Tag Archives: Royal Mail Archive

Photography mysteries from the Archive Stocktake

The (mostly figurative) dust has settled after our annual Archive Stock Take, when the whole archive team pulls together for a packed two weeks of communing with the collection. Sorting, listing, arranging, appraising, auditing, measuring – basically all the huge or awkward jobs we can’t fit into the rest of the year, but that are becoming ever more important as we prepare to move our collections to their new home at The Postal Museum.


Adam and Lydianne measuring boxes

As ever, we’ve been left with a few questions that we need to answer – and we’d like your help with them!

One of our tasks was sorting through boxes and boxes of photography, weeding out the prints and negatives that we already had and finding the material relevant to our collections to be preserved. Often we couldn’t find any notes at all about when or where the images came from, so the biggest challenge was to try and work out what it was we were actually seeing.


Vicky sorting through photography negatives

This is where you come in! Are you able to shed any light on where the following photographs were taken? If so, we’d love it if you could help us to solve our Stock Take mysteries.

  1. This interior shot appears to be the control room for a distribution centre – possibly Reading – but we can’t find any details in the photo that give its location away. With its brightly coloured light panels, I think it has a touch of the Bond villain’s lair about it, but perhaps that’s just me…


  1. These shots were found together and seem to be of the same rather quirky-looking building. We think it might be one of the first out-of-town sorting offices, purpose-built to house mechanised sorting equipment. Despite its unusual character, even our expert on Post Office architecture, volunteer Julian Osley, is stumped about where it might be.

4 5 6

  1. Similarly, we came upon these three photos together and they appear to be from the same site. Those fun-looking slides are in fact Safeglide Spiral Chutes, which are specially-designed to allow items added from different levels to work their way down at a controlled speed. We’ve had one suggestion as to where these photos may have been taken – the Parcel Concentration Office at Washington, County Durham (thank you, @RogerEvansAM!) – but any further wisdom would be appreciated.

7 8 9


So there we have it. If you can use your knowledge or detective skills to figure out where any of these were taken – or if you can tell us anything about their contents – please jump right in and comment below, email info@postalheritage.org.uk or tweet us!

-Ashley March, Archives and Records Assistant


A Project Archivist Farewell

I’ve just completed my final task as Project Archivist: appraising and cataloguing a vast deposit of records on the Army Postal Service (APS). The files focus mainly on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and its successors, and date from before the First World War to the 1970s. I’ve catalogued nearly 500 files, volumes, photographic collections and plans.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he's been cataloguing.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he’s been cataloguing.

There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had to battle an onslaught of Armed Forces vocabulary:  being able to tell a sitrep from a sapper was essential, and woe betide an archivist who confused the DAPS with a WOLO.* My geographical knowledge has also been tested: the deposit included files on British and Allied Forces’ postal arrangements in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, with many locations identified by their old colonial names. The most unexpected item was a manual from an Army post office in Kiribati!

The deposit’s greatest strength is its rich insight into the APS during the Second World War and its aftermath. Virtually every theatre of operations is covered. There are Directorate-level files on postal arrangements during the Siege of Malta (POST 47/1034), the Battle of Madagascar (POST 47/871), the Dunkirk evacuation (POST 47/925) and the D-Day preparations (POST 47/747), to name just four. The handover of postal and telecommunications services to the government of newly-independent India is also documented.

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

The files also hold lots of personal stories about the careers of REPS officers. POST 47/780, for example, partly records a falling-out between the APS staff at HQ First Army and Allied Force HQ during the Tunisian Campaign and the interception of ‘artistic’ postcards that were being received by First Army soldiers. And if you ever wanted to know how many bugles were held by the Post Office Cadets at the Home Postal Centre in Nottingham in 1947, POST 47/942 will tell you.**

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

The APS files have been catalogued in POST 47 and 56. The deposit also contained large amounts of non-postal material on the REPS more generally. These have been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’. All these files will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

This is the end of my year-long, grant-funded Project Archivist post. I’ve catalogued over 1,500 files from all over the Archive in that time. But I’m not leaving the BPMA! Instead, I’m regenerating into a new incarnation as a catalogue systems archivist. I’ll be doing lots of data-processing work and beta-testing our shiny new online catalogue before it launches later this year. Watch out for an update from me on this blog in the Spring.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sitrep = situation report; sapper = the Royal Engineers’ equivalent to a private; DAPS = Director Army Postal Service; WOLO = War Office Liaison Officer.

** Two (one substandard).

Newly-catalogued oddities in WW1 postal censorship

During the First World War, the GPO handled mail sent to and from prisoners of war. These included captured soldiers and civilians who had been in the wrong place at the outbreak of hostilities. Before mail reached its recipient, it would be examined by censors on both sides of the conflict.

