Skip to main content

Post Office Museum and Post Office Railway

Volume 576: debated on Thursday 27 February 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)

I requested this debate to help secure the heritage of the British postal museum and archive. It was closed in the mid-1990s and, if the plans go well, a new museum will, at long last, open its doors and the public will once more have access to not just stamps, but the history of communication and the social history that will be on display.

When I first thought about the possibility of having a stamp museum just outside my constituency, I did not think that it would necessarily set the world alight. However, as has been explained to me, it is about communication and, particularly, how we communicated throughout the 20th century. The way in which we communicate with one another is, in the end, what makes us different from the animals.

I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear that I will discuss Royal Mail without delivering a tirade about the outrageous proposal to develop the Mount Pleasant site above ground. The Minister will know that Mount Pleasant is one of the largest development sites in London, yet, of the 650 homes that are proposed for the site, only 12% will be affordable housing. That is frankly scandalous, particularly given that the viability report shows that it could support more than 50% of proper affordable housing and still make a profit. However, I will not talk about that today.

I want to make it clear that there is a difference between the development overground and the development underground. The development underground is the railway and to the side of that is the new postal museum. There is a distinct difference. It is important to underline that difference because the new postal museum and archive and the underground railway will apply to the council for planning permission on 10 March and, on the same day, the council will not be asked to discuss the plans for Mount Pleasant above ground because the developers have decided to bypass local opposition and go straight to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. They hope that they will get a better hearing from him than they would get locally, where we are all against the development. We are not against the British postal museum and archive.

As the Minister will know, the museum and archive has strong historical links to the Royal Mail Group. It is an independent charity in its own right and is the caretaker of a remarkable history, some of which I will share with the House. Currently, the archive is based at Freeling House. Freeling was the secretary to the Post Office, which was the equivalent of a chief executive. Because of his expertise in international mail routes, particularly across the continent of Europe, he was an extremely effective spy during the Napoleonic wars. He was therefore not only the chief executive of the Post Office, but a spy from the 1780s until the 1820s. He collected all the accounts, mail coach maps and employee records and put them into an archive. He was therefore the founding father of the archive.

There are other, more immediately attractive items. There is a remarkable sheet of stamps that depict the ageing Edward VII. The stamp was known as the Tyrian plum and was used only once. On the night that the old King died, one of the stamps was sent to the new King. The used stamp that was sent to the new King is in the royal collection and the sheet of unused stamps is in the archive. That was the only time that the stamp was used to post a letter. George V, who was an avid philatelist, collected it.

Another remarkable sheet of stamps was designed in the 1970s. At that time, it took a long time to design a stamp, print it and make it available, so they had to be prepared in advance. Scotland was in the World cup finals in 1978, so stamps were produced so that they would be ready if Scotland won the cup. Those stamps are in the archive and will be available for the public to see, so long as the museum is established. The stamps depict the winning team holding aloft the World cup and celebrating victory, which, tragically, was never realised.

Another stamp documents Churchill’s plan during the second world war, when there was concern that France would fall. Churchill’s plan was to unite the Kingdoms of Britain and France so that they would stand together and France would not be able to capitulate to the Germans. A stamp was designed to celebrate the uniting of the two countries. The plan did not work, but it is evidence of attempts that were made during the second world war. Such things one learns from stamps.

The museum is not only about stamps that depict history; the postal archive holds hundreds of paintings, letters, telegrams and photographs documenting Britain’s social history. There are two telegrams from the owners of the Titanic, one from the evening of 14 April 1912 declaring that rumours of the Titanic’s distress were unfounded, and another from the following morning announcing the death of more than 1,500 people and saying that women and children had been saved. The museum owns 100,000 photographs taken by Stephen Tallents, the person who first coined the term “public relations” and was the first public relations manager of the Post Office. In the 1930s, he revolutionised how companies were to communicate with the public.

The style of many of the posters put up to promote the Post Office in the 1930s was copied by London Underground, and if we compare some of London Underground’s more famous posters with those produced by the Post Office immediately before, we can see where it got the idea. At long last, when the museum is finally opened in my constituency, those posters will be available to be seen. They include photographs of postmen in the 1930s delivering across the country, including to fields where women and children were working, and to washerwomen in Poplar. All sorts of different things were delivered. There are photographs of a postman delivering live fish, and another of a postman holding two dead game birds in both hands—it seems that pheasants could be delivered as long as they were not leaking at the time.

The oldest document in the collection dates from 1636 and is a letter from Charles I to the mayor of Hull. The mayor is told in fairly clear terms that the mail service is now a monopoly and that he is no longer allowed to use his own personal service. He is told that the monopoly is now under ownership of the king and that he must cease using the local mail. It is a remarkable and unique version of history.

