Tag Archives: RMS Titanic

Seasons greetings by radio

In the lead-up to Christmas we are sharing with you 12 Posters of Christmas, a dozen classic postal posters from the Royal Mail Archive. Today’s is…

Poster advertising radio telegram service; featuring a ship and the radio mast, November 1960. (POST 110/1406)

Poster advertising radio telegram service; featuring a ship and the radio mast, November 1960. (POST 110/1406)

Wireless or radio telegraphy was pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi and General Post Office (GPO) at the end of the 19th Century; we have previously blogged on its important role in saving lives after the Titanic disaster. While Marconi’s invention was originally implemented to transmit messages where a wired telegraph network did not exist (i.e. to ships at sea), radio was, of course, later used to broadcast information and entertainment (we have also previously blogged on the GPO’s involvement with the BBC and early broadcasting).

The above poster from 1960 advertises the GPO’s radio telegram service, where telegrams were sent overseas via a relay of on-shore transmitting stations and ships. International telephone calls were still prohibitively expensive in this period and telegrams were the most affordable option for anyone needing to send a quick message over long distances. This poster, which would have been a common site at local post offices, uses simple, stylish graphics to encourage the public to use this service at Christmas.

Disaster at Sea!

We have recently uploaded a new podcast, a recording of our Curator Julian Stray’s recent talk Disaster at Sea! In his talk Julian Strays looks at the handful of mail ships (and one mail train) which never reached their destination.

Amongst the famous maritime disasters discussed are:

HMS Lutine, a naval ship lost in a storm which had a large quantity of gold bullion on board

The Antelope, a packet ship operating in the West Indies which surrendered to the French and had to sink the mail it was carrying

RMS Leinster, a mail boat torpedoed in the Irish Sea by the Germans at the end of World War I

RMS Titanic, the famous passenger liner whose mailroom staff all died when she sank in the Atlantic on her maiden voyage

Also discussed is the Tay Bridge Disaster, in which a railway bridge collapsed during a storm while a train carrying mail was crossing it.

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty's Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty’s Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

You can listen to Disaster at Sea! on the BPMA podcast webpage, or subscribe to the BPMA podcast with iTunes. BPMA podcasts are available free of charge.

Delegation from China visit BPMA

On Wednesday 18 April, the BPMA were delighted to welcome a delegation from China, including Lu Xinghua, Deputy Director of China Post Literature & History Centre, Song Yunli, Curator of China Post Archives of China Post Literature & History Centre and Danny Kin Chi Wong, FRPSL, Royal Philatelic Society London China Representative.

Chinese Delegation

BPMA Director Adrian Steel showing records in the BPMA's collections relating to China to the Chinese visitors

Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives and Records Management at the BPMA, took them for a tour of the Royal Mail archive, including looking at records in the collections relating to China, such as documents about delivery of mail via packet ships from the mid-19th century [POST 43/157] and a copy of a history of the British postal service by a Chinese postal official [POST 33/6013]. They also got to see three telegrams sent in response to the Post Office’s concern about its employees and the mail onboard the RMS Titanic (please see a previous blog on the RMS Titanic telegrams).

The visitors had the unique chance to hold a sheet of Penny Blacks from the BPMA's secure philatelic vault

The delegation was then treated to a tour of the secure philatelic vault with BPMA Philatelic Curator Douglas Muir, where they were shown Penny Blacks, Tyrian Plums, dies, rollers and Olympic stamp artwork.

Royal Mail Ship Titanic – centenary 2012

The centenary of the Titanic’s sinking is a good opportunity of reminding the world about the fascinating material concerning the ill-fated Royal Mail Ship in The Royal Mail Archive.

Three years ago the BPMA blogged on the subject telling the story of the post office on the ship and the bravery of the five postal clerks who went down with the ship. This blog shows images of a number of items in the collection including telegrams sent about the sinking. We also included the Titanic story in the 2010 Empire Mail exhibition at Guildhall.

This lantern slide comes from a series of slides of early 20th century Royal Mail Ships (in our museum collection).

Titanic leaving Southampton (2012-0126/04)

Titanic leaving Southampton (2012-0126/04)

Another item I particularly like is this blue print (from POST 29/1117) showing the position of the Titanic’s (as well as that of its sister ship the Olympic) post office (situated on G-deck) and mail room (on the Orlop deck) below, both almost at the bottom of the ship.

