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Lord Bath, Tony Benn and Bath Postal Museum help to launch London 2010: Festival of Stamps

Lord Bath sends off a carrier pigeon with his message to Mr Tony Benn. Watching are the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath (left) with Audrey Swindells and Ivan Holliday of the Bath Postal Museum.

Lord Bath sends off a carrier pigeon with his message to Mr Tony Benn. Watching are the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath (left) with Audrey Swindells and Ivan Holliday of the Bath Postal Museum. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

by Colin Baker, Bath Postal Museum

On 23rd March the Marquess of Bath, a patron of the Bath Postal Museum, despatched a message by carrier pigeon from outside the Guildhall in the centre of Bath to Tony Benn in London. Lord Bath’s message wished the London 2010: Festival of Stamps every success. Tony Benn was the ideal receiver of this message, being the last Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in Britain. The message was written on an original pigeongramme form as used in World War Two, which is very lightweight paper that weighed only one gram.

Lord Bath sends one of the pigeons on its way. The Mayor, Mayoress and some of the Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum follow its progress.

Lord Bath sends one of the pigeons on its way. The Mayor, Mayoress and some of the Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum follow its progress. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

It was more than a year ago that the Bath Postal Museum first suggested the idea of using a pigeon to send greetings to the organisers of the Festival of Stamps. The event was organised by the museum to complement their latest exhibition covering some of the major events in the reign of King George V. The exhibition will remain open to the public until the end of 2010.

Watching the release of the pigeons and making sure they were safely in the air were the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath, Councillor and Mrs Colin Barrett, with Trustees, Friends and volunteers of the Bath Postal Museum.

The 1935 Morris Minor postal van sets off from the Guildhall in Bath with its cargo of special event covers.

The 1935 Morris Minor postal van sets off from the Guildhall in Bath with its cargo of special event covers. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

The three pigeons had been received by pigeon trainer Trevor Cocks of Bath who with his son handed them to Lord Bath who launched each pigeon into the air. Three pigeons set off ensuring safe arrival. Lord Bath then waved off a 1930s Morris Minor Post Office vehicle owned and driven by Kevin Saville. There are only two of these period vehicles fully roadworthy and it was a privilege for the Bath Postal Museum to be able to use this one to carry some of its special commemorative envelopes.

The vintage Post Office vehicle was followed by a modern Post Office van provided by Royal Mail, Bath section, both vehicles representing early and modern post office vehicles. After the event all present were entertained by the Mayor and Mayoress in the Guildhall and then given a guided tour of the beautiful Mayor’s Parlour.

Tony Benn holding the pigeon that carried the message from Lord Bath. Watching from left to right, Brian Trotter & Alan Huggins (London 2010), Colin Baker (Bath Postal Museum) and Teddy Hendrie the pigeon’s owner.

Tony Benn holding the pigeon that carried the message from Lord Bath. Watching from left to right, Brian Trotter & Alan Huggins (London 2010), Colin Baker (Bath Postal Museum) and Teddy Hendrie the pigeon’s owner. (Photo: Michael Pitt-Payne)

The pigeon carrying the message from Lord Bath flew to its home loft in East London from where the message was taken and presented to Tony Benn by Ted Hendrie of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. Tony Benn then passed the message to Brian Trotter – Chairman of the International Stamp Exhibition. Alan Huggins – Chairman of the Festival Advisory Board and Colin Baker from the Bath Postal Museum was also present to witness the receipt of the message. Colin Baker said “The way this pigeon message has been sent will show people how communication always played an important role in our society. Although there was no internet in King George V’s reign, the techniques used in his day were often faster than some of the methods we currently employ.”

The pigeongramme that was sent to Tony Benn wishing the London 2010: Festival of Stamps every success.

The pigeongramme that was sent to Tony Benn wishing the London 2010: Festival of Stamps every success. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

Tony Benn was particularly interested in the pigeon and the message it carried. He told the story of his grandfather who was the first pilot to parachute a spy behind enemy lines during the First World War. Dropping the spy was easy he said, they simply cut a hole in the floor of the plane which he slid through before opening his parachute. The spy took carrier pigeons with him, which he released over the next few days, with messages concerning enemy activities and other important information.

It may seem strange to us today to use a pigeon to send a message, but homing pigeons were used extensively in the past. During the siege of Paris in 1870 they were flown out of the city by hot air balloons and flew back after a suitable rest period carrying strips of microfilm with messages for the besieged Parisians. During the two world wars pigeons were used to carry messages between the front line and headquarters.

All RAF (Royal Air Force) bombers carried homing pigeons in the Second World War. For example a bird called ‘White Vision’ delivered a message bearing latitude and longitude details so that the RAF crew could be rescued. They were flying a Catalina Flying Boat which ditched over the Hebrides. This bird flew 60 miles in atrocious weather over heavy seas. It was awarded one of the 14 ‘Dickin Medals for Gallantry’ awarded to homing pigeons. In all 32 bravery medals were awarded to pigeons in the 2nd World War.

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.