Tag Archives: Southampton

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

Built for Service

Despite the importance of the post office in the lives of our communities, it has surprisingly been overlooked by architectural studies: furthermore, historians of the Post Office have by and large concentrated on its administrative history, with only passing reference to its buildings. In an attempt to redress the balance Built for Service: Post Office Architecture (published by the BPMA in 2010) chronicles the history and development of the post office building in Great Britain from the mid-19th century to the 1970s.

Derby Post Office (1870) (architect James Williams)

Derby Post Office (1870) (architect James Williams)

Southampton Post Office (1894) (architect Sir Henry Tanner)

Southampton Post Office (1894) (architect Sir Henry Tanner)

Hull Post Office (1908) (architect Walter Pott)

Hull Post Office (1908) (architect Walter Pott)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Maesteg Post Office (c.1935) (architect Henry Seccombe)

Maesteg Post Office (c.1935) (architect Henry Seccombe)

Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Hitchin Post Office (1962) (architect J.O. Stevens)

Hitchin Post Office (1962) (architect J.O. Stevens)

Although new post office buildings were commissioned by the Post Office, execution of the work was the responsibility of another Government department, the Office of Works and its successors. This duality of purpose, with the tensions that it created up until the First World War, is described in the book, and means that historians are required to research in two major repositories: for plans and contract drawings (where they have survived), the National Archives at Kew; and for the role of the Post Office, the British Postal Museum and Archive, although they are by no means mutually exclusive.

One of the joys of study in the BPMA Archive is of course working with the catalogued material, which reveals how assiduously the Post Office took its responsibilities with regard to the fitting-out of its buildings and the welfare of its staff, but also with the extensive ephemeral material in the Portfolio files. Here may be found a wealth of unique material (such as programmes of opening ceremonies), revealing details about dates of opening of new post offices, and names of architects, as well as correspondence, press cuttings, unpublished research papers and a fine selection of photographs.

Souvenir programme of the Opening of the New Post Office, Clevedon. One of many such items in the BPMA Portfolio collection.

Souvenir programme of the Opening of the New Post Office, Clevedon. One of many such items in the BPMA Portfolio collection.

The recent spate of post office closures has begged the question: what happens to redundant post office buildings? Do they still have a presence on the high street, and if so, what has happened to them?. Many Victorian and Edwardian post offices have been statutorily listed as Grade II structures. This generally means that their external appearance is protected, while the interiors can be altered to suit a new purpose. Many inter-war post offices, no longer required by the service, have also survived demolition. The nature of these buildings, featuring a large open space on the ground floor, has meant that it has been relatively easy to convert them into public houses, nightclubs, and chain restaurants. The names of many of the public houses recall the former association – “The Last Post”, “The Old Post Office”, “The Penny Black”, and so on.

“The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

“The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

“The Last Post”, Loughton (c.1930) (architect Archibald Scott)

“The Last Post”, Loughton (c.1930) (architect Archibald Scott)

“Zizzi”, Surbiton (c.1895)

“Zizzi”, Surbiton (c.1895)

In many cases, the upper floors of these buildings have been converted into residential use.

Built for Service serves as an introductory guide to the post office building, but it is supplemented by a website. This is an alphabetical illustrated guide, detailing years of opening, names of architects, archive sources for further research, bibliographical references, and current use (if no longer a post office), with links to further information available online.

– Julian Osley