Tag Archives: Tony Benn

The FOUR openings of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. At 189m, the Tower was the tallest building in London until 1980 and is still an iconic part of the capital’s skyline. Rather than look at the build, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT David Hay recounts the story behind its FOUR official openings and the drama that ensued.

The planning for the Tower opening ceremony, documented at BT Archives, reveals a little known story of inter departmental rivalry and public image concerns. Construction on the Tower began in 1961, and as early as 1963 thought was being given to an official opening. The Postmaster General of the time, J R Bevins, was keen for a ceremony in 1964 “as soon as the shell has been completed”. A major concern was that the project should be seen to be led by the Post Office. The actual construction was managed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and Bevins was “determined to do something about this by the start of March, without M.o.W. [Ministry of Works]” and that “there must be no question of his [MoW] minister organising shows.”


The GPO Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, had to point out that there was little point in organising an event before any equipment had been installed in the Tower, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.”

O’Brien’s preferred date for the opening ceremony was April or May 1965 with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding. In case there were delays, Bevins’ successor, Tony Benn, decided to invite Prime Minister Harold Wilson to officiate instead. In his letter, Benn asked Wilson to “draw attention to the role of the Post Office as the central nervous system of the United Kingdom dealing in the transmission of all sorts of information on which the economic life of the community depends”. Downing St was given the choice of April or October and, to O’Brien’s dismay, Wilson gave an October date as his preference. The Post Office had wanted a ceremony sooner rather than later because the physical construction of the Tower had been completed in 1964, and O’Brien was concerned that the public would be wondering why it had not been opened already.

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The October date – preferred by the GPO Engineering Department to ensure that all the latest equipment was installed – was seen to be a better option, “it would be rather unfortunate if we were to try to show the way in which the Post Office is installing the most up to date equipment in the world if we had so important a person as the Prime Minister opening the Tower when little equipment is there.”

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Ultimately, perhaps reflecting a typical British compromise, there were actually FOUR opening ceremonies:

  • The topping out ceremony on 15 July 1964 marking the formal end of the construction, where a Minister of Public Building and Works made a speech “confining himself to the building achievements.”
  • The operational opening of the Tower on 8 October 1965.
  • An official visit by HM Queen Elizabeth hosted by Tony Benn on 17 May
  • The opening of the public areas of the Tower (the restaurant and the observation floor) on 19 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Sir Billy Butlin (who had been awarded the licence to operate the restaurant).

The files also reflect a little of the characters of some of the key players in the Tower’s story. J R Bevins, who had been instrumental in the building of the Tower, declined his invitation because it had been incorrectly addressed to him as ‘Mr’ rather than “the Right Honourable J R Bevins – after all I am a Privy Councillor”. And following the ceremony Tony Benn wrote to O’Brien requesting that special arrangements be made to ensure that official drivers received refreshments at future events, “I believe there was some difficulty about this in connection with the opening of the Post Office Tower”.

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Whatever day you see as the ‘official opening’, the BT Tower (formerly the Post Office Tower) is still an iconic landmark in London today and an innovation from the General Post Office.

You can read more on the history of the BT Tower on the BT Archives website

Postmasters General

The head of the Post Office has been known by many different titles, but from 1657 to 1969 the holder of this position was called the Postmaster General. Postmasters General were Cabinet-level ministers, selected by the Prime Minister from amongst the members of Parliament or the House of Lords.

One notable Postmaster General was Henry Fawcett, Member of Parliament for Hackney under Prime Minister William Gladstone. Although only Postmaster General for four and half years (1880-1884), Fawcett was responsible for introducing the Post Office Savings Bank savings stamp, the Parcel Post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, amongst other things. A Liberal, Fawcett was also Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University, an early supporter of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and the husband of suffragist and political activist Millicent Garrett Fawcett. In 2009 Philip Jeffs of the Royal National Institute of the Blind blogged for us on Fawcett’s disability; having been blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25 Fawcett reportedly told his father: “Well, it shan’t make any difference in my plans of life!”

