Tag Archives: women

Dear Amie: Inspiring formerly trafficked women through postal uniforms

During the past two years our Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, has been developing our audiences in the run-up to opening The Postal Museum. Through engaging new groups we have been able to interpret our collection in new and exciting ways. We have created strong and sustainable bonds with formally under-represented groups who now see us and objects as relevant and of interest. In this post, Hannah shares what she has been up to with the Amies, a group of ten women who are survivors of trafficking.

Established in July 2014, delivered in collaboration with the October Gallery and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we engaged with the Amies over a 12 week period. The 10 ladies were originally brought together by PAN Arts, a London-based arts company, and The Poppy Project. This summer we built upon this project, working with the Amies and partnering with the October Gallery, The Mary Ward Centre and The Calthorpe Project. However, this time, we looked at postal uniforms throughout the ages, and used them as inspiration to make our own textile items. Through a series of images, we’ll share what we have been up to.

We started off the project looking at the various bags that have been used by postal workers over the centuries. Inspired by the telegram messenger bags, we made our own versions to practice simple sewing skills.

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

Leather pouches made by the women, inspired by the telegram messenger bags

We developed our sewing skills at the Mary Ward Centre through making a bag with a zip using sewing machines. This got the whole group ready to tackle making a skirt, inspired by the post women’s uniform during the First World War. To make the skirt, we explored images from the collection and experimented with patterns, and had a fabric printed containing our favourite images.

Nanda cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

One of the women cuts her stamp designed material to make her bag

Mani making her bag on the sewing machine

One of the women making her bag on the sewing machine

Asia and Paulina look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

The group look at images from our collection to inspire our skirt fabric

Mani shows us her ideas for a pattern

One of the women shows us her ideas for a pattern

Nanda works on sewing her skirt

One of the women works on sewing her skirt

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

One of the fabrics we had digitally printed

Being able to build upon this project and working with these women has been an absolute joy. Seeing the women grow in confidence and help each other to learn new skills (both textile and life skills) whilst using our collection as a platform has been hugely worthwhile and humbling. Partnering with the October Gallery and The Mary Ward Centre has also enabled us to learn new skills from peers; invaluable as we continue to move forward developing our audiences for The Postal Museum. Next steps include planning our next project with the women at The Postal Museum and developing our first community inspired exhibition at our archive in Freeling House. Watch this space!

-Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

This project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

english_compact_pantone (1)

A “Painful Duty”: sneak peak at this week’s talk

This Thursday, 12 June 2014, Kathleen McIlvenna will be giving a talk on the changing attitudes and procedures seen in the Home Front Post Office as its workers adapted to change and continued to do their duty. Tickets are still available. In this post, Kathleen introduces what you can expect from her talk.

Researching the First World War is hard. Like all research it’s a matter of countless catalogue searches, digging in archives and endless reading. But as a social historian it doesn’t take long to realise what a difficult time this must have been to live through.

It could be easy to imagine the Post Office was an idyll of bureaucracy consumed by forms and logistics, and in many ways it was, but dig a little deeper and you uncover a workforce.

Women mending parcels (POST 56/6)

Women mending parcels (POST 56/6)

In my research I have uncovered diaries and oral histories of some of the remarkable employees of the Post Office during the First World War. From Amy Grace Rose, the temporary postwomen in a Cambridgeshire village supporting her daughter and disabled husband, to Edwin Purkiss, postman for London’s South-Western District and avid fundraiser. Using these sources with the records of local offices and reports produced after the War a rich picture of life on the home front is created, a mix of pain and happiness, as well as logistics and experience.

This was a time that saw the decrease in deliveries and collections, notably the end of Sunday deliveries and collections, something that one hundred years later may now return, but also saw the increase in the financial service provided by the Post Office, including separation allowance. The building of new post offices and projects were delayed, but the telephone network was developed as an air raid alarm system. New temporary staff were taken on, discovering a new world, whilst current staff tried to adapt to it. Politics found its way into post office corridors through suffragettes and consciousness objectors. But for the public if often came down to letters, paper that could either be welcome news from a loved one, or the worst news possible, starting ‘It is my painful duty to inform you’.

A 'Women on War Work' Black Cat cigarette card giving information about the jobs being done by women during the war (2010-0535)

A ‘Women on War Work’ Black Cat cigarette card giving information about the jobs being done by women during the war (2010-0535)

In my talk this week I hope to explore what it was like to work for the Post Office during this extraordinary time and discover how this government department tailored its operations and inevitably touched the lives of many.