Blue print of mail room on Titanic (POST 29/1117)

Blue print of mail room on Titanic (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Post Office (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Post Office (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Mail Room (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Mail Room (POST 29/1117)

This time I also decided to focus on the two Post Office employees (the post office was also manned by three US postal workers), James Bertram Williamson and John Richard Jago Smith (known as Jago), using their details to interrogate the BPMA’s family history records. These sources can be used in a similar way to track down details of postal ancestors in your family.

Both men can be found (at least) three times on the British Postal Appointment books, available online via Ancestry (given the various permutations on their initials I am by no means certain I found all their entries in the books). Williamson starts as a Sorting Clerk in Dublin in December 1896 (POST 58/96), eventually ending up in Southampton in November 1908 as a ‘SC and T’ (Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, POST 58/104).

Williamson’s appointment as a sorting clerk in Dublin listed at bottom (POST 58/96)

Williamson’s appointment as a sorting clerk in Dublin listed at bottom (POST 58/96)

Jago, a Cornishman, began as a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist at Liskeard in May 1898 (POST 58/96) before moving along the coast to Southampton in September 1901 (POST 58/98).

Smith’s appointment in Southamption. His name is the second one listed under September. (POST 58/98)

Smith’s appointment in Southamption. His name is the second one listed under September. (POST 58/98)

On 5 May 1912 all ranks of the Southampton postal staff attended a service at St Peters Church in Southampton in memory of their colleagues and a later memorial was erected. The Postal and Telegraph Services also placed a memorial plaque in the church at St Keverne, Cornwall, in memory of Jago Smith.

The GPO staff journal St Martin’s le Grand (which is currently being digitised for the BPMA by SDS Heritage, who kindly supplied this image) also paid tribute to the two men in July 1912, albeit incorrectly initialling Williamson as ‘E D’ and calling him an ‘Englishman’!

The Postal Clerks of the Titanic, St Martin’s le Grand, July 1912 (POST 92/1141)

The Postal Clerks of the Titanic, St Martin’s le Grand, July 1912 (POST 92/1141)

The two men feature again in the Treasury correspondence (POST 1). This is a key family history source since GPO pension and gratuity (including for death while an employee) applications were sent to the Treasury from 1860 to 1940. The index (POST 1/471) entry for the men stands out on the page below.

Index entries for the two men (POST 1/471)

Index entries for the two men (POST 1/471)

Though neither man was married nor had children both contributed to the well being of their families. Williamson sent ‘the whole of his trip allowance (£8 to £10 a month) to his mother’, who had no other means. Jago contributed £15 a week to his father and sister’s support.

This letter from September 1912 (POST 1/449, pages 405-6) which details their dependents goes on to emphasise:

Mr Herbert Samuel [the Postmaster General] is strongly of the opinion that compensation should be paid, in one form or another, to the relatives of the deceased officers … [having] regard to the exceptional nature of the case, and the unfortunate effect which the refusal of compensation would almost necessarily produce in Parliament and on public opinion.

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (1).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (1).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (2).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (2).

A later letter (POST 1/450, pages 725-6) seeks clarification on the nature of the payment.

There is also a very large file on the issue of compensation for valuable mail lost on the ship (POST 29/1395B) from which our copies of the telegrams concerning the sinking come.

Another former postal worker who died on board was John George ‘Jack’ Phillips. In April 1902 at the age of fifteen he joined the Post Office as a ‘Learner’ at Godalming in Surrey (POST 58/98). He trained as a telegraphist leaving in March 1906 for further study at the Marconi Company’s Wireless Telegraphy Training School. He worked as a wireless operator on various liners and in a station at Clifden, Galway before joining the Titanic at Belfast. As senior wireless operator on the ship he sent many of the messages asking for assistance from other vessels as the Titanic went down. (For more on this see our blog post on Marconi and the Post Office.)

The BPMA has also this year been assisting Royal Mail and Canada Post on their special products. This commemorative sheet has been produced by Royal Mail; these products by Canada Post. In this vein, our curator of philately Douglas Muir helped debunk the myth that this photograph is mail being loaded onto the Titanic. Sadly it is not.

We’ll be showing some of the BPMA’s original Titanic documents (including telegrams on the sinking) in The Royal Mail Archive search room prior to Julian Stray’s talk Disaster at Sea! The talk is on 19 April at 7pm, see our website for full details.