Henry Fawcett, Postmaster General 1880-1884. (2012/0129-02)

Henry Fawcett, Postmaster General 1880-1884. (2012/0129-02)

Other famous Postmasters General include Neville Chamberlain, Postmaster General 1922-1923 and Prime Minister 1937-1940, Clement Attlee, Postmaster General 1931 and Prime Minister 1945-1951, and Tony Benn, who was Postmaster General from 1964-1966 and later held a number of other cabinet positions including Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in 1974. Tony Benn’s tenure as Postmaster General is remembered as being a time of change, when the portrait of the monarch was removed from stamps in favour of the cameo head.

Tony Benn, Postmaster General 1964-1966. (P9183)

Tony Benn, Postmaster General 1964-1966. (P9183)

In 1969 the Post Office became a Corporation headed by a Chairman, and government responsibility for the organisation came under the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. When that ministerial position was abolished in 1974 postal services came under the Department of Industry. Today Royal Mail Group is overseen by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, and headed by Chairman Donald Brydon and Chief Executive Moya Greene.

For a complete list Postmasters General and the holders of other senior positions see our webpage on Leadership of the Post Office. Photographs of a number of Postmasters General and Assistant Postmasters General can be viewed on Flickr. For more on 20th Century Postmaster General see Adrian Steel’s blog post The Office of Postmaster General: Its holders in the Twentieth Century.

“Off with her head!”

Our display “Off with her head!” will form part of the ABPS National Philatelic Exhibition in Perth, taking place 19–20 October 2012. The display consists of four sections; A Portrait with Problems, The battle for Change, The Gentleman Album and The End of the Affair.

In 1964 Tony Benn became Postmaster General and immediately set about trying to change conservative thinking at the Post Office. He had determined ideas about stamps – to widen their scope, and to remove the Queen’s head. He found a like mind in David Gentleman, who already had several stamp designs to his credit.

The Queen did not agree with her head being removed from stamps and in response Gentleman created a small cameo head in profile as an alternative.

David Gentleman's experiments with the cameo head of the Queen.

David Gentleman’s experiments with the cameo head of the Queen.

The cameo head came to be accepted in place of the Wilding portrait. It was used from the Landscapes issue of 1966 until it was replaced with the new Machin commemorative head in 1968.

Uniquely, for the Robert Burns issue, the designers (all Scottish) were instructed that they could also submit “non-traditional” designs. In practice, this meant designs without the Queen’s head. Several did, and a total of 21 (out of 40) carried the legend U.K. POSTAGE, or a crown, or royal cypher.

Jock Kinneir's design, showing Burns’ signature without the Queen’s head.

Jock Kinneir’s design, showing Burns’ signature without the Queen’s head.

Some 12 different designs were essayed and those first chosen were “non-traditional” signatures of Burns. However, in the meantime, it had been decided to retain the head of the monarch and so the designs were re-essayed with that addition. In the end, a more traditional approach was preferred.

Jock Kinneir's revised designs, showing Burns’ signature and portrait without the Queen’s head.

Jock Kinneir’s revised designs, showing Burns’ signature and portrait without the Queen’s head.

For more information on the revolutionary stamp designs of David Gentleman see our online exhibition Gentleman on Stamps.

Concorde – A British Design Classic

Having recently catalogued all Great Britain Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal commemorative registration sheets of stamps, it dawned on me how much the ‘First Flight of Concorde’ stamps of 1969 stood out; both in terms of their slick design and ultimately the subject that they embodied. After all, this ‘Supersonic’ airliner, of Anglo-French origin is as an aviation and engineering icon.

During the late 1950’s, The British, French, Soviets and Americans were in competition, as each nation industriously worked towards developing a form of commercial civilian supersonic transport. It was the British and French however (both funded by their respective governments) who jetted ahead in this particular pursuit. Subsequently they developed designs called the ‘Type 233’ and ‘Super-Caravelle’ respectively, which ultimately saw them leading the commercial aircraft market at the time, which until then had been dominated so ardently by the United States.

