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Monday, 17th December 2007
it's in the Post.

D espite all the high tech stuff that goes into getting your requests for cards to me and all that entails there is still only one way those cards are going to get to you and that is through the postal system.

Whenver you see something described as interesting you have a vague idea it is not going to be. Then when it is called, Lambert & Butler, Interesting Sidelights in the Work of the GPO [1939] you begin to get a better picture. Still lets at least be thankful they used GPO instead of General Post Office otherwise it would have been right up there with the sister set to this one; Interesting Customs & Traditions of the Navy, Army & Airforce [1939]. You can only imagine it was the copy-writers bad brain day.

I am sure there have been improvements in the postal system over the years but for some reason it feels like it has not changed a bit in the last hundred years, or if it has then not for the better. Certainly this is the feeling when I go to the local post office to send you the cards.

Of course the world has changed dramatically over the years and we all know life has become something of a treadmill where one is required to run just to stay in the same place. It rarely ceases to amaze me the job the worlds postal services actually do achieve.

The reverse of each card states it is produced by courtesy of the postmaster general. Somehow that conjures up the idea of shadowy power.

Card 2 reminds us all the GPO used to run the entire communications network when it introduces us to the speaking clock. Popularly known as 'TIM' it was introduced in the London telephone service in July 1936. The card then says it was introduced to a number of provincial towns via special trunk lines.

So by card 2 the realisation sets in that things have changed when it was something to shout about when the speaking clock service struggled to be heard outside of London. The card explains the recording is actually on four glass discs through which passes light to operate photo-electric cells.

By card three it is getting almost surreal, International Telephone exchange. The Faraday House takes some 5,500 international calls per day it tells us. The trunk exchange operator warns the International exchange operator of a call by the glowing of a lamp. These are people rather than short hand for large computers. The call is charged via a special method which involved two stopwatches.

small holes are drilled in them to denote the value

The next few cards remind us of the days when you made 'trunk calls' which was basically anyone you could not lean out of your window and have a chat to. Then there is a discourse on the radio telephone service the GPO used to keep up again loads of people struggling with machinery which looks frightening in its complexity but probably fits in your watch now.

Card 12 reminds us of a slower age where business had a more human touch somehow. The St Valentines Day Greeting telegram. For an additional 3d the GPO will deliver your message on different coloured stationary in a gold envelope. These forms were designed by well known artists. They were put into use about six times a year. In 1938 some 52,000 Valentines telegrams were sent.

By card 13 you begin to believe there are some strange skills lost forever to mankind and this could just be one of them. It shows a dog detecting cable faults in the Transatlantic Radio telephone Station in the Thames Estuary. Carried three feet underground the co-axial cable developed some minute leaks and it was generally assumed the whole lot would have to be dug up to sort out.

That was until someone suggested a dog could be used to sniff out the leaks. I'll let you wonder how that was done for a while.

Card 16 is just fantastic, it is the police telephone pillar.

Details from Card 16
Police telephone Pillar
To meet the particular requirements of police communication the Post Office has developed a special telephone system. This includes street pillars, the cast iron heads of which as fitted with two doors. The police hold keys of one door, behind which is a telephone giving access via the local police switchboard to the main telephone system. The other door is available to the members of the public and, when opened (without a key) immeadiately places the caller in touch with the local police headquarters. Conversation is carried on through a transmitter and a loudspeaker protected by an iron grille.

Telegrams no longer exist as a service although it survived in a rather feeble form for a number of years before finally being axed quite recently. Still there were a number of cards dedicated to this system in the set. Card 18 shows the teleprinter, a marvel of technology which you rarely see nowadays and is something of a wonder when you do. Card 20 deals with the special requirements of telegrams being sent from the Threadneedle Post Office branch which dealt with the Stock Exchange telegram traffic which had security measures specially adapted to ensure no casual observer would be able to read what could be very sensitive information. Basically a cat flap you stuck your hand through which I am sure Barrings which they had maintained (or perhaps phased out, I don't know).

Special mobile telegram units were set up at big race meetings. The Derby is illustrated and this was no mean operation. Over the 4 days 12 teleprintrs shifted 10,000 telegrams and 495 press releases (40,000 words).

Card 22 illustrates one of those wonders which you never quite grow out of, well if you are anything like me you do not. Thew pneumatic tubes. These are used to get the telegram messages from important branch offices to the Central Telegraph office. The tubes could be just a few hundred yards long to 2.5 miles. The card says there were some 80 miles of tubes.

Card 23 is explains how photographs and pictures could be transmitted between London and many European towns. The process was neither for the feint-hearted or those in a hurry by the looks of it.

Police box

Now a goodly many of us 'enjoy' the benefits of intranets in our everyday employ an excellent way to send loads of really useless bits of chat amongst some important bits of gossip. Well card 26 is the precursor to such things, obviously not as widespread mind as they were only in large telegraph offices and were huge clanking machines which could be more than one story high with telegrams attached to conveyor belts. It is all to complex to consider.

Laying cable to ensure the phone network could be extended was tiresome enough on dry land but when it came to water there were additional difficulties which centred around the fact the cable was likely to break under its own weight. This could represent a significant problem as you can imagine.

