Tag Archives: Stephen Tallents

Post Office Notices: Inside 200+ years of Post Office history

Archivist (Cataloguing) Anna Flood talks about our collection of 4988 Post Office notices, dating from 1768 to c.2000. They reveal a lot about the services the Post Office provided, and the society in which it operated.

The notices can be seen as a precursor to the posters displayed in post offices and on mail vans after the establishment of the Post Office Public Relations Department in 1934. You may be more familiar with images such as the ‘Post Early for Christmas’ poster below; much more visually appealing than its predecessor. Under the direction of the Public Relations Officer, Stephen Tallents, the organisation employed posters as a means of advising the public, and staff, on services whilst simultaneously constructing a modern and exciting corporate image. Hence, monochrome and purely instructional public notices declined sharply in number from the 1930s onwards.


Left: POST 107/982 (1934); Right: POST 110/1160

Some of the early posters reflect a more brutal and unforgiving society, where you could be hanged for stealing letters from the mail, or risk attack or even death whilst driving a mail coach.

POST 107/284 (1831)

POST 107/284 (1831)

POST 107/999 (c. 1792)

POST 107/999 (c. 1792)


In a world without telephones or the Internet, the efficiency of the mail was paramount. Hence, post-boys could be punished by committal to a house of correction for a month’s hard labour for loitering and delaying the arrival of mails at the next post town. Such a punishment was obviously no deterrent to those mail guards caught drunk on duty (POST 107/284).

Whilst overland communication was still by mail coach until the mid-nineteenth century, the list of exotic oversees places to which mails were carried from Britain was extensive and growing. In 1845 packet ships sailed to Beirut, Bombay, Panama and Canada, amongst numerous other destinations.

The notices are not solely indicative of postal operations, but inform on significant historical events, such as the 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition, which gathered large amounts of data on Greenland, and previously unexplored territories. The notice below indicates the vital, but uncertain, mail communication by HMS Pandora to Smith Sound, an uninhabited Arctic sea passage.

POST 107/971

POST 107/971 (1876)

POST 107/866 outlines the reasons behind the refinement of the postcode into sub-districts and serial numbers (e.g. EC1), including wartime depletion of staff and creation of new Departments of State. This necessitated a more specific means of addressing mail to assist female sorters taking over from the men who had gone to war, and who did not have the knowledge and experience these men had acquired over the years.

POST 107/866 (1917)

POST 107/866 (1917)

First World War notices are of particular significance as we remember the centenary of its commencement. They give a very succinct impression of how the public were permitted to communicate with those at the Front, including the sending of foodstuffs, and photographs, postcards and plans according to censorship regulations.

POST 107/866 (1918)

POST 107/866 (1918)

POST 107/865 (1916)

POST 107/865 (1916)

The collection of notices are now available to search on our catalogue and consult in our Search Room.

-Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

This is the Night Mail crossing the border

On Thursday 11 July Dr Scott Anthony will give a talk here at the BPMA on the classic film Night Mail which will be accompanied by a screening. In this blog Dr Anthony talks about Night Mail‘s timeless relevance.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.

Night Mail – the 1936 cinematic account of the travelling post office, to text by WH Auden – is the most famous film from the GPO documentary unit. It’s as evocative of the 1930s as Battersea Power Station, the Shell Guides and Agatha Christie.

For much of the past 20 years Night Mail has also been deeply unfashionable. It’s liable to be seen as the kind of thing that might have starred Harry Enfield’s Mr Chumley Warner.

It’s true that, for a documentary, parts of Night Mail are not that realistic. For a start, the scenes of travelling post office workers sorting the mail were filmed on the GPO’s lot in Blackheath with the posties urged, Star Trek style, to sway gently from side to side.

Still from Night Mail.

Still from Night Mail.