I’ve just catalogued a set of nearly 40 GPO files from the First World War all about the censorship of mail for POWs. Many of the files deal with really specific problems. Here are two of my favourites:


GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

POST 56/243 (1916) concerns a series of complaints from the fabulously-named Bedford Bread Fund, a charity that sent parcels of bread to British POWs in German camps. The loaves were being sawn in half by the British censors to inspect them for concealed messages, leaving them entirely inedible by the time they arrived. The file also documents the censors’ trials of loaf-prodding by bone knitting needle. While less invasive, the needles alas broke off inside the loaves.


The GPO's reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

The GPO’s reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

POST 56/212 (1915) contains complaints forwarded by a countess from her POW husband. A concern was that mail was arriving at the camp with pencilled comments from censors, asking the prisoners to persuade their families to write shorter letters, and to write more neatly. Censors, he said, had no right to express this kind of stylistic criticism. As you can see from the GPO reply (above), the comments were apparently left by the German censors who, after all, had a job to do too.

I love these two files. They seem absurd, and yet they’re perfectly logical and justified under the circumstances. Other favourite cases include an intercepted parcel of construction textbooks sent to a French POW, and a query about whether letters to Russian POWs could be written in the Russian alphabet.

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

The censorship records are part of a collection of around 500 files that I’m cataloguing. The files document the Army Postal Service from the 1900s to the 1970s, including both World Wars, and are genuinely global in scope. Much of the material originated from the Royal Engineers Postal Section, a forerunner of today’s Royal Logistic Corps that drew many of its men from GPO staff. All these files will appear on the Archive catalogue in the next few months.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

New year, new records on the BPMA online catalogue

In mid-January we did one of our periodic uploads of new material onto the online catalogue.  These happen, broadly speaking, every three months, and more than 4,000 records went on this time. This is the largest upload of new records and much credit is due to the cataloguers, both full time staff and volunteers.

The new records include 455 registration sheets from the Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal era.  Each entry includes a full detailed catalogue description including unique cylinder and sheet numbers, the registration date, and a scanned corner section of the sheet.  This work completes registration sheets from the pre-decimal era.

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

Artwork, including first designs, proofs, essays and first day covers, was uploaded for twelve stamp artwork issues from the period 1972-1976, including Christmas issues, the 1973 Royal Wedding, 1975 European Architectural Heritage Year, and the 1976 Telephone Centenary.

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

913 Post Office and Royal Mail Headquarters records (POST 72) were uploaded ( c.1780-2000). These include minutes, reports and correspondence of various headquarter departments and numerous reports relating to Post Office reforms from 1797 to the 1990s.

Reassigning of Post Office PR and marketing files

After four months’ work by a Project Archivist and a volunteer, we’ve completely appraised and catalogued the backlog of files assigned to POST 108 (the Post Office Public Relations Department), freeing up half a bay of our repository shelving! This great material includes Post Office PR and marketing campaigns, from the ‘Meet Your Postal Service’ campaigns of the 1970s to the controversial ‘Consignia’ rebrand in 2001, as well as promotional films, corporate design guidelines and public opinion surveys.

Many of the files assigned to POST 108 eventually found homes elsewhere in the catalogue. Substantial amounts were added to POST 63 (training guidebooks), POST 68 (staff briefing packs) and POST 109 (designs for press advertisements). We also weeded, catalogued and repackaged thousands of photographs collected during the publication of the Courier staff magazine in the 1970s and 1980s (POST 118).

Cataloguing of Photographs of Post Office facades

Our volunteer, Julian Osley, scanned, re-housed and catalogued a series of photographs showing the facades of post offices across the country from 1984. The identity of the photographer is currently unknown, as is the purpose of the photographs. They were transferred into the archive as part of the Post Office photograph library at the beginning of this century.

POST 118/PF0243 - Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

POST 118/PF0243 – Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

For each post office, there is often a photograph showing the hours of business notice and these were used by Julian to identify each location. For post offices without hours of business notices, Julian had to use his knowledge of post office architectural history and Google’s Streetview to identify locations. This series now offers a fascinating snapshot of post offices prior to the significant reduction of their network in the last thirty years.

Some of Julian’s finds have also been posted to the BPMA’s Historypin channel, giving viewers a chance to see photographs pinned against modern day Google Streetviews.

Annual opening of files under 20-year rule

I also did the annual opening of files under the 20-year rule transition timetable. More than 600 files which contain material dated up to 1984 and 1985 have become available covering a huge number of topics from Board papers to individual mechanised letter office operational efficiency audit reports.

– Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

The Royal Mail Archive is open to the public, find opening hours and visitor information on our website.

Instone Airline

Postcard advertising air parcel post (POST50/36)

Postcard advertising air parcel post (POST50/36)

Although naturally the collections of the BPMA focus overwhelmingly on the historical operations and administration of the Post Office and Royal Mail, we can occasionally offer a glimpse into the history of other companies who have had a past business relationship with the postal service. A good example of this is when we recently had the pleasure of a visit from Mr. Martin Instone. He was hoping to see a notice we hold in our collection dating from 1922, advertising the Parcel Post service to Paris and Brussels operated by Instone Airline (POST 50/36, below). He also very kindly gave us a brief history of his ancestors’ company.

Instone Airline, originally the ‘Aerial Transport Department’ of S. Instone & Co., was owned by the Instone brothers (Samuel, Theodore, Alfred and Gustave). The Instones were ship owners and merchants who had interests in shipping, trading and industries such as coal mining. After World War One, communications between European countries were slow to return to pre-war standards. This led to delays in the delivery of bills of lading and other documents, which in turn meant the unloading of ships was often delayed. To solve this problem, S. Instone & Co. purchased a de Havilland DH4 plane, initially used to transport company documents, goods and employees from Cardiff via London to Brussels – the plane’s first flight was on 13th October 1919.

“The City of London” being loaded up with Royal Mail items and goods for same day delivery to Paris (image copyright © Martin Instone)

“The City of London” being loaded up with Royal Mail items and goods for same day delivery to Paris (image copyright © Martin Instone)

The Instones soon realised they had the opportunity to offer a transport facility for non-company personnel and goods, and, on purchasing two further aircraft in early 1920, formed Instone Airline. It is believed to be the first airline to introduce uniforms for its pilots and staff, and was also the first to transport a racehorse!

Instone Airlines agreed a contract with Royal Mail for the transportation of letters and parcels between London, Paris and Brussels, and also opened routes between these cities and Cologne and Prague. By 1924, the company ran a fleet of eight aircraft from the airport at Croydon.

In 1924, the British government amalgamated Instone Airline with a number of other small airlines to form Imperial Airways, of which Sir Samuel Instone was a director. Imperial became the British Oversees Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1940, and in 1977 merged with British European Airways Corporation (BEA) to form today’s British Airways.

Instone Air Line service timetable (image copyright © Martin Instone)

Instone Airline service timetable (image copyright © Martin Instone)

As I’ve shown, even if you’re not undertaking direct research into postal history, it may be worth checking out our catalogue which may throw up something of interest. Along with all the postal history records you’d expect us to hold, there is information on BOAC, British Telecom (until BT separated from the Post Office in the 1980s, telecommunications came under the remit of the PO), Unilever, Vodafone, the Co-operative and many other businesses and organisations that had a relationship with the UK’s postal services. Have a look at our catalogue at http://www.postalheritage.org.uk to see what you can find.

– Robin Sampson, Archives & Records Assistant (with thanks to Martin Instone).

Time to have good clear out!

Last week all staff at the BPMA had a good clear out, otherwise known as a ‘housekeeping day’.

This was an opportunity for all staff to focus their time and attention on sorting storage spaces within both our offices. This will greatly assist both our day to day operations and our plans for the New Centre.

Activities undertaken during the day included:

Reviewing the office reference library of professional literature, removing dated and duplicate publications

Our library - looking much more organised

Our library – looking much more organised

Tidying office notice boards and transferring publications to the office reference library

The tidied noticeboard (you should have seen it before!)

The tidied noticeboard (you should have seen it before!)

Checking and labelling shop stock

Immaculate shelving of shop DVDs

Immaculate shelving of shop DVDs

Tidying exhibition materials

Exhibitions area - parted like the red sea

Exhibitions area – parted like the red sea

Sorting learning packs and material for schools sessions

Crafts on the left, schools learning packs on the right

Crafts on the left, schools learning packs on the right

A large quantity of recycling and general waste was produced.

Some of the results of our clear out.

Some of the results of our clear out.

What this means

  • Staff now have space to work safely and efficiently.
  • They can access the materials they need to carry out their job quickly and easily.
  • We will be able to provide a better service to shop customers, schools, and other users as we can find the relevant materials easily.
  • Better workspaces lead to more efficient working, allowing staff to focus more on developing the New Centre rather than hunting for files.
  • There will be less clutter to transfer to the New Centre thus making the move process simpler.
  • Likewise less clutter means less office storage required in the New Centre, freeing space for more public focussed activities.

