Tag Archives: postmen

Vinegar Valentines

Sending special letters for Valentine’s day probably dates from the mid-18th century. We have a number of examples of early Valentines in our collection. The idea of choosing a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day may be connected with the idea that 14 February is the date on which birds began mating.

A Valentine's day featuring an image of a bird.

A Valentine’s day featuring an image of a bird.

The name of the day has also been linked to a Christian martyr named Valentine who signed a letter to his jailer’s daughter, with whom he had fallen in love, “from your Valentine.” It was even believed in the eighteenth century that the festival had developed from the Roman Lupercalia (15 February), which celebrated the coming of spring and included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery.

A spiteful valentine from c.1814 sent to Thomas Williams Esq., No. 41 Berkley Sqaure. The last line of the verse reads 'if all men, were like thee - then, I'd sooner die than marry'.

A spiteful valentine from c.1814 sent to Thomas Williams Esq., No. 41 Berkley Sqaure. The last line of the verse reads ‘if all men, were like thee – then, I’d sooner die than marry’.

Not all valentines were declarations of love however. We have letters in BPMA’s collection complaining about the sending of insulting and rude Valentines and more particularly about having to pay for them. This is because prior to 1840 and the introduction of uniform penny postage, letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender. As such, on Valentine’s day some people with a particular grudge or spite against someone would, anonymously, send rude or grotesque valentines which the receiver would then have to pay for, really adding insult to injury. These have become colloquially known as spiteful or ‘vinegar valentines’. Complaints were made to postmasters requesting refunds for such vinegar valentines.

Poster showing the consequences of missorting, especially on Valentine's Day

Poster showing the consequences of missorting, especially on Valentine’s Day

As a variation of this, one of our acquisitions for the museum collection in the past year was a coloured print of a postman delivering letters on Valentine’s Day. Although of a much later date this print shows how the public didn’t always trust the Post Office to deliver their valentines in a prompt and appropriate manner, and postmen were certainly not viewed as potential valentines themselves.

A spiteful/vinegar/comic Valentine or Penny Dreadful.

A spiteful/vinegar/comic Valentine or Penny Dreadful.

We hope you all receive nicer Valentines than these!

Emma Harper, Curator

192,000 postmen’s inside legs, and other measurements in the Archive

In last month’s cataloguing update I wrote about the London sub-post office record books I’d discovered in the Archive. Since then I’ve been cataloguing records from the area of our collections devoted to the sorting and circulation of inland mail (POST 17 in the catalogue). I’ve added nearly 130 files to the catalogue this month, and edited existing descriptions for hundreds more. The records cover subjects like mail sorting machinery, the development of postcodes, and all kinds of technical details – some of them slightly odd. Here are some of my favourites.

POST 17/482 is a 1969 engineer’s study entitled Measurements of Postmen. The aim was to improve sorting office machinery ergonomics by finding out the average size of a British postman. The heights, arm lengths, and outside and inside leg measurements of thousands of postmen were collected and studied – there were 192,000 measurements for the legs! Getting all those postmen to proffer their legs for the engineer would have been an impossible (and traumatic) challenge. Instead, he studied all the sizes of uniforms ordered that year, to everyone’s benefit and, one suspects, relief.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

On the subject of measurements, I spent several days cataloguing three large sets of engineering standard drawings from the 1970s and 1980s (POST 17/533-535). The drawings – over 450 in total – cover all aspects of automated mail sorting and circulation: conveyor belts, facing tables, coding desks, chutes, signage, even Morris delivery vans.

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

These standards contain the official dimensions of equipment to be manufactured for Royal Mail, including explanations of the jobs they were intended to do. In the case of postal vehicles, the standards go as far as specifying the turning circles of each model. Combined with the reports, brochures and technical specifications found elsewhere in POST 17, there’s a vast amount of information here for anyone interested in recent postal mechanisation developments.

There are also records dating back to the very early days of postal mechanisation. One of my favourite discoveries was a little book that was used between 1907 and 1930 to record staff suggestions for improving the mail handling process.

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Sometimes staff put forward inventions, and the notes include technical sketches, such as the entry above for a time-saving rolling date stamp. The entries sometimes record whether the suggestions were taken forward. Some are appealingly optimistic, such as the 1909 idea of asking the public to tie their Christmas cards into bundles of ten or more before posting them. Other innovations seem like second nature today. The example below is a 1924 suggestion: envelopes with transparent address windows.*

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

I hope my unscientific little selection of examples from a single theme shows the incredible variety of material you can consult in our Search Room. Some of the files I catalogued this month, including records from the creation of the postcode system, can’t be opened for another few years. This is due to the 20-year rule governing public records. But cataloguing them now ensures they’ll be ready and waiting in their archive boxes when the time comes to open them.