First Flight of Concorde - 4d value, designed by M. and S. Goaman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde – 4d value, designed by M. and S. Goaman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde - 9d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde – 9d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde - 1s6d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde – 1s6d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

Due to the impending costs which ensued with the production costs however, the British and French combined forces, forming an international treaty (rather than an agreement on commercial terms) in the early 1960’s, where their newly formed British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and Aérospatiale companies merged, on what famously became the ‘Concorde’ project. It was this partnership which proved triumphant, as the first Concorde prototype was presented in 1967.

Concorde’s maiden flight on the 2nd March 1969 was heralded as ‘faultless’. The aircraft took off from Toulouse and reached 10,000ft. The following day three postage stamps were issued in Britain, with one design (4d) by M. and S. Goaman and the other two (9d and 1s 6d) designed by the prolific and imperious David Gentleman. Looking at Gentleman’s designs specifically, the simple but bold minimal style sits well within current trends in graphic design, thus evoking a timeless appeal. Printed by Harrison and Sons on chalk-surfaced paper, with two phosphor bands, the stamps pay homage to this British design great.

French Stamp – ‘First Commercial Flight of Concorde’, 10/01/1976

French Stamp – ‘First Commercial Flight of Concorde’, 10/01/1976

French Stamp – ‘Regions of France – Pyrenees’ featuring Concorde, 10/01/1976

French Stamp – ‘Regions of France – Pyrenees’ featuring Concorde, 10/01/1976

Although a success, Concorde’s maiden flight never actually reached above 300mph, thus failing to achieve its potential ‘supersonic’ status. Concorde’s first supersonic flight (for those inquisitive amongst you) came on the 1st October 1969 where it achieved closer to the 1,300mph it was capable of. Concorde’s first commercial flights took place on 21st January 1976 – Air France flew from Paris to Rio and British Airways’ Concorde flew from London Heathrow to Bahrain. Concorde’s final flight was on 26th November 2003, following the tragic aftermath of Concorde’s only crash on 25th July 2000, and the global economic downfall of the subsequent years.

Evidently, Concorde was voted the winner in the ‘Great British Design Quest’ competition of 2006. Organised by BBC2’s The Culture Show and London’s Design Museum, the Concorde design beat competition from 25 other British design classics – including Mary Quant’s mini skirt, the Routemaster Bus and Harry Beck’s 1931 London Underground Map design (runner-up). This news came as a delight to Concorde fans, notably Tony Benn – the former Postmaster General – who himself has been so prominent throughout British Postal History. Benn was the Aviation Minister responsible for giving Concorde the go-ahead in the first place.

The 2009 stamp issue ‘British Design Classics’ features ten iconic designs, including Concorde and the other aforementioned ‘design classics’, plus others – thus tying in nicely with the British Design Classic theme of which Concorde so famously championed.

British Design Classics stamps - 13/01/2009

British Design Classics stamps – 13/01/2009

The full series of Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal commemorative registration sheets are due to be made available via the BPMA’s online catalogue, each with a full catalogue description and a digitised section of each sheet, including of course the 1969 Concorde stamps.

You may also enjoy watching this video of Concorde’s maiden flight:

Stuart Aitken – Cataloguer, Philately

Treasures of the Archive

by Zoe van Well, Archives Assistant

Hi, I am Zoe van Well and this is the first time I have blogged for the BPMA. So why now? Well, recently I contributed to the leaflet for the Treasures of the Archive exhibition. It is housed in the Search Room of the Archive and is free for all to view. You can also download a copy from our website.

In writing the leaflet I was able to not only test my knowledge built up over the past year as an Archives Assistant but also to gain more! I found it so exciting to make connections between the themes highlighted by the Treasures of the Archive exhibition.

The Machin Head mould

The Machin Head mould

One item is The Machin Head mould. Other themes include; Stamps That Never Were, featuring a page from David Gentleman’s design book, and also a World Cup Stamp commissioned for the Scotland team; Design in the GPO, The Mail Coach; and the list goes on!

