Happy Christmas and “respectful compliments” from all at the An Post Museum & Archive.
Delighted to be co-operating with the wonderful North Mayo Heritage Centre on this exhibition which was opened on Saturday last. A great collection of fascinating artifacts on display, wonderful stories to explore and a lovely café for coffee and a bite to eat!
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
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.
We attended the very well organised Finlandia stamp exhibition in Tampere earlier in the year which focused particularly on the centenary of Finnish independence. Sinn Fein’s propaganda labels, used here in the years before the 1916 rebellion, probably drew inspiration from a similar scheme drawn up by the Finns to highlight the desire for independence from Russia.
The Celtic Cross motif used here later, of course, became better known as part of Ireland’s first definitive issue.
A great new exhibition, A Message in Time, has just opened in Tipperay County Museum in Clonmel and there’s a chance to see there several items on loan from the An Post Museum & Archive. The exhibition takes as its starting point Tipperary County Museum’s rich post card collection and uses that to draw out local stories through multi-media, textile and traditional displays.
The exhibition opened earlier this week and a special post card, which uses a 1983 Robert Ballagh stamp design, can be posted in an old letter box on display.
Fascinating Newstalk documentary about Ireland’s pivotal role in connecting the world by the Atlantic Telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century.