Tag Archives: records

New on the online catalogue

Last week we did one of our periodic uploads of new material onto the online catalogue. More than 2,000 records went on this time.

New to the catalogue is the ‘REPS deposit’. This was a large collection of records on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and the Army Postal Service. The material dated from the 1900s to the 1980s, but it was particularly rich in information on the Army Postal Service at home and overseas during and after the Second World War.

The REPS deposit was indexed in the early 1980s by Major J G Long (retired), then archivist of the REPCS Officers’ Association. Long was commissioned c.1980 to write a history of the REPS. The project was later abandoned, and Long resigned the archivist post in 1982. He deposited his research notes and the archives at the Home Postal and Courier Communications Depot, Inglis Barracks, Mill Hill, and that’s where the trail ends. If anyone reading this knows any more about Major Long and his work, we would love to hear from you!

Social Reformers Issue 1976 – David Gentleman (QEII/119/33)

Social Reformers Issue 1976 – David Gentleman (QEII/119/33)

The REPS deposit was catalogued in January and February 2014 by Matt Tantony, our former Project Archivist. The deposit was split between three main areas of the catalogue. Public records on the Army Postal Service have been catalogued in POST 47. Records on the GPO’s actions in wartime are in POST 56. The remainder of the deposit is mostly non-public records, including Major Long’s own research notes, military publications, and reunion dinner plans. These archives are not strictly postal in relevance but will be of interest to anyone studying the history of the REPS as a military unit. They’ve been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’.

Our cataloguing archivist Anna Flood was responsible among other work for plenty more POST 72 (Post Office Headquarters files) going on, completing the catalogue for this large class.

Some small quantities of POST 22 (Counters), 63 (Staff Training) and 68 (Rules and Instructions) also went on. Additionally several sub-series from POST 153 (Mails Division) and 157 (Postal Operations Department) were added.

Stamp artwork for eight issues from 1976 Social Reformers to 1977 Silver Jubilee (POST 150) is now on the catalogue.

Racket Sports Issue 1977 – Andrew Restall (QEII/124/06)

Racket Sports Issue 1977 – Andrew Restall (QEII/124/06)

More than 50 museum objects went online. These included a set of self-designed Christmas cards by Martin Norgate from the 1970s to the present day and a World War One card on a piece of khaki, recently acquired by the BPMA.

'B.E.A. XMAS GREETINGS' Khaki Christmas Card (2013-0091)

‘B.E.A. XMAS GREETINGS’ Khaki Christmas Card (2013-0091)

This Christmas card is written on a piece of khaki, possibly from a uniform. Drawn in ink on the front cover is a cross with the words ‘B.E.A. 1915/ XMAS GREETINGS’ inside. Above the cross a thistle is drawn, whilst below the cross is a banner reading ’25 R.F.’.

Front of the card

Front of the card (2013-0091)

Finally a number of amended War Memorials records are now available.

Eagle-eyed users will notice one or two changes to the way data is represented on the online catalogue since this upload. We have switched our date format from YYYY-Mon-DD to the more conventional DD-Mon-YYYY.

Another change is in the way we arrange the archive hierarchically, we have now changed the hierarchical ‘RefNo’ field so that the whole archive now properly nests under the Collection level description for the whole of the Archive . This change has been prompted in main by our exciting plans to revamp our online catalogue. Updates and progress of this are coming soon!

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager

2,000 new records on our online catalogue

At the start of October we did one of our periodic uploads of newly catalogued material onto the online catalogue. Over 2,000 new records went online. These include descriptions of files, stamp artwork, microfiche, museum objects and library books, a good number of which will be accompanied by images (with more to go online soon). Below is a brief summary of what has gone on.

Museum objects

These are a combination of items that have been part of the collection for some time but only fully catalogued in the past few years as well as objects newly acquired by the BPMA for its museum collection. Do browse through the records and you will see the huge variety of objects including slogan dies, which one of our volunteers, Cyril Parsons, has been working on editing; more items of uniform such as a Ministry of Civil Aviation coat made by the GPO; a group of material relating to the more modern operations of the Post Office Investigation Department; as well as several other new acquisitions featured in previous blogs, such as the Certifying Seal used by Sir Francis Freeling during his tenure as Secretary of the General Post Office.

