Museum curator who lives in Grantham talks WWII love letters and Great Train Robbery and discusses her career
A Grantham woman discovered the very first mention in this country of a letter written to Santa Claus.
Joanna Espin, curator at The Postal Museum in London, made the discovery while working on a project for BBC Radio 4.
The 33-year-old has worked within the field of postal history since 2013, and has recently had to adapt to making discoveries and creating exhibitions from home.
Originally from Horncastle, Joanna has lived in Grantham for four years. She expanded on some of her ongoing projects with the museum, covering everything from love letters during World War II to the Great Train Robbery, as well as how she ended up working in such a niche field of expertise.
What projects are you focussing on at the moment?
At the moment, one of our big focuses is actually the pandemic. We’re really aware that the pandemic has had a real impact on the post and it’s really changed the way that people are using the post and the importance of the post.
We’ve been collecting new material throughout the pandemic to reflect that change, so we know that, for instance, children have been sending lots of pictures and paintings through the post to their grandparents. Also, letters, cards, greetings cards, birthday cards. There’s been so many festivals and religious holidays and special occasions.
Deaths, births, marriages, all happening in this new reality and the post has been a way of expressing a connection that you can’t really get through social media, so we know that it’s had a real heightened importance.
We know there’s been a real demand on the post and it’s had a lot of importance for people who receive mail, but then also there’s been a big pressure on postal workers as well. I want to capture that side of the story, because the Royal Mail and Post Office are such huge employers in the country, staff are now classed as key workers and we now want to understand what that experience means for people who are living it basically.
We are trying to reflect how diverse that experience might be. For some people, they are in fancy dress and they are trying to raise spirits, but for others, it’s been really challenging and stressful, so we are trying to capture that whole story.
We just started a lovely project with Osbourne books, for kids to write a letter to themselves in 10 years about what it was like to live through 2020 and some of the responses so far have been really funny and poignant but also a little bit heartbreaking as well.
How long have you worked in postal history?
I started at the museum in 2013. My first role was in the philatelic department, so I was helping to get the collection of stamps ready to move across to the new museum. I didn’t know anything about stamps before I started and I didn’t really know anything about postal history either.
It’s just been a really fantastic place to work because through that time we’ve transformed into this new museum near King’s Cross and also personally I’ve moved to Grantham in that time. Just as a chance to work with such a dynamic collection with everything from the world’s first postage stamp to huge vehicles, uniforms, letters.
It’s a really diverse collection and it spans five centuries as well, so in terms of themes and the time period, it’s a real treat because you’ve got social history, divine history, communications, engineering, so there’s so many different aspects to it and it’s almost something for everybody and trying to surface stories that will be really engaging and uncovering histories that might not have been previously told is a great part of a job.
How did you first get into working in postal history?
I have an undergraduate degree in History and then I probably took a bit more of an untraditional route into museums. I don’t have a Masters and I don’t have a PHD and often you do find that people in my field are very qualified, but I worked full time straight after university and volunteered alongside that in a number of museums. I was living in Yorkshire at the time, so volunteered at quite a few different museums.
Sometimes it was quite frustrating trying to get that first job and there’s a lot of competition in museums. There’s quite a few jobs around and a lot of very qualified and capable people, so lots of rejection but eventually I was offered the opportunity to work at the Postal Museum which I really jumped on but meant that I moved from Yorkshire to London and lived down in London five days a week then came back to Yorkshire on the bus every weekend.
Once I was made permanent in my role at the museum, I moved to Grantham. It’s only an hour on the train then a 10 minute walk to the museum.
It’s ideal to be talking about the museum to people in Grantham because they might not realise that we are there and it’s easy to get to. It’s a great day out where you don’t have to worry about getting on tubes.
How do letters offer an insight into the social history of a particular time period?
It’s that personal correspondence that you wouldn’t normally broadcast your innermost feelings about a certain topic apart from putting pen to paper and discussing that with someone that you really trust, so it’s really a private form of expression and often when we do read some of the letters that we have in the collection you do feel a certain responsibility to make sure you’re preserving them and using them in a respectful way, because it is very private and very personal but it’s such a reflection of society at the time broadly and also an individual’s experience of the world.
What other interesting stories have you had in your career?
We’ve got so many lovely groups in the collection. One of the projects we just worked on was an exhibition about the Great Train Robbery. We have original evidence in the collection, the original money packets which were ripped up by the robbers to get to the money inside, because it was a postal train that was targeted in the robbery.
That exhibition is at its end and we are launching our new temporary exhibition for when we open which is about the 150th anniversary of the postcard, so that will be a great thing to come back to.
Also, with Valentine’s Day coming up, we’ve got some love letters in the collection and beautifully hand illustrated postcards. It’s just a real treat because wherever you are in the calendar, you can find something connected to that occasion.
We’re really working to
expand our collection to be more reflective of religious holidays from traditions
outside of the Christian faith.
We’ve collected some Diwali cards over the pandemic, for example, just to be more representative of what the country looks like right now, so we can be more useful as a historical source in the future.
How do the letters end up at the museum?
A few different ways. So, for example, we’ve got this lovely group of love letters that were sent during the Second World War that we received from the owner’s daughter. She’d actually approached the museum because she had this amazing collection of mail art made in the 1970s.
When I collected that group of objects from her, we got chatting about what we do and who we are and she happened to say that she had a collection of love letters sent by her dad to her mum sent during WWII but it was obviously a really personal group of objects with a lot of sentimentality attached to them and I think the most important thing was having the trust that we’d look after them and use them respectfully because that’s such an important part of her family’s history. It was in her father’s hand and she knows her mother had them when her husband wasn’t around.They’re so beautiful and really personal, but set within the context of World War Two.
It’s such an important collective moment and how that’s experienced by one family. It’s a couple who can’t be together. There’s so many parallels to the pandemic just now.
That’s one way. I think by-in-large love letters are one of the most personal types of correspondence that you probably have to have a lot of trust in us as an organisation to want to start that conversation, so we are always really grateful when people do.
Sometimes we’ll purchase things as well. We do look out for items which are relevant to purchase at auctions, for example, but that’s a lot more uncommon than having donations.