Tag Archives: Victorian

Welcome to 2013

This year will be an exciting year at The British Postal Museum & Archive. While many staff are working hard to develop our new museum and archive others are continuing to organise events and exhibitions.

Talks

The first of our talks takes place next month and features Chris West, author of First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps. In his talk Chris will discuss the book and go in depth on some of the stories. Last year Chris wrote a blog for us about how he came to write his book, and you can buy a copy from our online shop or purchase one at the event.

In March Oliver Carter-Wakefield of Kings College London will speak on Illness and Absence in the Victorian Post Office. Consumption, necrosis and mental derangement were just some of the reasons Victorian postmen called in sick – and they weren’t always skiving!

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

In April David Bramwell will present a slide-show talk on how the postal system was used for the purposes of mischief making, and in June BPMA Curator Emma Harper will explore a less weird but just as wonderful use of the Royal Mail when she explores the culture of letter writing in 19th and 20th Centuries.

Tickets for all our talks are only £3.00 (or £2.50 concession) and can be booked online.

Tours

Our ever popular tours will be held throughout 2013. Bookings are now open for three tours of the Royal Mail Archive and six tours of our Museum Collection. These guided tours are led by our archivists and curators, who will give you a rare behind the scenes look at our collections storage facilities and an insight in to what they care for. Book now for these tours as they sell out quickly!

Walking tours of postal London run once a month and are operated by our partners Cityguides. Tours start at Farringdon Station and end at Bank, taking you in to the City of London which was once the heartland of the British Post Office. There is no need to book for these tours – just turn up on the day. See our website for details.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

Special Events

The Museum Store, where we are house our full of collection of pillar boxes and vehicles, will play host to two special events this year. The first, Pillar Box Perfection, taking place on 6 April, will offer a range of activities for all ages based around the iconic pillar box. The second, Museums at Night at the Museum Store, is part of an initiative taking place in May in which museums stay open in the evening. We’ll tell you more about this event nearer to the time. Both of these special events are free of charge.

Exhibitions

Visitors to the Royal Mail Archive in London can still see our Diamond Jubilee display of stamps from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. We also have a permanent exhibition, The Museum of the Post Office in the Community, at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shorpshire. The Museum is located above a recreated Victorian post office – a fascinating place to visit in itself – and is free to visit as part of your entry to Blists Hill.

Part of our much-loved collection of General Post Office posters from the 1930s-1960s will go on display at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon in March. This is part of the Paintings in Hospitals scheme, and the public may visit the exhibition in the Hospital’s designated display area during their opening hours.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley - this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley – this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Also on tour is our exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which can be seen at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire from March and at Aysgarth Station Heritage Site, North Yorkshire in May. The exhibition looks at the role of the Post Office during the Great War.

Visit our website for full details of our programme of events and exhibitions.

The History of the Christmas Card

BPMA Archivist Anna Flood previews her upcoming talk on The History of the Christmas Card

It’s a treat as we head towards Christmas to showcase some of the festive items we have in our collections. Last year I had the pleasure of delving into our extensive Christmas card collection for a talk which I will be repeating this December at the BPMA.

Using a wide variety of cards from our museum collection I’ll be discussing the inception in 1843 of the Christmas card as we know it today, and how the custom took off to great proportions up to the mid twentieth century, a period during which the most attractive, intricate and inventive cards were produced.

Audience members will be able to see how cards could become covetable objects for Victorians, particularly those with novel qualities such as perfumed and fan-shaped cards.

Chromolithographed card from scrapbook, 1866 (E10869)

Chromolithographed card from scrapbook, 1866 (E10869)

Some of the cards really are works of art, produced using innovative printing and paper-cutting methods, paper lace, and embroidery. However, there will also be several prime examples of Victorian gaudiness!

Raphael Tuck and Sons celluloid Christmas card, c. 1914-1918 (OB1995.162/41)

Raphael Tuck and Sons celluloid Christmas card, c. 1914-1918 (OB1995.162/41)

The exchange of Christmas cards as a romantic gesture will be illustrated by images of some of the prettiest and most delicate cards in our collection. Alongside these ornamental numbers will be examples of the practical uses of Christmas cards, given as gifts which doubled as National Savings stamp books, and printed in the form of tradesmen’s calling cards to solicit tips.

Postman's Christmas greetings card, issued to customers in the hope of receiving a gratuity (POST 30/1813)

Postman’s Christmas greetings card, issued to customers in the hope of receiving a gratuity (POST 30/1813)

The touching messages, cheerful colours and spring-like floral embroidery of some of the First World War cards will reflect how sending Christmas greetings was important to sustaining morale and providing comfort to soldiers on the frontline and their girlfriends, wives and mothers back home.

