Tag Archives: Royal Mail

Dear Santa: The History of Writing to Father Christmas

In this post, Archives Assistant Ashley March gives us a preview of his talk next Tuesday (1 December) at 7pm. Ashley has been delving through the BPMA’s files to explore how, with the Post Office’s help, Santa started writing back to children across the UK.

My adult interest in writing to Father Christmas started – as the best stories do – with an unexpected question. A couple had come to use our Search Room, and as one of them pored over pages and pages of pension records, looking for a trace of his great grandfather (or some other long-distant relative), the other shyly approached the desk and asked me, with a glint in her eye, ‘Do you know what happens to the letters to Santa?’


Christmas card from Santa, 1994

I can’t say the question had occurred to me before, and it was April at the time, so hardly festive. After only a little digging, however, we found a folder of research that others had done on the topic, packed with intriguing documents. A surprise to me – the first ‘letter from Santa’ the Post Office sent wasn’t safe and traditional in design, but rather bold and stylish:

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa card cover 1963

Letter from Santa 1963

Letter from Santa 1963









A press release dated 21st December 1963 explained that for the first time, ‘children who had sent letters to Father Christmas in Snowland, Reindeerland, Toyland, etc., and who had put their addresses on their letters, would receive a message from Father Christmas.’ Around 7,500 of the cards pictured were sent, with a special postmark:

Reindeerland postmark 1963

Reindeerland postmark 1963

It turns out we have quite a few files dedicated to Santa mail, back then and since. Looking through the titles, my head filled with questions: Why start sending Santa’s replies at that time? Why the Post Office? And who decided what Santa could send? We take it for granted today that Father Christmas writes back to any of us (if, all importantly, we supply a return address), but we should remember that it might not have turned out this way.

Different ideas had been floated: one manager suggested sending a record featuring Santa’s voice as ‘even more attractive and in keeping with the times than a letter’, and below you can see a charmingly rustic mock-up of a colouring book that Santa might have sent if writers had been asked to pay for his reply:

Proposed Santa colouring book

Proposed Santa colouring book

It might have been made in a hurry!

It was possibly made in a hurry!








Rummaging around in our repository, I’ve unearthed a great selection of stories like this to share, so please join me if you can. Did I mention that there will be mulled wine?

-Ashley March, Archives Assistant

Join Ashley next Tuesday 1 December at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Pushing the Envelope with James Addison

In this post, Graphic designer James Addison gives us a preview of his talk next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. James has been testing the Royal Mail’s delivery service through a series of peculiar envelopes containing nothing more than cryptic clues and puzzling addresses to see what lengths our humble posties will go to deliver our letters. 


Have you ever thought about sending a banana through the post? Or even asking your postman to decide where your letter should be sent? Perhaps writing your address in Morse code? No?

As a self-confessed ‘Post Puzzler’, I have been challenging the Royal Mail by writing and sending cryptic addresses on envelopes for many years. From maps and symbols to word-searches and drawings of the destination, they never fail to deliver and I have a growing admiration for their patience and perseverance.


The Royal Mail has been a great fascination of mine for many years. How a letter can physically travel from one end of the country to the other for just 54p is still brilliant (you can’t even buy a Double-Decker chocolate bar for that price). But when you discover the lengths that our postal service have gone to in order to deliver that letter then receiving one is even more special.


During my talk I will be delving back into my own personal archives of curious envelopes, odd experiments and occasionally eyebrow-raising postal exploits. Please join me as I share not only my work but that of many other artists, designers and illustrators over the years who have explored this still thriving medium and bringing a whole new meaning to the word ‘postcode’.

-James Addison

Join James next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

Stamps: Why the Portrait?

As an Art Historian (now Philatelic Assistant) I have always been fascinated by the portrait and a stamp in itself is a miniature piece of art. To understand why the Queen’s head appears as it does on GB stamps we need to first understand the significance of the portrait historically.

Some of the earliest profile portraits were produced by the Romans for their coins and medals.  Images of the Emperors illustrated their power and importance and thus the profile became synonymous with these characteristics. It was also a way of distributing the face of their leader, who many would never have seen.

