In celebration of International Archives Day, Archivist Helen Dafter looks at our international collection.
The name British Postal Museum & Archive may not initially suggest an internationally focused collection, yet the British Post Office has a long history of transmitting and receiving mail from overseas. The records in our archive shed light on the development of international mail services and the British Post Office’s involvement with them.
An overseas mail service has been in operation in Britain since 1580 – pre dating the inception of Royal Mail as a public service – and in 1619 the position of Postmaster General for Foreign Parts was established, however the foreign mail service was fairly small in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At this time the only way of sending mail abroad was by ship.
By 1840 commercial shipping companies had begun to be contracted to carry post. The archive holds copies of the contracts awarded to these shipping companies in POST 51. We also hold a range of reports and minutes relating to the operation of packet ships. These include reports on smuggling (POST 39/2), and quarantine regulations (POST 29/264a). One of the ships licensed to carry mail was RMS Titanic, and the archive also holds blueprints of the ship, and telegrams relating to its sinking. These records reflect the conditions under which packet ships operated and how long it took for mail to reach foreign countries.
In the twentieth century packet ships have gradually been replaced by airmail. The first overseas airmail was in 1918 and operated from Folkestone to Boulogne. In April 1924 Imperial Airways was established, initially handling air mail for Europe it later expanded to cover destinations further afield such as India, Singapore and Australia. Many of the destinations for airmail were countries within the British Empire and with this in mind the Empire Air Mail Scheme was established in 1937. This scheme aimed to carry all first class mail throughout the British Empire for 1½d per ½ ounce, with a charge of 1d for postcards. (More information about the history of airmail can be found in our information sheet. Records of the development and operation of overseas airmail can be found in POST 50.)
Clearly the operation of an international mail service involves many factors outside the control of the British Post Office. The effective transmission of mail overseas involves close cooperation with other postal administrations. POST 46 consists of Conventions and Articles of Agreement for overseas mail. It includes conventions for the execution of the treaty concerning the formation of The General Postal Union, or Universal Postal Union as it was later known (POST 46/57).
One difficulty with operating an international postal system is that events in other countries can significantly impact on the transmission of mail. The greatest disruption in often caused by war – the outbreak of hostilities can result in well established mail routes needing to be revised at short notice. Evidence of this can be seen in POST 56 (War and Civil Emergencies) as well as the registered files in POST 33 and POST 122.
Political difficulties can also disrupt the circulation of mail, for example in the 1960s the deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan resulted in difficulties with transmitting mail via these countries. The natural environment may also impact on the international postal system. Most recently this has been seen in the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, which in addition to stranding many holidaymakers also disrupted airmail services.
This gives just a taster of the international nature of the records held by The British Postal Museum & Archive. To find out more please consult our online catalogue: www.postalheritage.org.uk/catalogue.
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