Embroidered Christmas card by Visé Paris, c.1914-1918 (OB1995.162/30)

Embroidered Christmas card by Visé Paris, c.1914-1918 (OB1995.162/30)

I’ll also provide examples of Victorian cards which debunk the common belief that the rotund, red-suited Father Christmas was the creation of Coca-Cola advertising in the 1930s. Other themes, including pagan imagery, humour, religion and romance will also be discussed, alongside the significance of the custom of exchanging Christmas cards as a reflection of social relations, tastes and fashions.

Raphael Tuck and Sons Christmas card, c.1900 (Acc. No. 2005-0101/3)

Raphael Tuck and Sons Christmas card, c.1900 (Acc. No. 2005-0101/3)

The talk on the ‘History of the Christmas card’ will be held on Tuesday 4 December, 7-8pm, in the Phoenix Centre next to the BPMA. For further details please visit http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/talk-christmas.

Items from the BPMA’s Christmas card collection can be viewed by appointment. Please contact info@postalheritage.org.uk for details.

Get 20% off Christmas cards purchased at the BPMA Shop until 19 November. Read our blog on GPO Christmas Posters to get the discount code.

Put Your Stamp on the New Centre Exhibition Space

We have been working hard with our appointed creative designers Haley Sharpe Design on early plans for the main exhibition space of the Calthorpe House New Centre. The 500m2 gallery will be split into five zones, each covering an era of postal history.

Zone 1 will look at the early days of the Royal Mail, with the BPMA’s 18th Century Mail Coach as its centrepiece, whilst in Zone 2 visitors will meet Rowland Hill – a visionary Victorian, who devised solutions to the short-comings of the postal service in its early days. On display visitors will find a variety of objects and records related to the design of the Penny Black, the world’s first postage, as well as other examples of great Victorian inventions that facilitated the sending and receiving of mail.

Visualisation of Zone 2: "Reform and Innovation".

Visualisation of Zone 2: “Reform and Innovation”.

Between Zones 2 and 3, visitors can read profound and moving stories reflecting events from postal history during the early 20th Century, such as the story of the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, the suffragettes who posted themselves to the Prime Minister, and the role of the Post Office during WWI.

Visualisation of Zone 3: "The Post Office in Conflict".

Visualisation of Zone 3: “The Post Office in Conflict”.

In Zone 3, visitors will step into a reconstruction of life in WWII London, whilst Zone 4, by contrast, will present a bright, visual feast, vividly demonstrating the time from the 1930s to the 1960s when the Post Office was a leader in style and design in Britain.

Visualisation of Zone 4: "Style and Design".

Visualisation of Zone 4: “Style and Design”.

Zone 5 will consider the modern Post Office, including the competition and challenges of 21st Century Communications, as well as the role of the service at the heart of isolated rural communities.

Work is currently underway to work up a long-list of objects and records from the Museum and Archive collections to populate the exhibition and illustrate the stories and themes outlined above. Whilst the ‘usual suspects’ (such as items from early Mail Coach Guards and the many photos and posters held in the Archive) are, of course, under consideration, the BPMA are keen to include ‘hidden gems’ that may not have been seen in previous exhibitions – something for which we would like your help…

Tell us which artefacts from the BPMA collections you would like to see on display in the new exhibition!

Blog readers are invited to suggest a museum object or archive record that they would like to see included in the new gallery displays, with an explanation as to why you have chosen that particular item. The best suggestion, as selected by the BPMA Access and Learning Team, will win a signed copy of Julian Stray’s book Mail Trains. Results announced in January.

Please send your suggestions by 30 November 2012 to: Andy Richmond – BPMA Access & Learning Manager, andy.richmond@postalheritage.org.uk.

Bloomsbury Festival

Saturday 20th October sees the BPMA once more take part in the fantastic Bloomsbury Festival – a celebration of the cultural activities and community fun to be had in this vibrant area of London.

Members of staff from the BPMA will be offering a wide range of activities across the weekend – and moving around across Russell Square in order to meet as many people as possible.

Our postman from the past.

Our postman from the past.

Back, due to popular demand, is our Pedal Powered Postman from the Past – who will be at the Festival from 10am ’til 4pm on Saturday 20th, riding around on a vintage postman’s parcel tricycle. The tricycle will be full of children’s activities for all ages – with a retro postal theme. Be sure to ask the Postman from the Past all about the red and blue Victorian postal uniform that he will be wearing too.

Victorian parcel tricycle.

