Tag Archives: Scotland

Post Office Time capsule opened after 93 years

On Monday, the centenary of the First World War, the contents of a time capsule created by Dundee postal workers in 1921 were unveiled. Head of Collections Chris Taft attended the event along with representatives from Royal Mail, Post Office Ltd, the Communication Workers Union, the High School of Dundee (where the former Post Office building from 1921 is now located), The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum and The Great War Dundee Partnership.  

Inside there were documents relating to the period including publications, newspaper cuttings, letters and photographs from soldiers.


Field Marshall Douglas Haig in Dundee 1920. (Image credit: The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum/ University of Dundee)

Group photo of Dundee Postal War Memorial Committee.

Group photo of Dundee Postal War Memorial Committee. (Image credit: The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum/University of Dundee)

Pte J Brady Black Watch showing tricycle used by collectors 1914.

Pte J Brady Black Watch showing tricycle used by collectors 1914. (Image credit: The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum/University of Dundee)

A store of photographs of local dignitaries, soldiers and postmen and scenes of Dundee, including visits by Princess Mary in 1920 and Winston Churchill in 1921 were found in the capsule.


There is also a number of sealed envelopes including a Letter from Lord Provost Spence (1921) to the Lord Provost in 2014 and a Letter to the Postmaster of Dundee in 2014 from the Postmaster in 1921.

Letter from the Postmaster to the current Postmaster.

Letter from the Postmaster to the current Postmaster.

The capsule and its contents will be on display at the McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum, and we will be sharing more about the contents soon!

World War I exhibition on tour

Last Post: Remembering the First World War, an exhibition curated by the BPMA and the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms, is once again on tour. The exhibition explores the vital role played by the Post Office during the First World War, telling the stories of postal workers at war and on the Home Front, and examining the essential role played by postal communications.

Last Post is currently on display at two venues, the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire, and the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Fife, Scotland. Later this year it will travel to the Guildhall Library, London, and Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum is a particularly apt venue for this exhibition on wartime communications. While Andrew Carnegie is best known for using his huge fortune to build libraries and cultural venues, and found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his early years he worked as a telegraph messenger.

At the aged of 13 Carnegie emigrated from Scotland to Pennsylvania with his family, securing a job two years later as a telegraph messenger boy at the Ohio Telegraph Company. Carnegie was quickly promoted to telegraph operator, but left aged 18 to work at the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company. By the time he was 20 Carnegie was investing in railway companies and learning about how they were managed; he was later to become rich through investments in the oil and steel industries.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries telegraphy was an important – and the fastest – means of communication, and Post Office telegraphists were vital to wartime communications. Last Post: Remembering the First World War examines the impact of telegraphy on the war, and includes rarely-seen images of frontline telecommunications from the BPMA and Imperial War Museum’s collections.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Visit our website to see the tour dates for Last Post: Remembering the First World War.

Andrew Carnegie’s life was commemorated on a United States postage stamp in 1960 – see it on Flickr.

On the map, the History Pin map

Hello, I’m Nicola and I’ve been volunteering for the BPMA since the end of January. It has been such a fantastic experience for me so I wanted to write a little blog to share what I have been working on. Interestingly, I gained my volunteer position at the archives because my cousin had put out message on twitter asking about volunteer opportunities to which Martin Devereux, our digital content manager replied, so I am as grateful to her as to Martin and everybody else at the BPMA. I have been very lucky with this volunteer placement because it has allowed me to explore my two greatest passions in life, history and photography, in an area that I had been previously unfamiliar with, that of postal history.

Postman delivering mail to a large group of hop pickers, Kent, 1935. (POST 118/467)

Postman delivering mail to a large group of hop pickers, Kent, 1935. (POST 118/467)

When I first came to volunteer at the BPMA, Martin talked to me about a few different areas that I could potentially work on but I told him I wanted to do all of them. So I have spent the past few weeks scanning, cataloguing and rehousing glass plate negatives, tagging and creating labels for online photographs, researching a couple of mysterious Victorian albums and other general archiving tasks, including working with the CALM collections database. Alongside these more recent activities, I also dedicated my first few sessions to promoting the BPMA on History Pin. This website is a photographic archive which allows organisations to share their photograph collections with the public.

Each organisation has its own channel on the website where it can upload photographs and then attach them to Google’s map to show where the photograph was taken. Each photograph or ‘pin’ can then be overlayed on top of Google Street View, allowing the public to compare the location with the original photograph. This is enhanced with the sliding tool which changes the opaqueness of the photograph on top to reveal the Google image underneath; I had great fun playing with this!