I found that so many pivotal moments of postal history exposed by the exhibition directly influenced each other. The Machin Head, for example, is a mould sculpted and cast by Arnold Machin and was used to create the definitive stamp still in use today. (Everybody will have used one at some point in their life!) After I read some of Douglas Muir’s book on the topic, titled A Timeless Classic and sold in the search room, I became aware of the challenges which arose during the design process. In particular I realised the roles David Gentleman and the then Postmaster General Tony Benn played, given they were questioning the very use of the Monarch’s Head being present on stamps!

Colour trials for the Postal Union Congress £1 stamp of 1929

Various colours were trialled for the Postal Union Congress £1 stamp of 1929. Eventually, grey was selected.

This lead to me realising special stamps were very limited in number until the 1960’s, full stop! The Postal Union Congress commemorative stamps featuring George V (of which the £1 Stamp, 1929 is displayed in the exhibition) was only the second Commemorative Stamp to be commissioned. The first were designed for the British Empire Exhibition held in1924 and 1925. These stamps can currently be viewed at the Empire Mail: George V and the GPO exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

I must say though, whilst looking into these stamps I unearthed other research material which can sometimes be overlooked, including supplements issued in the Philatelic Bulletin. The Philatelic Bulletin is a small newsletter published by Royal Mail, and it includes articles on special stamps about to be issued. One supplement in particular does a great job of explaining the difference between definitive and special stamps. We have a complete collection of these Bulletins in the search room and they can be a great starting point for projects undergone by school pupils. They are also a great way for everybody to learn about events in philatelic history. Of course, if you become interested in an event and would like to see original material relating to it, either I or one my colleagues in the Search Room will be pleased to help you locate some if you wish!

One of only eight penny black proof registration sheets, produced before letters were inserted into the plate

One of only eight penny black proof registration sheets, produced before letters were inserted into the plate

Getting back to the Treasure of the Archive Exhibition, don’t forget we also have on display a Penny Black Proof Registration sheet (1st April 1840), of which there are only eight and all are cared for here at the British Postal Museum and Archive. We also have a Queen Victoria Channel Islands Pillar Box, one of the very first to be made and which were trialled on the Channel Islands during 1852 and 1853.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to visit us while this exciting and rare material is still on display! Why not make a day of it by browsing our catalogue either online or in our search room after viewing the exhibition. You may also prefer to take inspiration from the search room information sheets such as Travelling Post Offices, Mail Rail, Animals in the Post Office, The Post Office in the Second World War, Women in the Post Office and Airmail. If you find something takes your interest, we can help you find a particular item and produce it for you from the repository.

We enjoy showing you original material as it can often be a thrilling experience; both for staff and visitors, whether it is a time bill, a report or a list of ingredients for cancellation inks!

Treasures of the Archive can be viewed in our Search Room until April 2011. For information on visiting the Search Room please see http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/visiting.

Lord Bath, Tony Benn and Bath Postal Museum help to launch London 2010: Festival of Stamps

Lord Bath sends off a carrier pigeon with his message to Mr Tony Benn. Watching are the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath (left) with Audrey Swindells and Ivan Holliday of the Bath Postal Museum.

Lord Bath sends off a carrier pigeon with his message to Mr Tony Benn. Watching are the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath (left) with Audrey Swindells and Ivan Holliday of the Bath Postal Museum. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

by Colin Baker, Bath Postal Museum

On 23rd March the Marquess of Bath, a patron of the Bath Postal Museum, despatched a message by carrier pigeon from outside the Guildhall in the centre of Bath to Tony Benn in London. Lord Bath’s message wished the London 2010: Festival of Stamps every success. Tony Benn was the ideal receiver of this message, being the last Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in Britain. The message was written on an original pigeongramme form as used in World War Two, which is very lightweight paper that weighed only one gram.

Lord Bath sends one of the pigeons on its way. The Mayor, Mayoress and some of the Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum follow its progress.