The BPMA plans to spend £10 million on a new archive and museum, and £12 million on the little known rail mail—another gem. The rail mail runs under my constituency and many others across the heart of London. It was devised in 1911 and completed in 1927 and is an underground railway that served the main sorting offices from Whitechapel to Paddington. The idea was to link the major railway stations across London so that mail coming into Liverpool Street could be delivered straight from Paddington and out the other side. Therefore, if someone in east England wanted to write to west England, the post would go down to the underground railway line. We talk about producing new railways and the ideas behind them, but that was the first Crossrail devised many years ago. It was built at a time when the belief was that we would—of course—continue to invest in the Post Office because the amount of post would increase and people would always want to communicate with one another.

When the railway line was built across central London, knowing that people were likely to want to expand the line in future, spurs were built so that if it was necessary to have a new line going out to Oxford street, there was a spur already there. It could simply be blocked off at one end and the railway line not closed completely, and the line could be expanded. Things are so different now; now we build to a contract and only to that contract, and hope that we will build it in time and to budget. The project was built with vision, confidence, and with a positive attitude for the future of Royal Mail. So unlike our current times, unfortunately.

The original Royal Mail allowed mass communication across the UK and ran for 76 years. The public have never been allowed to see the railway, but hopefully when the railway museum is opened people will, at long last, be able to go down to see it. There is huge excitement not just in train circles, but for many people who are interested in the industrial heritage of Britain in the 20th century, and they will be able to ride on that railway underneath the streets of London.

My hon. Friend is making a marvellous speech. Is she aware that one third of the world heritage sites in this country are industrial world heritage sites? Would she consider putting this forward as another one?

My hon. Friend is always full of very good ideas. I shall make a note and attempt to propose it.

The historic tunnel has not been seen by the public. It was also used during the wars to house some of our most priceless treasures. There are photographs of Turner paintings in the underground railway during the first world war, where they were held safe from bombs. It was also a home for Air Raid Precautions during world war two.

In total, the BPMA will have raised £8.91 million, and secured a further £8.15 million from donations and loans from Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd. The bulk of the remaining funding will come from an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is currently in progress. The £4.6 million of HLF funding is a second round application. I have written in support of it to Dame Jenny Abramsky, the chair of the HLF. I would like to use this opportunity to ask the Minister and other Members to write to Dame Abramsky and offer their support to the bid. If successful, the grant from the HLF will make a significant contribution to the total project. At £4.6 million, it will make up 20% of the total figure. I am sure that the House will agree that it is vital the BPMA is successful in its application.

It is, however, with some regret that, of the £21.8 million already raised by the BPMA, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has donated only £70,000. That figure derives from the residue of the sales of shares in Royal Mail. I hope the Minister will agree with me that such an important historic and social archive as the BPMA deserves a little more than £70,000. It deserves more of the £2 billion sale of Royal Mail than the £70,000 it is being given.

One of the quirks of Royal Mail history is that it has always had two Postmasters General. I hope the Minister will be able to visit and see the history of the two Postmasters General from, I think, the late 17th century to the 19th century. The deal was always, to ensure that when franchises were given out there was an even split of political profit, that one Postmaster General was always a Whig and one was always a Tory. Such things go around: even then there was a coalition of Tories and Liberals who were selling off Royal Mail services.

Given that the Government have acted within the tradition of Royal Mail, I am sure that they will be as keen as I am to ensure that this history is properly documented and accessible. The archives have been closed to the public since the mid-1990s, when the old site at St Pauls was sold off to Merrill Lynch at a time when Royal Mail was in public ownership. Does the Minister not agree that perhaps some of the profit, made when the Royal Mail museum was first sold off to Merrill Lynch in the 1990s, could be ploughed into the new museum? Is it not right that the money from the sell-off, which has been held in trust ever since, is returned to the museum?

The BPMA has managed to raise £21 million towards this project, but it is still £500,000 short. Does the Minister agree that the Government could do more to ensure that the postal archive is once again accessible and that the never-before-seen rail mail is also open to the British public? It is asking for £500,000. I hope that the Minister will this evening be able to grant its request. It is vital that the museum is open to the public.

How far can one walk through London without seeing part of Royal Mail history, such as a pillar box? The museum is like a pillar box. Think of all the history pillar boxes have seen in central London. This museum is standing there showing us the social history that has evolved around it. If any of those 100-year-old pillar boxes could talk, they would be telling us the sorts of things we would be able to pick up at this museum. I hope the Minister will agree that it is vital that the museum opens and I hope that he will be able to show some support for it today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on securing this debate on the future of the postal museum and the Post Office railway. I commend her for such an entertaining and informative speech, which I think we all enjoyed.

The Government recognise that the British postal museum and archive is the leading resource for all aspects of British postal history in the United Kingdom. These records are designated as being of outstanding national importance. The BPMA was established by Royal Mail in 2004 as an independent charity to manage and preserve the Royal Mail archive and to be the custodian of the museum’s collection. As well as housing the world’s greatest collection of British postage stamps, the museum and archive hold written records of the GPO and the Post Office, staff records, telegrams—as we have heard—posters, photographs, uniforms, pillar boxes, an amazing collection of postal vehicles including a five-wheeled “pentacycle”, and a fascinating variety of other artefacts, including the signature stamp of Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office for over 30 years, and sheets of the Penny Black, the postage stamp that is at the heart of the history of the universal service.

