The idea of sending special cards to mark Ireland’s saint’s day goes back to the nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century there were many commercial firms involved in their production, both in Britain and Ireland and in the United States. Much of the now traditional imagery associated with Ireland and the Irish dates from that time.
Happy Christmas and “respectful compliments” from all at the An Post Museum & Archive.
In 1959, the famous tea merchant, Twining’s of London, printed a series of 30 small cards measuring 1½ inches by 2¾ inches featuring illustrations of some of the world’s rarest stamps. Cigarette cards, showing actresses, sportsmen and other well-known figures, first appeared here in the late nineteenth century, issued by firms like Wills and John Player & Sons. They were used both as a form of advertising and as a means of strengthening the cigarette packet. The idea proved popular and all kinds of subjects featured on the cards over the following decades.
After the Second World War and the rationing of tea that was continued in its aftermath, the big British tea companies introduced tea cards as a way of marketing and re-introducing tea to the public in the early 1950s. Their market, of course, extended to Ireland where drinking tea was, until very recent years, much more popular than coffee. Considerable care was taken in the design and printing of the cards which were produced to a very high standard. The combination of colour and interesting snippets of information was a winning formula and the public collected cards to such an extent that the tea companies had to take on extra staff to deal with queries from those who wanted to buy missing cards to complete their collections!
Twining’s was set up in the early eighteenth century and its premises on London’s Strand is not far from the headquarters of the famous stamp dealer, Stanley Gibbons, which is also located on the Strand. Perhaps there was some co-operation between the two businesses for these tea cards encouraged stamp collecting. Instructions on the back of the cards read:
“Collect all 30 cards of the set. Cut off the bottom portions and return to above address with stamped addressed envelope for a free packet of selected foreign stamps.”
The series was devised by leading English stamp experts of the time, the Williams brothers, Norman and Maurice, whose knowledge of philately, especially its quirkier aspects, was immense. This particular series highlights some of the bizarre stories behind early stamp issues. Take a look at card No. 7, for instance. It shows Charles Connell, postmaster of New Brunswick in Canada, who decided to put his own portrait instead of Queen Victoria’s, on a 5 cent stamp in 1860. Such was the outrage generated that he had to resign and almost all of the stamps were destroyed. The “Double Geneva” of 1843 is an interesting stamp because it was printed in two parts, half could be used for local Geneva post at 5 centimes or the whole, at 10 centimes, could be used for letters between Swiss cantons.
Finally, there is card No. 8 which has an Irish connection even though it is an 1854 stamp of Western Australia. The stamp shows a swan within a frame. During printing the frame was inverted and a few stamps were issued before the mistake was discovered. Known as the “inverted swan”, one of the very few known is in the National Museum’s collection in Dublin. It was discovered by a school boy in The High School Dublin and ended up being bought by the Duke of Leinster who left his wonderful stamp collection to the museum.
(George IV passing the GPO)
For 200 years now Dublin’s General Post Office has been at the heart of events in the city. For many the building is famous simply as the headquarters of the men and women of 1916 but its role as the communications centre of Ireland – for letters, telegraphs and telephones – as well as its place in banking, welfare and pensions gives it a claim to be seen as one of the most quietly influential buildings in the whole of Ireland.
Constructed between 1814 and 1818 under the supervision of the distinguished Armagh-born architect, Francis Johnston, the GPO is one of the oldest working chief post offices in the world. Severely classical in style, its fine façade and portico are all that remain of the original building which was much smaller than the GPO which re-emerged after the destruction of 1916. Indeed, the building underwent several modifications before then as it coped with the development of new business during the 19th century and the accommodation provided for certain staff gave way to working space.
The main public entrance was originally via a door where Cuchulain now stands and people entered a room which had sorting offices to left and right and which led to the mail coach yard at the rear of the building. Before the coming of the railways, the daily departure of the mail coaches was a splendid event which drew visitors to the GPO. There were kitchens in the basement, an armoury at the back, a nursery upstairs and generous accommodation for the boss of the time, Sir Edward Lees, and his family. Railings remained at the front of the building until the close of the nineteenth century and you can still see the base of the cast-iron lamp stands outside today.
