Quirks, curios, collecting: The G.P.O.

W6 Bag Seal.jpg
Lead Bag Seal, W6 postcode

Last year I started to collect mysterious little lead squares as they began to surface on foreshore trip after foreshore trip. Knowing that they were ‘something’, but not quite knowing what that something was, I popped them in my finds bag to investigate later.

Those little lead curios turned out to be mail bag seals from the General Post Office. The discovery led me to serendipitously uncover many quirks of collectable G.P.O. miscellany and ephemera – old telephone cables, telegraph insulator caps, for example – which also unmasked a plethora of G.P.O. appreciation societies for the strangest of objects. This, for example.

The G.P.O. was a magnificent empire, covering snail mail, telegram, telephone switching systems and telegraph cables. That meant motorbikes, franking machines, seals, home telephones, resin dials, stamps, hard hats, bells, boxes and bicylces – all sorts of consumerables and collectibles – started with the existence of Royal Mail communications.

The Royal Mail we all know and (possibly) love today started life in 1516 as exactly that – a postal distribution system for royal and government documents. In 1636 King Charles I legalised the use of royal postal distribution system for private correspondence between senders and receivers. The General Post Office (G.P.O.) was officially established in England in 1660 by King Charles II.

G.P.O. Telegraph insulators, made by Bullers Ltd, London

In 1661 the office of Postmaster General was created (previously ‘Master of the Posts’, in Henry VIII’s time) to oversee the GPO, further formalising the service, and making sure that it would run properly. In 1678 the Royal Mail’s headquarters moved to Lombard Street to cement their monopoly and crack down on other informal postal services. Before the official Royal Mail held the monopoly on postal delivery services, certain coffee houses, such as Lloyd’s and Garraway’s, informally organised private transport of mail between their patrons.

The G.P.O. grew to combine both the functions of state postal system and communications carrier, with similar offices, like modern day sorting offices, established across the British Empire. When new forms of communication came into existence in the 19th and early 20th centuries the G.P.O. claimed monopoly rights on the basis that, like the postal service, they involved delivery from a sender and to a receiver. The theory was used to expand state control of the mail service into every form of electronic communication possible on the basis that every sender used some form of distribution service.

Astonishingly, this very same system lasted until 1969, when the G.P.O. was abolished, the assets transferred to The Post Office. This marked the transition from a Department of State organisation to a statutory corporation. Now I’ve outlined the potted history, I can share some of my little finds with you.

Photographed below are six of my best G.P.O. bag seals, one is clearly marked with a London, W6, postcode prefix. In addition to the small, square parcel sack seals, I often find little lead studs attached to a shank, again stamped G.P.O. These little beauties are lead tipped nails, used to affix G.P.O. cabling to telegraph poles and sides of buildings.

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“In 1911 the post office replaced wax seals with lead ones for sealing letter and parcel sacks (lead seals were used in the the larger post offices probably since Charles I opened up his royal mail to the public in 1635). The Post Office Controller of Stores supplied the lead to the seal manufacturers Dunham White & Co Ltd., J.N.Lyons Ltd., The Lead Seal Manufacturing Co. and Walkens, Parker & Co. Ltd, directly” 

Source: The British Postal Museum & Archive, Freeling House, Pheonix Place, London.

In the photo towards the top of the page are a couple of GPO goodies that I didn’t take home. More’s the pity, it would seem, as they are very popular collectables. On certain parts of the foreshore you can’t move for insulators, mainly ceramic white ones, made by various companies, but mainly Wade, and Bullers Ltd. Sitting alongside transport network insulators, bask in the Obscure Objects of Transport Beauty.  – NB despite the GPO’s sprawling tentacles wrapping around Britain’s telegraph network when it was nationalised in 1870 , that did not include railway telegraph circuits, which continued to run in parallel with the publicly-owned telegraph network.

Good news! The Postal Museum opens this July, 2017, once again making a trip on the Mail Rail possible. Check it out, here: https://postalmuseum.org/. In addition to booking a ride on the historical Mail Rail, you can also browse the Postal Galleries to “delve into 500 years of groundbreaking postal history and discover how a humble service revolutionised our lives.” Or perhaps you’d like a photographic tour of a mechanised sorting office from the 1960s? Say no more, Matt Tantony is here to help.

It is at this point that I shall bid you farewell, reader, but not before turning your attention to some of the more curious societies and collector groups that I have so far found on my great G.P.O. journey…

The noble and true GPO Nostalgia Home Page | LINK

The very upright Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society | LINK

The glamorous domain of British Insulators (not all GPO) | LINK

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