Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Self-addressed self

On the Royal Mail website is a whole page of prohibited items ranging from the obvious (explosives and radioactive material) to the more surprising (batteries and water-based paint or ink). The Victorian post office seems to have taken a more liberal approach when faced with the unusual missives mailed by W Reginald Bray. A browse through The Englishman Who Posted Himself reveals a range of items (many illustrated) which must have tested the postmen's patience to the limit.

Bray's most famous exploit was to post himself -now prohibited as the only living creatures the Royal Mail will carry are certain insects. In 1900 and again in 1903, he sent himself by registered mail, being delivered to his home address by messenger.

He also sent a range of other items, including a rabbit's skull with the address written along the nasal bone, a turnip, a frying pan and a cigarette (all unwrapped). Where envelopes were used, they could be equally unusual: one was crocheted, address and all, another made from a starched shirt collar.

As if that wasn't enough, Bray found another way to tease and test the delivery service: unusual addresses. The one contained in a poem was relatively straightforward; mirror writing must have tested the postman's ingenuity a little further.

Not all such experiments succeeded. It's perhaps unsurprising that a postcard addressed to 'any resident of London' was returned marked 'insufficiently addressed'. The picture puzzle below, for a south-east London address,* also didn't make it. However, Bray certainly got more value than most Victorians from the penny post.

While the rules appear stricter today, perhaps there is still scope for experimentation. Any suggestions for an unusual item I could send, which would fit through a letterbox and not fall blatantly within the list of prohibited items?

Further reading: John Tingey, The Englishman Who Posted Himself, Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.

* 361 Brockley (broccoli) Road, Near Ladywell Wood and Lewis-ham, SE.


Philip Wilkinson said...

Perhaps the post office found the broccoli difficult to decipher - the rest was easy.

When I was at university I once received a postcard addressed to 'PW, CCC, OXON', which seemed to give the postpeople no problems. These days they seem to have problems finding the letterbox...

CarolineLD said...

Yes, I thought the broccoli was rather tricky. The wood looks a little like the broccoli, too - but is less essential.

I do like the 'PW, CCC, OXON' address!

John said...

I wonder if you sent an uncovered copy of the book 84 Charing Cross Road with postage on the front, it would actually get there?

Linda said...

This is beautifully hilarious. :)

I used to have 60+ pen friends, back before email, which allows us to not communicate with anybody at all. ;)


CarolineLD said...

John, that would be an intriguing one to try!

I'm really impressed you kept so many penpals going, Linda: I used to have a few but never managed more than two or three at once. I'm now postcrossing, which is a fun way to make contacts by real post.