Indeed, Night Mail is actually the film of a train set. The GPO had commissioned the exquisite Bassett-Lowke to produce a miniature travelling post office for display at exhibitions. The miniature proved so popular with the public that it then became a documentary. When people say that Night Mail portrays a model post office, they’re more right than they know.

However, the genesis of Night Mail – the corporate promo – was far from straightforward, and it began with the future Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee. Pressure was growing for the reform and part-privatisation of the GPO. Besieged by criticism, the then postmaster-general Attlee hired the publicity expert Sir Stephen Tallents to project an image of the GPO as the “outstanding example of collective capitalism”.

Previously, the British establishment had frowned on government advertising during peacetime; it was considered something indulged in only by dubious continental regimes. Now, though, state innovations were to be unveiled with dramatic showmanship. During 1934’s Telephone Week speakers were erected in Trafalgar Square to blare out Jack Hylton’s jazz band as they were flown over London in an Imperial Airways plane. Tallents commissioned the artist Macdonald Gill to design a new brand logo for the GPO. The introduction of the speaking clock, telephone chess and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s redesign of the Jubilee telephone kiosk followed.

The classic Night Mail poster.

The classic Night Mail poster.

Night Mail was part of Tallents’ effort to use emerging new media to promote an up-to-date concept of Britishness. Films such as Night Mail and Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time are testament to Tallents’ collective method of developing an appropriate identity for Britain’s burgeoning social democracy.

But such nostalgic risks reducing Night Mail to the status of a tatty-eared Penguin classic, when those who commissioned, made, starred in and watched the film were confronting some startling contemporary dilemmas. Grappling with public service reform, technological, social and economic change, as well as the growth of internationalism, is a tricky task. Just ask the Communication Workers Union. Or Vince Cable.

Visit our website to purchase tickets for Dr Scott Anthony’s talk and the film screening of Night Mail.

Night Mail is available on DVD from our online shop.

The Bloomsbury Group and the Post Office

The British Postal Museum & Archive’s poster collection holds designs by many giants of 20th century graphic design, including Edward McKnight Kauffer, Tom Eckersley, and Jan Lewitt and George Him. However, many of our posters also feature images from painters and artists too, and include work by famous 20th Century names like Ruskin Spear, and the brothers John and Paul Nash.

Two of the most fascinating are those designed by Vanessa Bell and by Duncan Grant, members of the famous Bloomsbury Group. Named after the area of London in which it was based, the group also included Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the writer Lytton Strachey (Grant’s cousin) amongst others. Bell and Grant formed part of a complex web of relationships within the group: they had an affair which produced a child, Angelica, whom the art critic Clive Bell – Vanessa’s husband – brought up as his own. Grant, meanwhile, continued an on/off relationship with the writer David Garnett, who then went on to eventually marry Angelica, when she was in her early 20s. Despite their affair apparently ending shortly after Angelica’s birth, Bell and Grant remained close and lived together for more than 40 years until Vanessa’s death.

Just as interesting, however, is the story behind the work they produced for the General Post Office (GPO), and the different receptions it received. Both Grant and Bell accepted commissions to produce poster designs for the Post Office, and Grant’s 1939 design of a postman was successfully used in the schools educational series.

79,242 Postmen. Poster produced as part of a set of posters for schools promoting the General Post Office work force; featuring a postman. Artist: Duncan Grant. Date: March 1939. (POST 110/2501)

79,242 Postmen. Poster produced as part of a set of posters for schools promoting the General Post Office work force; featuring a postman. Artist: Duncan Grant. Date: March 1939. (POST 110/2501)

Bell’s 1935 poster ‘The Last Minute’ however, despite having been commissioned by legendary GPO publicity officer Stephen Tallents (who wrote to her suggesting that ‘Instead of merely commanding them to post early, we will show them how ridiculous they look, and what inconvenience they suffer, when they post late’), was eventually rejected.