The BPMA effectively safeguards visual, written and physical records from 400 years of postal history. It acknowledged some time ago that in order to secure a sustainable future for that heritage, it would need to relocate and redevelop the museum and archive. The current premises at Freeling House have space and access limitations; they are also prone to intermittent flooding, so the staff have had to deal with additional curatorial issues. As the hon. Lady told us, there was previously a Post Office museum, but it closed in 1998. Since then, a large part of the collections has been held at a storage facility in Essex, or held by other museums around the country. It is clear that the BPMA needs a permanent and damp-free home, for its museum collections in particular but also to lay the foundations for a more sustainable future.

The plans that the BPMA has set in play to address the situation are beginning to pay off. These are exciting times. An existing building near the Mount Pleasant complex is to be the new home for the archive, and the surrounding land will be used to build a new exhibition space. The selected building, Calthorpe House, has been provided by Royal Mail, and planning permission has been granted for the development of a museum building on adjacent land. The BPMA is also proceeding with plans to bring back into service part of the historic mail rail underground system—which we have heard about—as an additional visitors’ attraction. That will enhance the visitors’ experience, and I am sure that it will attract many people to the hon. Lady’s constituency.

The cost of all the redevelopment—again, as we have heard—is just over £22 million, which is a significant sum. The BPMA has secured much of that funding from a number of sources. Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd remain firmly committed to the work of the BPMA and to the redevelopment project. Donald Brydon, the chairman of Royal Mail, has been a great advocate for the BPMA, and has been consistently in touch with me about it. Royal Mail has made available a 999-year lease on Calthorpe House—the new museum and archive premises—at a nominal rent, and further donations of £350,000 have been made in respect of preparation work for the new museum.

Both Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd continue to make payments to the BPMA as part of the ongoing arrangements. For example, in 2012 a £640,000 charitable donation was made for the running and maintenance of the museum. Fees of £400,000 were also paid for archive services provided by the BPMA in order to ensure that Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd would meet their obligations under the Public Records Act 1958, and, in doing so, would themselves ensure that records of social and historic importance were preserved and made publicly available after 20 years.

Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd have also contributed to the new project by providing soft loans and grants of just over £7.5 million, to be paid at various stages of the redevelopment. To secure the loans, the BPMA prepared a commercial business case which will enable it to be more self-funding in future—by, for example, charging for mail rail, and allowing its facilities to be hired for corporate events. The BPMA has also secured access to heritage lottery funding of over £4.25 million, and was awarded £250,000 as initial funding, with access to a further £4 million-plus. My Department arranged a contribution of £70,000 to the BPMA last year. That came about as a result of the terms of the retail share offer element of the initial public offering which we saw through successfully in October. Under the terms of the offer, any sums less than the offer price of one ordinary share were not to be refunded to the applicant, but the Secretary of State could give these amounts to charitable purposes.

Was all the residue and the money that was to be given to charities given to this museum, or did some of it go elsewhere?

My understanding is that it was all given to this particular charitable purpose, but I will check whether I am right.

We considered what charitable donation would be most appropriate and we thought a donation to the BPMA was the most merited of the various possibilities canvassed. The BPMA is also raising significant funds from charities and foundations by selling surplus duplicate stamp collections and related material and using corporate donors to help to raise the funds needed. All proceeds from such duplicate stamp sales are ring-fenced for use by the BPMA. The BPMA also has effective plans in place—along the lines of its existing fundraising activities—to attract the outstanding funds needed for the project.

I hope that today’s debate has served to highlight the highly important work for which the BPMA is responsible as custodian of our postal heritage. That is deserving of wider recognition, and I think deserving of the highest praise given the history of the museum and some of the hiccups along the way. Through the hard work and determination of the BPMA’s administrators over the last few years, this truly worthy project is now within touching distance of coming to fruition, and to get this far is a magnificent achievement in its own right.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all who have already made contributions to the redevelopment project. Through their generosity a very important part of Britain’s history will be preserved for the benefit and enrichment of everyone—most importantly, of course, future generations. I would encourage all charitable trusts and foundations, corporate sponsors and individuals to give serious consideration to supporting the BPMA in whatever way they can.

I hope that any necessary additional funding can soon be secured to ensure that work can start on schedule for the planned opening in 2016. In the interim I hope that anybody listening to this debate, including those of us who have engaged in it, will be encouraged by the BPMA’s plans and will seriously consider paying a visit to the museum, as I intend to do, to find out more about a key period of our modern history—the communications revolution that started here in the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century and spread with remarkable speed around the globe.

The Government will continue to monitor the progress of the project with keen interest, and Parliament will, of course, be kept informed of the progress through Royal Mail’s annual reports on its heritage activities that are laid in Parliament, as the Government required under the Postal Services Act 2011.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.