Victorian parcel tricycle.

For both the Saturday and the Sunday we will have the Poetry Postie at the Festival, from 10am ’til 4pm. The Poetry Postie, otherwise known as Sally Crabtree, will also be riding around Russell Square. Sally will have a fantastic array of arty activities and crafts, which may include items such as singing telegrams or letters written as a poem. Sally is guaranteed to bring an arty twist to any postal items – and will ensure you never simply write a letter or a card in the same way again!

On the Saturday from 12.30 to 5pm the BPMA will be based at the October Gallery for our Write Away event- following on from our popular collaboration with the October Gallery at last year’s Festival. We will be making and writing our own retro postcards and providing free postage. You can send your retro postcard with a unique design to friends and family by posting it into one of our unusual replica pillar boxes.

With so many stalls and activities to see and do, all celebrating the creativity and community of Bloomsbury, the Festival promises to be a weekend not to be missed. Our events with a postal twist will be innovative and inspiring – we look forward to seeing you there!

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 Post Office in the Community

Part of today’s episode of The Peoples Post on BBC Radio 4 was recorded at Blists Hill Victorian Town, in Shropshire. It is there back in 2009 that a reconstructed late Victorian Post Office was opened in partnership with The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA). The office itself is part of the much larger site, re-creating life in late Victorian England. On the upper floor of the office however is a much more modern exhibit for visitors. In this specially constructed gallery space is the Museum of the Post Office in the Community. The Museum was created by the BPMA and designed to tell the story of the vital role post offices have played throughout history and as a centre point of communities.

Inside the reconstructed late Victorian Post Office at Blists Hill (Photo courtesy: Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust).

Inside the reconstructed late Victorian Post Office at Blists Hill (Photo courtesy: Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust).

For towns such as Blists Hill the post office would have been a very important focal point of the community; a place not only where postal business would have taken place but also a centre for gossip and the arrival of news.

When the BPMA got the opportunity to develop a museum on this site the story of the Post Office and its community role was the obvious one to take. The exhibition space was divided down into four sections, each exploring a different aspect of the community story.

In the first part the exhibition looks at the rise and fall of the different services offered by post offices and places them in a chronology alongside other events in postal history. The next section looks at delivery methods and includes a display of the differing postal caps used throughout history, part of the iconic uniform of the postal worker. Also on display is one of the BPMA’s five-wheeled cycles, the Hen and Chicks, this remarkable machine was introduced in the 1880s when the post office took on the parcels post and it continues to catch the imagination of the visitor.

The Hen and Chicks on display at the Museum of the Post Office in the Community.

The Hen and Chicks on display at the Museum of the Post Office in the Community.

The third part of the museum looks at the letter box and how it has developed, brought about by the need to improve methods of using the postal service following the success of postal reform. In this section there is a rare survivor of a very early letter box, a green and gold, highly decorative roadside letter box. The final section looks at changing times and explores the more recent history of the post office and especially how that story fits with the community role.

The Museum of the Post Office in the Community is proving to be an interesting method of allowing visitors to the popular Blists Hill site to explore in depth the history of something very familiar and something still at the heart of many communities.

– Chris Taft, Curator

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

Valentine Cards

As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, the introduction of cheap postage sent shockwaves through prim and proper Victorian society; private correspondence could now be sent cheaply, meaning anyone could express their love freely. While the likes of Blackwoods Magazine thundered…

The post-office system offers a facility for clandestine correspondence which no respectable father or mother on the European side of the Atlantic would think of without a shudder

…the truth of the matter was that love tokens, whether in the form of letters or cards, had been exchanged by the upper and middle classes in large numbers for several centuries, and less commonly before then.

As today, such expressions of love were often quite elaborate and beautiful, and some were written in code. Below are some of the more interesting examples from our collection.

'Your love my happiness' - c.1870 (OB1995.165/1A)

'Your love my happiness' - c.1870 (OB1995.165/1A). Valentine card with gilt silver embossed paper lace around edges with pink fabric flowers. Gold scrap at bottom bearing greeting. Chromolithograph girl with flowers in centre surrounded by fabric and waxed flowers with net at top.

'To My Valentine' - c.1890 (OB1995.166)

'To My Valentine' - c.1890 (OB1995.166). Chromolithograph valentine fan with 12 segments. Elaborate embossed design, gilt on handheld parts. Primroses and forget-me-nots design, with pretty ladies on each head. Each segment bears a verse: To My Valentine/ Dearer than all life's/ Joys art thou,/ A treasure without eclipse/ My heart beats proudly/ To know I share/ A love that is oure and free/ To feel there is one in/ The world doth spare/ Full many a thought/ For me. With warmest affection. Decorated with tassels and ribbon.