Royal Mail Archive: Philatelic

POST 150 QEII Decimal Stamp Artwork for the following issues:

  • QEII 1971 Ulster paintings
  • QEII 1971 Literary Anniversaries
  • QEII 1971 British Anniversaries
  • QEII 1971 University Architecture
  • QEII 1971 Christmas
  • QEII 1972 General Anniversaries
  • QEII 1972 British Polar Explorers
  • QEII 1972 British Architecture, Village Churches
  • QEII 1972 Broadcasting Anniversaries
  • QEII 1972 Royal Silver Wedding
  • QEII 1973 British Trees
  • QEII 1973 European Communities
  • QEII 1973 Artistic Anniversaries
  • QEII 1973 British Explorers
  • QEII 1973 County Cricket
Stamps and first day cover for Modern University Buildings stamp issue, 1971. (QEII 96-35)

Stamps and first day cover for Modern University Buildings stamp issue, 1971. (QEII 96-35)

Royal Mail Archive: non-philatelic

Series and sub-series of records from the following POST classes have gone online:

  • POST 17 (Inland Mails, Organisation, Circulation and Sorting)
  • POST 58 (Staff Nomination and Appointment)
  • POST 59 (Establishment books, entire backlog catalogued)
  • POST 91 (Buildings, Fixtures and Fittings, c.200 from a series of site plans, elevations and sections, floor plans, proposals for renovations on microfiche)
  • POST 108 (Public Relations Department)
  • POST 113 (Information Technology, c.40 reports)
  • POST 151 (Central Headquarters)
  • POST 153 (Mails Division)
  • POST 161 (BBC/Post Office emergency arrangements)
  • POST 162 (Director of Postal Services)

Small numbers of records from individual POST classes have also gone online. Details are listed below:

  • POST 11 (Conveyance of Mail by Railways)
  • POST 22 (Counter Operations and Services)
  • POST 28 (Ancillary Services)
  • POST 61 (Uniforms and Discipline)
  • POST 62 (Staff Welfare)
  • POST 63 (Staff Training)
  • POST 65 (Staff Associations)
  • POST 68 (Rules and Instructions)
  • POST 69 (Board papers)
  • POST 115 (Staff Associations and Union Publications)
  • POST 154 (Marketing Department, postmark slogans sub-series)
  • POST 157 (Postal Operations Department, surface mail services and post minibus sub-series)

As well as staff including myself, Anna Flood, Matt Tantony and Adam Hillhouse, work has also been undertaken by volunteers Claire Wardle and Kim Noulton.

War Memorials

More than 300 new or edited records of war memorials commemorating postal staff who served or died in the world wars.

We hope you will find these records both useful and interesting. Please let us know if you spot any errors. Although we do our very best to ensure records going on are properly and accurately proof read errors do occasionally creep through.

– Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Search for all these new records by visiting the online catalogue.

Cataloguing archives, in four very easy steps

If you’ve browsed our archive catalogue, you may have found it rather different to, say, one you’ve used in a library. In this blog post, I’m going to explain a little of how archivists worldwide create catalogues.

What’s unusual about archive catalogues is that they aren’t flat lists. Instead, they have multiple levels. If you look at our POST 22 catalogue, for example, you’ll see that it’s arranged like a tree with branches at different levels. This hierarchy is part of the General International Standard Archival Description, to which many archivists work worldwide. A typical archive catalogue has four main levels. In descending order, they are: FONDS – SERIES – FILE – ITEM. Here’s how they work.

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

In this picture, my trolley holds an imaginary archive that I’ve just received. There are many boxes containing hundreds of records. Reading them all would take weeks. It would, however, be helpful for researchers (and staff) to get a general overview of the entire archive: how much of it there is; who created it and when; the kinds of information within it. My catalogue, therefore, would start with a single description of the archive as a whole. UK archivists often call this whole unit the fonds (a French word that means accumulation, related to the English ‘fund’).

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

One level down, I’d divide the fonds into groupings of related records. In the picture above, I’ve chosen one box as the first grouping. I would try to provide useful distinctions for researchers, but also to preserve the existing arrangement of records within the fonds. Some archive services classify records by the departments or offices that produced them, others employ functional distinctions. However it’s done, the entire fonds gets subdivided into multiple groupings, which archivists call series. Like with the fonds, my catalogue would include descriptions of each series’ extent, scope and content. At the BPMA, series are called POST classes; many are divided into sub-series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

On the lowest levels, I’d describe every individual record within each series. In the picture above, for example, I’ve picked out from my imaginary series a single folder of photographs to describe. These are the file-level descriptions. In archivist-speak, a file is a discrete group of documents that were kept, created or used for a specific purpose.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

It’s possible to go one level further down and catalogue each separate item within a file. These are called item-level descriptions. It’s not always necessary to do this, but it can be done. In the picture above, I’ve started describing the individual photographs that form the file. We could also identify a single book, document or image as an item because they can’t be subdivided any further.

What I’ve done, ultimately, is to describe the whole archive several times over. At each descending level, I’ve described smaller and smaller bits of the archive, in increasing detail. The resulting catalogue has a tree structure. It lets researchers zoom in on the parts of the archive they’re interested in, without losing track of those parts’ evidential and informational relationships to the whole. Think of it like a collapsible map of the archive, telling you its physical and intellectual geography.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

What I’ve discussed here is an ideal-world scenario. Archives often aren’t neat or easily divisible, and may actually be collections of material from different sources. There’s also the possibility of future deposits. But working towards a shared international standard, as archivists do, means that we can all contribute to a project over time. It also means catalogues can be shared online with other archive services in the UK and abroad.