By the start of the twentieth century, the GPO had become extremely cramped and the purchase of Ball’s Bank in Henry Street in 1903 was the start of a long expansion and renovation programme carried out by Robert Cochrane and Howard Pentland of the Board of Works. This was completed just a few weeks before rebels entered the building on Easter Monday 1916. GPO staff and unarmed soldiers on duty in the telegraph office resisted the attack and refused to leave until shots were fired into their office. The fires that consumed the building at the end of Easter Week destroyed much invaluable historical information as well as current operational records but these were reconstructed and, just three days after the end of hostilities, GPO staff were back on delivery working from temporary premises behind the Rotunda hospital.
Writing in the New Statesman on 6th May 1916 Bernard Shaw did not shed many tears for the GPO, seeing it as rather dull architecture: “Its destruction” he said, “does not matter” nor did he grieve much for the city centre. His main regret was that Dublin’s infamous slums had not been cleared: “How I wish”, he remarked, “I had been in command of the British artillery on that fatal field! How I should have improved my native city”! Post Office management and city planners paid no heed to Shaw and plans for the rebuilding of the GPO were soon drawn up. The ongoing political unrest and further violence in Ireland, however, added to financial constraints meant that GPO staff did not move in again until 1928. The building was formally reopened in 1929 but only completed in 1933. T J Byrne of the OPW was responsible for the creation of a greatly enlarged building which included radio broadcasting studios but no longer mail sorting. His design of the GPO’s Public Office retained elements of Francis Johnston’s original work but was strikingly modern in its incorporation of art deco features. We might almost imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap-dancing their way to the counter to post a letter!
A building of great historical significance and architectural distinction, the GPO is above all a monument to the millions of ordinary Irish men and women who have entered its halls and entrusted their daily business, their aspirations and regrets, their dreams and their sadness to the grand old lady of O’Connell Street – Dublin’s GPO.
Assistant Secretary, GPO
For well over a hundred years, there has been in the public mind a particularly close association between the Post Office and Christmas time. Christmas cards, letters from abroad, turkeys, geese and parcels of every description are happily linked with the image of a heavily-laden but cheerful postman. Despite great changes in technology in recent years, the link between Christmas and the Post Office survives and Santa Claus himself still depends on An Post to bring him the many thousands of letters written by children throughout the country.
How did all this begin though? The connection with the Post Office goes back at least to the invention of Christmas cards and to Henry Cole who is credited with introducing them. Cole had worked with the postal reformer, Rowland Hill, on the introduction of universal penny postage and the famous Penny Black stamp. In 1843 he arranged for the design and printing of one thousand hand –coloured cards which he sold at the high price of 6d – about 3 cents in today’s currency but a lot of money at the time and well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. Slowly, however, the idea of sending a special greeting card at Christmas caught the imagination and by 1881 the Post Office thought it wise to issue its first “Post early for Christmas” message in order to cope with the additional mail volumes. Some more recent examples from An Post’s Museum & Archive collections are on display here.
Early Christmas cards generally show Santa dressed in green in anticipation of the spring-time that would put an end to winter’s grip. His red costume originated later in the United States and spread back to Europe. Scenes of festivity and traditional Biblical motifs formed the most popular themes on cards but, with the increasing importance of the Post Office at Christmas time, card manufacturers would sometimes incorporate a postal image – a snow-covered pillar box for instance or children awaiting the arrival of the postman.