The photographs that I uploaded from the postal heritage archives depict a variety of places and people ranging from a postman delivering mail at Dover Castle to a mail van parked next to Loch Lomond in Scotland. I uploaded photographs that I thought were either visually appealing or had an interesting subject matter (or both) and had great fun searching through the archives.

Mail van by Loch Lomond. (POST 118/134)

Mail van by Loch Lomond. (POST 118/134)

As well as these singular photographs I also created three collections of photographs connected to certain subjects and events. One contained images relating to transport in postal history, another was about the opening of the Mersey tunnel in 1934 and my favourite one was about delivering mail to the hop farms in Kent. I was very pleased to hear that the first photograph from this collection was made ‘pin of the day’ a few days after I uploaded it and appeared on the Historypin homepage.

Postman delivering mail to Dover Castle. The postman, standing in front of his mail van, hands mail to a soilder. A young boy stands next to the men, pointing at the postmans mail bag. 1935. (POST 118/421)

Postman delivering mail to Dover Castle. The postman, standing in front of his mail van, hands mail to a soilder. A young boy stands next to the men, pointing at the postmans mail bag. 1935. (POST 118/421)

It has been such a great experience to volunteer at the BPMA and I have learnt so much about archiving and all the different roles in an organisation such as this. It has definitely inspired me to consider archiving, especially if related to photography in my future career.

Join the BPMA on History Pin today!

Postal Vehicles

When people come on one of our Museum Store tours they often remark on the wide range of postal vehicles we have in our collection. The vehicles we care for range from bicycles and motorcycles to large delivery vans.

Today’s Royal Mail vehicles fleet is sourced for a small number of suppliers, but in the early days a great many manufacturers were used. It would be impossible for us to collect and maintain an example of every different type, but we do have photographic records and other material related to many of these vehicles in the Royal Mail Archive.

Recently we uploaded a small number of photographs showing some unusual and interesting postal vehicles to our Flickr site. Amongst these are the first motor vehicle used for mails in Scotland and a Motor Parcel Coach, both dating from circa 1908.

First motor vehicle used for mails in Scotland, c. 1908. (POST 118/5725)

First motor vehicle used for mails in Scotland, c. 1908. (POST 118/5725)

Also of interest are postal vehicles in interesting settings, such as the General Post Office (GPO) trolley basket parked at the base of the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway in Devon and a Postbus parked near spectacular cliffs on the coast of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Lynmouth cliff railway and General Post Office trolley basket, Devon. (POST 118/1300)

Lynmouth cliff railway and General Post Office trolley basket, Devon. (POST 118/1300)

Finally, petrolheads may be interested in several images from the GPO repair shop in Harrow showing mechanics at work servicing vehicles.

For more on postal vehicles see our online exhibition Moving the Mail.

BPMA Collections Out and About

Current work at the BPMA is focussed around plans for our New Centre at Calthorpe House and especially for the design of a permanent exhibition space in which to show the many different objects in our collection. This will support and expand on the work we already do through our accredited museum at the Museum of the Post Office in the Community and our travelling exhibitions. Another aspect of our work however, is our loans to other museums as far apart as Cornwall and Scotland to name but a few.

The collections of the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth consist of a range of objects from boats to art as well as extensive archives that help tell the maritime heritage of Cornwall. An important part of this is a display on The Falmouth Packet Service, 1789-1851 which is where the objects from the BPMA can be found: two Flintlock Pistols issued to help protect the ships and the mail they carried, and two Maritime handstamps, one for the Falmouth Packet Service itself and the other for postage paid at St Ives port for a Ship Letter. These objects help tell the story of how Falmouth became a central hub of communication for over 150 years. They sit alongside objects from the museum’s own collection such as a mail bag from HM Packet Ship Crane and letters sent via Packet Ships.

Flintlock pistol on display at the National Maritime Museum, Falmouth.

Flintlock pistol on display at the National Maritime Museum, Falmouth.

Objects loaned from the BPMA can also be seen at the opposite end of the country. The Riverside Museum in Glasgow is Scotland’s Museum of Transport and Travel, which opened in 2011 after a major development project. The museum includes many innovative ways of interpreting transport collections such as a ‘car wall’ and a suspended bicycle velodrome display. Amongst the displays is one on the role of the Telegram Messenger boy.