Lord Bath sends one of the pigeons on its way. The Mayor, Mayoress and some of the Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum follow its progress. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

It was more than a year ago that the Bath Postal Museum first suggested the idea of using a pigeon to send greetings to the organisers of the Festival of Stamps. The event was organised by the museum to complement their latest exhibition covering some of the major events in the reign of King George V. The exhibition will remain open to the public until the end of 2010.

Watching the release of the pigeons and making sure they were safely in the air were the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath, Councillor and Mrs Colin Barrett, with Trustees, Friends and volunteers of the Bath Postal Museum.

The 1935 Morris Minor postal van sets off from the Guildhall in Bath with its cargo of special event covers.

The 1935 Morris Minor postal van sets off from the Guildhall in Bath with its cargo of special event covers. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

The three pigeons had been received by pigeon trainer Trevor Cocks of Bath who with his son handed them to Lord Bath who launched each pigeon into the air. Three pigeons set off ensuring safe arrival. Lord Bath then waved off a 1930s Morris Minor Post Office vehicle owned and driven by Kevin Saville. There are only two of these period vehicles fully roadworthy and it was a privilege for the Bath Postal Museum to be able to use this one to carry some of its special commemorative envelopes.

The vintage Post Office vehicle was followed by a modern Post Office van provided by Royal Mail, Bath section, both vehicles representing early and modern post office vehicles. After the event all present were entertained by the Mayor and Mayoress in the Guildhall and then given a guided tour of the beautiful Mayor’s Parlour.

Tony Benn holding the pigeon that carried the message from Lord Bath. Watching from left to right, Brian Trotter & Alan Huggins (London 2010), Colin Baker (Bath Postal Museum) and Teddy Hendrie the pigeon’s owner.

Tony Benn holding the pigeon that carried the message from Lord Bath. Watching from left to right, Brian Trotter & Alan Huggins (London 2010), Colin Baker (Bath Postal Museum) and Teddy Hendrie the pigeon’s owner. (Photo: Michael Pitt-Payne)

The pigeon carrying the message from Lord Bath flew to its home loft in East London from where the message was taken and presented to Tony Benn by Ted Hendrie of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. Tony Benn then passed the message to Brian Trotter – Chairman of the International Stamp Exhibition. Alan Huggins – Chairman of the Festival Advisory Board and Colin Baker from the Bath Postal Museum was also present to witness the receipt of the message. Colin Baker said “The way this pigeon message has been sent will show people how communication always played an important role in our society. Although there was no internet in King George V’s reign, the techniques used in his day were often faster than some of the methods we currently employ.”

The pigeongramme that was sent to Tony Benn wishing the London 2010: Festival of Stamps every success.

The pigeongramme that was sent to Tony Benn wishing the London 2010: Festival of Stamps every success. (Photo: Bath Postal Museum)

Tony Benn was particularly interested in the pigeon and the message it carried. He told the story of his grandfather who was the first pilot to parachute a spy behind enemy lines during the First World War. Dropping the spy was easy he said, they simply cut a hole in the floor of the plane which he slid through before opening his parachute. The spy took carrier pigeons with him, which he released over the next few days, with messages concerning enemy activities and other important information.

It may seem strange to us today to use a pigeon to send a message, but homing pigeons were used extensively in the past. During the siege of Paris in 1870 they were flown out of the city by hot air balloons and flew back after a suitable rest period carrying strips of microfilm with messages for the besieged Parisians. During the two world wars pigeons were used to carry messages between the front line and headquarters.

All RAF (Royal Air Force) bombers carried homing pigeons in the Second World War. For example a bird called ‘White Vision’ delivered a message bearing latitude and longitude details so that the RAF crew could be rescued. They were flying a Catalina Flying Boat which ditched over the Hebrides. This bird flew 60 miles in atrocious weather over heavy seas. It was awarded one of the 14 ‘Dickin Medals for Gallantry’ awarded to homing pigeons. In all 32 bravery medals were awarded to pigeons in the 2nd World War.

