Tag Archives: Windsor

100 Years of Sending Mail by Aeroplane

The world’s first scheduled airmail service took off 100 years ago today as part of the celebrations for the coronation of King George V. Between 9 and 26 September 1911 16 flights carried 35 bags of mail from Hendon aerodrome in North-West London to Windsor Great Park marking the world’s first regular airmail service. Today Royal Mail has issued a miniature sheet commemorating the event. This is now available from http://www.royalmail.com/aerialpost.

Aerial Post Minature Sheet.

Aerial Post Minature Sheet.

The first demonstration of an official aerial mail delivery had taken place in February 1911 when Captain Walter George Windham had organised the first flight as part of an exhibition in Allahabad, India. After his return to Britain, Captain Windham used his experience to promote the idea of special mail flights to celebrate the coronation of King George V.

Postal officials suggested the exclusive use of specially designed private stationary for which an extra charge could be made and special postmarks be used. The design was created by William Lendon and featured a Farman biplane over Windsor Castle. It was sold in Harrods, Selfridges and other major department stores in London where the special postcards and letters could also be posted and collected by a private van. A huge amount of mail – about 58,000 postcards and letters – was subsequently received before the first flight took off on 9 September 1911.

Artwork for Coronation aerial post stationery.

Artwork for Coronation aerial post stationery.

The first airmail plane left Hendon on 9 September at 4.55pm carrying one bag of mail weighing 23 ½ lbs and arrived safely at Windsor just 12½ minutes later. The mail was then taken to the Post Office in Windsor by the cycle Postman, sorted and despatched to London by the 6pm train.

Four pilots were engaged to operate the Aerial Post service with Gustav Hamel performing most of the 1911 flights in his Blériot monoplane. He became one of the best-known aviators of the time but died soon after these pioneering airmail flights when he drowned in the Channel in 1914. That flying was very precarious was also proven by the accident of one of the other airmail pioneers. Frenchman Charles Hubert crashed in his Farman biplane attempting to take off from Hendon on 11 September 1911 with eight mail bags and broke both thighs.

Front of Wills' cigarette card number 46 showing the aerial post between Hendon and Windsor that took place in 1911. (2010-0383/46)

Front of Wills' cigarette card number 46 showing the aerial post between Hendon and Windsor that took place in 1911. (2010-0383/46)

It was this uncertainty and dependency on good weather and daylight which led to the end of the Aerial Post service after these first few days in September 1911. Too many special letters and postcards had been seriously delayed due to unfavourable weather conditions, which meant that there were no further serious attempts to establish a regular airmail service in Britain before World War I intervened. However, in 1919 the first public overseas airmail service was launched between London and Paris and later extended to more distant destinations to cover the British Empire.

– Douglas Muir, Curator of Philately

You can see a selection of photographs from our collection showing the history of the airmail service on Flickr.

John Wornham Penfold and his pillar box

This year marks the death centenary of John Wornham Penfold, designer of probably Britain’s best loved pillar box. Penfold was born in Haslemere, Surrey on 3rd December 1828. He studied architecture and surveying, and was employed first by Charles Lee, before starting his own business.

J W Penfold

J W Penfold

Penfold rose to the top of his profession serving as President of the Architectural Association and becoming an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was also a founder member of the Institute of Surveyors, serving as its first Honourary Secretary (the Institute was later granted a Royal Charter, making it the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors).

In 1880 Penfold was appointed as a surveyor to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and re-designed the Jewin Street area in the City of London after it had been destroyed by a large fire (this area was again destroyed by bombs during World War 2 and is now the site of the Golden Lane Estate).

One of Penfold’s finest works was at the former Naval Training School in New Cross, South London. In 1890 the site was taken over by the Goldsmiths Company and was converted into a technical and recreational institute. Penfold modified the building to suit its new propose and enclosed the central courtyard to create a Great Hall. This site is now part of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Throughout his life Penfold regularly returned to his native Haslemere. He surveyed the local area when the railways came, rebuilt and expanded Haslemere parish church and surrounds, and designed other local buildings. But Penfold is best remembered for his work for the Post Office.

In 1866 Penfold submitted designs for a pillar box. The Post Office had been attempting to standardise letter boxes throughout the country for some time, and had produced a national standard, but this was found to be wanting. With Penfold’s box the Post Office again attempted to establish an enduring national standard.

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

Penfold’s box – or the Penfold, as it became known – combined simple design with functionality. Hexagonal in shape, it was adorned with acanthus leaves and balls, a far less ornate design than some of the elaborately decorative boxes which had come before it. But the cost of producing Penfolds was high, and a cheaper and plainer standard box was introduced 13 years later.

However, many of the features initiated with the Penfold boxes remain in use. Penfolds were produced in different size to accommodate different volumes of mail, as pillar boxes still are to this day, and Penfolds were also the first boxes to be manufactured in the new standard colour of red, in 1874.

Such is the popularity of Penfolds that the BPMA and Royal Mail frequently receive correspondence from members of the public who wish to see damaged boxes in their area repaired, rather than replaced with a new box. Some original Penfolds are considered so significant that they are listed, giving them special protection under the law.

Replica Penfolds, bearing the cipher of Queen Victoria, have also been produced. The first replica was produced in 1988 and was placed in the heritage era of Windsor. Another, installed in about 1990, is sited outside Penfold’s former home in Haslemere. Penfolds are the only letter boxes which Royal Mail has produced replicas of in this way.

J W Penfold also gave his name to the sidekick of 1980s cartoon character Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse and Penfold even lived in a pillar box on Baker Street, London, although their home was an ‘Anonymous’ Pillar Box, rather than a Penfold.

The BPMA holds four examples of Penfolds, three originals (two red, one green) and a replica. These can be inspected on our Museum Store Open Days.

J W Penfold died on 5th July 1909 and is buried in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere, which he designed. He remains the only British pillar box designer to have his box named after him.