29 March 2012
We review the acclaimed book 'Masters of the Post: The Authorised HIstory of the Royal Mail' by Duncan Campbell-Smith ...
The General Post Office, Royal Mail, Parcel Force and other divisions of this 500-year-old organisation are rarely out of the news for one reason or another, and there have been many books written about various aspects of its history over the years. This latest, which covers 1512 to 2010, is probably the most comprehensive volume, and the author was actively supported by The British Postal Museum an Archive (BPMA), being given unlimited access to its archives.
The fourteen chapters fall into three sections, ‘Arm of the State, 1512-1914’, ‘War and Peace 1914-1949’ and ‘No Ordinary Business 1949-2010.’ The chapters are further subdivided chronologically as appropriate, escorting the reader through the early period and the establishment of the General Post Office; its gradual growth and development into a country-wide network, with the attendant corruption and influence of vested interests. Then follow the struggles to introduce the postal reforms of Rowland Hill, the further development of services, the widespread use of railways, and later air transport and the growth of airmail.
At various times the Post Office has had to cope with wars; in the Crimea, the Sudan, Palestine, and two World Wars. Ancillary services such as Registration of letters, the Post Office Savings Bank, National Savings, Post Office Telegrams, the catalogue of the GPO Film Unit all demonstrate the influence of the organisation in everyday lives.
The modern period includes such headings as the Bletchley computers, the Great Train Robbery, Tony Benn and the Queen’s Head, as well as the debate about the proliferation of commemorative stamps, the call for pictorial definitives. Labour problems figure prominently throughout, not least being the 1971 Strike, the split with the telecoms business, the introduction of 1st and 2nd class post, Parcel Force, Pensions problems and much more.
Colourful and influential characters both inside and outside the Post Office are well described, and their success or failure charted. These include Ralph Allen, Rowland Hill, Francis Freeling, Henry Fawcett, Stanley Gibbons, Stephen Tallents, Tom Jackson, but many others are to be found in the comprehensive index.
Duncan has an easy style despite having to record detailed and heavy matters. The book is principally chronological but the reader will find that he can dip in and out using the chapter heads, or, indeed as I did, by just opening pages at random and reading the pages before him. Pages 148/9 for example deal with the proposal to allow Sunday deliveries and sorting work which ended up the Government doing 2 U-turns, or pages 193/4 where the liberalization of the Telephone services is granted. One colourful interlude features Tony Benn kneeling on the floor in front of the Queen trying to persuade her to look at designs which did not include her portrait. William Barlow’s first speech to a conference of top managers is revealing, not only about the man, but the organization he was about to manage.
The book has some 700 pages of text, then follow three appendices, and a complete listing of Masters of the Post. There are in total 849 pages, with 23 black and white illustrations within the text, nine maps, and 32 mostly black and white plates. Definitely one for the reference shelf, a veritable mine of information not easily found elsewhere, well researched, well presented and well produced.
Buy the book for £19.99 – that's a discount of over 30% – from the S&CM Savers' Club.