Tag Archives: World War 1

100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania

As the First World War Centenary commemorations continue more and more stories of bravery and tragedy emerge. Some are well known such as the events on the battle fields, others such as the vital role played by the British postal service less so. Within The Postal Museum galleries these heartwarming and often tragic stories of how the General Post Office kept a world at war in touch will be revealed to the public. Our Archive Catalogue & Project Manager Gavin McGuffie looks at one such story.

One hundred years ago, on Friday 7 May 1915, the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland when almost home on a voyage from New York to Liverpool.

'WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

‘WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

The loss of 1,198 passengers and crew led to an international outcry, especially in Britain and the British Empire, as well as in the United States (128 of 139 US citizens on board died). The German government’s announcement almost two years later that having ended attacks on passenger ships it would again conduct full unrestricted submarine warfare was a major factor in persuading the United States to declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917.

RMS Lusitania had been holder of the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and briefly the world’s largest passenger ship. Launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, the Lusitania had the designation ‘Royal Mail Ship’ or ‘RMS’. This prefix dates back to 1840 and was used for seagoing vessels carrying post under contract to Royal Mail.

'LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

‘LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

Given that the main connection with the Post Office was the fact that the ship was carrying mail it is not surprising that the only file in The Royal Mail Archive entirely about the Lusitania concerns the loss of mail is entitled ‘SS Lusitania sunk May 1915. United States mails missing. Salvage and compensation claims’

It starts with a newspaper cutting from the day after reporting on the tragic event and a letter from Cunard expressing their gratitude for the Post Office’s sympathies.

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

The file goes on to reveal that the quantity of mail on Lusitania’s last voyage was not particularly large. She carried mail that had been especially endorsed for the Lusitania; the US liner New York, leaving about the same time, carried most of the European mail. According to a note in the file, 83 sacks of mail were dispatched on the ship containing 922 registered articles, about 47,000 unregistered letters and 1800 prints.

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

Following the sinking the Post Office received many enquiries about lost mail in particular relating to that with a financial value. One enquiry concerned four lost dispatches from the Governor of Bermuda to the Colonial Office sent in a weighted bag that would cause them to sink in case of disaster at sea.

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

Perhaps the most interesting story within the file relates to the small amount of mail salvaged. Originally believed to have been washed ashore at Castletownshend, County Cork, it was subsequently found that a mail basket including a parcel of diamonds was in fact picked up by John Hayes, skipper of the fishing boat ‘Pet’. Within our file is a water damaged bill of lading from the Lusitania which accompanied the parcels which were being returned to their senders on the ship.

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

Correspondence concerning this basket and Hayes’ desire to be properly rewarded for the salvage of the receptacle continued until 1922 involving a £10 reward as an ‘act of grace’ and even a question in the House of Commons.

The Lusitania was not the only mail ship to be sunk during the First World War. In October 1918 the RMS Leinster was torpedoed in the Irish Sea killing more than 500 including 21 postal workers, the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.

To find out more about the vital role played by the General Post Office and those who worked for it visit our online exhibition Last Post

Remembering the First World War in Hampshire

From today until Friday 27th September 2013 our exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War will be on display at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire.

Last Post explores the effect of the events of 1914-18 on the Post Office and its people and the contribution of postal communications to the war effort.

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. Many of the services that were reduced because of the war were never the same again. The volume of mail increased dramatically between 1914 and 1918, rising from 700,000 items in October 1914 to 13 million at its height.

Men sorting bags of parcels. (POST 56/6)

Men sorting bags of parcels. (POST 56/6)

The Post Office actively encouraged their staff to join the war effort. Over 75,000 men left their jobs to fight in the First World War. Of these, 12,000 joined the Post Office’s own battalion, the Post Office Rifles.

The Post Office Rifles on parade. (POST 56/6)

The Post Office Rifles on parade. (POST 56/6)

Postal communications played a vital role in the war effort. The Post Office set up telecommunications between Headquarters and the front line. It also ran an internal army postal system. During battle telegraphs and telephones were the main means of communication between the front line and Headquarters. Over 11,000 Post Office engineers made this possible throughout the war, using the skills they had acquired as civilians.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Many soldiers had relatives and friends fighting in other units. From December 1914, the Post Office ran a postal service that carried mail between units. Writing and receiving letters and parcels were a vital part of sustaining morale and overcoming the boredom, which was a feature of trench life.

Mail being sorted at a Field Post Office. (POST 56/6)

Mail being sorted at a Field Post Office. (POST 56/6)

There is a charge for admission to the Museum of Army Flying, with entry to Last Post included in the admission price. For more information on opening times and prices please see the Museum’s website: www.armyflying.com.

Last Post on Tour

Last Post at the Museum of Army Flying is the first stop on its tour, as we move towards the commemoration of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 2014. Our twin exhibition version of Last Post is to be exhibited at Aysgarth Railway station heritage site, North Yorkshire, for the weekend of 4th to 8th May 2013. On leaving the Museum of Army Flying in September 2013, Last Post is then being exhibited for the month of October at the Guildhall Library, London. Also in October 2013 its twin exhibition version will be at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

From Spring 2014 our flagship Last Post exhibition will be on display for a year at Coalbrookdale Museum, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust site, accompanied by loans from other museums and organisations. Last Post is also being exhibited at Mansfield Museum from April to June 2013, Guildford Museum from June to September 2014 and finally Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight from September to December 2014.

– Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

If you would like to share your feedback on Last Post or for more information on any of the exhibition dates, please contact the BPMA Exhibitions Officer on dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk.

View our online version of Last Post: Remembering the First World War on our website.

Remembering the Post Office Rifles

On Saturday 3rd November 2012, I was fortunate enough to attend a reunion event at the home of the British Forces Post Office (BFPO). This was held to commemorate the organisation as a whole but specifically the Battle for Wurst Farm Ridge, Ypres, Belgium, in which the 2nd/8th Battalion London Regiment, known as the Post Office Rifles took part. Many serving members of the modern day BFPO and Postal and Courier Services Officers’ Association were also present to remember their predecessors’ actions.

In 1917 the company was sent to Ypres and in September they began training for what was to be the Battle for Menin Road Ridge. Their objective was to capture a portion of this ridge, known as Wurst Farm in attempt to cut the Germans off and force a surrender. One of the prominent individuals in this battle was Sergeant Alfred Knight, from the Engineers Department of the Post Office. Knight had joined the Post Office Rifles at the outbreak of World War One in 1914 and served throughout the war along with other Post Office volunteers.

Sergeant Alfred Knight

Sergeant Alfred Knight

Mrs Ann Turrell, granddaughter of Alfred Knight, was also present at the lunch and gave a vivid and detailed account of his actions that day. There was also a reading from Charles Messenger’s book Terriers in the Trenches:

He rushed through our own barrage, bayoneted the enemy gunner, and captured the position single handedly. Later, twelve of the enemy with a machine gun were encountered in a shell-hole. He again rushed forward by himself, bayoneted two and shot a third, causing the remainder to scatter. Subsequently, during an attack on a fortified farm, when entangled up to the waist in mud, and seeing a number of the enemy firing on our troops, he immediately opened fire on them without waiting to extricate himself from the mud, killing six of the enemy.

It was these actions that earned Sergeant Knight the Victoria Cross, the only Post Office rifleman to achieve this, the highest British Decoration for Gallantry. The medal is now in the BPMA’s collection along with other medals won by Knight throughout his service. As part of the day, the BPMA arranged for the Victoria Cross to be displayed alongside BFPO’s painting by Terence Cuneo, showing Knight in action at the battle. These, coupled with Ann’s account of her grandfather really made the day a very special one and many thanks to both her and Major Chris Violet at the BFPO for making it so.

BPMA Curator Emma Harper prepares Sergeant Alfred Knight’s Victoria Cross for transport to the event.

BPMA Curator Emma Harper prepares Sergeant Alfred Knight’s Victoria Cross for transport to the event.

Amongst those posing with the Victoria Cross are (left to right) Anne Walsh (Sgt Knight's grand-daughter), Ann Turrell (Post Office) and Col Stephen Heron (BFPO).

Amongst those posing with the Victoria Cross are (left to right) Anne Walsh (Sgt Knight’s grand-daughter), Ann Turrell (Post Office) and Col Stephen Heron (BFPO).

The Post Office Rifles were a remarkable unit and it is important that their role, and stories such as Alfred Knight’s, are remembered. It is perhaps one of the lesser known aspects of the history of the postal service and really highlights the breadth and depth of BPMA’s collection. It is treasures such as these that we hope to be able to share with the public in our new home in Calthorpe House.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

The exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War can be viewed online, and will be on display at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire from 25 March – 27 September 2013, and Aysgarth Station Heritage Site, North Yorkshire 4 – 8 May 2013.

Mail to troops fighting the First World War

In wartime one of the most important means of maintaining troops’ morale is provision of an efficient mail service. Letters from family and loved ones are eagerly awaited, as is news from the front to those at home.

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

300 members of the Army Postal Service travelled with the British Expeditionary Force to France in August 1914, but by the end of the war this had grown to nearly 4,000 across all spheres of conflict.

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Lantern slides, recently catalogued by our curatorial team and volunteers, show some of these personnel at work. A field post office established at the side of a road in France is typical of the makeshift facilities employed to run the service.

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

Other images show foreign troops receiving their mail.

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

As artefacts, these lantern slides are fascinating for many reasons. The crude colourisation of some of them tells us about the technology of the time, and the desire of the image-makers must have had to show us the world as it is – in colour. But more interesting are the glimpses of the conditions endured by the troops, even when they weren’t fighting at the front, and the expressions on their faces, showing obvious delight at receiving news from home.

Visit Flickr to see more of our First World War lantern slides.

Grandpa England – The Public and Private Life of George V 100 Years On

On 21 October PhD candidate Matthew Glencross, who is working in the Royal Archives on the role of monarchy in the early 20th Century, will speak at the BPMA about King George V. Matthew kindly sent us the following preview of his talk.

King George V

King George V

Grandpa England, the name which the young Princess Elizabeth affectionately called her elderly grandfather in her younger years, in many ways sums up the man. In a twenty five year reign George V looked over Great Britain and the British Empire with an almost paternal instinct as the 458 million people who looked to him as King/Emperor went through much change.

His accession saw the pinnacle of Imperial Pomp and ceremony with the Delhi Durbar in 1911, when he became the only British monarch to be crowned Emperor of India, whilst the closing years of his reign saw the Empire begin its transformation into the Commonwealth with the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

At home George saw women being given the vote in the UK for the first time as well as the establishment of the Irish Free State. He also welcomed in Britain’s first Labour government, which although reluctant at first, he would later confess to his diary that Ramsay Macdonald was his favourite Prime Minister.

However, his reign is arguably most famed for the bloodshed of the First World War to which he uttered this simple line to the troops in the frontline, “I cannot share your hardships, but my heart is with you every hour of the day.” A sentiment he supported with regular visits to the soldiers in the trenches.

Therefore, Grandpa England makes a fitting title to this talk which will sweep over the late King’s life from his younger days as a carefree Sailor Prince to his final years in the shadow of an approaching European conflict. A man who watched over Britain as she passed through some of the most difficult times of the early 20th century, one hundred years since his accession we remember him.

Booking details for Grandpa England can be found on our website.

Discover Session: King George V A-Z

by Vyki Sparkes, Assistant Curator 

King George V

King George V

Take three curators, a museum collection, 26 letters and a royal reign…. Inspired by the former Royal Mail advertising campaign, ‘Think of a Letter’, the museum curators have decided to tell the story of the Post Office during the reign of King George V through the 26 letters of the alphabet.

On the 10th June we will be holding a special, one-off Discover session at our Museum Store. Like all our Discover events, this is an in-depth session which gives you the rare chance to get close to some of our fantastic museum objects. Even if you have visited one of our open days before, you are bound to see and learn something new from our collection.

