.

Night Mail

Night Mail

Made up of a dedicated, largely youthful (Britten was only 22 when he joined in 1935), but badly paid group of individuals the creative impact of the Unit has been immense. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents who transferred it with him when moving from the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), where he had been working to modernise Britain’s image, to the General Post Office (GPO), where he set about doing the same. Tallents retained John Grierson to head up the Unit, and commissioned work from them and other artists as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. It was Grierson and later Cavalcanti who were responsible for negotiating many of the complexities of working for a government department. Budgets were small and rigorously enforced to the extent that an overspend on Night Mail (1936) nearly signalled the end of the Unit.

Today the films provide a fascinating insight into the history of communications in the 20th Century and of course, postal history. They include documentary, animation, advertising, public information films, drama-documentary and satirical comedy on a range of subjects, from postal rates to working class pastimes. Some of the films are a reminder of a bygone era and some are still strangely relevant; documenting the difficulties of delivering mail to a flooded village or promoting the Post Office Savings Bank which was secured by government backing in a money sensitive post-depression age.

The films were shown in cinemas and other venues including schools and community halls reaching a very wide audience. As a result of the popularity of stamp collecting The King’s Stamp (1935), commissioned as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V, is apparently one of the most watched films of all time alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gone with the Wind and King Kong.

There were mixed ambitions behind the unit including using film to advance PR techniques, experimenting with film and sound, and an intent to empower British Citizens with information through film. Grierson’s vision was for a documentary approach to film making where reality was key and where films had a social purpose: ‘It was something altogether new to be looking at ordinary things as if they were extraordinary’. He was later joined by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, who had a reputation for experimenting with sound and music in film and eventually moved on to work at Ealing Studios. The combined presence of Grierson and Cavalcanti led to a hugely innovative period in British film history.

Colour Box

Colour Box

Work by experimental film makers such as Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger meant that the public saw cutting edge film animation used to promote the services of the GPO. Examples include Lye’s 1936 film Rainbow Dance, a film about the Post Office Savings Bank which saw Lye experiment with new ways of using the Gasparcolour film, and Reiniger’s The Torcher (1938). Lye pioneered the technique of painting directly onto film negative in Colour Box (1935), to which he had added a sequence on the introduction of new cheap parcel rates allowing the film to be bought by Grierson for the GPO. This was at a time when colour film was still a novelty so it is hard to imagine what the films must have looked like to audiences at the time.

The influence of contemporary art, especially Surrealism, can be seen in films from the animation Love on the Wing (1938), promoting the new Air Mail service, to N or NW (1937) on the virtues of using the correct post code, although Love on the Wing was later banned by the Postmaster General, who found some of the imagery too ‘Freudian’. Rainbow Dance (1936) was even released in a programme of Surrealist and Avant-Garde films. Cubism was also an influence as was Soviet cinema, as seen in films including Coal Face (1935).

The documentary style saw its high point in the celebrated Night Mail (1936) where the journey of the overnight postal express for Euston to Glasgow is told through the eyes of those who work on the train; making the working man the screen hero. But the realism gives way to drama as the now famous lines of  W H Auden’s poem are read to Britten’s score and the story of those who will receive the mail comes into play with the words ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border….’.

Grierson’s documentary vision at the Unit gave rise to drama-documentary and the seeds of our modern day soaps can be seen in films including The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937) – seen as the first ‘story’ documentary – and Men of the Lightship (1940).

Britain Can Take It!

Britain Can Take It!

In 1939 the unit began to document and produce films to support the war effort, creating an often poignant portrait of Britain during the early years of World War Two. Films included Britain Can Take It! (1940), produced to provide US President Roosevelt with help in securing American popular opinion for Britain’s war effort, to Men of the Lightship (1940), which was a dramatic reconstruction of the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship –significant as lightships and lighthouses had previously been considered neutral. In 1940 the GPO Film Unit became part of the Ministry of Information as the Crown Film Unit and with that the GPO Film Unit was no more.

Some of the films produced by the GPO Film Unit are now available on DVD from our Shop.