Roman Coin

Roman Coin

We can see the influence of these artefacts in the work of Renaissance artists who tried to recreate this sense of power in their portraits of the wealthy. This is evident in the portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife by Piero della Francesca who are both depicted in profile facing one another. Yet this composition had to be used as the Duke had previously lost his right eye in a tournament. You can also see the significance of the medal in Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo De Medici’ c.1474-75.

Piero della Francesca 'Duke of Urbibo' c1467-1470

Piero della Francesca ‘Duke of Urbino’ c.1467-1470

Sandro Botticelli 'Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder' c1474-75

Sandro Botticelli ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder’ c.1474-75

However the initial portrait of Queen Elizabeth II used for postage was not in fact a profile. Instead it was a three quarter view of Her Majesty photographed by Dorothy Wilding in 1952. Though adequate as a Definitive stamp –  the Wilding design was found to be overly challenging for many stamp designers as it took up to one third of the stamp’s area and subsequently compromised the design of the stamp.

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

As a solution to this problem Tony Benn (Post Master General 1964-66) along with designer David Gentleman introduced the idea of removing the Queen’s head altogether. Initial ideas were produced, however in 1965 the Queen decided she wished to remain on the stamp. This led to the small profile silhouette on commemorative stamps being used instead, reminiscent of those produced in the 18th century of the English high society.

1965 Churchill Commemorative

Churchill Commemorative without the Queen’s Head 1965

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

To produce a profile portrait of the Queen, The Royal Mail approached the British sculptor Arnold Machin. He took inspiration from the simplicity of the Penny Black portrait, which was based on a medal of Queen Victoria by William Wyon. This again acknowledges the historical importance of the profile.

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

William Wyon Medal

William Wyon Medal

The image of the Queen we see today is not only practical for producing stamps but also evokes the idea of power and importance, circulating her image to the nation. The significance of the portrait on a stamp is not merely a representation of the person but as a symbol of their significance. Commemorative stamps elevate the importance of an individual by allowing them to feature prominently on the stamp, though the Queen still remains dominant as the accompanying silhouette.

Winston Churchill 1st (October 14 2014)

Winston Churchill 1st NVI (October 14 2014)

Next time you see a photograph of yourself have a think what you would look like on a postage stamp?

– Georgina Tomlinson Philatelic Assistant.

NEW STAMPS: Influential Prime Ministers

Today Royal Mail launched eight new stamps showing key British Prime Ministers of the past 200 years. This is the first set first dedicated to Prime Ministers and features some of the most influential office holders.

The Prime Minster is the head of the British Government. The official title is ‘First Lord of the Treasury’. It was around 200 years ago that the term ‘Prime Minister’ was first used.

Prime Ministers Pres Pack Visual

PM Charles Grey, £0.97

PM Charles Grey, £0.97.

PM Clement Attlee, £0.97

PM Clement Attlee, 1st class.

PM Harold Wilson, £0.97

PM Harold Wilson, 1st class.

PM Margaret Thatcher, £0.97

PM Margaret Thatcher, 1st class.

PM Robert Peel, £0.97

PM Robert Peel, £0.97.

PM William Gladstone, £0.97

PM William Gladstone, £0.97.

PM William Gladstone, £0.97

PM Winston Churchill, 1st class.

PM William Pitt the Younger, £0.97

PM William Pitt the Younger, £0.97.

This isn’t Churchill first appearance on a UK stamp. Only his death cleared the path to the production of a commemorative stamp: in 1965 the idea of showing any eminent person on a stamp, even former monarchs, was unprecedented. It was felt that the importance of the occasion, and the inevitable stamp issues from other countries, meant that a stamp should be commissioned.

Winston Churchill memorial stamp, 4d.

Winston Churchill memorial stamp, 4d.

The final design chosen was by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease, from a photograph by Karsh. The stamp was issued in values of 4d and 1s 3d.

The stamps are available online at www.royalmail.com/primeministers, by phone on 03457 641 641 and in 8,000 Post Offices throughout the UK. Stamps can be bought individually or as a set in a Presentation Pack for £6.90.

World Post Day: the impact of infection and civil unrest in mail delivery

Many factors can affect the collection and delivery of mail in the UK and across the world. Throughout history, postal services have had to cope with obstacles including weather, industrial action, infection, and civil and military unrest.