As for the Measurements of Postmen, studying 192,000 orders for trousers found the average postman’s inside leg measurement in 1969 to be 30.2 inches. The average British postman was determined to be two inches shorter than his American equivalent.

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

All these files and more will be published to our online catalogue in the coming months.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sadly this wasn’t an original idea, according to Wikipedia Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, received the first patent for a windowed envelope on 10 June 1902.

Postal Mischief podcast

In April we invited the writer, broadcaster, artist and musician David Bramwell to the BPMA to give a talk on the history of postal mischief. This turned out to be a fascinating and highly entertaining event, looking at the work of key players in this field including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson, Victorian prankster Reginald Bray and musician Genesis P.Orridge, who inadvertently changed the postal laws (owing to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards).

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell's talk.

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell’s talk.

David also shared his own exploits in mail art, which saw him and a friend post unusual objects to each other – much to the amusement of local Post Office and Royal Mail staff.

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

You can now listen to or download David Bramwell’s talk as a podcast via our website, iTunes or SoundCloud. And if David has inspired you to engage in some postal mischief do let us know about it!

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

Find out about our upcoming talks and other public events on the Events page of our website.

Stock-take 2013

Our more regular users may have noticed that we have been closed for two weeks during May for our annual stock-take; an important housekeeping exercise that allows us to focus on tasks we find difficult to fit in during the normal course of the year.

I may speak only for myself in describing stock-take as an almost therapeutic experience (‘housekeeping’ may not be everyone’s cup of tea), but carrying out audits, weeding out duplicate material, and boxing and listing uncatalogued material are all necessary tasks, requiring a methodical approach and producing gratifying results.

Auditing Second Review files.

Auditing Second Review files.

Archives Assistant, Penny McMahon, assisting with the Second Review audit and reboxing.

Archives Assistant, Penny McMahon, assisting with the Second Review audit and reboxing.

It was a successful stock-take, with a number of tasks being completed. These included the much needed creation of more space in our repository by reorganising shelves, and the auditing of ‘second-review’ material (we are gradually undertaking a process whereby records that have not been archived, and which are more than 25 years old, undergo an appraisal of their historical value and retention needs). In addition, a number of boxes of miscellaneous material were appraised (always an interesting foraging exercise), photographic negatives of GPO/PostOffice/Royal Mail posters were digitised for our online catalogue, and a large number of records from our Museum Store at Debden were relocated to the Royal Mail Archive at Freeling House.

Ultimately, our stock-take work is aimed at making our archive collections more accessible to the public by accounting for records, getting them in order, and then on to our catalogue. These processes are all the more important in light of our move to Calthorpe House, planned for 2015.

POST 110/3084, c.1980s - Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/3084, c.1980s – Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2746, c.1989 - Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2746, c.1989 – Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2813, c.1946 - Poster scanned for archive catalogue.

POST 110/2813, c.1946 – Poster scanned for archive catalogue.

Stock-take is beneficial not only to the efficient functioning of our archives, but also to staff, in providing a break from normal routine and ongoing projects. It also allows staff to work with unfamiliar areas of the collections, and to re-engage with the grass roots of the archives, the records themselves! Indeed, being an archivist doesn’t necessarily mean that you spend your time poring over old records since much of the process of maintaining an archive is also administrative.

One of the major benefits I derive from stock-take is acquainting myself with areas of our archives with which I have little contact (being a primarily cataloguing archivist, I tend to work on specific collections). The most entertaining find I came across was a 1998 Royal Mail good practice guide on ‘Dealing with Dog Attacks’!, covering ‘ultrasonic dog deterrent devices’ (‘not to be directed at humans’) and listing goats and geese as animals to potentially ‘ferocious’ animals! Obviously less amusing when you acknowledge that it was a serious guide for a genuine threat to postmen (626 of whom suffered serious dog bites in 1997 alone).

Staff guide on dealing with dog attacks, 1998.

Staff guide on dealing with dog attacks, 1998.

Given that there are always records to be appraised, sorted and catalogued, and a long list of preparations we need to make for our move to our new home in 2015/16, there will be plenty of work to get our teeth stuck into in next year’s stock-take, and I gladly hand the baton over to the next willing coordinator!

– Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

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.

Split duties in the 1890s

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looks at the first postal strike, when long hours and harsh conditions led many postmen to protest. In 1890, hundreds marched on Post Office headquarters at St Martin’s-le-Grand demanding better pay and conditions. They were soon sacked and the strike was put down, but these were early days for the labour movement in Britain and it prompted the Government to investigate the plight of those working in the worst conditions.

In 1895 the Tweedmouth Committee heard evidence on the hardships of postmen. Doctors testified that the death rate in this occupation was higher than others. “The result”, as Sir W.B. Richardson put it, “is that the postman wears out fast… The effect was generally to produce premature old age; in other words shortening the life of the worker.”