Card 28 shows cable being lain across Loch Awe. The cable was supported by 'fixing as many empty tins to the cable as would enable it to float upon the surface until the whole length was in position. The tins were then punctured and the cable sank safely to its designed resting place.'

Now that is something I would have come up with only it would not have worked.

Most of the cards I send out goes via airmail because of the nature of this business being internationally focused and this certainly is an area that has improved over the years. Card 29 shows the begining of inland air mail for the more remote Scottish islands at no extra cost going by air rather than sea means delivery times were reduced from 16 hours to 2.5 hours. This all started in November 1937.

Attempts to automate the sorting process were underway although as of the time of issue nothing had really cut the mustard and most sorting was still labour intensive. Cards 31 and 31 described the latest attempt to sort mechanically with the transforma sorting machine.

Card 32 shows a mobile post office used for special events where there were no permanent Post Offices, a bit like the mobile library service although I have not seen a mobile post office lately.

When the letters and parcels come through your door there is a stamp to cancel each and everyone, quite something, card 35 shows the machine that used to do that. Some of these machines being capable of stamping 700 envelopes a minute, as long as they are standard sizes. Before this point the letters had to be hand sorted into the correct position for the machine. Non standard envelope sizes have to be hand stamped.

Well well card 36 shows counter training school. Now from what I have seen this goes on in-situ nowadays by the amount of faces I see behind the grille getting lessons in international post but this card suggest people would be going to training classes to work all this out beforehand.

Card 37 this is more like it, printing the next best thing to money, stamps. The GPO sold 7000 million postage stamps a year at the time this set came out. The card shows large printed rolls of these stamps being checked as they are 'thoroughly' at every stage and we all know that is pretty thorough given how few errors get onto the market and how much they can be worth when they do.

Rather like the police phone box it seems stamp vending machines have rather had there day in the sun. You can still find many old machines embedded in post office walls like exposed fossils having long since given up any idea of functioning. But in the good old days of when these things were working (14000 of them according to the card) Special reels are created for this containing 480, 960 or 1920 stamps.

I have seen a lot of business being run and it is always quite amazing how they operate, in fact it is reassuring to see the bigger the business the bigger the muddle more often than not. It is comforting at times but I'm not so sure card 40 is the sort of comfort I need to see. It shows Mount Pleasant parcel office which the card suggests handled the bulk of overseas mail. It is interesting the card notes a great deal of post goes to and from India and the Far East (which you can assume was because there were a lot of Brits out there running someone else's country for them).

It looks like chaos to me so thankfully I do not have to face the issue and just accept someone knows what is happening.

Underneath the sorting office is the largest stop of the Post Office underground railway system designed to get mail to and fro the larger post offices.

I remember walking into an office once and the woman at the switchboard looked up to see what I wanted and I looked down to see what see had just looked up from (because that is what I am like). To her left was a large pile of letterheaded stationary and to her right was a box with what looked like tiny bits of confetti in. I had to know what was going on and was told the telephone code in the area had changed. In fact a one had been added so where once the code was 0473 it was now 01473.

This had caused some problems not least of which the stationary was now out of date. Still that was being remedied by the woman inserting a tiny one in the correct place. Now that is scary and no less worrying is that large box of 1's did not grow on trees, someone must have cut them out.

Card 41 has a similar feel.

Comforting to know your cards are in there somewhere.

Drilling sorting holes in postal orders.

Let me give you a feel for the fact 424 million postal orders were issued and small holes are drilled in them to denote the value of the order or to drill a particular hole in the serial number. The card shows a woman working on a lathe like machine drilling those very holes. She has a placid but pleasant look on her face which can only mean she is imagining she is drilling holes into the bosses head.

The GPO also had control of the airwaves and it was the job of the business to ensure all those people were able to peacefully listen to their radios (afterall they did have to pay for the priviledge of listening to the popping and fizzing beast).

Card 48 shows how radio interference is sorted out. A person has to go to a main post office and fill out a form (well what did you expect) detailing the interference. If the GPO believes it to be outside interference they send a chap around with some pretty menacing looking equipment designed to track down the culprit.

Once the piece of equipment is found the owner of it is advised how best to combat the problem.

The card does not go into details of the sort of advice given but card 49 gives you the feel of the situation where it shows a vacuum cleaner being tested at the factory. If liable to cause interference the factory is required to fit supression devices to the cleaners before leaving the factory.

The chap illustrated on the cards looks about as amusing as you would imagine he would be.

Finally though if you think this set is without precedent then card 50 sets you straight. In fact the GPO were well ahead of the game when it came to self-publicity. The card shows the GPO film unit and makes reference to the recently produced Night Mail which really has to be the classic of its type, although the card actually shows the production of a little number called North Sea.

So there you go a reminder of how what the GPO once was and if you think BT is a big company imagine it used to be part of the GPO. This is a grand set and good old Lambert & Butler for producing a set which actually lives up to its title despite what could be considered some pretty unpromising material.

I nearly forgot; How did the dog detect breaks in a telephone cable bureid underground?

Well he was not picking up electromagnetic waves. What they did was pump gas into the cable jacket and the dog sniffed it out as it came up from underground.

It all seems very safe.