In Conversation with Audrey Swindells MBE - Co-Founder of Bath Postal Museum
This month, whilst doing some research for our Great British Stamp initiative, I made an inquiry at the Bath Postal Museum to see if they could provide me with some information on the Penny Black stamp that I’d been looking into. I received a speedy reply from one of the team who was able to point me in the right direction, and then not long after (and much to my great surprise and excitement) I received a further response from the museum’s co-founder, Audrey Swindells MBE. After a few informative emails back and forth, Audrey’s passion for post was evident, and, keen to know more about her story, I posed the idea of a little interview to pick her brains and find out more about the museum as well as her own journey with letter writing. To my delight, Audrey agreed! And so, tea in hand, and finding the best spot in my house for phone service (the shed) I gave her a call and we spent a happy hour chatting all things post.
Audrey on her 90th birthday, with her first published book.
Audrey, now 94, set up the Bath Postal Museum in 1979 in the basement of her home. She, alongside her late husband (a postal historian and keen philatelist) set up the museum after a serendipitous conversation with an older friend of Audrey’s, who suggested they inquire about a house for sale in Great Pulteney Street – the former home of John Palmer who first introduced the Royal Mail coaches. They’d been in conversation with several keen stamp collectors who were petitioning for Bath to have its own post museum, and whilst the house wasn’t the ideal home for a large family of 6 with its crooked rooms and odd size, the basement, however, had its own private street entrance, and it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss. And so, after purchasing the home, the museum was born.
Discover Audrey’s story and a little more about Bath’s great postal history from our conversation below:
Could you tell us a little about Bath’s history with the Royal Mail and why you felt Bath needed a postal museum?
Well, Bath is very much connected to the history of The Royal Mail! Thomas Moore Musgrave, Head Postmaster of Bath in 1840, was the first person to deliver a letter containing the first ever British stamp, the Penny Black. Having received six sheets of Penny Blacks, Thomas Moore Musgrave took the top one containing the letters ‘AA’ and placed it onto a letter cover that was folded, sealed and addressed, and sent it off dated May 2nd instead of May 6th (the official date when the Penny Black came into effect) – who else but the postmaster would have the temerity to do so!
What’s in store for us when we visit the museum?
Oh gosh, there’s just so much there. We’re a small museum, but we have all sorts of things! Everything from talking portraits of Harry Potter, to information on Ralph Allen (first Postmaster of Bath), John Palmer (creator of the Royal Mail coach) and Thomas Musgrave Moore (Postmaster of Bath who delivered the first Penny Black letter) who will tell you all about themselves at the touch of a button, as well as a wonderful collection of letters from 1686 – really early letters to have, they’re so special. There’s just so much of interest. Some people drop in and spend hours there!
What have been some of your most memorable moments from the museum over the years?
Oh, too many, really! Once you open a museum, you find you start getting things brought into you – things that you didn’t think even existed. You meet people from all over the place - it’s been fascinating, really. All the events we’ve had, the time we once had a Royal Mail coach out with four horses going around the area! So many things! It’s been quite wonderful really. My favourite exhibition was our Royal Mail exhibition which I set up myself – a great memory.
Do you still write letters yourself?
Oh I do write letters still, not handwritten anymore, but I do type quite a lot of letters now instead. I love sending and indeed receiving letters, it’s a wonderful thing.
How do you find letters compare to modern methods of communication?
Well, one thing for me that I’ve found certainly through my research is that although emails are convenient, so much research I do is taken from old letters – something that couldn’t happen from emails, it’s just not going to happen, that information would just be lost. And not only that, but seeing a person’s handwriting on an envelope is such a joy. You can recognise who the letter is from before you’ve even opened it.
Is there anyone you communicate with exclusively by letter?
Oh yes, in particular one of my granddaughters loves receiving letters, and we write to one another because she thinks it’s just lovely and loves the idea of it - she’s 23 now so it’s quite a novelty for her. I do also write poems to all my children and grandchildren on their birthdays, which I send by card – something special for my family to look forward to each year.
Next month the stamp is switching to a barcoded version. How do you feel about this?
I don’t like the idea at all! They wouldn’t cancel old stamps before, which was wonderful, because some people love the idea of using old stamps, and now that can’t happen anymore. I really don’t understand why they’re doing it, it’s such a shame – almost gimmicky! I found it very sad when The Royal Mail and the Post Office split up – parcels are doing so well now but unfortunately letters aren’t. You do wonder how they’re going to continue delivering all over the country.
Our focus at London Letters is to get people to spend more time with pen and paper. What would you say to someone that’s never written a letter before? How would you encourage them to make a start?
It’s hard to believe there are people that have never written a letter before! I think to make a start, make your letter personal by making a request or appeal to someone, that you felt would be better dealt with as a handwritten letter. It could be anything, I suppose. But enjoy it!
A special thanks to Audrey for her time and passion for this interview.
If you would like to visit the Bath Postal museum, it re-opens after their festive break on January 23rd and is open everyday mid-week, but sadly, due to a lack of volunteers closes on the weekends. Entry is £6 for adults and £2.50 for children. You can book in advance or turn up on the day.
You’ll find the museum at its new home of 27 Northgate Street, Bath, BA1 1AJ or by visiting www.bathpostalmuseum.org
The museum is actively looking for more volunteers, so if it’s of interest to you, then do get in touch with them at firstname.lastname@example.org – they’d love to hear from you!