In The Spotlight

GBCC President Gordon Milne visits
The Bath Postal Museum

Bath Postal Museum Logo
Bath Postal Museum logo

Published in the October, 2002 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Mrs. Audrey Swindells, co-founder of the Bath Postal Museum, was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in June, 2010 for her work in establishing and supporting the museum for 30 years.

In 2001, my wife, Jan, and I spent an idyllic honeymoon in Britain. It was Jan’s first ever visit to my native land and, throughout the seventeen days, the weather was atypically British — glorious sunshine keeping the rain and clouds at bay throughout. My wife had only one word for the experience — “AWESOME!”

For the ensuing ten months, she kept up a continual blitz upon me to go back in 2002; but I kept on resisting, citing that a return so quickly would be an inevitable anticlimax.

In April of that year, we attended a wedding here in Cincinnati, present at which was a bunch of Brits I had worked with in Japan in the late 1970s. Their infectiously-jovial camaraderie — and maybe a Scotch too many! — did it. It broke my resolve, and the following morning, instead of attending church as usual, we amazingly found ourselves in front of the computer checking out websites like bestfares.com. I’d lost the battle. We were headed back to Britain!

Our 2002 visit followed a similar pattern to that of the previous year — except for the weather: our 2002 trip bringing us rain some time EVERY day of the visit’s 16-day duration. The first week was spent in my native Scotland with the focus on places; the second, as we headed south, switched to people … with one notable exception — a visit to The Bath Postal Museum.

Recreation of 19th century PO
Replica of a 19th century post office in the Bath Postal Museum

Being both keen collectors, we had unanimously agreed, at the planning stage, to do something philatelic on our return. The only question was: What?

Because we had visited London the previous year, we ruled out a host of “stamping” opportunities that the capital offered and decided instead to go out of our way considerably to pay a first-ever visit to Bath.

I contacted the Museum’s administrator, Steve Bailey, and set up an appointment for a conducted tour of the facility on the Friday of the last week of our visit; and to whet the appetite further, we visited the Museum’s website at www.bathpostalmuseum.org.

What follows is the story of the Museum and of our visit….

In these days of declining attendance at stamp shows on both sides of the “pond” and closures of much bigger facilities like Britain’s National Postal Museum, it is laudable that this little museum — the only one in Britain that tells “The Story of the Post” — is still up and running.

But the Museum is visibly struggling to survive.

An independent, self-funding entity and a registered charity, the Museum is essentially run by volunteers. It relies on entrance fees, donations and sales from its ground floor shop to stay in existence.

Steve Bailey, the Museum’s Administrator and Archivist since 1999, is a non-collector. A former historical guide on one of Bath’s open-top buses, Steve is one of only two paid employees at the Museum. He is in attendance Tuesday through Friday — a curtailed schedule that, sadly, is all that the Museum can afford!

When I met with him after Jan and I had done the tour on our own, Steve admitted that, for the last two years, attendance at the Museum had declined. He attributed this to last year’s rampant foot and mouth disease in the U.K., the 9/11 tragedy and, not least, to the traffic changes and restrictions that the city of Bath had recently imposed.

I have to say that, as first-time visitors to this historic and picturesque English city, nestling between two areas of great natural beauty — the Cotswolds and the Mendips — we found getting into and then parked within the city to be no easy accomplishment.

No, I’ll be more direct — it was such an irritation that, at one stage, we almost were tempted to abandon the project altogether!

As we drove around not knowing where we were headed, certain streets suddenly came upon us marked “Only for buses and taxis.”

Having gone full circle twice to no avail, we stopped by one of the taxi ranks to ask for directions to Broad Street. A friendly cabbie (pointing to a no-car zone) told us with a twinkle in his eye “The most direct way is up there. You may get lucky and not get caught!”

But, as we daringly headed that way, the flashing on/off, on/off lights of an oncoming bus clearly told us that adherence to the rules was probably the safest and wisest way to proceed!

After parking the car in a huge lot seemingly miles away, we made it to the Museum’s current home at 8 Broad Street about an hour later (and a lot more impatient and cranky) than we’d intended.

The BPM, we found out, had started its life in the late 1970s but at a different address.

When the concept of a Postal Museum was put to Audrey and Harold Swindells, they were so intrigued by the proposal that they decided to uproot their family from the country and buy and move into a splendid Georgian House at 51 Great Pulteney Street with a view to establishing a museum there.

The large kitchen on the ground floor level of the house had access from the street and the Swindells conceived this to be a great home for it. But the main (unresolved) question was whether the idea of a museum was really practicable and viable.

By the autumn of 1978 a group of dedicated “philatelic people” had gotten together to discuss the proposition in detail, a trust had been formed, negotiations had started to register it with the Charity Commissioners, and a management team had been assembled.