The Last Minute. Poster promoting the benefits of posting mail early. Artist: Vanessa Bell. Date: 1935. (POST 110/2489)

The Last Minute. Poster promoting the benefits of posting mail early. Artist: Vanessa Bell. Date: 1935. (POST 110/2489)

Tallents’ successor Crutchley, writing to the Poster Advisory Group (whose members included Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband) explained that

As regards ‘The Last Minute posters’ by Mrs Bell, however much one may admire it as a painting, I am afraid that it scarcely conveys the message which the Post Office wishes to convey on the subject of Early Posting and with great regret, therefore, I must inform you that this cannot be used.

While the posters differ stylistically, in substance they are similar: each highlights the human face of the Post Office, emphasising the service aspect and portraying postal workers as calm, collected and efficient. Equally, both represent a painterly style in contrast to the growing prominence of graphic design, which became the hallmark of GPO posters throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Making up for its initial rejection, Vanessa Bell’s poster can now be seen in the BPMA’s poster exhibition ‘Designs on Delivery’, currently on show at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon.

See more posters from the Royal Mail Archive in our online exhibition Designs on Delivery.

Postal posters exhibition in Swindon

From Tuesday 19th March to Thursday 27th June 2013 selected posters from The BPMA’s Designs on Delivery exhibition will be on display at Great Western Hospital, Swindon.

Design played a crucial role in promoting social progress and technological change across Britain between 1930 and 1960. The commercial poster reached cultural maturity during this period and became the most eloquent of the mass media.

Please pack parcels very carefully, 1957. Designer: Tom Eckersley. (POST 110/2592)

Please pack parcels very carefully, 1957. Designer: Tom Eckersley. (POST 110/2592)

From the 1930s onwards the Post Office became a leader in the field of poster design, commissioning some of Britain’s most recognized artists and designers. This success owes much to the appointment of Stephen Tallents as the Post Office’s first public relations officer in 1933. Under his guidance a Poster Advisory Group composed of key figures in the arts and business led the commissioning process.

Buy stamps in books, 1959. Designer: Pieter Huveneers. (POST 110/2536)

Buy stamps in books, 1959. Designer: Pieter Huveneers. (POST 110/2536)

Some of the posters commissioned were commercially driven. Others were intended simply as self-publicity or for creating goodwill among its publics. The Post Office’s rich store of material could also, wrote Tallents in 1935, make a contribution to the ‘picture of Britain’.

Post your letters before noon, 1941. Designers: Jan Lewitt and George Him. (POST 110/3184)

Post your letters before noon, 1941. Designers: Jan Lewitt and George Him. (POST 110/3184)

GPO posters included work by those associated with both fine art and graphic design, demonstrating the blurring of the boundaries between high art and popular culture that poster design encouraged. This exhibition showcases the best of these posters.

The exhibiting of Designs on Delivery has been made possible through a partnership with Paintings in Hospitals. Paintings in Hospitals is a registered charity that uses visual art to create environments that improve health, wellbeing and the healthcare experience for service users, their families and staff.

The Post Office handles 23,000,000 letters a day, 1947. Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

The Post Office handles 23,000,000 letters a day, 1947. Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Designs on Delivery will be exhibited in the Temporary Exhibition Space (Main Entrance – Ground Floor) at the Great Western Hospital. The exhibition is open daily. Entry is free of charge and open to all. For opening hours, please see the Hospital’s website www.gwh.nhs.uk or for more information on the exhibition please see our website.

If you would like to share your feedback on the exhibition, please contact the BPMA Exhibitions Officer on dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk.

Dominique Gardner – Exhibitions Officer

Ringing the Change: Post Office promotion of the telephone and telegraph service, 1925-1939

On Thursday 8 November the BPMA are delighted to host our guest speaker, David Hay, Head of Heritage at BT Group PLC. David Hay will be exploring the radical change in Post Office telephone marketing strategy in the 1930s in a talk entitled Ringing the Change.