Kathleen’s talk, ‘A Painful Duty to Inform’, will take place from 7-8pm this Thursday at the Phoenix Centre. Book your tickets today! 

Women in the Post Office

On International Women’s Day we look at women’s employment in the Post Office.

The postal service is considered to be a pioneer of women’s employment in the UK. From the late 19th Century it employed women in large numbers, starting in 1870 when the General Post Office (GPO) took control of the telegraph service. The telegraph service employed large numbers of female telegraphists, and records from this time held in the Royal Mail Archive indicate that the employment of these women by the Post Office was viewed as an “experiment”. Happily the experiment was judged to have been successful, and as the telephone network expanded women staffed telephone exchanges.

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Before (and after) 1870 women were employed by the GPO in rural areas, as postmistresses and letter carriers. Margaret Birkinshaw’s blog post from 2011 describes the work these women undertook and the stamina they required. Some women held positions in the GPO for decades, such as Mrs P. L. Matthews who was photographed for the Post Office Magazine in 1935 and described as “Cornwall’s oldest postwoman. Has walked 11,400 miles in 35 years.”

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

In 1876 the Post Office introduced a “marriage bar” which required most female employees to resign upon marriage and forbade the employment of married women in the majority of positions. During the First World War the Post Office suspended this rule as female labour was required to fill positions vacated by men. This saw women working in a variety of non-traditional roles such as driving horse-drawn mail carts.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

During the First World War more than 75,000 men left their positions in the Post Office in order to join the war effort. By November 1916 the Post Office employed more than 35,000 women and girls, but most lost their jobs after the war ended. The marriage bar was finally abolished in 1946.

For more on this topic see our webpage Women in the Post Office, or view archive images of female postal workers on Flickr.

Women in the Post Office

Each month we present an item from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication
Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) have been working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

In this final blog looking at the Morten Collection, former Royal Mail worker Alison Nunes looks at women postal workers from the Edward period and compares it her own experiences. Alison came to
Britain from Jamaica in 1964. She
worked as a Postwoman and
supervisor from 1967 until 1993.

“As far as I know, during my time employed in the Post Office, messengers were boys from school. They were the cream of the Post Office staff, well looked-after by too many bosses. Boy messengers were encouraged to do sports and were taken on days out. In return, the Post Office gained a trained work force. They were disciplined in time-keeping and dedication to the job, with built-in promotions.

Girl messengers were the forerunners of women working in the Post Office. They were employed on a temporary basis, on a bit less pay than male staff. Women during my time worked duties equally with men – three shifts per twenty-four hours. Some bosses and trade union representatives (all men) did not want or respect us women workers. They were always critical and looking for ways to get someone sacked. Messengers went out of fashion at the same time as apprenticeships were phased out. Recruitment of women in the Post Office started again in 1965-66. They are now a valued part of the workforce.

Female postal worker delivers to a farm, c. Mid 20th Century

Female postal worker delivers to a farm, c. Mid 20th Century

All women working for the Post Office in my time were all measured for uniforms. When they arrived about one woman out of ten had a fit. The post-woman in the picture looks well-fitted – hat, boots, and all. Mine did not look anything so special even after they were remade. They were never comfortable to wear, being made of a coarse wool material. It was warm in winter but boiling hot in summer, until a cotton one was provided. Boots or shoes were unwearable. The mail pouch/bag full of mail and packets weighed 27lbs! A lot of what I did was enjoyable, and I met lots of people.”

Jobs for the Girls – Women in the Post Office

The follow blog is based on a talk given by U3A volunteer Margaret Birkinshaw, and draws on her experience of working with editions of The Post Office Magzine.