In days when letters were still the main form of communication between people, it was expected that postal staff would provide normal services on Christmas day. Occasionally, there was generosity on the part of the Post Office as an employer: eighty-odd years ago the Postmaster General conceded that an “official Christmas breakfast” might be funded out of official funds for staff engaged on the 4am duties on Christmas day. This concession, however, was experimental and was not repeated the following year! It was normal for local delivery staff to remain on duty until the final incoming mails had been received, even if they were late, and staff might not get home to their families until the evening. Pressure from staff eventually brought change and, for the first time, there was no Christmas day delivery in 1937.
As mail volumes grew, it became necessary to take on extra staff at Christmas and, in difficult economic times, applications for those Post Office jobs far exceeded the number of positions available. An Post still takes on extra staff at Christmas in order to cope with the nearly 100 million additional items that pass through the postal system over the Christmas period.
It is hard to be quite sure which country came up with the idea of issuing a special Christmas stamp: Canada issued a stamp in 1898 bearing the words Xmas 1898 but the wording was incidental to the main theme. British forces in Egypt used a special Christmas label in the mid 1930s and the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp for use on Christmas mail in 1937. Here in Ireland, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs issued our first Christmas stamp in 1971 and the practice has continued ever since. Designs have generally been based on traditional nativity scenes as portrayed in famous paintings, manuscripts and similar works of art but other aspects of Christmas also feature. In selecting designs, the Post Office has cast its net wide with modern artists like Richard King and P. J. Lynch rubbing shoulders with young children and classical masters like Giorgione and Bellini. As a collecting theme, Christmas stamps offer scope for an attractive and interesting display.
Today, Christmas remains the busiest time of the year for An Post. Modern automated equipment now does most of the sorting work and trucks and vans have long replaced the horse and cart but delivery still depends on the commitment and dedication of Post Office staff throughout the land. While e-mail, text and social media are an integral part of contemporary life, for warmth and the cosy glow of an authentic Christmas, there’s nothing quite like the post!
An Post Museum & Archive
Until quite recently An Post managed the Irish National Lottery for which it received payment from the Government. The Company was also part owner. Its extensive network of post offices allowed it to sell lottery tickets economically and conveniently throughout the country. The Lottery is now run by another business.
Post Office involvement in gambling was somewhat at odds with its traditional role as a prudent home for your money and the advocate of a savings habit to be inculcated from an early age with six penny savings stamps! Lotteries were not new of course when An Post became involved in the mid-1980s as this 1777 ticket, from the Museum & Archive, demonstrates. The object here was the building of the new Royal Exchange, now the City Hall.
The Travelling Post Office or TPO, as it was known within the Post Office, was a vital part of postal infrastructure in Ireland from 1855 until the last ones were taken out of service in 1994. Clerks would sort letters en route so that they would be ready, close to delivery order, by the time the train arrived at its destination. Bags of mail, moreover, would be taken on and offloaded by means of a special net and pole apparatus at points on the journey without the train having to stop. The system was remarkably efficient and the men who worked on the TPOs were experts in their knowledge of the postal system and Irish geography.
Having been in storage for many years, the last of our TPO carriages was moved last weekend to Downpatrick’s railway museum where it will be on loan from the Post Office to form, in due course, part of a display in the Downpatrick & County Down Railway’s exhibition. The ties between the Post Office and the railways in Ireland have been very strong over the last 150 years or so and it is nice to find an appreciative and fitting home for the last of these purpose-built Post Office carriages.
It is 99 years ago today since the mail boat, RMS Leinster, was sunk in the Irish Sea just a couple of weeks before the end of the Great War. More than 500 people lost their lives that day including 21 of the 22 Post Office staff on board making it one of the worst of Irish maritime disasters. The German U Boat which sank the ship was itself lost when it struck a mine on its way home and so further lives were lost.
Events in Ireland, as it moved towards independence, and a reluctance at official levels to dwell too much on the disaster after the end of the war meant that it was overlooked for many years but in recent times the tragedy has been remembered and the lives of those who died commemorated.
For stamps, letter boxes, postcards and even 500 years of the Reformation, visit the Irish national stamp show at Griffith College this weekend!