Tag Archives: telegraph

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.

The Central Telegraph Office as I knew it

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In this, his final article, he tells us what he remembers of the Central Telegraph Office.

The Central Telegraph Office (CTO) was located on the corner of Newgate Street and St Martin’s Le Grand. It was originally five stories high but was reduced to one as a result of the bombing during the 1940 blitz. A second, brick built, story was added in 1946/7. This floor was used to re-house much of the admin staff such as the typing pool, Chief Inspector of Messengers, etc.

Central Telegraph Office - bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

Central Telegraph Office – bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The function of the CTO was to act as a clearing house for both inland and overseas telegrams. It was connected to most major cities in the world by teleprinter (the forerunner of the fax machine). It was also linked to almost all of the central London post offices by a pneumatic tube. By placing a telegram awaiting despatch into a container, that resembled a 25lb shell case covered in felt like material, it was possible to send the telegram via an underground tube direct to the CTO or the smaller tube officer located in the basement of King Edward Building, for despatch. Alas most of this system was destroyed during the war, although a large part was reinstated when the roads were repaired during the rebuilding of inner London.

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Just across the road from the CTO was another building. This building was almost as big as the CTO and was known as Angel Street. This building was connected to the CTO by a bridge built at the second floor level. The function of this building was to provide rest rooms, locker rooms and a restaurant for the many staff employed at the CTO. These facilities were needed as many of the staff worked split shifts and were required to work, say, from 7am to 11am, then they would be required again until 2pm when they would work until 6pm. This building was also badly damaged at the same time as the CTO. The surviving part was used to provide a ground floor restaurant whilst the upper two floors were used as locker/rest rooms for the messengers and girl probationers (the equivalent of the boy messengers). The remaining areas, because it contained undamaged basements and sub basements was asphalted over and used as air raid shelters. It was locked-up when the war ended and never re-opened.

The CTO was connected to the other three local buildings by underground passages and despite the damage suffered during the war it was still possible to use this method of contact.

The CTO was finally demolished in 1967. When the site was being prepared for redevelopment a large Roman mosaic floor was discovered. During the subsequent excavation a Roman burial ground was also uncovered. The Romans wrapped the bodies in a form of straw matting and placed them into slots in the wall as their final resting place…

I thought at the time how ironical it was that people should shelter from the bombs in a burial ground.

HMS Agamemnon and friends

As part of my recent work on the BPMA lantern slide collection, I have been looking further into some of the slides to help make an informed decision as to whether they should be formally accepted into the collections.

In many cases, it is possible to draw on the knowledge and expertise of my colleagues to provide a starting point, in addition to our online catalogue or Archive holdings. In others, additional expertise is required, such as in the case of several lantern slides of ships. Although lovely images in themselves, it was difficult to determine the slides’ relevance to the collection without any further information to go on, so I approached the National Maritime Museum (NMM) for help with identification.

HMS Agamemnon shown embarking on the English portion of the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/01)

HMS Agamemnon shown embarking on the English portion of the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/01)

The curatorial staff at the NMM were very helpful, providing several identifications of vessels and other points of interest. For example, HMS Agamemnon (shown above) was involved in the first attempt by the Atlantic Telegraph Company to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable in 1857. The initial attempt failed, but HMS Agamemnon and its counterpart, USS Niagara were successful in laying the cable the following year. One of the slides shows the two ships embarking cable, in an image that originally appeared in the Illustrated London News in May 1858.

USS Niagra, which participated with HMS Agamemnon in the 1857 and 1858 attempts to lay the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/02)

USS Niagra, which participated with HMS Agamemnon in the 1857 and 1858 attempts to lay the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/02)

The positive identification of several of these ships and their involvement in the laying of early telegraph cables has meant that our curators have been able to make an informed decision about the slides’ place within our collections. The slides – along with many others – have now been catalogued and scanned and will be appearing in our online catalogue soon, so do keep an eye open for them!

Sarah Jenkins – Assistant Cataloguer

Visit our Flickr site to see a selection of lantern slides showing transatlantic cable ships.

Memories of a boy messenger – Part 1

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In Part 1 he tells us about his first day on the job.