The focus of the display is a motorcycle used by messengers on delivery. It was the thought of riding one of these that often encouraged boys to join the Post Office. However, the role of the Telegram Messenger involved far more than just this, as is explored via a series of touch-screens where visitors can play a game to see who can deliver their telegrams most efficiently. Next to this is a manikin dressed in a Telegram Messenger boy’s uniform complete with waterproof leggings, motorcycle goggles, helmet and gloves all from BPMA’s collection as well as the standard issue jacket and pouch.

These objects provide a wider context to the display of a vehicle, helping to bring the object and the stories connected with it to life. Indeed, the display has provoked the memories of many visitors, just like those Jim has shared with us in previous blogs.

Telegram messengers display at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

Telegram messengers display at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

Finally, from 30 January an F type pillar box from the BPMA collection will be on display at the Design Museum, London as part of their Extraordinary Stories exhibition.

Elizabeth II Type F Twin Pillar Box (OB1994-50i)

Elizabeth II Type F Twin Pillar Box (OB1994-50i)

The F type pillar box was a revolutionary design by the industrial architect David Mellor. It was developed in response to a request from the London Postal Region for a box with three apertures. One way of providing this facility was by utilising a ‘square’ shape so that boxes could be used in modular format, either as single, double or triple units. In the event, following eight years of trial and failure, a three-apertured variant never did get used. However from 205 boxes constructed, some 200 boxes were put into use across the country in both single and double format. The failure to produce a durable protective finish to the sheet steel panels (themselves a radical departure from the usual cast iron traditionally utilised) meant that the boxes promptly rotted, particularly the bases.

None of the boxes survive in use in the street today (the last to be removed was in the late 1980s) but a handful survive in museum and private collections. The design was not entirely dispensed with; the cast iron G type pillar box leans heavily upon Mellor’s design, many of the G type boxes continue to provide excellent service today.

BPMA holds examples of both single and double units in its collection, also another solo box partially stripped to allow the special ‘easy clear’ internal mail mechanism developed by Post Office Engineers to be seen. The single box can be seen as part of the exhibition at the Design Museum until January 2014. The other examples can be seen at events and tours taking place at the Museum Store. They will be a particular focus during the Pillar Box Perfection event taking place at the store on Saturday 6th April 2013.

By lending objects to other museums the BPMA increases access to its own physical collection and conveys the important human story of communication that is shared by everyone.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)
– Julian Stray, Curator

The mail boats of St Kilda

By the late 1890s a unique system of mail dispatch had developed on the remote Scottish islands of St Kilda: letters were enclosed in a waterproof receptacle attached to a homemade buoy or buoyant object and launched into the sea in the hope that they would wash ashore and be forwarded on by whoever chanced upon them.

The idea had been developed by John Sands, a journalist who found himself stranded on the islands in 1876. In the years that followed Sand’s experiments the St Kilda “mail boats” were regularly used by the islanders. An article in The Sketch in 1906 recorded that during the longer winter months when vessels did not call at the islands letters were dispatched by placing them…

…in a waterproof, buoyant case and cast upon the waters. Usually this remarkable mail-packet is picked up on the coast of Norway, to be forwarded later to the Foreign Office. Four packages out of six reach their destination.

The St Kilda islanders constructed many types of mail boats using the materials they had to hand. The letters and coins might be placed in bottles, cocoa tins or leather bags – any container that was waterproof – while the waterproof container would be attached to something that would survive the journey, such as a wooden vessel, a hollowed log or a buoy made from an inflated sheepskin.

A St Kilda "mail boat".

A St Kilda “mail boat”.

Some of these crafts made it to British shores, a Shetland Islands newspaper c.1904 reported that:

There was picked up on St Ninian’s Isle Dunrossness, a St Kilda mail bag. The ‘bag’ is that usually employed by the St Kildians to communicate with the outside world, consisting of a sheepskin bag inflated to which was attached a tin canister, wrapped round with cotton wool, and covered with cotton sewn around it end tarred, the served with stout twine. The bag was forwarded to Lerwick Post Office. The tin was found to contain two letters and eight postcards, which were duly forwarded to their destination. A shilling was also enclosed. The bag had been sent off on 21st June so that it had taken two months and one day between St Kilda and Shetland.

Another type of St Kilda "mail boat".

Another type of St Kilda “mail boat”.

The mail boats weren’t just used by the islanders, tourists who came to St Kilda by steamer in the summer months would make a mail boat as part of the St Kilda experience. But for the locals the boats were more than a novelty, they were the best available option. According to files held in the Royal Mail Archive the General Post Office investigated establishing a regular mail service to improve communications between the islands and the mainland – one suggestion was to pay local fishing vessels to deliver and collect mail – but it was found to be too difficult to establish a regular service via these means. A sub post office was established on St Kilda in 1900 and by 1906 steam trawlers which visited the area were able to bring mail as often as six times a year, but the islanders still needed to use the mail boats.