'My Valentine/ I love you' - c.1900 (OB1996.93/1)

'My Valentine/ I love you' - c.1900 (OB1996.93/1). A mechanical card of a girl typing a valentine message. At the bottom of the card are the words: Write me a letter love.

'To the one I love' Valentine Card - c.1900 (OB1996.93/2)

'To the one I love' Valentine Card - c.1900 (OB1996.93/2). A mechanical card of a girl with scurrying feet bringing valentine hearts in a dish.

Pop up valentine card - 20th Century (OB1996.94)

Pop up valentine card - 20th Century (OB1996.94). Depicts a honey house surrounded by heart with wings, and a googly-eyed girl. Message reads: Oh may I dare. To ask of thee/ A place within/ Thy heart for me?

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

For more on Valentine cards visit the Royal Mail Archive to read The Valentine and its Origins by Frank Staff or visit our website to view our online exhibition Valentine’s Day – Passion through the post.

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

The History of the Christmas Card

A talk I am giving at London Metropolitan Archives on December 1st on ‘The History of the Christmas Card’ gives me an excellent opportunity to highlight our most festively appropriate museum collection.

Dating from 1843 up to the present day, our Christmas card collection incorporates a large number of Victorian and Edwardian cards, as well as wartime, National Savings, and General Post Office departmental cards. We also have an original copy of the earliest known surviving British Christmas card, and the first believed to have been sold commercially, which is that commissioned in 1843 by Henry Cole, the first Director of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. I will provide more details about the origins of Christmas card-giving, and other contenders for the first card, in my talk.

Winifred M. Ackroyd Christmas card, c.1920 (OB1994.298/3)

Winifred M. Ackroyd Christmas card, c.1920 (OB1994.298/3)

Universal Postal Union Christmas card, 1889-1890 (Acc. No. 0353)

Universal Postal Union Christmas card, 1889-1890 (Acc. No. 0353)

Cards were produced for all tastes and none, and few in the collection display the Christian themes we often see on cards today. Instead, traditional pagan imagery was a popular feature, and ivy, holly, and robins feature on many nineteenth and early twentieth century cards.

St Nicholas Christmas card, 1891-1892 (E1502.20)

St Nicholas Christmas card, 1891-1892 (E1502.20)

Victorian and Edwardian cards were often exchanged between lovers, who covertly conveyed their feelings through the language of flowers to deceive the prying eyes of their elders.

Embossed Christmas card, c.1880 (OB1995.27/5/02)

Embossed Christmas card, c.1880 (OB1995.27/5/02)

The Christmas card became a fashionable and affordable luxury indulged in by those who could afford to spend as little as a halfpenny or as much as five guineas. Aware of the charm of novelty cards, some manufacturers produced designs to appeal particularly to feminine fancies, and we have some very pretty, and well-preserved, examples.

Embossed fan-shaped Christmas card, c. 1880 (OB1995.27/1)

Embossed fan-shaped Christmas card, c. 1880 (OB1995.27/1)

If we are to judge by the quality of the cards alone, their recipients must have been held in high esteem by the senders. Embroidery, paper-lace, gilding and silk adorn several cards, and one wonders which lucky lady was on the receiving end of a Rimmel perfumed card!

Perfume sachet Christmas card with paper-lace and silk, c.1860-1880 (OB1995.27/8/01)

Perfume sachet Christmas card with paper-lace and silk, c.1860-1880 (OB1995.27/8/01)

The seminar, organised by the group ‘Archives for London’, will provide a detailed history of the custom of giving Christmas cards, and their design, production and sale. For more details, and to book a place, please email Jeff Gerhardt at Jeff.Gerhardt@cityoflondon.gov.uk, or telephone 020 7332 3816.

Items from the BPMA’s Christmas card collection can be viewed by appointment. Please contact info@postalheritage.org.uk for details.

– Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

The first Christmas card

With Royal Mail’s last posting day fast approaching many people are hurriedly finishing off their Christmas cards. For despite the growing popularity of Christmas greetings sent online, cards are still popular, with Royal Mail delivering 750 million Christmas cards every year. Perhaps it is the personal touch of a handwritten card that keeps this tradition alive.

Like many Christmas traditions, Christmas cards date from the Victorian era. Queen Victoria sent the first official Christmas card, and Sir Henry Cole, who amongst other things was an assistant to Sir Rowland Hill in the introduction of the penny post and the first Director of the V&A, commissioned the first commercial Christmas card in 1843. 1000 of the cards designed by painter John Callcott Horsley were printed lithographically and then hand-coloured by the professional colourer Mason. Cole used as many of these cards as he required and sold the rest for one shilling each under the pseudonym Felix Summerly. An advert in the Athenaeum paper for the cards read “Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.”