I remember how excited I was to receive the letter that told me to report for duty at the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) on 15 May 1946, having passed the medical and scraping in a half inch above the minimum height required of four feet ten and a half inches.

The Central Telegraph Office, c.1930s-40s (POST 118/1379)

The Central Telegraph Office, c.1930s-40s (POST 118/1379)

Despite the good advice I received from my parents I still managed to get lost and arrived later than I intended. As I approached the main door located in St Martin’s Le Grand, I was stopped by the doorman who told me that in future as a Boy Messenger I should use the back door. I was then taken to a man, who seemed to be in charge of most of the telegraph work.

After a brief welcome I was passed from office to office, signing and filling in various forms. I was also given my weekly allocation of meal vouchers each worth 1/- (5p). The restaurant that catered for the CTO staff was open from 8am to 6pm; it provided hot food from 11am to 2.30pm. Despite the rationing it was possible to buy a good hot meal and a sweet for less than 1/-.

Finally, I was taken to the Chief Inspector of Messengers. I remember there were three people in the room, an Assistant Inspector, Inspector and the Chief Inspector. I was passed from one to the other each one telling me about the job and conditions.

My duties would consist of 6 eight hour shifts which could start as early as 7am and finish as late as 7pm. I would be allowed a 40 minute meal break each day plus a breakfast or tea break of 20 minutes at the Inspectors’ discretion. Once thought suitable I would be expected to work 4 hours compulsory overtime every third Sunday increasing to 10 hours a day when I reached 16 (the CTO was required to deliver all telegrams on Sundays with an EC or WC address).

My starting pay would be 21/6 (£1 07½) per week); when you allow for fares to work of about 35p, plus either a morning or afternoon snack at a weekly cost of 15p, I had very little money to spare. However, my pay would rise by yearly increments to 41/- (£2-05p) per week at 18 years. In addition to my pay I would receive 6 meal vouchers per week free until I reached 16 when I would be expected to pay half the cost of the vouchers. They would automatically stop when I reached 18 years.

I would be given two uniforms a year, one winter and one summer weight. I would also receive one pair of shoes and one pair of boots a year, plus overcoat and walking cape (to be replaced when I outgrew them), and a pill box-type hat with badge that was unique to me. My number was TS228 (only the messengers at the CTO and their sister office at Threadneedle Street were allowed to wear the Tube Service or TS motif on their cap badges).

Messenger boy (POST 118/126)

Messenger boy (POST 118/126)

My holiday entitlement was 12 days a year to be taken between May and October. The senior boys had first choice so junior messengers like me had to take our holidays in either May or October.

Having been told all the terms and conditions I was whisked away to the Inspector in charge of the stores in a small office at the rear of Angel Street. Here I was measured for my uniform, given my pouch belt and armband (these had to suffice until my uniform was ready) and walking cape. I was then taken to the delivery room which was located at the rear of the CTO.

Keep visiting this blog for more of Jim (Dusty) Miller’s memories.

Archive stock-take 2012: Transfer of material to BT Archives

Our annual stock-take is a necessary period of spring-cleaning for our archive service and collections, allowing us to tackle important jobs we don’t otherwise get time for.

My task this year was to identify, pull together and check off records that have been awaiting transfer to their more rightful home at BT Archives.

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

Telegram and telephonist posters which will be transfered to the BT Archives

As a consequence of the British Telecommunications Act, 1981, which transferred the responsibility for telecommunications services from the Post Office to British Telecom, a lot of material has been transferred by us to BT Archives since they were established in 1986. They have their own collecting policy, which essentially concerns historical material reflecting the development and operations of BT and its predecessors.

The records set aside for transfer to BT during stock-take clearly fall under this remit, including some wonderful posters dating from the 1930s to the 1950s promoting telephonist jobs, advising on wartime telephone usage, and advertising overseas telegrams and radiotelegrams to ships at sea. The material also includes telegraph training manuals for the early twentieth century, telephone service instructions for the 1930s, and a large number of files relating to a gas explosion in the telegram-conveying pneumatic tube line beneath Holborn in 1928. There are numerous interesting claims files submitted by local residents, plus one for Fred Astaire and his sister, who were starring in a production of Funny Face at the Princes Theatre (now Shaftesbury Theatre), which was suspended for several weeks as a result of the explosion.

