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.

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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.