There’s a whole lot more to cataloguing than this. But I hope that this introduction begins to explain why we do what we do, and how it works. If you have any questions about archival work, I’ll happily try to answer them.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Discovering a Slice of London Life

After last month’s archive stocktake, I’ve returned to my ongoing cataloguing project. Today I’ll tell you about a terrific discovery I made on the repository shelves.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

This is a set of four record books. Three are from the 1930s, while the fourth covers 1941-1956. They’re not labelled with ownership details but, after studying the contents and cross-referencing with other archives in our collections, I believe they originated from the South West (SW) London District Office, which was in Victoria Street at that time.

The books were used to keep records on the sub-post offices in the SW London District. As you may already know, there are two main kinds of post offices in Britain: crown offices directly managed by the Post Office, and sub-post offices operated by independent businesspeople under contract from the Post Office.

The books are divided into many sections, headed with each sub-post office’s address. The three 1930s volumes cover the entire District between them, while the 1940s volume is a partial continuation. Confusingly, the contents aren’t all arranged alphabetically!

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

What makes these books a treasure is the staggering amount of detail. There are notes of customer complaints, audit records, specifics of equipment installed, and particulars of disciplinary cases. Every note is dated. This is what you’d expect from the central supervision of agents carrying out work for the General Post Office. But there’s so much more.

Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses often performed postal work alongside another business. The volumes record precise details of any interruptions in postal work. The main motivation was to monitor revenue, but the notes also reflect SW London’s changing streets. The record below is a good example:

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

This note states that the 412 Brixton Road office was damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941, and reopened at new premises in the local Bon Marché store. There are also records of crimes at sub-post offices, often including dates when staff were absent to attend the ensuing identity parades and police court sessions. Take a look at the note below:

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

This brief report of a foiled break-in is notable for giving the full name of the lady who was living above the office! We can glimpse here the locality that the office served. Often the addresses of customers who complained are also recorded.

Finally, there’s genealogical information. Dated records were kept of sickness absence and compassionate leave taken by sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses. Whenever an office transferred to a new sub-postmaster, the exact handover date and the departing sub-postmaster’s new home address were recorded. There are also family stories:

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster's death. (POST 22/386)

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. (POST 22/386)

This note records the date (and time!) of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. His son was acting sub-postmaster for a few months, then his widow took over the business. All these records were kept for purely business reasons, but the research uses are so much wider than that.

Hopefully, similar records for other areas will be discovered. As I catalogued the record books, I wrote a searchable index of all the sub-offices listed in the notes, with their respective sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. This will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

Introducing our new cataloguing updates

I’m Matt Tantony, and I joined the BPMA as Project Archivist in February this year. Since then, I’ve been spending almost every day underground in our repository, delving into boxes to uncover records that may have been unseen for years. Most archives have backlogs of material that, due to time constraints, is uncatalogued. In my year-long post I’ll be roaming The Royal Mail Archive, cataloguing the unseen records one section at a time.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

Each section’s cataloguing backlog lies in alluringly blank boxes in the repository. Every time I open a new box, I have no idea what I’ll find inside. It could be bound volumes, photographs, or a mountain of papers. It could even be computer data! My first task is to identify what each individual record actually is, when and where it originated, and what it can tell us. It’s rather like archaeology, although there’s usually documentation from the original transfer to the Archive to help me.

This randomly-selected box from the backlog contains over a dozen letter sorting manuals from different eras:

A box of letter sorting manuals.

A box of letter sorting manuals.

A month later, I’ve surveyed every box, and I’ve generated a vast database containing several hundred records’ details. Next, I puzzle out how to combine the newly-catalogued records and the existing ones into an easily navigable order in the catalogue. Archivists are trained to work to a single international standard that groups related records together into a kind of tree structure, often based on the structure of the organisation that produced them. I give each record a unique finding number, which is what our visitors use to request items for consultation in the Search Room.

I also need to repackage the records. We use specialist packaging materials, including those ever-present acid-free folders tied up with tape, to prolong the lifespan of archives. After my database is uploaded to our collections software, my colleagues and I spend several coffee-fuelled days proof-reading every word, before it’s published to the online catalogue for everyone to use. Then it’s onto the next section of the Archive and the process starts again!

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

The BPMA is working to tackle its cataloguing backlog, bringing thousands of records into the light, and making even more of our nation’s postal history available to everyone. I’ll be blogging here every few weeks, to keep you updated on my progress and to share the records I’ve uncovered.