Tag Archives: Postmaster

Meet the Staff: Archivist (Cataloguing) Matt Tantony

My name’s Matt, and I’m an archivist. You may remember my blog posts and tweets from 2013-14. I’m thrilled to say that I’ve rejoined the BPMA after fifteen months away. I’ve been here since early September and there’s so much to do!

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

My work as an archivist is really varied. You can sometimes see me helping researchers in our Search Room as the archivist on duty, and I’ll once again be bringing you posts on this blog to show you new discoveries and curiosities from our collections. Behind the scenes, I spend every Monday helping my colleagues with the giant task of preparing to move the Archive to The Postal Museum. But my main focus is on cataloguing: I’ll be aiming to catalogue hundreds of records from the Archive over the coming months.

My first cataloguing assignment was the overseas mail letter books. This somewhat mysterious POST class (number 48, to be precise), hasn’t fully been publicly available until now. Several people have worked on it before me, including my illustrious predecessor Anna.

What are the letter books? Well, they’re official records containing copies of correspondence, mostly sent from the Secretary to the Post Office to various recipients including postal agents, other countries’ postal administrations, and shipping companies involved in overseas mail. The date range is vast: from the early 18th century to the 1950s. Many of the letter books deal with postal arrangements for then-British colonies and territories, from the large (Canada) to the small (the Turks Islands). Fortunately, most of the volumes have helpful indexes:

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

As you might expect, the subject matter is minutely detailed and often financial or logistical in nature. A packet ship inspection here, a surcharge on parcels there. Newfangled developments in telegraphy in one letter, a shipping contract renegotiation in the next. But amidst the day-to-day technicalities of international post, you inevitably find world events, such as this Post Office letter about the sinking of the Titanic:

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

The mails went between nations – or at least attempted to – in the face of sea disasters, technology shifts, political intrigues, and wars, both civil and international. For example, here’s a 1774 letter from Post Office Secretary Anthony Todd, firing none other than Benjamin Franklin from the job of Britain’s Deputy Postmaster in America:

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Of course, the American War of Independence began the following year. Later in the very same book are rather friendlier letters from Todd to Franklin, who was now the United States Postmaster General.

The overseas mail letter books are a tricky resource to use (and to catalogue!). The range of subjects is huge, and you may need to cross-reference with other bits of the Archive to get a clear picture of what’s being discussed. There’s also 350 years of changing handwriting to negotiate, and multiple languages including French and Arabic. But they have lots of value and interest as a staggeringly detailed picture of global communication, and they’ll be joining our online catalogue soon.

Catch you in a few weeks with my next discoveries in the Archive!

– Matt Tantony, Archivist (Cataloguing)

American Independence Day

Today Americans all over the world are celebrating Independence Day, commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776 and subsequent independence from Great Britain.

As many readers may already know the BPMA and Royal Mail Archive hold material relating to postal communications from a variety of countries, not just Great Britain, so this seemed an appropriate time to highlight two items in the BPMA’s collection with American connections.

A black and white steel engraving of Benjamin Franklin, c. 1865 (2009-0038)

A black and white steel engraving of Benjamin Franklin, c. 1865 (2009-0038)

This steel engraving of Benjamin Franklin, scientist, politician, Postmaster and ‘Founding Father’ of the United States features an inset image of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The scene shows Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom went on to serve as President of the United States. Benjamin Franklin has also been featured on a Great Britain stamp, issued in 1976 to mark the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence.

Letter from General Eisenhower to Captain Crookshank, congratulating engineering and postal staff on their contribution to the war effort (POST 118/1596)

Letter from General Eisenhower to Captain Crookshank, congratulating engineering and postal staff on their contribution to the war effort (POST 118/1596)

One of my colleagues showed me this signed letter from General Dwight D Eisenhower shortly after I started as a Cataloguer at BPMA. As an enthusiastic new recruit and having recently listened to our podcast on the Post Office during the Second World War, I was struck by the seemingly sincere appreciation of the Post Office’s hard work and dedication during the conflict.

Dated 22nd June 1944, whilst Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and addressed to the Postmaster General Captain H.F.C. Crookshank, the letter reads:

The build up of the necessary forces for the current operations has involved the construction of a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom. The greater part of this work has been undertaken by the Engineers and Staff of the General Post Office. It is my great pleasure, on behalf of the Allied Expeditionary Force, to ask you to pass on to them my sincere appreciation for their contribution and for the long hours they have worked and for the excellent cooperation they have given toward our success.

Sarah Jenkins – Assistant Cataloguer

Both of these items are available to view on our online catalogue.

A selection of lantern slides showing United States Post Office buildings can also bee seen on our Flickr site.

The United States on British stamps

Tomorrow citizens of the United States will celebrate Independence Day, marking the approval by Congress of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. As Britain was the country from which the United States became independent, you may think that this date has never been celebrated on a British stamp, but in fact it has.

The Bicentennial of American Independence stamp (1976)

The Bicentennial of American Independence stamp (1976)

A stamp released on 2nd June 1976 to celebrate the US Bicentenary shows Benjamin Franklin, one of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and the first Postmaster of the United States. Franklin was also the subject of the first US postage stamp, released on 1st July 1847.