Fanny Biggerstaff

Fanny Biggerstaff

“Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his little black cat” – most people are familiar with this children’s song. The choice of the name “Pat” is striking, because it is a woman’s name as well as a man’s –and it seems that, from its early days, unusually for the time, the Post Office was employing women in post offices and as letter-carriers. The Act establishing the Post Office was passed under Oliver Cromwell in 1657 but it was not until 1840, with the introduction of Rowland Hill’s prepaid penny post, that a massive increase in the use of the post occurred[1]. The importance of the work of women at this stage is shown by the fact that, as early as 1838, a portrait was drawn of Fanny Biggerstaff, then aged 62, with the inscription “during the past thirty-seven years she has been an honest, punctual and trustworthy postwoman from Thame to Brill and the surrounding villages. Any correspondence she could not deliver to users she used to leave in the family pews in church”.[2]

Considerable information on post office work can be gleaned from the book “Lark Rise to Candleford” by Flora Thompson which, unlike the recent television series of the same name, is factual and gives details of the author’s life in the post office and as a postwoman in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of that century any work outside the walls of the home was taboo for a woman who had any pretension to refinement. However as time went on post office employment became largely the preserve of ministers’ and schoolmasters’ daughters, mainly because the pay of a learner in a large office was very small and not nearly sufficient to live on away from home. This did not apply to letter-carriers, who usually came from a different stratum of society. Flora Thompson describes how every morning the postman who had brought the mail sorted out his own letters for the village delivery and the two women letter-carriers, who did the cross-country deliveries to outlying homes and farms, then did their own sorting.[3]

There does not appear to have been any sort of uniform in those days. Postwomen wore thick stockings, stout shoes, long skirts and coats, shawls, a pull-on felt hat in winter or a sunbonnet in summer.[4] They were hard-working, dedicated and loyal. In fact all post office staff had to sign a Declaration before a magistrate which began “I do solemnly promise and declare that I will not open or delay or cause to suffer to be opened or delayed any letter or anything sent by the post”.[5] Another benefit arising from the employment of women is the fact that they live longer than men. By the end of the nineteenth century males born in the UK could expect to live to around forty-five and females to forty-nine.[6] The Post Office Magazine refers to a number of women still working at a great age. For example in 1947 Miss Parry, sub-postmistress of Handsworth, had worked there sixty years[7] and in the same year there is reference to Jane Williamson, who was then Scotland’s oldest postmistress. She celebrated her ninetieth birthday that year and had no intention of retiring. Even more unusual was the fact that she was only appointed to the post at the age of 85.[8]

Fanny King

Fanny King

However women were appreciated not just for their longevity but also for their resourcefulness and their stamina. A couple of examples are Mrs Rogers who, in the mid-twentieth century, was postmistress of Tristan da Cunha, an island 1,500 miles from South Africa and South America. Mrs. Rogers date-stamped the letters and placed them in a bag which hung on a nail in her bedroom. When a passing steamer was spotted there was a cry of “sail ho” and a boat was rowed out to the ship and the mail bundled aboard.[9] And consider Fanny King, a postwoman in the Cotswolds at the same period who, at 65 years of age, was still trekking nine miles every morning delivering to isolated farmsteads. “I think I should die if I didn’t have my morning delivery” she said.[10]

From the mid 20th century onwards women’s achievements did not gain so much publicity and their work was taken for granted – though brave women foiling raiders still made the news. The request, made in 1961 by the Postmasters Association, that the title Postmistress be discarded and that all officers controlling sub-offices be entitled to the title Postmaster was agreed to[11] – however even today the national press still uses the term postmistress.

And does work in the post office still appeal to women? Yes, it seems that it does. An item in The Times in October 2010 tells how a British doctor, Helen Joannidi, is moving to Goudier Island in Antarctica, the southernmost Post Office in the world to run it for five months (the Daily Mail also covered the story). The building has no central heating, running water or electricity and the average daytime temperature in summer is minus 12 degrees.[12] You cannot get more dedicated to post office work than that.


[1] Hutchinson Encyclopaedia
[2] Post Office Magazine June 1939 p.285 (portrait owned by Mrs. Graham of Highfield)
[3] “Lark Rise to Candleford” – Flora Thompson, 1939
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Office of National Statistics – Social Trends no. 34
[7] Post Office Magazine – November 1947 p. 348 (vol. 1946-8)
[8] Post Office Magazine – December 1947 p.10
[9] Post Office Magazine – July 1946 p. 7
[10] Post Office Magazine – March 1939 p.104
[11] Post Office records – POST 122/8082
[12] “The Times” – 9 October 2010

The Post Office during the First World War

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

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

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

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

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

New podcast goes online: The Post Office during the Second World War

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Earlier this year several talks were given at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms to tie-in with the exhibition Last Post – Remembering the First World War. These covered various wartime and postal history topics, including talks on the Post Office during the First and Second World Wars. The talk The Post Office during the Second World War, given by Mark Crowley, is now available to download as a podcast.

