Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Duncan Campbell-Smith
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30
The Post Office is currently in difficulties and Duncan Campbell-Smith’s thoughtful and well-written book helps provide an explanation of its present situation, placing it in the context of an impressive history of the Royal Mail.
Drawing on the long series of institutional records, and ranging from the impact of the world wars to labour problems, Post Office transport to the details of finances, this is also a history of Britain from one particular focus.
The discussion of the Second World War is especially interesting. There were serious problems caused by the German air assault, but also the difficulties of linking those on the front line to the home front. This situation led to the development of airgraphs, a message form, available from post offices for a prepaid charge of 3d, which could be photographed by the Post Office and transported as part of a microfilmed batch.
The first consignation was sent from Cairo to London, arriving in May 1941 and comprised 50,000 letters. Morale at home was greatly improved by hearing news from the ‘Front’.
The Post Office’s research station at Dollis Hill is also discussed, including its involvement with Bletchley Park. Initially, the Post Office relayed intercepted German radio signals, but it subsequently developed a capacity to help intercept and decipher ‘Fish’, German high-speed teleprinter messages.
Post Office engineers were used to build a model of the German army’s top-secret teleprinter and then the first programmable electronic computer. It was assembled at Dollis Hill with many of the components provided from a Post Office production centre in Birmingham. Named Colossus, it was installed at Bletchley in January 1944. Ten models were eventually built. This supplement to Enigma is of great interest.
For the material covered, this book provides good value. Victorian forbears jostle with an interesting account of the Great Train Robbery in 1963, including the Post Office’s in-house investigations of the latter.
The cast is tremendous, including Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope, and Stanley Gibbons who allegedly died in the arms of a woman at the Savoy hotel leaving bereft another who had hoped to be wife number six. Trollope emerges as a perceptive individual who left a rich postal legacy.
This book has much to offer the scholar and general reader alike.
Jeremy Black’s recent books include A Brief History of Britain 1851–2010 (Constable and Robinson, 2011)