The Battle of Britain stamps controversy

David Gentleman, whose many British stamp designs are currently being exhibited in our Search Room, is no stranger to controversy. In 1965 he wrote to Postmaster General Tony Benn (who had announced a new policy for stamp issues in late 1964 and was seeking suggestions) and requested that the design limitations of having to include the monarch’s head on stamps be addressed. Benn, a republican, was keen to remove the monarch’s head, and saw Gentleman’s design limitations argument as an excellent – and non-political – way to achieve this objective. 

Gentleman, and his wife Rosalind Dease, had already been commissioned to design stamps commemorating the death of Winston Churchill and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and supplied Benn with versions of the designs without the Queen’s head. Ultimately, it was decided that the monarch’s head should remain on British stamps (you can read the full story by downloading the PDF The David Gentleman Album from our website), but this was not the end of the controversy as far as the Battle of Britain stamps were concerned.

More than a month before their release date a number of newspapers published images of the stamps, with several tabloids highlighting two of the eight stamps, which showed German aircraft. The first of the two stamps in question showed the wing-tip of a Messerschmitt fighter overshadowed by the wing-tip of a Spitfire; the other stamp showed a Dornier bomber sinking into the sea while Hawker Hurricanes flew above it. The reason for the focus on these stamps was that the German aircraft pictured featured German military emblems, the Balkenkreuz (cross) on the Messerschmitt and the swastika on the Dornier.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The inclusion of these emblems, particularly the swastika, caused great concern, with several Members of Parliament and the House of Lords speaking against the stamps. At the same time, representatives of a number of organisations, and many members of the public wrote letters to The Queen, the Prime Minister and Tony Benn, requesting that the Battle of Britain stamps be withdrawn.

A London Rabbi, writing to Benn on behalf of 775 families of his congregation, wrote “Please don’t allow swastika on our stamps. They are the 20th Century symbol of persecution, oppression, suffering and all that is evil”. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr S. Teff, also expressed his concerns in writing to Benn: “The Board has already received numerous complaints from members of the Jewish community to whom the sight of the swastika in any form is offensive in the extreme.”

A common theme amongst many of the complainants, in particular those who had served in the war, was that issuing a stamp bearing the swastika was an insult to the war dead. Others objected to the swastika appearing alongside the Queen’s head.

Withdrawing the stamps would have been very difficult for the Post Office as the Battle of Britain issue was the first set of stamps to be commissioned since Benn had changed the policy to include stamps commemorating important anniversaries. Indeed, the Battle of Britain stamps had come about partly due to lobbying from the Royal Air Forces Association and a number of Members of Parliament. The issue was also the largest issue of commemorative stamps to date.

Benn and his department took the view that the reason for the objections to the stamps was that the tabloid press articles which had highlighted the stamps featuring German aircraft, had not made clear the purpose of the stamps, and that black and white images of the stamps which appeared in various publications did not effectively convey the subtlety of the designs.

“The purpose of the stamp is to commemorate the victory over Nazism and I am sure that when the stamp is seen in colour it will be quite apparent that the swastika on the tail of the Dornier bomber is both split and half covered by water; the shattered Dornier is sinking in the English Channel and high above four RAF fighters, objective achieved, are flying back to base” wrote one official, in reply to a member of the public.

“In effect, the stamp is meant to be symbolic of the crushing of the Nazis and all that they stood for. We hope you will agree that within the limits of stamp design, it is difficult to do justice to a subject without introducing features of this kind into a series illustrating the Battle of Britain…”

Benn himself said in one letter “I feel that the stamp is a true reflection of that period in our history and…will be seen as a reminder of a great victory over the evil of Nazism. Because of this I do not propose to withdraw it.” He also argued that no objections were raised to the swastika being seen in newsreel footage of German planes, and that the RAF had displayed and flown captured Nazi aircraft on numerous occasions.

Eventually criticism died down, and despite threats to boycott the stamps sales were healthy, although the GPO arranged for adequate stocks of ordinary small size stamps to be available for those who did not wish to purchase the Battle of Britain issue.

