British Postal Museum recovers artefacts after 100 year loan

By Richard Moss | 19 March 2009
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a pencil drawing of a square shaped post box with a globe motif on its head

The first London post box. Courtesy BPMA

After what must rank as one of the longest loan periods in the history of British museums, the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) has recently taken delivery of a series of artefacts that have been in the care of the Museum of London for almost 100 years.

It was in 1912 that the then General Post office (GPO) loaned a variety of items, including timepieces, truncheons and other important artefacts from the early days of the Postal Service, to the London Museum (now Museum of London).

Now the items have finally been safely returned to the BPMA, which plans to show some of them in a forthcoming discover session at its museum store in Debden in Essex.

“We are delighted to bring these wonderful postal artefacts back into our collection after so long,” said Julian Stray, Assistant Curator at the BPMA, which is the leading resource for all aspects of British postal history. “They offer a glimpse of mail practices long since abandoned, and can hopefully now find a new audience.”

a photograph of a metal plaque with writing on it

All that remains of the first six London post boxes. Courtesy BPMA

Important artefacts include three truncheons issued to postal staff in 1843 in response to the Chartist riots; a mail coach guard’s horn; a coffee house date stamp; a flintlock pistol and a timepiece (complete with key).

Official timepieces were carried by mail coach guards and postal staff on the Travelling Post Offices (TPOs). There was no national standard time until 1880 and the mail guard would carry an official timepiece set to 'London time'. This was locked shut and any deviations from contracted arrival and departure times recorded on special time bills.

Also among the items is a time plate, a valuable survivor of one the first six London post boxes dating from 1855, when post boxes were square rather than the iconic rounded red letter boxes of today. Sadly there are no survivors of the old square London post boxes – the one that supplied the plate succumbed to the Blitz during the Second World War.

The time plate is now securely ensconced at the British Postal Museum Store in Debden and can be viewed during scheduled open afternoons and evenings. It will also be featured during a discover session exploring the history of square pillar boxes on September 19 2009.

For more information and to find out more about the collections of BPMA visit

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