Sunday, 9 October 2016

World Post Day - 9th October 2016

In my mind, there’s nothing quite like a handwritten letter. Text and email may be quicker and easier, but I just can’t imagine them acquiring the same level of fascination in years to come, that an old handwritten letter can generate today. The Hull History Centre holds an endless array of correspondence, including emails, faxes, typed letters and handwritten letters, across many different collections. Correspondence stored in the archives ranges from formal business communiques to private love letters, and to mark World Post Day, I would like to highlight three of our collections which contain significant correspondence. 


The Papers of the Sykes Family of Sledmere contains hundreds of handwritten letters by Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919). Mark Sykes was a writer, traveller and soldier, but is perhaps most famous as a politician and the co-creator of the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916); an agreement that continues to shape the Middle-East to this day. He was a crucial figure in Middle-East policy making during the First World War and his papers are a very rich source of material for research in this area. His correspondence includes over 400 letters to his wife, Edith, many of which are illustrated with hand-drawn cartoons, as well as official correspondence relating to the war in the Middle-East. The wartime material includes various notable items such as, a draft of a letter from Mark Sykes to Winston Churchill which indicates his strong support for the idea of a Dardanelles offensive at a time when Churchill was trying to convince the War Council of its viability. There are also reports on such issues as the pan-Arab party in Syria in 1915 and the Armenian question, as well as telegrams from Arthur Balfour and many papers relating to Mark Sykes’ work with F.G. Picot for an Inter-Allied settlement in the Middle East (the Sykes-Picot agreement). Material from his Middle East mission of 1918-1919 includes 85 letters, more than half of them about the Armenian massacre of 1915 and refugees. 

Cartoon from U DDSY2/6/32

We also have an extensive collection of the correspondence of Poet and Librarian, Philip Larkin. He was a keen letter writer and kept up regular correspondence with his family, friends and colleagues. Some of the more well-known names that appear amongst Larkin’s letters include: Kingsley Amis, John Betjeman, Cecil Day-Lewis, Douglas Dunn, Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion and Margaret Thatcher. Larkin wrote on all manner of topics, from the publication of his books, library work and personal matters. One particularly interesting file (U DPL31/12) contains 34 letters, dated between March and April 1968, on the subject of proper forms of address. This correspondence was initiated by a letter from Larkin to The Times newspaper and developed into an entertaining series covering the use of Christian names in letter-writing, the Americanisation of English, and the use of the title 'Mister' for convicted criminals.

Larkin in his office at the Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull

The Hull University Archives also holds various collections relating to politics and pressure groups, including the papers of the pre-eminent civil rights barrister, John Platts-Mills QC. Born 1906 in New Zealand, Platts-Mills moved to the UK in the 1920s. He joined the Labour Party in 1936 and remained committed to the causes of the Left throughout his life, even at times being suspected by authorities of holding communist sympathies. In 1945 he was elected Labour MP for Finsbury but was later expelled from the Party for helping to organise a petition in support of Pietro Nenni, an ally of the Italian Communist Party. After his expulsion he returned to working as a barrister, having been called to the Bar in 1932. He established himself as one of the country’s leading barristers and became noted for his mastery of courtroom theatre as well as for his defence of such infamous clients as the Great Train Robbers and the Kray Twins. His correspondence, held at the History Centre, covers both personal and professional matters and is sometimes accompanied by related press cuttings and printed material. The material includes items relating to his support for various left-wing campaigns and associations, as well as his well-known cases, including that of the Kray Twins.

Portrait of John Platts-Mills [U DPM/3/29]

Handwritten letters and other types of correspondence can be found in abundance amongst the collections of archives across the country. They form part of the valuable evidence, retained for posterity, of past actions and events, as well as providing unparalleled insights into the minds of the correspondents. Long may the handwritten letter continue and Happy World Post Day!

Verity Minniti, Archives Assistant

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