Mark Crowley is a PhD student conducting research at the BPMA, who has previously written for this blog on The Post Office Home Guard. His talk presented a number of interesting insights into Post Office operations during World War 2.

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The Post Office played a vital communications role during the War, providing both postal and telegram deliveries, and telephone services. With many Post Office workers now in the forces, women were employed in large numbers to deliver and sort mail, drive Royal Mail vans and maintain the telephone network. Mark’s talk is peppered with stories of the bravery of some of these workers, who managed to keep telephone exchanges and sorting offices running even as the enemy bombs rained down.

Vital infrastructure such as post offices, sorting offices and telephone exchanges were often targets for enemy bombers, and many suffered bomb damage. Mobile Post Offices, offering telephone and counter services were set up in effected areas.

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

Unfortunately, many of the archive images referred to in the talk cannot be included with the podcast due to copyright reasons, but we hope to make some of these available in the future.

The British Postal Museum & Archive Podcast can be downloaded through iTunes or from our website. Last Post – Remembering the First World War is currently on a national tour.

The Post Office Home Guard in the Second World War

To mark VE Day Ph.D Research Student Mark J Crowley looks at The Post Office Home Guard.

The Post Office Home Guard was created in 1939 under the instruction of the Postmaster General. Its purpose was to defend the Post Office from enemy attack. Whilst its initial membership predominantly comprised men, it also accepted women, but their roles initially were confined to duties such as fire-watching. This was to change by the end of 1940, when women performed all of the duties previously undertaken by men. Considerable enthusiasm was expressed by Post Office staff for this initiative. They could volunteer their services to the Post Office Home Guard provided that they did not spend more than 40 hours per month performing these duties.

Post Office Home Guard

Post Office Home Guard

The Post Office Home Guard formed part of what became known as the ‘Factory Home Guard’. They were created as a ‘spin off’ to the National Home Guard. For the Post Office, and for the nation, the defence of communications, essential services and industry were covered by this group. The best defence would be achieved with cooperation between the Factory Home Guard units and the national Home Guard.[1]

Five major roles and responsibilities were identified for the Post Office Home Guard.[2] First, they would work to defend their local Post Office. A small proportion of Telephonists in the exchanges classified as ‘vulnerable’ by a government-appointed Vulnerable Points Officer would then be recruited to the Post Office Home Guard, and trained to operate selected exchanges in the event of an invasion. Second, the Post Office Home Guard would be responsible for providing telecommunications for the Army, Navy, air force as well as civil defence, government and industry. Its main task was to protect vital communications. Third, the POHG members would be exempt from the fire watching duties covered under separate arrangements within the Essential Work Order. Fourth, there were three classifications to Post Office premises, and members of the POHG were expected to defend all three, but the priorities attached to all three were different. Buildings were classified as: key points of national importance; important centres; and finally, premises of lesser importance. Also the POHG were given points in which a constant presence should be maintained. Areas with large sorting offices and telephone exchanges (major cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester) were afforded the highest level of protection by both the National Home Guard and the Post Office Home Guard, in the interest of protecting and maintaining their services in the event of an enemy attack. 

Towards the end of the war, senior Post Office managers and Treasury officials claimed that men over 60 were not fit for Home Guard duties, and neither should they be expected to perform these or any other duties involving defending the country.[3] Others on the committee argued that the biggest problem for the Post Office was that it had its own Home Guard. They believed that if its staff joined the outside Home Guard, then their claims of irksome duties and hours would receive more attention from the government. However, the Post Office Management assured the staff that if there was evidence that their duties in the Post Office Home Guard was detrimentally affecting their Post Office duties, then they would be relieved of this.[4] This possibly explains why all Post Office Home Guard sections had been disbanded by 1946.


[1] BPMA, Post 56/108, Letter from P J Grigg, War Office, July 1941

[2] BPMA, Post 56/108,  F Reid POHG commander to regional directors, 18 April, 1941

[3] Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick (hereafter MRC), MSS.148/UCW/2/1/28, Quarterly Meeting the Executive Council, 12-14 July, 1944, p. 34.

[4] Ibid, p. 34.

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibition Tour Dates

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

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

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

Powysland Museum, 1th September – 30th November 2009

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

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

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