With the Royal Mail’s pledge to deliver the post anywhere in the country for the same price now under threat from privatisation, a new exhibition reflects on the golden age of universal service, when fish and game could be sent through the post and arduous journeys across moor and river were all in a day’s work for the rural postie.
Centred on a collection of striking images sourced from The British Postal Museum and Archives, The Post Office in Pictures also take us on a journey through time, spanning pre-war Britain to the 1980s and set against a variety of unexpected backdrops.
The bulk of the photographs originally appeared in Post Office Magazine, an exercise book-sized publication densely packed with articles showcasing the service and its “cheerful, efficient and ever-present postmen”.
It was set up in 1934 for both staff and the general public as part of an imaginative PR drive, and copies of the magazine, which was succeeded by Courier in 1966, accompany the exhibition at the Lumen Arts Gallery in King’s Cross.
The earlier black and white photographs are reminiscent of the classic photojournalism of Picture Post in their careful arrangement of mood and setting, with a hint of drama or humour thrown in.
A Post Office van shot amid a brooding Highlands landscape in 1937 finds it slow going after having to contend with a large flock of befuddled sheep blocking its way, while ‘Returned Parcels’ of 1938 shows a grinning postman clutching the latest arrivals. Game, including rabbits, could be posted with nothing but a neck label as long as “no liquid is likely to exude”.
Later images are less stylised, illustrating the versatility of the service in its response to “special events” and emergencies. Mobile post offices were routinely set up in bombed areas to help keep communications lines open during World War ll, but also appeared at the Epsom and Ascot races and at seasonal encampments of workers, like the hop pickers of Kent.
According to one exhibit, holidaymakers in Great Yarmouth preferred to send gift boxes of smoked herring instead of postcards to show off where they’d been. These were dealt with by “special collection” vans, which also handled deliveries of the fresh fish at the height of the town’s herring season.
In the more remote areas of Britain, postmen – and women – had to be as fit as they were as dedicated in a job that saw them traversing difficult terrain using their own muscle. Holyhead postman R G Rees reckoned he walked “a million steps” to reach South Stack Lighthouse on Angelsey over the six years of doing the rounds there during the 1930s, while his colleagues hauled themselves across the River Findhorn in Scotland in a ‘bucket bridge’ – a wooden contraption attached to a cable.
Fast forward to 1988 and ‘High Tide’ shows Len Ritchie taking to the Atlantic in a rowing boat to reach St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, a trip he made twice a day.
The sense of shared community that the Post Office Magazine was trying to convey is perhaps best summed up in ‘Down Wapping Way’, an image that appeared on the cover of a 1935 edition showing a postman delivering to a tenement yard in the London docklands, a daily ritual evidently enjoyed by both worker and recipient.
Nowadays we are more likely to moan about our postal service thanks to privateers eating away at it in recent years, resulting in reduced deliveries and higher prices.
The British Postal Museum and Archives (BPMA) itself is based at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in Holborn, once the biggest in the world and now tied up with the future privatisation of the Royal Mail, with half the site due to be sold off to developers.
The good news is that the BPMA – home to archives dating back to 1636 when the Royal Mail was established – is to be relocated to much larger premises in nearby Calthorpe House.
At the very least, the public will have a better chance to view Britain’s fascinating postal heritage and understand exactly what is being lost.
The Post Office in Pictures is on display at Lumen Arts Gallery, Tavistock Place, London WC1, until August 31. Admission is free.
Published: 24 May, 2012 Camden New Journal
© Royal Mail Group Ltd 2012 courtesy of The British Postal Museum and Archive