Gavin McGuffie - Head of Archives

Telegraphs and mass communication

Barely a day goes by when we do not see more evidence of the way in which mass communications can quickly bring together a group of like-minded people for a common purpose. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Movember and Talk Like a Pirate Day all have Facebook, Twitter and other communications networks to thank for their success.

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explained how businesses and individuals in the Victorian era benefited from the telegraph. But the speed with which information could be distributed by this early form of mass communication may surprise you.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

In early December 1871 The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) contracted typhoid whilst staying at Londesborough Lodge, Yorkshire, and there was considerable public concern about the heir apparent’s welfare. A friend of the Prince’s, Lord Chesterfield, who had also been staying at Londesborough Lodge, succumbed to the disease, and the Prince’s plight brought to mind Prince Albert, his father, who had died of typhoid a decade earlier.

The Privy Council asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to prepare prayers for the Prince’s recovery for distribution to churches and chapels throughout England and Wales. These were printed on Saturday 9th December, and the Post Office was asked to deliver them by the following morning. Unfortunately, this was not possible by “ordinary channels”.

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

It was only thanks to the quick action of the telegraph department that they were distributed in time.

… great credit is due to a gentleman of the name of Irvine of the telegraph department of the Post Office for his thoughtfulness in suggesting that the physical difficulties in the way of the distribution of the prayers in time for use on Sunday might be obviated by the use of the telegraph, and for the zeal and energy with which, after personal communications with this office twice during the evening of Saturday, he collected all the addresses of the Clergy, and aided in supplying them by telegraph with copies of the Prayers…
(POST 30/213c)

This example of speedy mass distribution of information was important for the Post Office, who had taken over the privately-owned telegraph network the year before. As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, nationalisation of this network was controversial and expensive, but this example and many others like it were a feather in the Post Office’s cap.

Indeed, this proof of concept laid the groundwork for future successes. Within 30 years messages were being transmitted over the Atlantic using wireless telegraphy, thanks not only to Marconi but also the Post Office. News of the sinking of the Titanic, for example, was spread quickly thanks to the wireless, saving many lives.

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster General at the time of the Titanic disaster, said:

Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.

Later, wireless telegraphy was refined further enabling mass broadcasting, which has provided information, prompted mass action and allowed you to listen to The Peoples Post today.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

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

Ten Collections – One Collector

A social-thematic philatelic display and talk by Dane Garrod

There are so very many themes, countries and periods that any philatelist, stamp-collector, or even social historian, can collect and research, that we are spoilt for choice.  One can marvel at those who are determined to place all their energies and time in having interest in just one area or theme.  However, diversity brings its own rewards by allowing a constant return to a collection that has been temporarily put aside, but to which one can return with fresh enthusiasm and retained knowledge.

My upcoming display and talk at the BPMA will cover ten such diverse collecting interests – there should be something for everyone here – and a brief resumé follows concerning some of what will be shown and alluded to.  Many will include stories of the people who shaped their time, and their country.

The unused 1kr orange of 1850

The unused 1kr orange of 1850

Austria – 19th and early 20th century: To begin, a very early stamp-issuing country in Europe, the first letter of the alphabet, and the first item is their first stamp from some 160 years ago – catalogued as S.G. No.1, it is the unused 1kr orange of 1850.  The sheets in this section continue with the design work of J.F. Renner, who designed all the stamps for Austria from mid-1919 to mid-1921.  Beautifully written-up in Gothic script, but not by this presenter.  Research has failed to find who this illustrious Austrian collector was, but he has left his philatelic legacy in this format. 

Avis de Réception – 21st century: Covers/envelopes from many countries requesting acknowledgement of receipt, with the returning cards prepared for despatch.  This began in the early 19th century in Austria, and spread worldwide in later years.  Now much in decline, it served as a procedure for confirming receipt of letter, package or parcel.  These items shown are from very recent years.

Avis de Réception cover and receipt from Syria

Avis de Réception cover and receipt from Syria

£1 George VI stamp from Kenya, Uganda & Tanganyika

£1 George VI stamp from Kenya, Uganda & Tanganyika

British Commonwealth – King George VI issues:  A display of covers and stamps, with stamps from Ceylon, Mauritius, and Kenya, Uganda & Tanganyika, as examples of diversity of design and colour shades.  The covers have stories to tell, which is revealed in the PowerPoint display.