Regular ‘housekeeping days’ form part of the move preparation work. More information of other move related activities to follow shortly.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

It’s a Project Archivist Christmas

As 2013 comes to a close, I’ve repackaged and catalogued over 1,000 files from the Archive. In this blog post, I’ll share a few of the methods I used to get this historic material processed and available for researchers as quickly as possible.

Project Archivist Matt reflects

Project Archivist Matt reflects on a year’s work.

As I wrote in my introductory post, most if not all archive services have backlogs of material that hasn’t been catalogued due to lack of time or staff. My main role as Project Archivist is to reduce the BPMA’s backlog, one section of the Archive at a time. So far I’ve eliminated four backlogs:

  • Organisation, circulation and sorting of inland mails (POST 17).
  • Post Office counter operations and services (POST 22).
  • Establishment records (POST 59).
  • Public Relations Department, predecessors and successors (POST 108).

Each backlog was composed of hundreds of individual files, ranging from administrative papers to technical plans to visual material like posters and photographs. The files had come into the Archive from many different sources over the past few decades. My task was to repackage and catalogue the files, and find places for them in the BPMA’s existing catalogue structure. I also needed to remove redundant files to free up much-needed repository space. And I wanted to make my descriptions reasonably detailed, to help people search for files in our online catalogue.

The working method I devised, therefore, was based around fast, detailed processing on a file-by-file basis. I had the opportunity to evaluate and refine the method after each backlog was finished. I also familiarised myself with More Product Less Process (MPLP) theory after recommendations from professional colleagues. While I didn’t completely embrace the MPLP approach, I adopted some of its ideas to increase efficiency.

I’m not going to hurl technical details at you, but here are some of the techniques I used to process over 1,000 wildly differing files alongside the other work I do at the BPMA.

1. Get to know the territory: Before starting, I visually inspected the entire backlog to get a rough idea of its extent and anything requiring special conservation treatment. I also collated any existing box lists and accession records, did background research, and compiled a glossary of terms used in file names.

2. Establish basic standards: I adopted a minimum standard of description and repackaging, which could be enhanced if a file warranted it. Any file containing a contents list or executive summary had it copied pretty much verbatim into the catalogue description, while files in stable ring binders were generally not repackaged.

3. Multi-task: I combined appraisal (i.e. deciding if we needed to keep the file), repackaging, physical arrangement and catalogue description into a single integrated process, performed on one file at a time. Intellectual arrangement of files into a catalogue structure was only done after all files had been processed.

4. Use simple, sensible numbering: The BPMA uses two numbering systems. Each file/item has a Finding Number, which is unique, fixed, and used by researchers and staff to retrieve archives for consultation. Files/items also have Reference Numbers, which structure the multi-level archival descriptions I described in this blog post. Reference Numbers aren’t seen by researchers and can be swapped around as often as needed. This is a really great way to do almost all the processing of files without having to worry about exactly where they’ll go in the catalogue.

Cataloguing database screen capture

A screen capture of Matt’s cataloguing database, showing some of the completed fields and the BPMA’s dual numbering system.

5. Wherever possible, get a computer to help: I designed a relational database in Access for all my project work. The database would automatically complete some catalogue fields, saving lots of time. It logged which files had been catalogued and which had been marked for disposal. I used it during processing to group files into rough subject categories, which were refined into catalogue sub-series at the end. Best of all, I could take all the descriptions I’d written in the database and import them into our catalogue software in one batch.

These are some of the techniques I’ve used in my work. Perhaps you might find them helpful if you’re working on a similar task. Of course, there are many other ways of working, and I’d be very interested to read your suggestions for how I could do things differently!

WW2 postal records

Christmas is all about opening boxes, but archivists get to do it every day! Here, Matt opens the first of several boxes of uncatalogued WW2 postal records.

My new project is to catalogue a large collection of British Army postal service records, dating from World War 2 to the 1980s. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Christmas, and see you in the New Year!

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Asking the Archive staff…

Matt ponders the results of the informal Archive staff survey.

Matt ponders the results of the informal Archive staff survey.

What types of places have archives? As part of #mattsfriday, I decided to run an informal survey of some of my colleagues in the Archive, Search Room and Conservation teams.

I got together with participating colleagues to compile a little list of all the different places where we’d worked with archives before we joined the BPMA. The survey covered both paid employment and work experience/volunteering. The end result was a list of 48 different institutions or organisations with archives! This, of course, doesn’t take into account our previous employment in non-archival jobs. The chart below divides the results up by category:

Institutions where participating BPMA staff have previously worked with archives. The key denotes the pie chart segments in clockwise order.

Institutions where participating BPMA staff have previously worked with archives. The key denotes the pie chart segments in clockwise order.