Vital paperwork needs to be completed before a transfer of archive material can take place to ensure accountability and good house-keeping. A complete list of all the records was compiled on a spreadsheet, which was then approved by the BPMA’s Head of Archives and Records Management. This material can then be copied into an Exit/Receipt form, which will then be signed by myself, our Head of Archives and Records Management and the Heritage Collections Manager at BT Archives, a copy of which I will place in a registered file for safekeeping at the BPMA.

All the listing and transfer approval has been dealt with in advance of stock-take to allow sufficient time for any hitches. So what’s left to do now? Essentially carefully packaging and boxing up the material ready for a short taxi ride down to the old Holborn telephone exchange (where the BT Archives are houses), and then updating our records (including those on our catalogue where necessary) to show that the material has been transferred.

Material ready for transfer.

Material ready for transfer.

The transfer of material to BT is by no means a finite process, as our uncatalogued records may well contain telecoms material that will only appear as we work through our backlog. However, as we attempt to get our house in order prior to our big move to Calthorpe House, this upcoming transfer will help to make sure we only take with us material designated for long-term preservation at the BPMA, whilst clearing some much needed space in our repository.

Although I’m sorry to see those lovely telephonist and telegram posters go, at least they will be going to a very good home! Keep your eyes peeled for them on the BT catalogue!

The telephonist has an interesting job - poster by Dorrit Dekk

The telephonist has an interesting job – poster by Dorrit Dekk

Anna Flood – Archivist (Cataloguing)

For an overview of Telecommunications in our collection please visit our website.

Telegraphs and mass communication

Barely a day goes by when we do not see more evidence of the way in which mass communications can quickly bring together a group of like-minded people for a common purpose. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Movember and Talk Like a Pirate Day all have Facebook, Twitter and other communications networks to thank for their success.

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explained how businesses and individuals in the Victorian era benefited from the telegraph. But the speed with which information could be distributed by this early form of mass communication may surprise you.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

In early December 1871 The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) contracted typhoid whilst staying at Londesborough Lodge, Yorkshire, and there was considerable public concern about the heir apparent’s welfare. A friend of the Prince’s, Lord Chesterfield, who had also been staying at Londesborough Lodge, succumbed to the disease, and the Prince’s plight brought to mind Prince Albert, his father, who had died of typhoid a decade earlier.

The Privy Council asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to prepare prayers for the Prince’s recovery for distribution to churches and chapels throughout England and Wales. These were printed on Saturday 9th December, and the Post Office was asked to deliver them by the following morning. Unfortunately, this was not possible by “ordinary channels”.

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

It was only thanks to the quick action of the telegraph department that they were distributed in time.

… great credit is due to a gentleman of the name of Irvine of the telegraph department of the Post Office for his thoughtfulness in suggesting that the physical difficulties in the way of the distribution of the prayers in time for use on Sunday might be obviated by the use of the telegraph, and for the zeal and energy with which, after personal communications with this office twice during the evening of Saturday, he collected all the addresses of the Clergy, and aided in supplying them by telegraph with copies of the Prayers…
(POST 30/213c)

This example of speedy mass distribution of information was important for the Post Office, who had taken over the privately-owned telegraph network the year before. As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, nationalisation of this network was controversial and expensive, but this example and many others like it were a feather in the Post Office’s cap.

Indeed, this proof of concept laid the groundwork for future successes. Within 30 years messages were being transmitted over the Atlantic using wireless telegraphy, thanks not only to Marconi but also the Post Office. News of the sinking of the Titanic, for example, was spread quickly thanks to the wireless, saving many lives.

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster General at the time of the Titanic disaster, said:

Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.

Later, wireless telegraphy was refined further enabling mass broadcasting, which has provided information, prompted mass action and allowed you to listen to The Peoples Post today.