Germany – The Third Reich:  With additional supporting items such as a postcard from the set sold on the ill-fated Hindenburg airship, and a voting slip for the 1932 Presidential election, the philatelic material includes stories and examples of a forged German postcard, a Red Cross transmitted item from occupied Guernsey, and the use of the Olympic Stadium postmark of 1936.

A cover sent in 1938 from Stuttgart

A cover sent in 1938 from Stuttgart

Great Britain – Parliamentary:  One of the oldest item shown in this display was written by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, dated 1714 – her parliamentary involvement is well known.  There is an envelope and letter to Willy Sax in Zurich, paint supplier to Churchill – items connected with John Stonehouse and with David Cameron (not to be mentioned together, of course) –  and part of an undated petition to Parliament from the Lady Howard and her daughters, which would have been transmitted by messenger at some date in perhaps the late 1500s.

Christmas card from David and Samantha Cameron, 2004

2004 Christmas card from the current leader of the Conversative party David Cameron and his wife Samantha.

WWI Prisoner of War mail to Kopenhagen:  World War One prisoner-of-war envelopes/covers, despatched to the Danish Red Cross in Kopenhagen, from Russian prisoners in Germany or Poland.  They show the full details of the sender, prison camp, and even the barrack block, and would have contained letters in cyrillic that were sent onwards to their families and loved ones.  The display shows how the covers changed in their pre-printing over the five years of use.

World War One prisoner-of-war mail

World War One prisoner-of-war mail

Revenues:  A field of collecting now returning with a measure of revival in recent years.  Shown are Saar revenue stamps, and British revenue items including vehicle tax discs from the 1950s, a TV licence when it was just £3, and various Motor Ration Books from the 1973 oil crisis – prepared and issued, but fortunately not required.

A TV licence issued in 1960

A TV licence issued in 1960

Württemberg – Stuttgart Privat Post & other stories:  One of the highlights in this section is the postal stationery produced by Wilhelm Leopold for Stuttgart city post from 1888, in competition with the official German post.  Leopold’s attractive postcards were popular with the city inhabitants who were prepared to pay 3 pfennig for them instead of the usual 2 pfennig. When the German postal authorities decided to increase their rate to 3 pfennig, Leopold reduced his to 2 pfennig!

Stuttgart Privat Post postcard

Stuttgart Privat Post postcard

British Commonwealth – Queen Elizabeth II issues:  Mint stamps from Gambia, Sierra Leone and Swaziland are featured, the last two countries showing the use, or even over-use, of overprints on definitives sets.  A few covers to compete this section, including an air-mail letter from independent Rhodesia that was surcharged upon entry to Britain, as the Rhodesian independence was declared illegal.

A surcharged air-mail letter from independent Rhodesia

A surcharged air-mail letter from independent Rhodesia

Great Britain – Social/Open class & other stories:  Perhaps the most interesting and diverse area of philatelic and related material, most with a story to tell.  Included are items from a forced 5-year honeymoon, begun in June 1940 in Guernsey – a letter-card from the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic – hand-drawn Edwardian covers – and finally, a much-loved acrostic.   If like the writer originally was, you are unsure what an acrostic is, then I urge you to come to this PowerPoint talk and display on 22nd April and enjoy being well-informed and much entertained…

British prisoner of war post from Germany

British prisoner of war post from Germany

Dane Garrod will speak at the BPMA on 22nd April. For further information and booking details please visit our website.

Two new ways to get involved with the BPMA!

by Deborah Turton, Head of Access & Development

A significant part of the British Postal Museum & Archive’s work is ensuring the ongoing preservation of the collections we hold. Our Archive alone fills over two and half miles of shelving, containing items including leather-bound minutes of Post Office business, staff records, postal maps, Post Office architectural plans, plus things you wouldn’t expect – such as telegrams from the sinking Titanic and evidence from the Great Train Robbery – all demonstrating the wealth of Britain’s postal heritage.

To enable postal enthusiasts to get more involved in our work and to gain an insight into our ongoing preservation and conservation programmes we are today launching our BPMA virtual gifts scheme. The aim of the scheme is to better demonstrate what is involved in maintaining our collections and to give our audiences the opportunity to play a part in making that work happen. Our first gifts focus on two current preservation priorities: stamp artwork and GPO posters.

