It all began in 1898. Mr. Reginald Bray, a clerk from Forest Hill in South London, bought a copy of the Royal Mail guide that proudly proclaimed they would deliver anything as ‘small as a bumblebee and as large as an elephant’. Bray viewed these rules as a challenge and spent the next 40 years of his life experimenting with the limits of the British postal system.
(map shown: Forest Hill, London – OS County Series 1:2,500 – 1895)
He started with postcards. His first postcard was addressed to ‘any house in London’. He followed this with envelopes knitted from wool. He even tried sending two postcards with two addresses hoping for them to be forever forwarded from one address to the other.Bray then switched to parcels. He mailed, amongst other objects, a bowler hat, a turnip with the address carved on it, a rabbit’s skull, a pipe, a bicycle pump, a clump of dried seaweed and even his faithful Irish terrier, Bob.
Not satisfied with that, he had himself delivered, not once but three times, including being sent, along with his bicycle, by registered mail. An official form acknowledges ‘Delivery of an Inland Registered Person Cyclist’ to Bray’s home address for a charge of 3d a mile.
This is certainly not a facility provided by the Royal Mail today. However, one of the few living creatures still permitted to be sent through the postal system are live bees. It’s good to see that at least part of their original slogan ‘as small as a bumblebee and as large as an elephant’ still holds true.
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Runnymede is a Thames-side water meadow between Egham and Old Windsor. It is currently managed by the National Trust and is a beautiful though unremarkable example of a ‘Thames Basin Lowland’. Its fame, though, is not due to its topography.
In the north part of Runnymede is an island. It was here, so most historians agree, that on 15 June 1215 King John was compelled by his leading subjects to sign a document addressing their grievances. The name ‘Runnymede’; derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘a meeting place in a meadow’. Few place names have better lived up to their linguistic origins.
The document, of course, was Magna Carta. It has been cited as the inspiration for many later expressions of liberty including the English parliament, the English Civil War and the US Constitution. Many people have believed it to have been many things. It¹s easier to describe it in terms of what it was not.
It was not effective, remaining in force for only three months and not preventing civil war. It was not revolutionary, being but one episode in the medieval barons’ constant attempts to force the king to respect their traditional role as his principal advisors. It was not an assertion of individual liberty, rather an attempt to preserve aristocratic privileges. It was not well-observed, being re-issued over 30 times over the following two centuries: indeed, re-issuing Magna Carta was an instinctive response to most late-medieval constitutional crises.
A small island but a large international legacy, however unintentional or misconstrued. Perhaps much the same could be said of Britain itself. As for the name, Magna Carta is the Latin for ‘great charter’. You knew that, of course; even if David Cameron didn’t…
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