The GPO on Display, 1937

10 January 2017

As we look ahead to opening The Postal Museum this year, Archivist Matt Tantony looks back at a Post Office exhibit from 80 years ago…

Back in November I wrote on this blog about the spectacular and surreal pageantry of the 1970 Lord Mayor’s Show (giant postman included). Recently, I’ve been looking into the public exhibitions the Post Office held up and down the country in the 1930s. These were part of the GPO’s ambitious public relations work of that decade, which also included posters, publications, and, perhaps most famously today, films.

One place where the GPO was particularly active in the 1930s was the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, at that time held annually at Olympia in London. The 1937 GPO Ideal Home exhibit is my favourite from this decade. It seems the GPO really embraced Olympia’s greater space and visitor footfall, combining the best elements of the temporary exhibitions it held around the UK into a giant exhibit showing off all its different activities.

Thanks to some photographs I recently catalogued, I can take you on a virtual tour…

Ideal Home Exhibition 1938 (POST 118/15331).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/15331)

The layout is a little hard to work out from the surviving photos, but I think visitors entered the GPO exhibit here at this giant bollard. You can see another company’s display and Olympia’s roof behind. The two main design elements are clear: displays of tangible objects and some absolutely spectacular photo montages.

Ideal Home Exhibition 1937 (POST 118/15330).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/15330)

In this photograph we’ve swung around 180 degrees and we’re looking back from the other side of that bollard. Along the central table (which runs through much of the main exhibit) there are mechanical items for visitors to examine. It’s tricky to identify them from the photograph, but I think they’re all associated with telephone services – still run by the GPO in this era.

Post is represented too: see the sorting frame on the back wall at the far right. Watch out for the door labelled ‘Cinema’. We’ll have a look in there in a bit.

Ideal Home Exhibition 1937 (POST 118/15325).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/15325). Photograph donated by Bromyard & District Local History Society

We’ve moved along the main exhibit, which gives us a better view of that sorting frame along with other postal items including a stamp cancelling machine. Next to this is a counter promoting telegram services. But just look at the backdrop!

It’s a beautiful montage comprised of real-world photographs, technical diagrams, infographics and overlaid text. Superb design work; alas I haven’t yet been able to find out who was responsible for it (but I’m searching!).

Ideal Home Exhibition 1937 (POST 118/15324).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/15324)

Next is a stand about the Post Office Savings Bank, with more stylish infographics behind. Look carefully at the wooden door and you can just make out MacDonald Gill’s circular GPO logo.

Ideal Home Exhibition 1937 (POST 118/15328).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/15328)

Like telephones? Well, here are some of 1937’s latest models. The infographic charts the annual increase in UK telephone calls from 1921 to 1936. This brings us to the end of the main exhibit, an area where the sleek photo montage walls give way to neat (possibly imitation) brickwork. The glowing windows here give a view into an automatic telephone exchange – all done through life size photo blow-ups.

Ideal Home Exhibition 1937 (POST 118/16931).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16931). Photograph donated by Bromyard & District Local History Society

At the very end, we reach another of those giant bollards and turn back on ourselves. On the right you can see a ‘gap’ in the brickwork exposing all the telephone cables buried under the street. It’s fake, of course, but still a lovely illustration of how the GPO’s work was all around you, even when you couldn’t see it.

Ideal Home Exhibition 1937 (POST 118/16932).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16932). Photograph donated by Bromyard & District Local History Society

Let’s head back and check out some of the things we missed, including the side doors off the main exhibit. We’ll explore the ‘Post Office Underground Railway’ door next to the telephone exchange in a moment. But first: do you see the stand on the left, in the middle distance, opposite those telephone kiosks?

Canterbury Shop Exhibition 1937 (POST 118/15335).

Canterbury Shop Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/15335)

Well, I think it’s this interactive air mail display. We don’t have a clear photo of it from the Ideal Home Exhibition, but the above image from a temporary show held in Canterbury the same year shows you what the display might have looked like.

POST 118/15327

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/15327)

Back to the Ideal Home Exhibition photos again. If you’d ventured through the side door labelled ‘Post Office Underground Railway’, this is where you’d have wound up. It’s a mock-up of a Post Office (London) Railway platform, with a fabulous photographic illusion at the back. The carriage, however, is real.

How wonderful that 80 years later we’ll be going one better: opening up to the public a section of Mail Rail, as the Railway came to be known, to visit and even ride around. Let’s come out of here now, though, and enter another door.

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16937).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16937). Photograph donated by Bromyard & District Local History Society

Remember the door labelled ‘Cinema’? Well, here we are inside. The GPO held many public screenings of its self-produced films in the 1930s, and Ideal Home visitors could have watched them here. It doesn’t look hugely comfortable, but admission was free.

Here’s an extract from a film that might well have been shown here, produced that same year, about a young Cockney boy joining the service:

A Job in a Million (1937), by the GPO Film Unit, courtesy of the BFI

One last door before we leave:

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16935).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16935). Photograph donated by Bromyard & District Local History Society

Can you see the exit sign at the back? Flanked by twin telephone boxes and two more exquisite infographics, this door’s my favourite. Hold on to your preconceptions: we’re heading into the ‘Overseas Communications’ room.

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16936).

Ideal Home Exhibition, 1937 (POST 118/16936). Photograph donated by Bromyard & District Local History Society

And here we are! Looking a little like something out of a Bioshock video game, this is a room-sized monument to modernity in 1937. Britain is at the centre, connected to its (then) Empire and the world by cutting-edge technology. What a statement to go out on! If only the display caption were legible… but then again, have you noticed how visual the whole exhibit was? There was very little text to read. There may, however, have been staff on hand to talk to visitors about the displays.

And that brings us to the end of the virtual tour. We can draw a few conclusions an exhibit like this one. The GPO in the 1930s strove to promote all its activities – telecommunications and banking, as well as post. It made a great effort to inform the public about the range of services it provided for them, even showing off the otherwise invisible technological infrastructure it was embedding into the nation. But as well as informing, an exhibit like this was also intended to entertain, and perhaps most of all to impress.

– Matt Tantony, Archivist (Cataloguing)