Preserving stamp artwork

Stuart from the Cataloguing team scans unadopted artwork from the 1994 Greetings stamps

Stuart from the Cataloguing team scans unadopted artwork from the 1994 Greetings stamps

Behind every stamp issued lies a range of early stage, final and un-adopted designs, trials, and essays: precious yet often delicate pieces of original art. The BPMA has an ongoing stamp artwork programme dedicated to preservation mounting, digitally scanning, and cataloguing this unique artwork. A £25 philatelic virtual gift will not only be a unique gift for philatelists, but will help support our efforts to preserve this material for generations to come.

Preserving posters

Tom Eckersley poster fridge magnet

Please pack parcels very carefully, designed by Tom Eckersley

The BPMA is undertaking a similar programme of work for our collection of over 6,000 posters. From the 1930s onwards the Post Office became a leader in the field of poster design, commissioning some of Britain’s leading artists and designers: Tom Eckersley, Jan Lewitt and Edward McKnight Kauffer to name but a few. Publicity campaigns used posters to communicate now familiar messages including ‘Post Early’, ‘Pack Your Parcels Carefully’, and ‘Always Remember To Use Your Postcode’.

Many of our posters are fantastic examples of Twentieth-Century graphic design and deserve to be better known. To achieve this, the BPMA needs to ensure they are protected against future wear and tear and to create digital scanned reproductions that can be used to promote awareness of the posters through educational outreach and commercial licensing. A virtual poster gift of just £30 covers the cost of protectively housing a poster and the production of a high resolution digital scan of one of these much loved items.

A small ‘Thank you’

Each BPMA virtual gift comes with a greetings card to which the sender can add a personal message. Also included is a small thank-you in the form of either a free fridge magnet based on a Tom Eckersley poster design or a BPMA Commemorative cover – plus the knowledge that the gift is supporting Britain’s postal heritage for generations to come.

BPMA eBay for charity

eBay for Charity

eBay for Charity

Another way for enthusiasts to get involved is through the new BPMA eBay for charity page. We know that a lot of philatelic collectors trade on eBay so we are hoping they will think of the BPMA when they do so. Anyone selling items on eBay can choose to donate a percentage of the final selling value to a charity of their choice. Plus supporting charities entitles sellers to a free credit on their basic insertion and final value fees. Buyers also have the option of making a donation to their favourite charity at the checkout.

All BPMA eBay for Charity listings will also get a blue and yellow ‘eBay for Charity’ ribbon logo alongside the item in search results and the BPMA’s mission statement and logo will appear in the listing – all highlighting the seller’s personal commitment to preserving and promoting access to Britain’s postal heritage. Listings will also get extra visibility through the eBay for Charity pages. The eBay for charity web pages explain how it all works and list the full range of good causes the scheme supports.

We are always looking for new ways to involve people in our work preserving and celebrating Britain’s postal heritage and are always pleased to hear from those keen to support our work. Further ways to get more involved with the BPMA are included in the Support us section of our website.

Guglielmo Marconi and the Post Office

Previously on this blog we wrote about the connection between the Post Office aboard the Titanic, and the telegrams held in our collection concerning the sunken ship. Also on the Titanic was wireless equipment and two operators supplied by the Marconi company, which proved important in getting word to nearby vessels – and beyond – that the ship was sinking. The Post Office was a pioneer of telegraphic technology and had become interested in Marconi’s experimentation at a key point in the development of wireless telegraphy, so it could be argued that thanks to the Post Office many of the Titanic’s passengers were saved.

Guglielmo Marconi, who died on this day in 1937, was born near Bologna in 1874 of an Italian father and Irish mother. He did not do well at school, but nevertheless had an interest in science and was fortunate to have as a neighbour Augusto Righi, a physicist who had worked with Heinrich Hertz, discoverer of radio waves.

A stamp commemorating Marconis first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

A stamp commemorating Marconi's first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

At the age of 20, Marconi began experimenting with radio waves, hoping to create a wireless telegraphy system. By 1895 he had achieved a range of two kilometres, but needed investment to continue development. When the Italian Ministry of Posts & Telegraphs showed no interest in the system, Marconi travelled to London and through his mother’s family connections received a letter of introduction to William Preece, Engineer-in-Chief to the Post Office.

Preece was impressed by Marconi and provided him with an assistant, George Kemp. On 27th July 1896 Marconi and Kemp successfully demonstrated the wireless telegraphy system between two Post Office buildings. A transmitter was placed on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office (located on Newgate Street/St Martin’s Le Grand, where the BT Centre now stands) and a receiver on the roof of GPO South (Carter Lane). The distance between the two buildings was 300 metres. Later that year the Post Office provided funding for Marconi to conduct further experiments on Salisbury Plain.