"Telephone rates" publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

“Telephone rates” publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

Between 1925 and 1928 the Post Office invested almost £1 million a month in the telephone network as it began the roll-out of automatic telephone exchanges, enabling subscribers to make local calls directly without involving a telephone operator. The result of this new technology, together with the introduction of new mass-produced telephone instruments using early plastics, was that the cost of having a telephone gradually began to fall. The Post Office also introduced new services during this period, such as the first transatlantic radio telephone service in 1926, direct telephone communications with countries in Europe and the expansion of the public telephone kiosk network.

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

However, much of this innovation went unnoticed by the public. Indeed, despite the enormous investment in new technology, there was widespread concern by 1931 that Britain was lagging behind other countries in Europe in the take-up of the telephone. Up to 25 per cent of the capacity of the telephone network was lying idle.

"Always at your service", telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

“Always at your service”, telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

This richly illustrated talk will explore the early attempts of the Post Office to address this and to market the telephone to a wider part of society then before, efforts which were revolutionised in 1933 by the recruitment of Sir Stephen Tallents as the Post Office’s first Public Relations Officer. The decade before the Second World War was in many ways a golden period for GPO marketing, not least in the publicity machine unleashed by Tallents who had a passionate belief in the role of the arts promoting what were then Government services. Tallents and his team commissioned artists, designers, film makers and photographers to project a modern view of the Post Office to its customers and to its own employees.

"Come on the telephone", telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

“Come on the telephone”, telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

The result was that by the end of the inter-war era many of the GPO’s products and services – such as the Jubilee red telephone kiosk designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the Speaking Clock and the 999 Emergency Service – had become iconic parts of the nation’s cultural fabric, and remain so to this day. And the Post Office itself, which entered the decade criticised on all sides for failing to promote its telecommunications services and communicate its role generally, was ultimately respected as a national asset vital to the country’s success.

We hope you will join us for what promises to be a fascinating talk!

Tickets are £3 per head or £2.50 for concessions, and can be bought on the door on the night or you can book tickets online.

A Postal View of London – GPO Poster Design

GPO Posters have played a significant role in establishing a dynamic relationship between the public service and its customers. For instance, they reminded people to use the postal service more efficiently and ‘Post Early’. Thanks to open-minded PR Officers like Stephen Tallents, GPO Posters also became a mirror of British graphic design particularly from the 1930s onwards. The GPO’s public relations department – the first government ministry PR department ever – saw the educational potential of poster design and combined it with a high standard of modern art. The Post Office offered employment to many artists and graphic designers; many of them helped shape the world of design and art during their careers. These included Tom Eckersley, Frank Newbould. and George Him and Jan Le Witt, better known as the Lewitt-Him partnership.

A Postal Guide to the Maze of London, 1951, Lewitt-Him (PRD0639)

A Postal Guide to the Maze of London, 1951, Lewitt-Him (PRD0639)

One example of how those campaigns were linked to creative design and the distribution of business information can be illustrated in the numerous posters advertising Post Office directories. This ranged from directories of the businesses and services available in cities throughout Britain to publications such as the ‘Post Office Guide’, ‘Post Offices in the United Kingdom’, ‘London Post Offices and Streets’, and ‘Postal Addresses’. They provided valuable resources for marketing and sales departments and were updated every year. The works of artists like Lewitt-Him, Alick Knight or M H Armengol illustrate how these campaigns succeeded in presenting a functional product with iconic images and ingenious designs.

London Post Offices and Streets, 1958, M H Armengol (PRD0758)

London Post Offices and Streets, 1958, M H Armengol (PRD0758)

Probably one of the most prominent posters is Lewitt-Him’s ‘A Postal Guide of the Maze of London’ (1951) which depicts a postman about to enter a stylistic maze of houses. The publication provides details of Post Offices, their streets and district numbers, hours of business and a listing of street names – a perfect aid for the postman’s journey into the intricate maze of streets. The partnership of the two Polish-born artists Jan Le Witt (1907-1991) and George Him (1900-1981) was a very successful collaboration in graphic design and they created several posters for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War and murals for the Festival of Britain (1951).