The main issue, however, continued to be funding — or the lack thereof! — and the sad but potentially true message that the Trustees heard was that it wouldn’t arrive until the doors opened.

Cover from BPM opening day
Cover prepared to mark the opening day of the Bath Postal Museum

This happened on April 27th, 1979, when a day of gala celebrations heralded the Museum’s opening. As part of the festivities, for example, a horse-drawn mailcoach transported the guest of honour, Tom Jackson, the Union of Postal Workers’ National Secretary, and Dr. George Kersley, then Mayor of Bath, to witness the release of 250 carrier pigeons bearing “grammes” to Gloucester to announce that the Museum was up and running.

Lunch followed at the Royal York Hotel, formerly the York House, which, appropriately, had been a famous Bath-London coaching inn during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Restroom signs
Signs on the restroom doors at the Bath Postal Museum

Within a year of its opening as a modest three-room basement venture, the Museum had reason to expand. Two lovely ground floor rooms were converted into a film room and tearoom respectively. However, even at that stage, it was openly apparent that, if the project were to advance, larger premises were needed.

Suddenly, a magnificent opportunity arose when the property at 8 Broad Street became vacant. This had been the site of the main Bath Post Office from 1820 to 1854.

History, too, provided a further reason why the acquisition of this site had special appeal. In 1840, the then Postmaster of Bath, Thomas Moore Musgrave, received supplies of the new Penny Black on May 1st — five days ahead of the stamp’s official first day of use.

Musgrave’s daughter, Anne, (so legend has it) was aware of the arrival of these novelties and, a day later, having decided to write some letters to a few friends, thought it might be fun to attach to each of them one of these new stamps.

Penny Black with May 2 1840 postmark
Cover mailed from Bath on May 2, 1840, showing Bath date stamp and London arrival cancelation

Musgrave did not dare cancel the stamps in Bath (thought he did apply a date stamp, as shown in the image on the left), but a copy has survived with the stamp cancelled on arrival in London with a tombstone post-paid cancellation.

For many years this May 2nd cancel was regarded as the first known usage of the Penny Black, and when it came up for auction in 1990, the Museum, keenly desirous of returning it to its former home, succeeded in arranging financing for a purchase up to £16,000.

But that figure turned out to be not nearly enough as a Far Eastern bidder shattered the Museum’s dreams of bringing the cover back “home” when he got the historic piece for £55,000. (Subsequently, a single example of a Penny Black posted on May 1st has come to light making it now the stamp’s first recorded usage.)

It should be noted that it was never the intention of the founders to make their dream purely “a Museum of stamps,” but rather one that showed the development of written communications (which, of course, would include the birth of Sir Rowland Hill’s Penny Post).

The founders argued that, while pure out-and-out stamp collectors would gravitate towards the National Postal Museum in London (subsequently closed in 1998) and the philatelic collections housed in the British Library, their Museum would attract a wider range of visitors.

Victorial wall postbox
Victorian wall box, removed from High Street, Keynsham, between Bath and Bristol.

If you’re still wondering “Why Bath?” for such a project, it had seemed to the founders to be the perfect fit, in light of three striking links the city had to the development of the postal system in the U.K.

The first postal pioneer was Ralph Allen (1694-1764). As Postmaster of Bath, Allen, in the first half of the 18th century, had successfully put together a well-organized postal system covering the whole of the country outside of London.

Next to make a significant contribution was John Palmer (1742-1818), theatre owner and entrepreneur, who introduced a fast and regular horse-drawn mailcoach system covering the whole country.

Both Allen and Palmer operated out of their Bath offices and their systems became international prototypes.

Of course, as all philatelists know, the true father of the Penny Post was Sir Rowland Hill. A teacher for the early part of his life, Hill — not a “Bathonian;” he came from Kidderminster — didn’t turn his attention to postal reform until he had reached middle-age.

In 1837 he published his pamphlet entitled “Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability,” in which document he advocated the pre-payment of postage by means of envelopes imprinted with a stamp or, alternatively, “labeled with bits of paper just large enough to bear the stamp and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” He also proposed a uniform postage rate, irrespective of the number of sheets in a given letter.

Hill’s proposals did not initially sit well with the bureaucracy of the Post Office, but he did not give in easily or readily. By 1839 he was given the green light to proceed with his plans.

But back to the Museum and its history….

It opened at its new location in 1985 in a ceremony attended by the Mayor of Bath and led by two well-known figures from the world of British entertainment — Leslie Crowther (then a trustee but now sadly passed on) and well-known television, film and theatre actor, Richard Briers (a Friend of the Museum). A message of good wishes from Her Majesty the Queen Mother was borne by a carrier pigeon (later renamed “Royal”), the pigeon’s journey taking it all the way from Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s residence, to Bath — a flight that took it some three and a half hours.