A St Kilda islander launches a "mail boat". (Early 20th Century)

A St Kilda islander launches a “mail boat”. (Early 20th Century)

The ultimate problem for the GPO was that the small population on the islands did not justify the effort of establishing a regular service. Considerable efforts were made in the early 20th Century, but the First World War had a big impact on the islands: not only did the population decline as a result of men going off to fight, but the islanders’ expectations increase as communications technology improved.

After the war, more efforts were made to secure a regular mail service but by 1928 the population had declined to 37 and in 1930 the remaining residents were evacuated the mainline. A final mail boat was sent before the islanders left for good and three months later it landed in Norway.

St Kilda is now a UNESCO World Heritage site cared for by The National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Ministry of Defence. Tourists visiting St Kilda still send mail boats as the St Kilda Ranger’s diary reported in 2011.

How a mail boat saved those stranded on the islands of St Kilda

When the journalist John Sands found himself marooned on the Scottish islands of St Kilda in 1876 he knew that he was completely cut off from the rest of the world. In the Victorian era communications technology was advancing at a rapid pace and fast communication was now a part of most people’s lives – the first Transatlantic telegraph cable had been completed in 1858, in 1872 it became possible to send a message by telegraph to far off Australia, and by the late 1870s millions of telegraphs were being sent up and down the British Isles by ordinary people using the national telegraph network, but St Kilda, just 40 miles off the north-west of Scotland, was not part of this network.

For the residents of St Kilda, used to a simple life of subsistence farming, this was the norm; their only means of communicating with the outside world was by mail, and even then they relied on the boats which called at the island during the summer months agreeing to take their letters. Sands probably found being unable to communicate with the mainland more testing, but after a short time in St Kilda he identified a possible solution to the problem.

Sands observed that the islanders used canes salvaged from the beach to make reeds for their hand looms. As the canes did not grow in Scotland he deduced that they were brought to the islands by the ocean currents (AKA the Gulf Stream). He reasoned that the currents could be harnessed to send a small craft containing mail to the mainland, and he launched an experimental “boat” in December 1876. It took nine months for the boat to be discovered, and even then it was found in Sortland, Norway, but this did not deter Sands. Indeed, in the intervening period the situation on the islands changed, and Sands had to try again.

In January 1877 nine shipwrecked Austrian sailors arrived on St Kilda, putting considerable strain on the islanders’ resources. Fearing they would all soon starve Sands with the Austrians constructed a canoe from a log and placed in it a letter encased in a pickle bottle, addressed to the Austrian Consul begging for their assistance. A small sail was attached to the craft and the words “Open This” were printed on the deck. Another boat containing a similar message was made and attached to a buoy from the wrecked Austrian ship.

Amazingly, the buoy reached Birsay in Orkney in just 9 days, and the canoe was discovered in Poolewe, Ross-shire, after 22 days. The messages were forwarded to the Austrian Counsel and shortly afterwards the HMS Jackal was sent to St Kilda to rescue Sands and the sailors. In his diary Sands recorded that the islanders were bemused by his experiments with mail boats and incredulous when the Jackal arrived. The islanders had never thought to try sending mail in this way, but within a decade it became common practice.

In September 1885 the islanders again faced starvation when a severe storm ruined their food stores. A 14 year old school boy called Alexander Gillies Ferguson, who had heard of Sands’ mailboats, launched five such crafts containing messages asking for help. One of the boats quickly arrived in Gallan Head, Lewis, and the resultant publicity saw £110 raised, provisions bought and a boat chartered. This was not the end of the islanders’ problems or their use of mailboats, though, and we will explore that in a future blog post.

A St Kilda mail boat used by the islanders after Sands’ and Ferguson’s experiments, c. 1900.

A St Kilda mail boat used by the islanders after Sands’ and Ferguson’s experiments, c. 1900.

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

This blog was researched at the Royal Mail Archive, located at BPMA’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. There are millions of stories to uncover at the Royal Mail Archive, see our website for Archive opening hours and visitor information.

Archive Open Day: Sports and Participation in the Post Office

Since the beginning of January 2012, eight students from the University of the Third Age (U3A), plus their team leader, have been working with us to carry out research and work across two areas. Six students have been researching Sports and Participation in the Post Office, whilst the remaining two have been summarising oral history recordings taken in Bringsty Common, Herefordshire.

