Tag Archives: United Kingdom

GPO Britain in pictures

The BPMA is the custodian of a photographic collection which includes about 100,000 individual photographs; the earliest is from the late 19th century and the latest ones date from the 1990s. In a previous blog on our photography collection and a talk now available as a podcast we have presented some of this fascinating material and the stories behind it, and our exhibition The Post Office in Pictures features some of the most striking images.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The photographs depict life in Britain at the time of the General Post Office (GPO) with its contrasts between modern urban areas and the industrial heartland, and the remote rural regions where the postman or postwoman presented a vital connection to the outside world. We have selected six of the most intriguing images for a new postcard set which is now available from the BPMA Shop.

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Many of these photographs have been published in the Post Office Magazine (POST 92), which was first issued in 1934 in order to promote postal services and good relations with the public, aimed at the large postal workforce, their families and friends. The articles often presented the modernity and efficiency of the GPO’s services, such as the Post Office Savings Bank – “Everybody’s Bank” with ten million accounts, according to the author of an article in the September 1935 issue. The story on the bank, which holds “the small savings of ordinary not-very-wealthy folk in the hamlets and towns and cities of Britain”, is accompanied by several images of banking clerks entering the 120,000 daily transactions in the newly adopted accounting machines. The clerks’ efficiency in dealing with the amount of correspondence and day to day business clearly impressed the author – he dubs them ‘super clerks’.

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

Other sections of the magazines were regularly dedicated to news from the different UK regions. These focussed on the local postal staff and their achievements, activities and work in their local community, which, to today’s readers, provides some authentic insights into rural British communities in the 1930s and 1940s. The October 1938 Northern Ireland section, for example, features the image of a postman with a pony and trap on a rural road: “The Glenarm Bay postman goes on his delivery in a trap presented to him by local residents” (POST 118/903).

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Other issues show postmen wading through rivers on horseback (January 1939) to reach the next village or town, or recount the peculiar history of whale bones decorating the post office exterior at Cley-next-the-Sea (March 1938).

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

The GPO Britain postcard set is now available from the BPMA Shop for £3.75.

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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

Thurloe and the Secret Room

As today’s episode of The Peoples Post highlighted censorship and the interception of mails remains a sensitive subject. As recent public outrage against phone hacking has shown, people expect their communications to be private and letters from one private individual to another were once seen as being as sacred as the voicemail messages of a celebrity or crime victim. However, at certain times in the past the government has covertly or overtly intercepted mail as part of its efforts to maintain national security. Through the records held here at the BPMA a special insight into this can be gained.

Very little material survives from the period of the Civil War but the oldest item in the Royal Mail Archive suggests a focus on centralisation and ensuring the correct monopoly for the postal service rather than on interception and spying on the contents of the mail.

Letter from Thomas Witherings to the Mayor of Hull relating to the establishment of the public postal service, by the setting up of new or improved posts on the five principal roads of the kingdom, those to Dover, Edinburgh, Holyhead, Plymouth and Bristol. (POST 23/1)

Letter from Thomas Witherings to the Mayor of Hull relating to the establishment of the public postal service, by the setting up of new or improved posts on the five principal roads of the kingdom, those to Dover, Edinburgh, Holyhead, Plymouth and Bristol. (POST 23/1)

However, as the Civil War progressed and in particular under the regime of Oliver Cromwell it became more widespread – particularly under the leadership of the first Postmaster General, John Thurloe, depicted in a print held in the BPMA museum collection.

The Right Honourable John Thurloe Esqr. Secretary of State to the Protectors Oliver and Richard Cromwell (2010-0398)

The Right Honourable John Thurloe Esqr. Secretary of State to the Protectors Oliver and Richard Cromwell (2010-0398)

Thurloe’s state papers, some of which can be viewed online, include letters from private individuals to others (so, not to Thurloe!) which he has clearly intercepted and kept because of the detail they contain.

Thurloe became a great survivor and his operation was so valued by his opponents that after the Restoration he was rescued from capital charges of treason on condition he worked for the new royalist regime of Charles II, which he did. His character anchors the Thomas Chaloner series of murder mysteries by Susanna Gregory, which bring to life the world in which Thurloe’s operations supported the British state. A real-life depiction is given in a biographical work held in BPMA’s search room library: the Dutchman Mr Dorislaus, employed by Thurloe,

had a private roome allotted him adjoyning to the forreigne Office, and every post night about 11 a clock he went into that roome privately, and had all the letter[s] brought and layd before him, to open any as he should see good, and close them up again, and there he remained in that room, usually till about 3 or 4 in the morning, which was the usuall time of shutting up the male, and in the processe of time the said Dorislaus had got such a knowledge of all hands and seals, that scarcely could a letter be brought him but he knew the hand that wrote it; and when there was any extraordinary occasion, as when any rising was neare or the like, then S. Morland [a secretary of Thurloe’s] went from Whitehall between 11 and 12, and was privately conveighed into that roome, and there assisted Mr Dorislaus, and such letters as they found dangerous he brought back with him to Whitehall in the morning.

– Adrian Steel, Director

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Secret Room. 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

The United States on British stamps

Tomorrow citizens of the United States will celebrate Independence Day, marking the approval by Congress of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. As Britain was the country from which the United States became independent, you may think that this date has never been celebrated on a British stamp, but in fact it has.

The Bicentennial of American Independence stamp (1976)

The Bicentennial of American Independence stamp (1976)

A stamp released on 2nd June 1976 to celebrate the US Bicentenary shows Benjamin Franklin, one of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and the first Postmaster of the United States. Franklin was also the subject of the first US postage stamp, released on 1st July 1847.

Three further stamps with American themes were released by Royal Mail in the 1990s. In 1992, 42 member countries of CEPT (Conference of European Postal & Telecommunications), including the United Kingdom, released stamps on the theme of Voyages of Discovery in America. The first UK stamp shows Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, about to make landfall in the Americas. The second UK stamp shows the Kaisei, a Japanese brigantine which was involved in the Grand Regatta Columbus, an event celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journey. Participating in the rally were members of Raleigh International, which has organised charitable expeditions since 1978.

The Landfall in the Americas and Grand Regatta Columbus stamps (1992)

The Landfall in the Americas and Grand Regatta Columbus stamps (1992)

The Settlers Tale: 17th Century Migration to the Americas (1999)

The Settlers' Tale: 17th Century Migration to the Americas (1999)

In 1999 Royal Mail celebrated the approaching Millenium by releasing a number of sets of stamps on various themes. The Settler’s Tale stamps, on the theme of migration to, from and within the UK, were released on 6 April 1999 and include a stamp on migration to the Americas in the 17th Century. The stamp shows a Pilgrim couple trading with a Native American.

But perhaps the most interesting depictions of the Americas on British postal stationery are the envelope and letter sheet designed by William Mulready. The Mulready stationery was released at the same time as the Penny Black, but proved unpopular, partly due to the elaborate design. The design shows Britannia between depictions of the continents of Asia and America, and, in the lower corners, small family groups anxiously reading letters. The Americas are represented by Pilgrims, Native Americans, and toiling slaves – remember, this was 1840! (For a closer view of the Mulready stationery see Volume II of the R M Phillips Collection, an award-winning collection of British stamps from the Victorian era in the care of the BPMA.)

A coloured version of The Mulready Envelope (1840)

A coloured version of The Mulready Envelope (1840)

So, Happy Independence Day to our readers in the United States, and if you’d like to tell us about US stamps with British themes please leave a comment.