London Post Offices and Streets, 1958, Alick Knight (PRD0939)

London Post Offices and Streets, 1958, Alick Knight (PRD0939)

Other poster artists may have remained relatively obscure but their creativity had resulted in some fine GPO poster art. Alick Knight, for example, contributed to several Post Office campaigns, including for the Post Office Guide during the 1950s. Several of his posters feature drawings of iconic buildings like the one for the ‘London Post Offices and Streets’ (1958). Although these posters advertising the London Post Office Guides were designed to have an immediate impact and relate to a particular product, their designs give them a surprising agelessness and relevance to anyone living in or coming to London.

A Postal View of London: London Post Offices and Streets, 1953, H W Browning (PRD0698)

A Postal View of London: London Post Offices and Streets, 1953, H W Browning (PRD0698)

The BPMA have produced a new set of postcards featuring the London-themed posters in this blog. It is now available in the BPMA Shop and further Post Office Guide posters can also be found on our print-on-demand website.

London Post Offices and Streets, 1960, Carol Barker (PRD1072)

London Post Offices and Streets, 1960, Carol Barker (PRD1072)

– Jana Harnett, Marketing & Development Assistant

UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register

Yesterday our deputy director Samantha Rennie and I attended a reception organised by the Parliamentary Archives in the River Room at the House of Lords. This was organised to celebrate the inscription of new archive items and collections on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register in 2011. Among these are the films and associated papers of the GPO Film Unit, 1933-40. The nomination was lodged by the BPMA in conjunction with BT Heritage and the British Film Institute.

Left-right: David Dawson, Chair of the UK Memory of the World Committee, Gavin McGuffie of BPMA, Patrick Russell of the BFI, David Hay of BT Heritage.

Left-right: David Dawson, Chair of the UK Memory of the World Committee, Gavin McGuffie of BPMA, Patrick Russell of the BFI, David Hay of BT Heritage.

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents and it was created as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. The films produced during the relatively short existence of the Unit had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits and its creative impact has been immense.

The UK Memory of the World Register is a list of documentary heritage which holds cultural significance specific to the UK. The inscriptions come from across the country, span nearly 1000 years of history and embody some of the pivotal moments and periods that have shaped the UK.

Night Mail poster (POST109/377)

Night Mail poster (POST109/377)

To mark its 75th anniversary the BPMA is showing Night Mail, the most famous of the films produced by the unit, along with a variety of rarely-seen Film Unit shorts at the Phoenix Centre on Thursday 6 October from 6.30pm. Auden scholar and author David Collard (Auden wrote the poem which features towards the film’s end) will introduce the screenings.

DVD boxsets of a number of GPO Film Unit films, including Night Mail, are available from our online shop.

Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives

Post Office: Publicity artwork and designs

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist (Cataloguing)

POST 109 is now available for browsing on our online catalogue. It contains original artwork produced for posters and leaflets, as well as designs produced for a variety of purposes, including greetings telegram forms, logos and logotypes, vehicle livery and postal equipment. Material includes paintings and pencil and ink drawings, as well as photographs, transparencies and annotated final proofs.

Much of the artwork in the series was commissioned by the Public Relations Department, which was first created in 1934, under the first Post Office Public Relations Officer, Stephen Tallents. Right from the conception of the department, it assumed responsibility for commissioning designs for posters, which it considered to be a vital part of Post Office publicity; it did this initially in consultation with a ‘Poster Advisory Group’, but from 1937 it operated in its own right.

A postman wheels his bike down a country lane

Sketch for rural postman: artwork for a poster, by John Nash, 1935

The department approached leading artists for the production of posters of two kinds, known respectively as ‘Prestige’ and ‘Selling’. ‘Prestige’ posters fell into two categories: those specially prepared for distribution to schools and those for display in Crown Post Offices and non-public offices in Post Office buildings, they were intended to be more formal in style, eye catching rather than persuasive. ‘Selling’ posters had a direct ‘selling’ appeal and were intended to persuade the beholder to use a particular service or buy a particular product.