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Telegraph. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The Peoples Post

Monday 5th December sees the launch of an exciting new series on BBC Radio 4. The Peoples Post is a 15 part series exploring the history of the postal service through the people that use and work for it. The series begins in the 16th century in the reign of Henry VIII and explores some of the key moments in the nearly 500 years since then. Each weekday there will be a new 15 minute episode touching on a different part of this fascinating and evolving story.

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

The first five episodes, during the first week, will look at the early history of the postal service. It will cover the days of the postal service as an instrument of state and consider the expansion of the system, first under Charles I and then later in the 18th century with the post being used increasingly to assist trade. The final episode in week one will look at a postal system that was becoming ripe for improvement and this episode will link to week two where we see the postal service undergoing its most important change, postal reform.

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

Week two opens with the story of the Penny Black and how postal reform changed the world. Throughout the week the massive expansion of the Royal Mail will be explored and the effect it had on the lives of people. From the expansion into the parcels posts in the 1880s through the development of social post and the part the post office played in the community, to the industrial unrest in the 1890s with the first postal workers’ strike.

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The final week looks at some of the innovations and changes that were to impact on the industry. The rise of new technologies such as the telegraphs and later developments such as the introduction by Royal Mail of the postcode, and the way that system evolved to form a part of everyone’s life. This week will also consider the post office in the First World War, the impact of the loss of male workers and the employment of women, and also the massive new role of delivering mail to a world at war and managing censorship.

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

The series is supported throughout by the BPMA. With each episode there will be new content loaded onto the website, Flickr and this blog, exploring some of the issues in more detail. Links to these will be provided via Facebook, Twitter and Google+ – and you can live tweet the show on the hashtag #PeoplesPost. Much of the research for the series has also been drawn from the Royal Mail Archive, which is managed by the BPMA. Images and details from the BPMA’s rich collections will illustrate each episode.

The BPMA were involved with the series from the very beginning and a number of members of BPMA staff were involved in developing the links with the series producers and the BBC. Most particularly the BPMA would like to thank Peter Sutton for his role of researcher, helping to find the links within the collection, and Jenny Karlsson and Alison Bean for helping to build the links and develop the online content.

– Chris Taft, Curator

Notes from the Colne Valley Postal History Museum curator’s workshop

by Steve Wright, Colne Valley Postal History Musuem

With just over a week to go before our first Open Day as part of London 2010: Festival of Stamps, it has been a frantic all-hands-on-deck time to get things ready here at Colne Valley Postal Museum.

The restoration of our 1935 Jubilee Telephone Kiosk has not proceeded as far as I would have liked and it now looks unlikely that it will be on site and complete by May 29th; hopefully it will all be here in time for our second Open Day on 10th July. This was caused by one of the key restorers being stranded in Spain by volcanic dust – which lost us two weeks in the schedule.

Telegraph head at Colne Valley Postal History Museum

Telegraph head at Colne Valley Postal History Museum

The good news is that a third large telegraph pole has arrived and been erected, and fitted with new arms to display 14 different types of insulators from our collection. Together with the two existing poles, this brings to 27 the total of different types of telegraph insulator on display. It also allowed another, different, George V notice plate to be displayed on the correct type of pole. Ultimately, the poles will allow the Push Button A mechanism in the restored kiosk to be connected to the national network. All the poles have been shortened to allow our visitors to get a good view of the signage and pole furniture that would normally be 22 feet above us!

Colne Valley Postal History Museum's Type D pillar box, 1932

Colne Valley Postal History Museum's Type D pillar box, 1932

On the post box front, our Type D pillar of 1932 has now been fitted with a second enamel notice plate – the vertical format “coin drop” notice – and has also been fitted with a Type F booklet dispensing mechanism. This will be operational, sadly at the rate of 50 pence instead of 2d – on the day. Our other George V boxes are being cleaned or repainted and a very special project is lined up for a spare GR wall box we have – watch this space!

Two more vintage Stamp Vending Machines have been restored – one from the early reign of George V. This was shown and demonstrated successfully during our visit to the Post Office Vehicles Club rally in April and it will be available and working on the Open Days for visitors to try. It is believed to date from 1912-1915 and is an original Kermode mechanism.