Tramcar letter box
Tramcar letter box, first introduced in 1893, for convenience of passengers. It was also hoped to ease the volume of mail handled by sub post offices by this method.

Over the years, improvements continued to be made at the Museum’s new location. For example, the first floor (extending across #8 and #9 Broad Street) was acquired, giving greatly increased display space. Additionally, significant alterations were made to the basement including the setting up of an activities room that informed, educated and amused visiting school groups with its computer quiz.

The residence’s old drawing room — the one in which it is believed Anne Musgrave composed her historic letter — is now called the Adrian Hopkins Room and houses significant material from the periods of the aforementioned Allen, Palmer and Musgrave.

During the time of our visit, excerpts from the late Adrian Hopkins’ impressive wreck cover collection were on display in this segment of the Museum. These included copies of telegrams sent in the last minutes of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage. Hopkins was a distinguished postal historian and a former Mayor of Bath. His daughter, Ann, is currently a trustee and benefactor.

When we were there, a smaller Ralph Allen display graced the nearby first floor landing.

By the time this issue of the Chronicle reaches members, probably both those exhibits will have been replaced.

Also on the first floor is located the Airmail Room, opened in January 1990 by Sir Ian Pedder, KCB, OBE, DFC, Marshall of the Royal Air Force. Here you can see the only displays in the country relating to international first flights in Europe.

As you enter the Museum, and after paying the modest entrance fee, a few steps lead you to the ground floor displays. These cover written communications over the last 4000 years, starting with clay tablets from 2000 BC and still set in their original “envelopes.”

Also in this section is an impressive collection of early letterboxes, the history of which is featured on a segment of the Museum’s website under “Post Box History.”

With the intention of being helpful to, rather than critical of, the Museum’s website compilers, I have to admit that I found its landscape format, in certain areas, to be somewhat of an irritation, especially when it came to running off pages for future reference.

Recreation of Neston PO
Reconstructed Neston Post Office (1930s)

In any museum, each visitor has his or her favorite area. One of mine was the reconstructed 1930s Post Office of Neston, which is set up in the basement. The Post Office had been purpose-built around 1935 by Arthur and Marjorie Cousins on land purchased for £50.

When war started in 1939, the nearby stone quarries were requisitioned by the Defence Ministry to be used as an ammunition depot and an underground aircraft engine factory. The Ministry also decided that accommodation would be built in the area for the civilian workers employed there.

Thus, hundreds of Irishmen employed by Wimpey and McAlpine to do the construction came to live in the area along with Army personnel.

As the little Neston Post Office was the nearest such facility for those new residents (who numbered about 2000), the life of the Cousins changed dramatically. For example, the influx of Irishmen used the Post Office to send home their earnings by way of registered letters and through telegraph money orders.

The Cousins retired from Post Office life in the early 1960s.

Private letter box
Victorian private letter box (from 1886 the PO permitted boxes to be installed in shops, business premises, hotels, etc. Keys for collection of mail were held only by postal staff.

Another feature I enjoyed was, as you ascended the stairs, the nice framed displays on the left-hand wall of “The History of Mail Transport.” Featured here were foot messengers, horses, horse-drawn vehicles, motors, and aircraft and ships. Sadly, frame number five was missing, having, apparently, suffered an undefined accident!

On the second floor, displays featured, not surprisingly, the Penny Black, Victorian letter writing and a brief history of the postal service from 1837 to 1887.

We sat through two somewhat outdated films — at least in their presentation — “Men of Letters” and “Post Haste,” the latter’s subject being the story of the Travelling Post Office. Interesting … but surely there’s something around that’s a bit more up-to-date!

Our visit took us under two hours, a considerable chunk of which was spent buying £60’s worth of PHQs (postal headquarters cards), First Day Covers and Letter Box and other postal-related models from the museum shop — just our way of making a small contribution to, hopefully, prolong the Museum’s tenuous survival.

Another way one can help this worthy cause keep afloat is by becoming a Friend of the Bath Postal Museum, the annual subscription for which is a modest £10 and entitles the Friend to free admission to the Museum, free use of the library facilities, free entrance to the special events and exhibitions and a year’s subscription to the Friends’ newsletter, “Posted!.”

During our visit, we sadly encountered only four other paid customers — and that on a Friday in early July. The Spring 2002 Friends’ newsletter that I picked up during our visit sadly reported that, though visitor numbers and shop takings had been up a little on the prior year, the year ended with a deficit of £3000. Regrettably, not too healthy a picture.

So, if you’re in Bath, please do your little bit to keep the Museum going by paying it a visit and helping any and every way you can. After all the effort that has been put in thus far, it would be ever so sad to see it no longer around.

To all involved with the Museum’s operations, my personal best wishes for a healthy and stable future. Good luck!

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