POST 122_3535 International Sanitary Regulations-topimage

International mail is particularly subject to disruption due to the distances involved and the modes of transport used. While, for example, in the event of industrial action it  is usually relatively straightforward to shift inland mail from one form of transport to another i.e. rail to road, there are less options available for overseas mail. In particular, moving mail from air to sea could result in significant delays.

International Sanitary Regulations (POST 122/3535)

International Sanitary Regulations (POST 122/3535)

This is still true today. Royal Mail’s  incident report for international mail shows that, at present, one of the key causes of disruption is the Ebola outbreak, which has resulted in the suspension of all mail services to and from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Libya. Delays delivering mail as the result of infection are nothing new. In the early Twentieth Century outbreaks of cholera in regions such as Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan were a cause for concern. Questions were raised as to whether mail from these regions should be disinfected. Though not thought necessary as ‘cholera germs have a very short life… even air mail sufficient to avoid danger of infection’ (POST 122/3523). Despite this, in some cases mail was disinfected or quarantined to meet the concerns of local health boards and to avoid the Post Office being considered a scapegoat should an outbreak occur in a previously unaffected area.

India Pakistan mails (POST 122/10945)

India Pakistan mails (POST 122/10945)

India Pakistan surface mails (POST 122/10946)

India Pakistan surface mails (POST 122/10946)

War and civil unrest are currently causing disruption to mail services in Syria, and Crimea and Sevastopol in the Ukraine. Military conflict has historically had an impact on international postal services, even in cases where Britain is not directly involved. For example the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan in 1965 disrupted mail to and from these countries. India refused access to its airspace to planes which had taken off from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Ships were also rerouted, but in many cases it was difficult to identify and separate mails for India and Pakistan and to establish independent postal services.

-Helen Dafter, Archivist

COMING SOON: New FREE downloadable First World War learning resource

From next Friday (22 August) you will be able to download a FREE First World War learning resource from postalheritage.org.uk/fwwlearning. Here is a look at what is inside…

In Last Post, war time characters guide your pupils through different topics. From the importance of female postal workers on the Home Front to the telegram messenger boys tasked with delivering news of the fallen, you will discover how mail was sent to soldiers and find out about the sacrifices made by the Post Office Rifles regiment who fought on the Front Line.

B. Conflict

What’s Inside:
This resource supports learning across the curriculum in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3.

  • Lesson plans
  • Teacher’s notes
  • Over 100 activity ideas
  • Image galleries
  • PowerPoints for whiteboards

Pupils will use real archival documents, photographs, maps and museum objects to discover how the postal service went to war. With cross-circular activities including how to make a Morse code transmitter and how to send a secret message by pigeon post. Last Post reveals stories of memorials and medals, soldiers and stamps, censorship and communication and much more!


That’s a wrap: stock take 2014

A few weeks ago Assistant Archivist Penny talked about rehousing some of the photographic collection and before that Archivist Helen introduced this year’s stocktake. In this post Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager, and Archivist Louise Todd wraps up this year’s stocktake.

A considerable amount of work goes on behind the scenes before files are made available to researchers. Some of this work can only be done when The Search Room is closed because of the amount of space required in order to carry it out.  We took advantage of our annual two week stock taking closure in order to carry out an audit of files created during the 1970s and 1980s.


Sorting through files.

The audit involved checking to make sure that no files were missing and listing them so that they can be retrieved and appraised.  It went very well with almost 700 boxes being sorted, much more than we had initially anticipated!

Why these tasks can only be done during stock take…

Why these tasks can only be done during stock take…

In addition to the audit another small team of staff used the weeks to get appraised files into a final arrangement for their cataloguing. This involved removing more than 5,000 files from a number of different places (in the yearly boxes for 2nd review appraisal mentioned above, amongst 2nd review files appraised before 2008, within a couple of large series of registered files POST 121 and POST 122) and arranging them in their original reference number (so, for instance, gathering all the Marketing Department Design files together, those with the code MKD/CJ). This produced 438 acid free boxes of POST 154 – the series which represents the files created by the Marketing Department, 387 boxes of POST 157 – files created by the Postal Operations Department and 47 boxes of POST 160 – files created by the Secretary’s Office. This leaves them in a state in which they can be catalogued far more easily and also makes them considerably easier to locate since they are now stored together.