But despite the potential of the system and Marconi’s growing international reputation, the Post Office did not make any formal arrangements with Marconi, leaving him free to establish a private company, The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd, in London in 1897. Marconi and his company went from strength to strength, transmitting across the English Channel in 1899 and across the Atlantic in 1901.

Marconi’s company also provided wireless equipment and operators for shipping lines, enabling them to communicate with ports and each other for the first time. As a thank you for supplying this equipment for the Titanic, Marconi and his family were invited to sail on the ship’s maiden voyage. Fortunately they were unable to take the fated journey.

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

The wireless operators aboard the Titanic were Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. 25 minutes after the ship struck an iceberg, Captain Smith instructed Phillips to send an all stations distress call. Phillips then continued to communicate with ships in the area even after Smith had ordered that he and Bride stand down and save themselves. Phillips eventually went down with the ship, although Bride survived and was picked-up by the SS Carpathia. Together with the Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam, Bride transmitted the names of the survivors to shore.

Following the disaster, enquiries were held and Marconi was called as an expert witness. New safety procedures were put in place such as sufficient lifeboats for all passengers, lifeboat drills aboard ships and 24 hour wireless cover. An iceberg patrol was set up too, and began to patrol the North Atlantic in early 1913 with Marconi equipment on board.

Herbert Samuel, Postmaster General at the time, said of the Titanic disaster “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.”

Two stamps released by Royal Mail in 1995 as part of the Pioneers of Communication series commemorate Marconi, his invention, and its role in the Titanic disaster.

Bibliography
BT Archive – Events in Telecommunications History
Connected Earth – The Origins of Radio
Marconi Calling
Wikipedia: Guglielmo Marconi

The Post Office aboard the Titanic

On this day in 1912 the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sunk less than three hours later, killing more than 1,500 people. Amongst the dead were five postal workers, British citizens James Williamson and Jago Smith and US citizens William Gwinn, John March and Oscar Woody.

RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship, indicating that the Titanic was contracted to carry mail. The Titanic had a Post Office and Mail Room deep in the ship on decks F and G, the blue prints of which are held by the BPMA. The five postal workers were tasked with sorting much of the mail which had been brought on board the ship, 3,364 bags in total, as well as dealing with any letters which were posted on the ship by passengers and crew.

Blue print of the Titanics Post Office and Mail Room

Blue print of the Titanic's Post Office and Mail Room

Amongst other Titanic-related material held by the BPMA is a file containing memos and copies of letters concerning an inspection of the ship on 9th April 1912, the day before the ship sailed. The description is reminiscent of the lower decks revelry in James Cameron’s film Titanic.

The [sleeping] Cabins are situated among a block of Third Class cabins, and it is stated the occupants of these latter, who are mostly low class Continentals, keep up noisy conversation sometimes throughout the silent hours and even indulge at times in singing and instrumental music…if their [the sorting clerks] work during the day is to be performed efficiently it is essential that they should enjoy a decent sleep at night.

The five postal workers were eventually granted alternative accommodation and permission to dine in a private area.

When the ship struck the iceberg, the postal workers were celebrating Oscar Woody’s 44th birthday. However, they soon realised that the Mail Room was flooding and so attempted to move 200 sacks of registered mail to the upper decks in the hope of saving them. They press-ganged several stewards into helping them, one of whom later recalled:

I urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued at their work. It might have been an inrush of water later that cut off their escape, or it may have been the explosion. I saw them no more.

In London, the Post Office had received word that the ship was in danger and became concerned for the wellbeing of the workers and the mails. Ismay Imrie & Co., owners of the White Star Line, sent three telegrams to the Secretary of the Post Office in relation to the matter. These telegrams are held by the BPMA. Coming so soon after the disaster, they contain information which would later turn out to be incorrect.

The first telegram about the sinking of the Titantic

The first telegram about the sinking of the Titantic

The second telegram about the sinking of the Titanic

The second telegram about the sinking of the Titanic

The third telegram about the sinking of the Titantic

The third telegram about the sinking of the Titantic

A memorial to the five postal workers was errected in Southampton, from where the Titanic departed. Part of it reads “Steadfast in peril”.

More information on this topic can be found in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s Online Exhibition Posted Aboard RMS Titanic.