Read about how a childhood passion of IT Manager Ian became a life-long career and what his typical day looks like today.

How I joined the Museum?

You could say I was born to work at The Postal Museum.

My first awareness of postal services was through the Stanley Gibbons Improved Postage Stamp Album (for all the world’s stamps) – a gift on my 6th birthday. It had maps and pages of the most exotic countries together with useful facts about each one. I had an Uncle who was then working in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (S. Pacific – Seat of Government: Tarawa – First issue: 1911) and I have distant memories of painstakingly cutting the Christmas 1974 stamps off his letter, finding the stamp hinges hugely fiddly, and eventually sticking the precious articles upside down to the wrong page.

Ian with his childhood collecting project and a stamp album

Flash forward six years and at age 12 I had to complete a “major” project for school. My Dad worked for the Post Office and so I chose to write about it – and that, of course, necessitated a trip to London to visit the foremost institution of its study: the National Postal Museum.

My first impression of the place was the intimidating main counter in King Edward Building with its gorgeously glossy marble everywhere. Once you got beyond it to the pokey entrance of the Museum things soon changed. It was quiet and dim and seemed miles away from the bustle of St Paul’s outside.

I do recall looking at some of the stamps (beautifully mounted in their polished wooden frames). They seemed impossibly exotic. I probably glanced at the sliding panel for Kiribati and Tuvalu (as the Gilbert & Ellice Islands had by then become). I certainly saw some items which were to become very familiar to me in later life – a Mail Coach guard’s uniform and the plaster cast of the Machin head.

My final school project had it all: a survey of the postal references in the Bible, Pigeon Post, Packet Post, John Palmer and his Mail Coaches, and the life of Rowland Hill. Most thrillingly of all my Dad arranged for me to tour London’s Western Central District Office where I saw a segregator (magical – I could have watched it for hours separating large flats from standard-sized envelopes), an automatic letter facer (ALF) and the Post Office railway (later known as Mail Rail). Little did I guess that one day I would spend weeks within those dark and wonderful tunnels.

Life in Royal Mail

At 21 I became the third generation of my family to join the Royal Mail – initially to make videos for internal communications purposes. The first one I worked on was called “Show you Care” and featured an extremely young Steve Punt as a Royal Mail Parcels (as it then was) driver who didn’t treat his deliveries with respect. It was very successful and spawned the innovatively titled “Show you Care 2” the following year.

It was a lot of responsibility for a young 21-year-old and occasionally my imagination (and love of special effects) ran away with me. I was involved with an infamous video involving Dracula posting Igor’s brain through the parcel delivery network(!). Due to poor handling, the important cerebral delivery gets exchanged with an identical parcel of TNT leading to the blowing up of a model of a 40 foot Parcelforce lorry in glorious slow motion. I was just working on my follow up – entitled “the man they made a monkey” about a delivery driver who literally turns into a monkey after not following proper security practices – when I was summarily moved to a different team.

Over the next 15 years I had many careers within a single job: working for many parts of the Royal Mail in training, procurement, facilities management and finally information technology. It was extraordinary in terms of the breath of experience – and fostered a great love of Chesterfield where the Royal Mail’s secondary headquarters was based at Chetwynd House (rumoured to be chosen to be safely outside the fallout zone in the event of London succumbing to nuclear attack).

Staff Selfies with postal uniform costumes in the Digitisation Studio (Ian far left)

My next experience of the Museum and Archive was in the 1990s when I completed a Unit Excellence (UX) assessment for them. Various Japanese and American management frameworks were used to improve the performance of teams within the Post Office during this period and UX was part of a drive towards what was known as “Total Quality Management”. This involved trying to compare the Museum and Archive to an ideal company in the year 2050 and they did pretty well scoring a creditable 61% overall. The assessment involved working with gathering information from Front of House, retail, conservation, curatorial and archive staff – excellent groundwork for my life today although they did differ from what I was used to in one respect: many of the older Museum staff continued to refer to each other by their surnames which struck me as quaint, old fashioned and entirely appropriate.

During all this time the Museum and Archive was part of the Royal Mail – from 1996 within the Post Office Services Group (POSG). I was there in Royal Mail’s Headquarters in 148 Old Street in 2004 negotiating with the former Museum Directors Adrian Steel and Tony Conder over the provision of IT to a new independent charitable body – the Postal Heritage Trust. Two years later, having been made redundant from Royal Mail, I joined them as IT Manager – initially as a freelancer and eventually on a full-time contract. It felt as though my life had come full circle.

What is my day like?

I genuinely have the best job in the world. Each day is different and you’ll never get bored. With my colleagues (Alfie and Mike) I look after all the gallery interactives – maintaining the control systems for the audio-visual systems and the train – doing my utmost to ensure that they are all consistently available for visitors to enjoy. I also try to support my colleagues with their IT requirements which can range from developing a database to editing a video to producing fiendishly advanced dashboard applications.

Regularly my job isn’t about technology but storytelling. Working for the Royal Mail and coming from a “Post Office family” has made me very aware of the range of stories, knowledge, art, ideas and innovation which this extraordinary organisation has produced over the centuries. I often say that the postal network is comparable to the internet in many ways – in that the majority of distributed communication flowed through its networks. The Royal Mail, as our first multinational tech behemoth, has many tales to tell and lessons to teach us in the modern age. Sometimes my job is to marry the technology to the story – trying to make the end result as memorable, exciting and usable as I can. Those are the best days.

Ian in Mail Rail Depot with a colleague during late night event

In the evenings I sometimes get to provide IT support for late night events in Mail Rail. It always amazes me how dazzling the old industrial space becomes once the event lighting is switched on. It’s lovely to see it used as a dance and dining venue and for presentations big and small. And, of course, if any of the guests want to know about the old trains I can share with them the stories of my visit as a wide-eyed 12-year-old all those decades ago.

– Ian Tolley, IT & Systems Manager

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