As you can see, there’s a huge diversity of previous experience being brought to the BPMA’s work! Staff members have worked for local authority archive services in England, Scotland and Wales. Some of us have worked for museums, galleries, and other cultural sites. There were also many universities and other higher education institutions with archives in the list: some of these were research collections managed by universities, others were the historic records of the institutions themselves. Some of us have worked for businesses, including the archives of at least two high street retail giants. Among our number we also have staff who have worked for national and specialist institutions including a film archive, the British Library, and The National Archives at Kew. Finally, the ‘Other’ category included Royal archives, a church organisation, and the private collections of a Duke.

This brief, informal survey also showed just how many different kinds of places keep archives – and employ archivists and conservators to look after them. This includes institutions in the public and private sectors, and large and small organisations. A career in archives really can take you almost anywhere. Of course, there are other careers in the heritage sector, just as the BPMA has other areas – curatorial, philatelic, etc. – in its collections. As we plan to move to our New Centre, it’s also helpful to think about how we’ve got to where we are.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Coming this Friday: #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover!

Matt presents the hashtag for the #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover.

Matt presents the hashtag for the #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover.

This Friday, 15 November, I’m taking over the British Postal Museum & Archive’s Twitter feed! If you’ve enjoyed any of my previous blog posts, now you’ve got a whole Friday to interact with an Archivist.

I shall be posting live tweets throughout the day, from approximately 07:45 to 17:00 GMT. Hopefully, it’ll give you a glimpse of all the different bits and pieces that form a typical Friday for a BPMA archivist. Although, as many archivists will tell you, one of the joys of the profession is that there’s no such thing as a “typical” day! I’ll also be posting photographs of what I’m getting up to behind the scenes. My fabulous flipchart may be getting involved too.

Follow our Twitter feed (@postalheritage) to catch my updates on Friday. I’ll be using the hashtag #mattsfriday for all my content.

But really, we’d love for you to join in on the day! Questions and comments are very welcome. Just tweet @postalheritage using the hashtag #mattsfriday and I’ll try to answer. Of course, the Archive is only one part of the BPMA’s work. I can’t advise on museum objects or philatelic issues, but if you’ve got questions about archives, or what archivists do, or perhaps even how to get into archives as a profession, please do send me a tweet!

This is a relatively new experiment by the BPMA in engaging with our online visitors around the world. Depending on how it goes, #mattsfriday might become a regular feature.

See you on Friday!
-Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Explore the Post Office in Conflict

The Post Office has always played a key role in keeping people in touch with their loved ones. During times of conflict this role is especially apparent. Alongside the personal correspondence carried by the mail service there is also a wealth of official correspondence enabling the smooth operation of government in times of crisis.

20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard during an 'Invasion' exercise on 29th June 1941.

20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard during an ‘Invasion’ exercise on 29th June 1941.

The Post Office has kept communications going during World War One, World War Two, the Falklands war, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also played a key role during civilian disturbances such as the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

On Thursday 14 November 2013 the British Postal Museum & Archive will be exploring the role of the Post Office in conflict through a series of activities.

Throughout the day there will be a display of archive and museum items relating to the Post Office in conflict. Members of staff will be on hand to discuss these items and can also direct visitors to further relevant material in the collections.

At 4.30pm there will be an opportunity to explore Behind the Scenes. This Archivist led tour will take in some of the highlights of the archive collection.

Artwork for poster by R. Coombs

Artwork for poster by R. Coombs (POST 109/334)

A highlight of the day will be the opportunity to bring along your own correspondence to be scanned by a member of staff. Between 4.00pm and 6.30pm we will be scanning correspondence relating to all aspects of conflict (war and civil disturbance). The original items will remain your property and will be handled with the utmost care by our trained staff. You will also receive a copy of the scanned image for your records. This is a fantastic opportunity to make use our high quality equipment and receive digital images to share with your family. The scanned images we collect will also be considered for use in future exhibitions in our New Centre.

To round the day off there is an evening lecture by Sian Price entitled ‘If you’re reading this: last letters from the front line’ at 7pm.

The day forms part of the Explore Your Archive campaign. It offers an easy introduction to some of the diverse resources available in our archive. We hope this will inspire you to further explore archives and to discover more about subjects of interest to you.

Daytime activities (including the scanning event) are free, drop in events.
There will be a limited number of places available on the archive tour, you will be able to sign up for these on the day.

Tickets for the evening lecture are priced at £3.00 per person (£2.50 for concessions), complimentary tickets will be provided to those bringing along items to be scanned. Tickets can be booked in advance here.

Full details of the day’s activities can be found at our website.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist