Tag Archives: World War Two

My Favourite Object: Prosthetic Hand

Asking a Curator to choose their favourite object is like putting a kid in a sweet shop and then telling them they can only have one! In fact, some of you may remember that I shared my favourite object with you last year, a truncheon issued to Post Office employees before the Chartist riots of 1848. Today however my favourite object is a recent acquisition of a Postman’s Hand, which is not quite as sinister as it sounds, I promise!

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Prosthetic hand with letter

 

Besides all the pun based opportunities this object has provided (for the last few weeks I have been constantly asking my colleagues if they need a hand with anything…) it is actually a very important addition to the BPMA’s collection, as it reveals an often hidden aspect of history.

The hand in question is not a real one but is made of wood covered with leather and has an adaptor to fit it into the wrist unit of a prosthetic arm. Some of the earliest prosthetics in history were also made of wood and leather but this hand fits into the advanced development of prosthetic limbs that occurred after the Second World War to aid rehabilitation of the many soldiers who had limbs amputated as a result of the conflict.

Postman's hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

Postman’s hand on adaptor to fit a prosthetic arm.

The Post Office as an employer has always made a concerted effort to advance employment opportunities for disabled people, including veterans, as has been shown in previous posts and this was particularly so after the Second World War. Hands like this were in use from the 1950s through to the 1970s – this example bears its date on it ‘4/11/64’ – and were designed to hold letters. What is particularly revolutionary about this object though is that it has a roller, or wheel, under the thumb which allowed one letter to be removed while still keeping grasp of the others. This enabled disabled employees to sort letters with greater ease and efficiency than with the previous, more basic, prosthetics. Feeling the hand it is quite heavy and it has made me think what it would have been like to use.

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Profile of hand

 

This object was kindly donated to us from the Limb Fitting Centre at the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, which was founded to care for soldiers wounded in the First World War, and has since become renowned as a limb fitting and amputee rehabilitation centre. They were able to tell us that the hand had been developed by Hugh Steeper Ltd, major manufacturers of prosthetics at the time. This was the only remaining postman’s hand at Roehampton and it was returned to them by a retiring postman in the early 1970s.

As you can see the BPMA’s collection is constantly developing and this object adds to our knowledge of an important part of our history which is relatively under-represented. It is fascinating objects such as this that will form the bedrock of the new Postal Museum but they are nothing without the stories of the people who used them. If you have a story to share please email us at peoplespost@postalheritage.org.uk and help us achieve our ambition of filling our brand new museum with the voices of real people. Thank you!

-Emma Harper, Curator

Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means: Abram Games at the Jewish Museum London

During the Golden Age of GPO public relations under Stephen Tallents many prominent designers were employed to create posters for everything from ‘Post early’ Christmas campaigns to staff unions. One such designer was Abram Games who In March this year Royal Mail selected along with nine other distinguished subjects born in 1914, to feature on a stamp for its Remarkable Lives series.

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It’s fitting that in this centenary year, the Jewish Museum, London is celebrating the life and work of this iconic graphic designer in a major new exhibition; Designing the 20th Century: Life and Work of Abram Games (until 4 January 2015)

Games was the leading graphic designer of the postwar years and during his 60 year career was awarded numerous prestigious public commissions, including being appointed Official War Poster Artist during World War Two and designing the first animated BBC ident. He worked extensively with London Transport and his 1976 poster for London Zoo was recently chosen by Londoners as their second favourite poster for London Underground.

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Games’s war posters included the popular but controversial Join the ATS recruiting poster (1941), whose alluring female subject earned it the nickname ‘Blonde Bombshell’ and the condemnation of the House of Commons.

By the 1950s, Games was the foremost designer working in Britain and had carried out commissions for the General Post Office, the BBC and London Transport. In 1948, Games was commissioned by the General Post Office to design the official Olympic Games stamp and in 1951 he was awarded the commission to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain, one of the most significant designs of his career.

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Don’t miss your chance to see this major exhibition and discover more about the life and work of Abram Games as well as his celebrated theory which provided the framework for all of his compositions; ‘maximum meaning, minimum means’.

The end of the horse-drawn mail van

Sixty years ago today the last horse-drawn mail van left King Edward Building in London. This photo captures the event.

Peter pulls the last horse-drawn mail van to leave King Edward Building, London.

Peter pulls the last horse-drawn mail van to leave King Edward Building, London.

If it seems strange that horse-drawn vans were still being used by the Post Office in 1949, the remnants of war-damaged London in the background provide a clue.

Petrol rationing was introduced in Britain during the Second World War to ensure that the military and other essential services were given first priority when it came to fuel supplies. Throughout the war, individuals, businesses, and organisations such as the Post Office, had to make efficient use of the limited resources to hand. This ruled out expansion of the Post Office’s growing fleet of small motor vehicles for local deliveries, meaning that horse-drawn vans stayed in service for longer than they might have.

A horse-drawn mail van circa 1935 in our collection. The design of the van enabled letter carriers to step on and off whilst the vehicle was still moving.

A horse-drawn mail van circa 1935 in our collection. The design of the van enabled letter carriers to step on and off whilst the vehicle was still moving.

By 1949 the era of rationing was starting to end, allowing the Post Office to replace all horse-drawn vans in London with their motorised equivalent. Although horse-drawn vans continued for a number of years in rural areas, Peter’s final journey can be said to mark the end of the wide-scale use of horses, the world’s oldest form mail transport, by the Post Office.

The Post Office Went to War

On 29th September Christine Earle a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London will speak at the BPMA about the Post Office during World War 2. This event year marks the 70th Anniversary of the start of the Second World War, and appropriately Christine’s talk will be preceded by a screening of The First Days, a GPO Film Unit film which documents the changes underwent by the population of London during September 1939.

A still from The First Days: nurses volunteer to fill sandbags

A still from The First Days: nurses volunteer to fill sandbags

Christine Earle has been a thematic stamp collector for over twenty years, using stamps and philatelic material to tell a story. More recently she has become interested in ‘Social Philately’, which allows the use of ephemera type material, as well as stamps and covers to be included in the collection. This has led to the ‘Post Office Went to War’ collection, which describes the effect that war had on the General Post Office during 1939-45; using a wide variety of philatelic material supported by associated items of the period including GPO notices, ration books, savings stamps, etc.

Christine has been a member, committee member and chair of many regional philatelic societies. She was Chair of the British Thematic Association until last year and is currently Honorary Secretary to the Council of the Royal Philatelic Society London. She has not only won 5 F.I.P Gold Medals for thematic collecting but is also an accredited judge for Thematic and Social Philately. Since 2003 Christine has been an F.I.P International judge for Thematic Philately. She conducts thematic judging seminars around the country as well as thematic collecting workshops nationwide.

For further information and booking details please see the Events section of our website. The First Days is available on the DVD If War Should Come.

The GPO Film Unit

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. The films produced during the relatively short existence of the Unit had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits.

Night Mail

Night Mail

Made up of a dedicated, largely youthful (Britten was only 22 when he joined in 1935), but badly paid group of individuals the creative impact of the Unit has been immense. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents who transferred it with him when moving from the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), where he had been working to modernise Britain’s image, to the General Post Office (GPO), where he set about doing the same. Tallents retained John Grierson to head up the Unit, and commissioned work from them and other artists as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. It was Grierson and later Cavalcanti who were responsible for negotiating many of the complexities of working for a government department. Budgets were small and rigorously enforced to the extent that an overspend on Night Mail (1936) nearly signalled the end of the Unit.

Today the films provide a fascinating insight into the history of communications in the 20th Century and of course, postal history. They include documentary, animation, advertising, public information films, drama-documentary and satirical comedy on a range of subjects, from postal rates to working class pastimes. Some of the films are a reminder of a bygone era and some are still strangely relevant; documenting the difficulties of delivering mail to a flooded village or promoting the Post Office Savings Bank which was secured by government backing in a money sensitive post-depression age.

The films were shown in cinemas and other venues including schools and community halls reaching a very wide audience. As a result of the popularity of stamp collecting The King’s Stamp (1935), commissioned as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V, is apparently one of the most watched films of all time alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gone with the Wind and King Kong.

There were mixed ambitions behind the unit including using film to advance PR techniques, experimenting with film and sound, and an intent to empower British Citizens with information through film. Grierson’s vision was for a documentary approach to film making where reality was key and where films had a social purpose: ‘It was something altogether new to be looking at ordinary things as if they were extraordinary’. He was later joined by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, who had a reputation for experimenting with sound and music in film and eventually moved on to work at Ealing Studios. The combined presence of Grierson and Cavalcanti led to a hugely innovative period in British film history.

Colour Box

Colour Box

Work by experimental film makers such as Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger meant that the public saw cutting edge film animation used to promote the services of the GPO. Examples include Lye’s 1936 film Rainbow Dance, a film about the Post Office Savings Bank which saw Lye experiment with new ways of using the Gasparcolour film, and Reiniger’s The Torcher (1938). Lye pioneered the technique of painting directly onto film negative in Colour Box (1935), to which he had added a sequence on the introduction of new cheap parcel rates allowing the film to be bought by Grierson for the GPO. This was at a time when colour film was still a novelty so it is hard to imagine what the films must have looked like to audiences at the time.

The influence of contemporary art, especially Surrealism, can be seen in films from the animation Love on the Wing (1938), promoting the new Air Mail service, to N or NW (1937) on the virtues of using the correct post code, although Love on the Wing was later banned by the Postmaster General, who found some of the imagery too ‘Freudian’. Rainbow Dance (1936) was even released in a programme of Surrealist and Avant-Garde films. Cubism was also an influence as was Soviet cinema, as seen in films including Coal Face (1935).

The documentary style saw its high point in the celebrated Night Mail (1936) where the journey of the overnight postal express for Euston to Glasgow is told through the eyes of those who work on the train; making the working man the screen hero. But the realism gives way to drama as the now famous lines of  W H Auden’s poem are read to Britten’s score and the story of those who will receive the mail comes into play with the words ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border….’.

Grierson’s documentary vision at the Unit gave rise to drama-documentary and the seeds of our modern day soaps can be seen in films including The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937) – seen as the first ‘story’ documentary – and Men of the Lightship (1940).

Britain Can Take It!

Britain Can Take It!

In 1939 the unit began to document and produce films to support the war effort, creating an often poignant portrait of Britain during the early years of World War Two. Films included Britain Can Take It! (1940), produced to provide US President Roosevelt with help in securing American popular opinion for Britain’s war effort, to Men of the Lightship (1940), which was a dramatic reconstruction of the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship –significant as lightships and lighthouses had previously been considered neutral. In 1940 the GPO Film Unit became part of the Ministry of Information as the Crown Film Unit and with that the GPO Film Unit was no more.

Some of the films produced by the GPO Film Unit are now available on DVD from our Shop.