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Long-forgotten letters unveil the UK's untold history


  • To celebrate 500 years of the postal service, Royal Mail is launching a campaign encouraging people to seek out the forgotten letters that reveal the hidden social and cultural history of the country
  • The company is asking people to look in attics and search in sheds for letters or postcards that give a personal account of life in the UK from centuries gone by to the present day
  • TV historian and Chief Curator Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, will be reading and curating the letters. She is keen to receive letters or postcards which document family life, travel and the role of women among other themes
  • A panel of judges will select a rich cross-section of letters that showcase a slice of UK life through the years, which will be shared with the nation
  • The National Museum of Wales and The National Library of Wales have contributed some examples of significant letters from their archives.  Among these:
  • A letter from solider David Davies from ‘somewhere in France’ on May 29th 2016 to his former Sunday School teacher at Zoar Congregational Chapel in Merthyr Tydfil.  In the letter, Davies refers to his living in a barn with eight other soldiers along with some hens, pigs and other ‘visitors’.
  • A letter from Welshman Owen Ladd in Canada on May 1st 1915 to a gentleman called ‘Mr. Francis’ to notify that he will be sailing on the RMS Lusitania.  Ladd died aboard the Lusitania only six days later, The letter contains the grimly prophetic line, “Of course, if we encounter any German torpedoes, you’ll have to claim on the German Emperor.”  Ladd was intending to visit his family in Wales having emigrated to Canada in 1911 to join his brother who worked as a timber merchant in Winnipeg.
  • Letters can be submitted online or by a special Freepost address

TV historian, and Chief Curator Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley will be reading all the letters.
She said: “‘One of the best bits of my work as a historian is unfolding a manuscript that no one has read in decades, if not centuries. Every aspect of doing it is a thrill, from deciphering the handwriting, right down to the fact that old documents have their own special unique smell.

“I can’t wait to read all the letters and postcards, and to share in the pride of the families who’ve found a story to tell us. I’m champing at the bit to start piecing together a hidden social history of our country.”

Pedr ap Llwyd, Director of Collections and Public Programmes, The National Library for Wales said "It's been a privilege working with the Royal Mail on this excellent project and allowing us the opportunity to share the wealth of our collections with the rest of Wales"

When people do find a piece of history, they can upload their letters or postcards either online or by sending a photocopy to Freepost Letters of our lives to be documented as part of this fascinating project.

David Gold, head of public affairs at Royal Mail, said: “There are few historical texts that are as compelling to read as personal letters. Personal letters come from the heart and as a result, often tell us details that aren’t included in official documents. Our hope is that the letters and postcards people find will help us build a picture of how life really was for communities throughout the ages.”

Any type of letter or postcard can be submitted to the project as long as it has been hand written. Lucy and the ‘Letters of our Lives’ archivists at Royal Mail are particularly keen to receive documents about:

  • Family - Letters that illustrate the interrelationships between individuals, their relatives and historical moments
  • The role of women - The role of women in the household as managers of the home; their increased role in the workplace following the First World War which over time has led to greater equality in the workplace
  • Love and friendships - The growth of literacy and the flourishing culture of letters provided a way for literate friends to maintain and intensify their relationships
  • Travel - Stage coaches, canal boats, steam ships, trains and air travel opened up seaside resorts and the world to consumers
  • Personal achievements/ life changing moments – The last 100 years in particular have led to the expansion of skills and opportunities, with social mobility transforming the country
  • People of note – Letters about people who had an impact on the way we live our lives today
  • Moments in history – Eye-witness accounts, or descriptions of a specific event that documents a critical or defining time in history
  • War and conflict – During periods of war, letter writing was/is the main form of communication between soldiers and their loved ones, helping to ease the pain of separation
  • Popular culture - Major cultural and social changes were brought about by mass media innovations leading to the emergence of pop culture or a collection of ideas that permeates the everyday lives of the society
  • Emigration and immigration – Whether it is temporary, long term, voluntary or involuntary, letters can illustrate the history of immigration/emigration and the impact on those and the families of those involved

Letter writing in the UK grew in popularity during the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 that its popularity increased. The Penny Post - which saw a flat one penny charge for the carriage and delivery of mail between two places, irrespective of distance – made the postal service accessible to the entire population. As a result, mail volumes quickly rose, reaching more than a billion by 1875.

Forty years later, the separation of war resulted in record numbers of letters being sent to loved ones fighting abroad. At its peak, 12 million items were being handled by Royal Mail a week.

Further Information

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