The Philatelic element has not been forgotten and the displays on the day will feature enlargements of some of the best-known designs from the King George V reign together with our own extensive displays of Seahorse high values overprinted for use abroad: pages from Nauru, British Bechuanaland, Bechuanaland Protectorate, Levant, Morroco, Tangier and the Irish Free State will be on display.

Colne Valley Postal History Museum will be open on 29th May, 10th July and 11th and 12th September 2010, and by appointment to groups. For further information on the open days please see the London 2010: Festival of Stamps website.

The Post Office during the First World War

The fourth in our series of podcasts is now available and features researcher Peter Sutton speaking about the Post Office during the First World War. This talk was recorded at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms in March as part of the exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which is still on a national tour.

War Graves Cemetery, The Somme as seen on a stamp in 1999

War Graves Cemetery, The Somme as seen on a stamp in 1999

At the start of 1914 the General Post Office was one of the largest employers in the world, with a workforce of more than a quarter of a million, but the Great War had a significant impact on the service. Many postal workers left to serve on the front, either as fighting men or as part of army postal and telegraph services. With its workforce massively depleted, the Post Office reduced services at home and employed women in large numbers for the first time. The Post Office also participated in a massive censorship operation and was involved in the mass distribution of items such as army recruitment forms, ration books and advertising material for war bonds.

These and many other aspects of World War 1 are covered in Peter Sutton’s talk, which can now be downloaded from http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast or iTunes.

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

Last week saw the closure of Last Post: Remembering the First World War at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms. The exhibition is now on a national tour.

Jointly organised by the BPMA and the CM&CWR, the exhibition displays artefacts, posters and images from both the Imperial War Museum’s and the BPMA’s collections. It celebrates the the vital role the Post Office played during the First World War (1914-1918).

Highlights include a rare opportunity to see the Victoria Cross awarded to Sergeant Alfred J. Knight, a member of the Post Office Rifles, whose brave and selfless acts included single-handedly taking on twelve German soldiers – killing three and leaving the rest to flee.

The exhibition also features the very first showing of a facsimile of Winston Churchill’s tender letter to his wife Clementine to be opened in the event of his death, sent from the Western Front where Churchill fought from November 1915 – May 1916.

During the First World War Women Post Office workers took on the role of drivers of horse drawn vehicles, a job previously reserved for male workers.

During the First World War Women Post Office workers took on the role of drivers of horse drawn vehicles, a job previously reserved for male workers.

The tens of thousands of women who joined the Post Office during the war years to fill the job gaps left by over 75,000 men sent to fight are also celebrated. This was the first time in Britain that women were allowed to carry out duties such as delivering mail in urban areas and opening packets in the Returned Letter Office. These women became indispensable, sorting 12 million letters and one million parcels a week to be delivered to the front line trenches and around the world.

Recordings of personal stories from wartime, including the account of a 13 year old telegraph girl, Eileen Johnston, bring the era to life. Johnston’s father, a docker, was killed in 1915 meaning Eileen had to leave school at the age of 13 and go to work at the Post Office in Whitechapel. She speaks about being punished for dossing, as well as her experiences of delivering the harrowing news to women that their son or husband had been killed – “really awful. So hard for a child to have to tell them that”.

Last Post: Remembering the First World War also demonstrates how letters were delivered to the front, how the Post Office dealt with dramatic increases in volumes of mail and the vital part that censorship played in the war effort.

A talk related to this exhibition, entitled The Post Office during the First World War, will take place at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms on 5th March at 7pm. The speaker is Peter Sutton, a researcher at the BPMA. For more information on this talk please click here.

The BPMA has produced a Last Post Online Exhibition and placed some Last Post images on Flickr. Last Post educational resources are also available, as is a set of postcards.

Exhibition Tour Dates

RAF Museum Cosford, 27th February – 26th May 2009

Staffordshire Regiment Museum, 1st April – 31st July 2009

Firepower, The Royal Artillery Museum, 5th June – 9th September 2009

Powysland Museum, 1th September – 30th November 2009

Aldershot Military Museum, 18th September – 27th October 2009

REME Museum, 6th November 2009 – 19th January 2010

Royal Logistic Corps Museum, 9th December 2009 – 19th February 2010