POST 109 includes a number of adopted poster designs, but it also contains examples of commissioned artwork that was rejected. Artworks include an Edward Bawden poster about the Post Office Underground Railway (later known as Mail Rail)  (below), John Nash’s watercolour depicting a rural postman (above left), an oil painting by Edgar Ainsworth showing a night scene at a sorting office (POST 109/507), and George Charlton’s Interior of Travelling Post Office (POST 109/375).

A drawing of the Post Office underground railway, a driverless train system which carried mail under the streets of London

Post Office Tube Railway: artwork for a poster, by Edward Bawden, circa 1935

The collection also includes rejected designs by artists more usually ‘favourites’ of the Public Relations Department, such as Tom Eckersley (POST 109/15) and Jan Lewitt and George Him (POST 109/602-605 and below).

A poster design depicting a postman dragging a giant envelope

Post much earlier this X-mas: Artwork for a poster, by Jan Lewitt and George Him, 1950

The Public Relations Department was also instrumental in commissioning artists to design forms for the Greetings Telegram Service, which was introduced in 1935 as a means of revitalising the telegraph service.

Greetings telegrams were to be associated with special occasions and as such, designs had to be particularly attractive, with an element of luxury, this was encapsulated in the golden envelope designed to accompany the form.

POST 109 includes many examples of adopted designs; for example, the design produced by Margaret Calkin James for the first ever greetings telegram form, issued in July 1935 (below).

Bordered with a red and black design, the telegram form has a clean centre for typing the message

Margaret Calkin James' design for the first ever greetings telegram form, issued in July 1935

It also includes a number of unsuccessful designs, including one produced by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis (below), two by Alan Reynolds Stone (POST 109/649 and POST 109/659) and one by Rex Whistler (POST 109/692); Whistler also produced two other designs for greetings telegram forms that made it into print.

Featuring a decorative border with bows and stars.

Greetings Telegram artwork by Cliff & Rosemary Ellis, 1937

Other items in POST 109 include artwork for the familiar GPO monogram, produced by Macdonald Gill in 1934, pillar box designs by Tony Gibbs from 1977 and artwork produced by Ben Maile for inclusion in the book: First Post: From penny black to the present day (Quiller Press, 1990).

GPO Poster Design

Post much earlier this Christmas

Jan Lewitt and George Him's 1942 poster on the topic of posting during the festive season.

Our collection of GPO posters has proved to be a popular topic on this blog, with design enthusiasts, postal historians and many others united in their admiration for the work of artists such as Barnett Freedman, Jan Lewitt and George Him, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Peter Huveeners, Hans Schleger (Zero), Tom Eckersley, and Hans Unger. Their work and that of many other artists can now be explored in greater depth in our new podcast GPO Poster Design.

This podcast is a recording of a talk given at the BPMA last November by Dr Paul Rennie, Head of Context in Graphic Design at Central St Martins College of Art. The talk covers the development of public relations, poster art and communication at the GPO, and the advances in technology which enabled poster designers to work with new and innovative printing techniques.

If you enjoyed our exhibition Designs on Delivery – GPO Posters from 1930-1960, which can now be viewed online, or our last podcast in which Dr Scott Anthony discussed the pioneering work of Sir Stephen Tallents’, the GPO’s – and indeed Britain’s – first public relations officer, we think you will enjoy Paul Rennie’s talk.

Be first not last - Post early for Christmas

A poster promoting early posting for Christmas, designed by Tom Eckersley, 1955.

Some of the posters referenced in Paul Rennie’s talk can now be found on Flickr. For more on poster design from this period visit Paul Rennie’s website or read the blog Quad Royal.