Use the Air Mail the Fastest Mail, designed by Frank Newbould

Use the Air Mail the Fastest Mail, designed by Frank Newbould

Massive social upheaval marked the reign of George V, such as the First World War, the Easter uprising, enfranchisement of women and the Great Depression. The Post Office also underwent huge change, from the takeover of the telephone system and development of airmail to the first commemorative stamps and the rise of public relations. In exploring this period through the letters of the alphabet, we hope to provide a fun yet informative session – expect a bit of friendly competition between Julian, Chris and myself as we see who will keep you most enlightened and entertained.

What will we do for each letter, especially the dreaded last three? You can probably guess that A will be for Airmail, but what about X, Y or Z? We can tell you that they won’t be for Xmas broadcast, a tradition started by King George V, Ypres, a battlefield in the First World War or Zeppelinpost. Find out what we decide is the best use of all the letters by coming along.

For more information and to book your place on the Discover Session please see our website.

Sir Stephen Tallents and the GPO

The poster for Night Mail designed by Pat Keely

The poster for Night Mail designed by Pat Keely

Sir Stephen Tallents, the innovative public relations man responsible for creating the GPO Film Unit, establishing poster design as an important part of the Post Office’s marketing activities and introducing the Valentines telegram (among other things), was the subject of a talk given at the BPMA on 29th October 2009 by Dr Scott Anthony, Director of the MA in Modern British History at Manchester University and author of the BFI Classics book on Night Mail. This talk is now available on our podcast

Tallents had a varied career before he joined the General Post Office (GPO). He served in the Irish Guards during World War I, but was badly injured in Festubert. Thereafter he returned to London and worked for a number of government departments until he became Secretary to the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) in 1926. The EMB’s purpose was to promote trade between British Empire nations and Tallents made full use of the modern media, setting up a film unit (led by John Grierson) and employing artists such as Edward McKnight Kauffer to design posters.

A still from the GPO Film Unit film Rainbow Dance

A still from the GPO Film Unit film Rainbow Dance

When the EMB was abolished in 1933, Tallents took up public relations work for the GPO, bringing the film unit and Grierson with him, and establishing a way of working which drew on the expertise of leading figures from the arts and communications industries in a consultative capacity. Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery but later most famous for the BBC TV series Civilisation, was one of many involved.

Dr Anthony’s talk examines Tallent’s career, showing how his many experiences and jobs led him to virtually invent public relations in the UK, and establish a long-lasting corporate identity and marketing strategy for the GPO.

Tallent’s work in the area of poster design will be one of the subjects covered in our next podcast, in which Dr Paul Rennie, Head of Context in Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins, London, will explore the history and development of poster art and communication at the GPO.

Bath Postal Museum King George V Exhibition

An Air Mail cover on display at the exhibition

An Air Mail cover on display at the exhibition.

As part of the London 2010 Festival of Stamps, the Bath Postal Museum’s King George V Exhibition opened on 1st February.  The overall Festival marks the centenary of the accession to the throne of King George V, and Bath’s display shows through stamps and other memorabilia the important events of his reign and how these were either affected by the postal service or influenced the post.  

Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition Wembley

Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition Wembley

Included in the exhibition are rare items from the first flights to carry air mail in the UK between Hendon and Windsor in 1911.  The Great War caused problems for the Post Office and inflation meant huge increases of 50% and more in the cost of sending a letter.  But better times followed and by 1924 the British Empire Exhibition had been created with the first commemorative stamps being issued in the UK.  Many souvenirs were created for the exhibition which lasted for two years and some of these are on show.

special preview of this exhibition is now on the London 2010 Festival of Stamps website.

The exhibition runs until 30th October at Bath Postal Museum, 27 Northgate Street (corner of Green Street), Bath BA1 1AJ, http://www.bathpostalmuseum.co.uk/. Bath Postal Museum is open daily from 11am to 5pm (last entrance 4.30pm). Entry is Adults £3.50, Concessions £3.00, Children £1.50. There are reductions for groups of 10 or more.

Image courtesy of The Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum

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.