Writing in his 2002 book Design, David Gentleman reflected “the tabloids [made] a great furore over the inclusion of a swastika and an iron cross. But without an enemy there would have been no battle and, as the stamps showed the Germans getting the worst of it anyway, the whole manufactured fuss quickly died down.”

The British Postal Museum & Archive holds many files relating to the Battle of Britain stamp issue. Details of these can be found on our online catalogue.

The Office of Postmaster General: Its holders in the Twentieth Century

by Dr Adrian Steel, Acting CEO

The office of Postmaster General (PMG) was abolished upon the creation of the Post Office Corporation by the Post Office Act of 1969, forty years ago this year. BPMA is holding a talk about this great change in the Autumn. We are occasionally asked about some of the politicians who held the office and went on to great fame, notably Clement Attlee (Postmaster General in 1931, Prime Minister 1945-1951, and one of only two Labour Prime Ministers to use their given first name) and Neville Chamberlain (Postmaster General 1922-1923, Prime Minister 1937-1940). However, 32 politicians held the office between 1902 and 1969, and of the others there are some notable points of interest.

Neville Chamberlain’s half-brother Austen was PMG from 1902-1903, the only holder of the office to subsequently win the Nobel Peace Prize. He was honoured for his role in negotiating the Locarno treaties of 1925, aimed at bolstering peace and stability in post-Great War Europe, and the following year French and German statesmen were similarly recognised.

Sir William Joynson Hicks (PMG 1923) later became Home Secretary in Stanley Baldwin’s 1924-1929 Conservative government. As such, during the 1926 General Strike he was the hate figure of the trade unions, whose propaganda used the shortened name ‘Jix’ to enable better-rhyming abuse to be created. PMG in the 1924-1929 government, Sir William Mitchell-Thompson, was at the helm at the inception of television. Later, as Lord Selsdon, he chaired a 1930s commission on the introduction of public television and was one of few people to appear on the first day of BBC broadcast television in 1936.

As PMG under Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s, Ernest Marples oversaw the first Premium Bonds draw. He later found greater fame as the transport minister who appointed the railway-axing Dr Beeching to chair British Rail, and as the introducer of the parking meter. His life ended in controversy, he died in Monaco having fled Britain amid claims of tax evasion on a large scale.

Tony Benn is perhaps the most famous ex-PMG still alive, but at age 96 his successor, Edward Short, PMG from 1966-1968, and now Lord Glenamara, is at present the oldest living parliamentarian.

Tony Benn as Postmaster General

Tony Benn as Postmaster General

BPMA launches podcast

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Yesterday I made the BPMA’s first podcast live. The BPMA podcast makes available recordings of our Talks programme, with a talk by Tony Benn being the first to be released. This entertaining and informative talk was given at the BPMA last year and celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Girobank, a project initiated during Benn’s time as Postmaster General.

Girobank extended banking services to people on low incomes and revolutionised the transfer of money in Britain. It was the first UK bank to offer free banking to personal customers and the first to develop telephone banking. Its operations are now part of the Alliance and Leicester Group.

Post Office Technology: National Giro, a stamp designed by David Gentleman and released in 1969.

Post Office Technology: National Giro, a stamp designed by David Gentleman, released in 1969.

A stamp celebrating National Giro, which was designed by David Gentleman, was released in 1969 as part of a set on Post Office Technology. This stamp can be seen if you download the enhanced version of the Tony Benn podcast, or subscribe using iTunes or your favourite aggregator.

Podcasts with a philatelic or postal history theme are pretty rare on the ground, so the BPMA podcast is an exciting initiative. The only other podcasts on this subject that I have found are Prestige Philately with Australian stamp dealer Gary Watson, APS Stamp Talk with Nancy Clark of the American Philatelic Society, and the Spink podcast, which is available in both audio and video versions. Also worth a look are the new You Tube channel from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum and the You Tube challenge from the American Philatelic Society. It’s great to see philatelists, postal historians and stamp collectors experimenting with audio and video.

Future BPMA podcasts will examine the role of the Post Office during wartime and take an in-depth look at a recent British stamp release.