An example of the first Christmas card from our collection, sent by Leonore A N Bell to Annette Caroline Ramsden

An example of the first Christmas card from our collection, sent by Leonore A N Bell to Annette Caroline Ramsden

Horsley’s design depicts two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked” – and a family party scene, in which three generations are drinking wine to celebrate the season. The depiction of children drinking wine proved to be controversial, for this was an era when the temperance movement was gaining in popularity in the UK, but this did not stop people buying the cards and more were printed to satisfy demand.

Very few of the first Christmas cards remain in existence. Four years ago one was sold at auction for £8,500, while another is part of our collection of postal ephemera. In 1993 the V&A re-printed the design, to celebrate 150 years of the Christmas card; we also have an example of this in our collection.

For more on Christmas traditions and the post see our online exhibition The Post of Christmas Past.

History of the Great Western Railway site – BPMA’s future new home

Swindon is largest town in Wiltshire with a population over 170,000.  However, before 1840 Swindon was a market town serving the surrounding dairy farms with fewer than 2500 inhabitants.  Its growth and population boom can be seen as a direct result of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s decision to choose Swindon as the site for the railway works of the Great Western Railway (GWR).

At its peak in the mid 20th the railway works were employing over 14, 000 and the works stretched for 2.4 km.  The railways were nationalised in 1948, and GWR became British Rail Western Region and the works became part of British Rail Engineering under the 1960 Transport Act.  In 1960 the Evening Star became the last steam locomotive built for British Rail. The site closed on 27th March 1986.  In the 1984 the historic parts of the site were designated Grade 2* or Grade 2.   There was redevelopment of the site in the 1990’s and English Heritage was the first new tenant in 1994.

An aerial view of the former Chain Testing House, Swindon - soon to be home to the BPMA

An aerial view of the former Chain Testing House, Swindon - soon to be home to the BPMA

Early History

By the end of 1832, there was commercial pressure for a rail link from Bristol (and the Atlantics) to London and a committee to investigate the matter was formed of prominent Bristol merchants.  The ‘Committee of Deputies’ met in July 1833 and agreed that the way forward was to form a company and obtain and Act of Parliament.   However, the GWR Railway Bill took some further two years to pass due to the opposition of some local landowners on the route.

The reason why Swindon was chosen to be the heart of the mid 19th railway expansion was actually a simple matter of geography. The line passing through Swindon was seen as ideal due to the lie of the land and it was the straightest route. The railway works were located in the Vale of the White Horse to the north of the old market town.  It is still often referred to as Swindon New Town.

It was Daniel Gooch, GWR’s first chief engineer and later Chairman, who was instrumental in the decision to select Swindon as the site. In 1840 Gooch wrote to Brunel suggesting Swindon as the most suitable site for the engine shed.  It was agreed in 1840.  Works began on the building of the site in 1841 which opened in January 1843. There were three building stages and work continued until 1849 with only minor additions to the site made thereafter.

More than just a job

Swindon had no history of heavy industrial labour, and so the workforce would need to be imported.  This meant that one of the first requirements of the site was accommodation for the workforce.  Brunel was responsible for the design of the railway village.  Most of the terraced stone houses built to the south of the site still stand today. They are perceived as excellent early example of a model village development for an industrial workforce.  They were planned as a self-contained community; the intention was to provide all the necessary facilities for what the Victorians perceived a ‘decent’ life.  The Swindon Mechanics Institute, set up for the purpose of offering an educational and social outlet for the railway workers had already outgrown the use of the rooms within the factories and in 1855 the Swindon Mechanics Institution opened in the heart of the railway village.

 In fact, the late 1860s and early 1870s saw many progressive actions that would help improve the lives of the workers on site including a hospital and from 1868 there was fresh drinking water from the Swindon Water Company and sewage disposal in 1872.

The BPMA in Swindon

Chain testing equipment, which will be a feature of the BPMA's new home

Chain testing equipment, which will be a feature of the BPMA's new home

The Chain Testing House was built in 1873.  The Testing house – or Shop 17 as it was known – tested iron, steel, copper and rope for use on the railways.  At its peak in the 1950’s around 57 miles of chain and rope were being dealt with annually.

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is the custodian for the visual, written and physical records of 400 years of postal development. In telling the story of communication, industry, and innovation of the British postal services, many parallels can be drawn with the Great Western Railway site.