Three further stamps with American themes were released by Royal Mail in the 1990s. In 1992, 42 member countries of CEPT (Conference of European Postal & Telecommunications), including the United Kingdom, released stamps on the theme of Voyages of Discovery in America. The first UK stamp shows Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, about to make landfall in the Americas. The second UK stamp shows the Kaisei, a Japanese brigantine which was involved in the Grand Regatta Columbus, an event celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journey. Participating in the rally were members of Raleigh International, which has organised charitable expeditions since 1978.

The Landfall in the Americas and Grand Regatta Columbus stamps (1992)

The Landfall in the Americas and Grand Regatta Columbus stamps (1992)

The Settlers Tale: 17th Century Migration to the Americas (1999)

The Settlers' Tale: 17th Century Migration to the Americas (1999)

In 1999 Royal Mail celebrated the approaching Millenium by releasing a number of sets of stamps on various themes. The Settler’s Tale stamps, on the theme of migration to, from and within the UK, were released on 6 April 1999 and include a stamp on migration to the Americas in the 17th Century. The stamp shows a Pilgrim couple trading with a Native American.

But perhaps the most interesting depictions of the Americas on British postal stationery are the envelope and letter sheet designed by William Mulready. The Mulready stationery was released at the same time as the Penny Black, but proved unpopular, partly due to the elaborate design. The design shows Britannia between depictions of the continents of Asia and America, and, in the lower corners, small family groups anxiously reading letters. The Americas are represented by Pilgrims, Native Americans, and toiling slaves – remember, this was 1840! (For a closer view of the Mulready stationery see Volume II of the R M Phillips Collection, an award-winning collection of British stamps from the Victorian era in the care of the BPMA.)

A coloured version of The Mulready Envelope (1840)

A coloured version of The Mulready Envelope (1840)

So, Happy Independence Day to our readers in the United States, and if you’d like to tell us about US stamps with British themes please leave a comment.

The BPMA at Blists Hill, Shropshire

by Alison Norris, Ironbridge Project Assistant
Canal Street

Canal Street

Over the last year the BPMA has been working with the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust (IGMT) on developing a replica Victorian Post Office and contemporary exhibition, The Post Office in the Community, at the Blists Hill Victorian Town site in Shropshire.

In 2008 the BPMA and IGMT were awarded a £126k grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Wolfson Foundation to help fund the joint venture.

Blists Hill Post Office

Blists Hill Post Office

Blists Hill is a popular visitor attraction set in the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage site, the birth place of the Industrial Revolution. It is one of ten sites run by the IGMT, and over the past few months has undertaken a huge new development project, building an entire new street from scratch. This street, Canal Street, opened to the public on 4th April 2009 and features a Drapers, Fried Fish Dealers (they were not called Fish & Chip shops until later!), Sweet Shop, Photographers and the Blists Hill Post Office. A new artisans’ quarter has also been recreated with a Plasterer, Tinsmith and Plumber all practising traditional ways of working. Other streets and shops already existed on the site, and include a Bakers, Bank, Chemist and Printers. Each of the businesses are reconstructed to appear as they might have done in the late Victorian or Edwardian period, and traditional goods are sold by costumed staff from the premises. These demonstrators are also able to answer any questions visitors may have both about the various shops and life between 1890 and 1910.

Goods for sale in the stationers

Goods for sale in the stationers

All of the buildings and shop interiors on Canal Street have been carefully researched to ensure that they represent authentic buildings from the local area. The Royal Mail Archive holds a file on the Post Office that was once in Shifnal, a nearby market town. This file has been used to help recreate the Blists Hill Post Office, which will also share its premises with a stationers, as was common practice for the time .

Attention to detail has been paramount throughout the Canal Street project, and has been enthusiastically undertaken by Michael Vanns, Interpretation Project Manager. Bricks have been specially made, as have window frames and other architectural features. Period shop fittings have been sourced from around the country, and the Post Office sorting office will soon have a de-accessioned sorting frame, donated from the BPMA museum collection.

The Blists Hill Postmaster

The Blists Hill Postmaster

As well as the new Postmaster, a Postman will also be welcomed to Blists Hill. This ‘postie’ will be based on a real worker identified from the records of The Royal Mail Archive, and his uniform will be created using references from both the Archive and the BPMA museum collection.

The Post Office in the Community

Above the Blists Hill Post Office there will be a contemporary exhibition produced by the BPMA, which will examine the role of the Post Office in the community. Moving away from the Victorian era, this will be a contemporary exhibition looking at all periods of history, and will use many objects from the extensive BPMA collection. This exhibition will broadly look at four different areas: Counter Services Over Time, Delivering the Mail, Letter Boxes and Changing Times. The exhibition will open later in 2009.

Hen & Chicks, circa 1882

Hen & Chicks, circa 1882

This will be a unique opportunity to see so many pieces from the BPMA collection in one place. These will include a Hen & Chicks centre-cycle, originally invented and patented by Edward Burstow, an architect from Horsham, Sussex in 1882. Postal officials at Horsham tried out these cycles for both postal and telegraph delivery work. Although the centre-cycle did not prove popular elsewhere, the Horsham postal workers wrote a letter of appreciation to Mr Burstow, praising the cycle.

The exhibition promises to be a unique addition to Canal Street, offering visitors a greater insight to the effect the Post Office has had on our communities during its history.

Further information

If you would like any further information about the Blists Hill Post Office or the forthcoming BPMA exhibition, please contact Alison Norris, Ironbridge Project Assistant, on 0207 239 5174 or alison.norris@postalheritage.org.uk.