The group researching Sports and Participation have made some fascinating findings: from truly ‘Olympic’ feats carried out by postmen in the course of their everyday duties, through stamps from across the world featuring a myriad of sporting endeavours, to the current role of the Post Office Sports Foundation in funding activities across the country. These students will be on hand at our Archive Open Day on 14 April 2012 between 1-3pm to share their findings.

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898

One intriguing quote discovered by a student in the Post Office circular ‘St. Martins’ of 1898 gives an insight into early attitudes to women’s participation in sport:

Not the least of the many medical and scientific discoveries in the 19th Century, is the fact that athletic exercise can be indulged in by women without injury to their bodily health.

The students summarising oral history recordings have discovered the personal stories of former postmen, the local postmistress, and post office user, all living in a rural and scattered community with dwindling postal services. Their work will help the BPMA to provide greater access to this unique material, through exhibitions, blog articles, and magazine pieces.

Feedback received from the group has been very positive, and indicated that the students have gained a number of things from the shared learning project, including: insights into social history, new IT skills, enjoyment from working in teams, meeting new people and companionship.

Our Archive Open Day runs from 10-5pm on 14 April and is part of the Archive Awareness Campaign. You do not have to book to attend, but for more information, call 0207 239 2568 or email info@postalheritage.org.uk.

The Open Day also offers one of the last opportunities to see our current exhibition, Treasures of the Archive, which features special highlights of the collections. This includes a design for a stamp that was to be issued in the event that Scotland won the 1978 World Cup. It was, of course, never adopted!

Scotland World Cup Winners 1978 stamp artwork

Scotland World Cup Winners 1978 stamp artwork

Andy Richmond – Access and Learning Manager

Find out more about sport in the Post Office in our online exhibition Playing for the Cup.

Classic Locomotives of Scotland

Classic Locomotives of Scotland, issued today, is the second of four miniature sheets highlighting some of the workhorses of the tracks, who criss-crossed the United Kingdom to satisfy its increasing industrial demands.

Classic Locomotives of Scotland

Classic Locomotives of Scotland

The earliest railways in Scotland were built for commercial and industrial purposes to convey coal to local waterways, but this quickly expanded to forge essential links with burgeoning industrial locations including factories, quarries and docks.

Many of the locomotives had working lives of several decades before diesel and electric technology completely took over in the 1960s.

A good example is the Andrew Barclay No. 807, Bon Accord, which features on the £1 stamp. Bon Accord was built in 1897 and belonged to the Aberdeen Gas Works and is shown working along the city’s Miller Street in June 1962.

Royal Mail worked closely with railway expert Professor Colin Divall of the National Railway Museum in York, and Scottish railway expert Dugald Cameron, to select the four locomotives featured on the miniature sheet – chosen from thousands of period photographs.

The Classic Locomotives series of stamps began with Classic Locomotives of England in February 2011, and moves on to highlight other locomotives that operated in Northern Ireland and Wales in future issues.

The Classic Locomotives stamps are now available from Royal Mail Stamps online. Visit our website to material from our collection related to Mail by Rail.

The Post Office in Pictures

In October our new exhibition, The Post Office in Pictures, will open in Swindon. The exhibition will showcase a selection of inspiring images sourced from our vast collections.

In 1933 Sir Stephen Tallents was appointed Public Relations Officer to the General Post Office (GPO), and so began a major project to promote the range of postal services to the British public. One initiative was the establishment of The Post Office Magazine, intended to give a sense of shared community, camaraderie and endeavour. In order to do this, the GPO employed photographers to create beautiful, informative and often humorous photographs of the Post Office at work.

From strange creatures sent through the post, to the daily deliveries by land, sea
and air to every corner of the country, the photos featured in The Post Office in Pictures offer a fascinating set of windows on Britain from the 1930s to 80s – including some of the more unusual, unexpected and unseen activities of The Post Office and its people.

One of the images to be featured is ‘Basket Delivery’, a striking image from 1938 showing a postman at Greenock Promenade in Scotland. The postman’s basket contained mail from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner, the Duchess of Bedford. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, the mail once unloaded was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. We love the composition of the image and the beautiful cloudy sky.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, Greenock.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, Greenock. (POST 118/851)

To accompany the exhibition, the BPMA has produced a fantastic range of greetings cards featuring iconic black and white photographs from our archives, including ‘Basket Delivery’. The cards are now available from our online shop.

The Post Office in Pictures exhibition is open at the Post Modern in Swindon between 6 October and 5 November 2011. Find out more on our website.