Hi everyone! We’re back in London, the city of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace… though we don’t much care for those — we were promised a tour of the fantastic Postal Museum, and we’re super excited to discover the treasures and stories hiding inside.
From cryptic Victorian Valentine cards, to pirates or a mischievous lioness that attacked a mail coach, the whole visit was lots of fun… but let’s start at the beginning.
Check out these really old letters in their permanent exhibition! Through them, you can learn more about how there came to be a need for the uniform penny postage. Before the postal reform that Sir Rowland Hill brought about, postage was paid by the recipient according to the number of sheets in it, and the distance it traveled… which wasn’t very practical!
To save space, some letters were written in a particular style called “crossed writing”, which makes them extra hard to read.
You know how sometimes big ships sometimes have the prefix RMS on their name, like the RMS Titanic or RMS Queen Mary? RMS stands for “Royal Mail Ship”, as these vessels were used to transport not just passengers but also mail. This wasn’t always an easy task though, and there are stories of captains fighting pirates to defend the mail, or ships torpedoed in wars. This was the case of the SS Gairsoppa, sunk in 1941 and found only in 2011. Some 700 pieces of mail from this ship have been recovered, and they offer a unique insight into the lives of ordinary people, living in extraordinary circumstances during the Second World War.
This green pillar box is from 1853, from the Channel islands — the first place where postboxes were trialed before being brought over to the UK. This first trial was a success, so postboxes started appearing around the British mainland soon after. Although these boxes were first painted red, their color was later standardised as green… but it was quickly discovered that the green color blended too much with the background, so, after many complaints by people who couldn’t seem to find mailboxes anywhere, their color was changed back to red again, to make them more conspicuous!
Having heard so much about them, we were super excited to check out the only full sheet of the most famous stamp in the world, the Penny Black, which the museum shows in their exhibition! Before looking at them like this, we hadn’t realized that all the stamps in a single sheet are different — for extra security, they all bear a combination of two letters, with one changing from stamp to stamp. There are 240 stamps in each sheet, to make a total of £1 per sheet.
One of our favourite parts of the exhibition is that it is interactive! You can dress up and be like James Moses Nobbs, who was the longest serving (55 years!) and the last of the Mail Coach Guards in the Royal Mail. Or, you can don the postwoman uniform and try to deliver some secret pneumatic messages on their tube system! We were obviously a little too small for the clothes, but the real Paulo and Ana had fun instead. 😀
There are also lots of posters and other printed materials to peruse in the permanent exhibition, and we couldn’t help but admire the graphic design on them. The posters came about when Stephen Tallents was appointed Public Relations Officer to the General Post Office in 1933. He had extensive experience in PR, and set out on a radical programme to change the way in which the General Post Office communicated with its customers. One of these changes was to start using posters made by talented designers for marketing, and also to display in schools and post offices. Reproductions of many of these are available as postcards in the gift shop!
There’s even a 1983 Post Bus on display! These cute vehicles could once be seen throughout rural Britain, and they were a convenient hybrid between a normal bus for ferrying passengers and a mail van to deliver mail to those areas.
One of our favourite parts of the exhibition was looking through the Tolhurst envelopes — a collection of correspondence from Frederick Charles Tolhurst to his children. Each letter was posted in a carefully decorated envelope with hand-drawn images – some happy, some sad, but all gorgeous. It’s mailart from the early 20th century, and an illustrated slice of the events that were taking place at the time.
The Mail Rail has opened to visitors since the last time we were in London, and so, as part of the museum tour, now you can discover the tunnels below London that used to carry the mail swiftly across the city. It was the first electric railway with driverless trains in the world, and it worked from 1927 until 2003, carrying 4 million letters every day at its peak. If you’re a little bit claustrophobic like big Ana, you can take a peek at the Mail Rail experience on this virtual tour.
Right now, the Museum has a brand new exhibition titled Wish You Were Here: 151 Years of the British Postcard, which looks amazing and right up our alley! Here’s a sneak peak:
You can explore postcards throughout history, reflect on their future and even mail one of four unique postcards by artist Peter Liversidge, especially created for the Postal Museum. Bonus points if you spot Postcrossing in the exhibition and send us a photo of the display! 😍
PS – If you’re planning to check out the museum, let other postcrossers know on the forum (maybe you can go as a group and get a discount!).