To download or subscribe to our podcast please see our website, or the link to our podcast feed in the right hand column. Click here to see the podcast on iTunes.

Gentleman on Stamps

by Sue Barnard, Exhibitions and Learning Manager

Every year we mount a new exhibition in our Search Room on a philatelic theme. This year’s exhibition will feature the work of one of the most prolific contributors to British stamp design, David Gentleman.

David Gentleman’s association with the Post Office and Royal Mail dates back to 1962, when his designs to mark National Productivity Year were selected. His contribution to pictorial stamp design during the 1960s is described by Douglas Muir, Curator of Philately at the BPMA as “supremely important”.

Keen to address the visual limitations imposed by the inclusion of the monarch’s head on British commemorative stamps, it was during that decade that David Gentleman wrote to Tony Benn, then Postmaster General, about the possibilities of alternative approaches. The resulting “Essays in Stamp Design” proposed new commemorative stamp subjects such as birds, transport, architecture and regional landscapes.

The proposals also included a single sheet of se tenant stamps featuring each of the eighteen rulers of Britain since the Anglo Scottish Union of 1603, which David Gentleman describes as one of the most interesting subjects to design.

Some of the 100 essays that comprise what became known as “The Gentleman Album” will be on display. For Douglas Muir, this early work demonstrates how David Gentleman was responsible for revolutionising the concept, format and extent of pictorial design.

David Gentlemans stamp celebrating the social reforms of Lord Shaftesbury

David Gentleman's stamp celebrating the social reforms of Lord Shaftesbury

The British Pioneers of Social Reform stamps of 1976 will be exhibited to illustrate the processes worked through from the design stage into print. The series comprises four stamps commemorating the work of important nineteenth century reformers. Rather than take a traditional approach to representing individual achievement through portraiture, David Gentleman chose to use strong imagery to convey the very essence of what it was each campaigner wanted to reform.

Thomas Hepburn, the pioneer of the first miners union is represented by the hewing of coal, the visionary cotton mill owner Robert Owen by the pulley-wheels and belts of the textile factory, Lord Shaftesbury, the campaigner for improved working conditions, is represented by the brush of a chimney sweep, and Elizabeth Fry, champion of women prisoners, by the bars of a cell.

A visual theme running throughout all four is the symbolic use of hands, representing the shared suffering endured by many of the underprivileged in nineteenth century society. The display will include artwork showing some of the stages through which the design of the Robert Owen stamp developed.

It is an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of specific printing techniques that Douglas Muir believes marks David Gentleman out from other designers. The 1994 Regional Definitives exemplify this, and examples of the same scene depicted in wood engraving, lithography and watercolour will be on display.

David Gentleman describes how he found the deliberate, well-thought-out aspects of design attractive quite early in his career. This encouraged him to take up wood engraving, often working on a small scale.

One of David Gentlemans unadopted Ulster paintings

One of David Gentleman's unadopted Ulster paintings

When designing stamps later on it was this need to focus on an idea and to exclude everything non-essential that was important. Douglas Muir highlights the 1971 Ulster Paintings as demonstrating this ability to think and work stamp size. A selection of these rapid sketches will be included in the exhibition.

Focusing on stamps previously unseen, this section of the exhibition will also include examples from the 2001 English Definitives. In these, various buildings and landscapes are used to represent English culture and identity. Ranging from the pictorial to the abstract, designs in this series incorporate natural and man-made features, such as chalk down, cornfield and white horse, as well as formal architectural elements.

Gentleman on Stamps can be seen in BPMA’s Search Room from 7th May. On display will be the artwork behind some of Gentleman’s issued stamps as well as unadopted designs and issues previously unseen by the public. As stamp design is but one element of Gentleman’s work the exhibition will also include a selection of posters from his own collection. In addition a 1968 GPO film Picture to Post, featuring the work of David Gentleman, will be screened.

An online version of Gentleman on Stamps, including a downloadable pdf on The David Gentleman Album, can be viewed on our website. David Gentleman will deliver a talk entitled Design Into Print at the BPMA on 14th May 2009.