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

Stephen Dowling, a postman from Liverpool, complained about the long hours. He found that having his duties split into three or four attendances in a single day meant he started work at 6am and didn’t finish until after 10pm.

Imagine, my lord, the postman going into his home 3, 4, 5 and as many as 8 times per day, drenched with rain, or his boots penetrated with snow… Or, worse still, picture him when he cannot get home remaining in wet clothing all day long… Or, think of him working under the fierce rays of a summer’s sun, in the hottest part of the day, when others are seeking shelter, walking along dusty, country roads, in the streets, in loathsome slums, among insanitary dwellings, climbing hills and mounting stuffy buildings – with heavy loads and hung all around with parcels.

Dowling explained that between duties many of his colleges simply took to the pub.

In many instances the intervals between the parts of our long duties are frittered and whiled away in the streets – often, I regret to have to say (and this, I think, it reflects rather on the Department than on the men), in public houses. These very intervals have been the cause of many a man’s ruin.

The Committee heard the story of a man named Nevins.

He was rolling about in the principal thoroughfare at a quarter-past three in the afternoon in a state of intoxication, and he was then in uniform.

Nevins kept his job but had his good conduct stripes removed, leading to reduced pay.

William Gates, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Hurstpierpoint, Brighton, c1897.

William Gates, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Hurstpierpoint, Brighton, c1897.

Others took up sports to pass the time but split duties caused problems for them too. Tired from an early start, postmen at the GPO on Lombard Street complained that an afternoon of rowing or cricket was spoilt by the thought of having to go back to work afterwards.

This is making work of play indeed, and small wonder that the G.P.O., notwithstanding its immense staff, can scarcely equal for all round proficiency some of the district offices, who, in point of size, are as his satellites are to Jupiter.

A letter to the union journal The Post joked that “split duties are like a long engaged couple – they should be joined as soon as possible”.

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club

When the Tweedmouth Committee issued its report, postmen were dismayed to find that no concessions were made on split duties. But this was the first of a series of major parliamentary enquiries around the turn of the century that slowly produced results, improving conditions for the lowest paid and leading eventually to the establishment of Whitley Councils.

– Peter Sutton, Historian

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Postal Worker’s Strike. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The Post Office in Pictures opens

Our photo exhibition The Post Office in Pictures is now open! It showcases a selection of inspiring images sourced from our vast collections.

Down Wapping Way

Down Wapping Way, 1935 - Part of the Post Office Magazine series ‘The Postman Everywhere’, which demonstrated the wide ranging experiences of postmen across the country. Postman Mr J Anthony is shown here in an area of Wapping, East London. The author of the accompanying article described the area as ‘narrow, dirty and unsalubrious...’ (POST 118/252)

From strange creatures sent through the post, to the daily deliveries by land, sea and air to every corner of the country, the photos featured offer a fascinating series of windows on Britain from the 1930s to 1980s – including some of the more unusual, unexpected and unseen activities of the Post Office and its people.

Public House & Post Office

Public House & Post Office, c. 1989 - A pint, a pie... and a pension at the Swan public house in Little Totham, near Maldon, Essex. Publican’s daughter Christine Baxter serving a postal customer in the bar of her parents’ pub. (010-018-002)

The exhibition is at The Post Modern Gallery in Swindon until 5 November. The Gallery is open from 11am to 5pm Monday to Saturday – for full details see our website.

Special drop-in events accompanying the exhibition include:

Explore The Post Office in Pictures
Wednesday 12 October, 6pm to 8pm
Craft Session & Late Opening
Join us for an evening exploring crafty connections between the photographs on display and a range of arts and crafts techniques. Enjoy a glass of wine, see practical demonstrations, and then have a go at something yourself, inspired by the fascinating images featured in The Post Office in Pictures.

The Post Office in Pictures Family Fun Days
Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 October, 11am to 4pm
Half-Term Activities
Come to The Post Office in Pictures during half-term for a host of free family activities:

  • Put yourself in the Picture and create your own magazine front cover with you as the star! Use real post office uniforms for added authenticity.
  • Create your own Finger Puppet Postman from felt, and make a cap badge or armband based on what you can see in the exhibition. Real objects will be available to handle for added inspiration.
  • Why not bring along your camera to the fun day and take part in our Photographic Scavenger Hunt? Pick up the clues from the Post Modern, search Swindon for the postal items and snap as many as you can, and then return to the gallery to record your time – the fastest family over the two days will win a fantastic prize.

For more on The Post Office in Pictures see our online exhibition. Large versions of the images from the exhibition can be seen on Flickr. Photos from the exhibition are available to buy from our Print on Demand website.