A letter writing phenomenon which started life in Swanage in 2017, has now stamped its presence on all seven continents of the world after reaching the wilds of Antarctica.
Swanage resident Dinah Johnson, founder of The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society, celebrated the group’s sixth anniversary at The Hub in Swanage on Thursday 26th October 2023 and is looking forward to welcoming her 1,500th member in 2024.
Founder of the society, Dinah Johnson, at The Hub in Swanage’s town centre to celebrate its sixth anniversary
Members at the Penguin Post Office
Fans of the society include Sir Stephen Fry, Taskmaster creator Alex Horne, the Gruffalo artist Axel Scheffler, This Morning presenter Dermot O’Leary and BBC Radio 2 presenter Rob Beckett, who gives it a mention most weekends.
Dame Vera Lynne was one of the first to take the time to write to the society in support of Dinah’s efforts, telling her ‘Writing letters is a lovely art, and I’m glad to know you are keeping it alive’.
Currently, the society has 1,300 members in 36 countries around the world from Argentina to Zimbabwe and on all seven continents after the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust at the Penguin Post Office in Antarctica – the world’s southernmost post office – took up membership.
Staff at Port Lockroy in British Antarctica are signed up to The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society
“It’s a passion project, really”
Dinah Johnson said:
“It’s a passion project, really, I’ve always loved writing letters and felt sad that whole generations of children would no longer get the unexpected pleasure of receiving letters through the post.
“There’s something truly exciting about receiving a handwritten letter, the thrill of that envelope bearing your name and the unknown words contained inside is something special.
“Unfortunately, it is also something we don’t get to experience much in this digital age of convenient communication.
“Although I had a love of letters and of letter writing, I had no idea what to do with until one day I was walking over the Downs, thinking about the Cloud Appreciation Society when it suddenly struck me that there should be something similar for hand written letters.
“Obviously in our digital world I went home and googled to see if such a thing existed, and as it didn’t I set one up.”
Hand written letters were posted at The Hub to celebrate the society’s sixth anniversary
A stand against barcodes on stamps
Dinah officially declared her society open on Thursday 26th October 2017 when she launched its website with the help of a friend, but didn’t think about offering membership until she got some very enthusiastic feedback from the USA the following May.
The word spread slowly but surely as membership grew steadily until Dinah was featured in The Guardian newspaper for taking a stand against the Royal Mail’s decision to barcode stamps.
The idea was described as a postal reinvention that connects stamps to the digital world for a new generation, by eventually allowing people to share photo or video messages by linking digital content to their coded stamps.
But Dinah said that one of the main reasons for setting up her society was to give everyone a break from having to be engaged with digital content, and rebelled by putting her own sticker of a post box over the bar code.
She says that she doesn’t want to hold back the future, and indeed has her own lively Facebook and Twitter (now X) pages to gain support for the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society – and hopefully to encourage even more people to put pen to paper.
Celebrations at the sixth birthday party for The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society
“I’m not against the digital world”
Dinah Johnson said:
“I’m not against the digital world, that would be mad, it was more about putting letters back on the mat for everyone and helping people to step away from the constant bombardment of the digital world.
“I call it a quiet revolution in the art of intimacy, in that you get some one to one time in writing to someone you care about rather than writing on social media where you are out for likes and shares and clicks and making your friends an audience.
“It’s not a pen pal club, nor anything to do with calligraphy, it doesn’t have to be about posh paper or a special pen, fancy handwriting or even perfect spelling, it’s just a friendly letter with a message from the heart.
“It’s a funny pursuit filling a cast iron object that’s painted red with pretty cards and messages to travel varying amounts of miles around the world, but I do love it so!”
Cards, envelopes and quills from Swanage beach were turned into works of art from the heart
Quills made from feathers off Swanage beach
Her message has really hit home, judging from the number of people of all ages who joined her at The Hub to write their own letters, either with conventional pens or quills made from feathers found on Swanage beach, before posting them.
Although there was no pressure to join the society – Dinah points out that you don’t need to be a member of any group to enjoy writing letters – those who did sign up received a certificate, postcard and envelope to start them off.
A special cake was made for the anniversary party, and dozens of sixth birthday cards were received – by post, naturally!
Cake and cards at The Hub, Swanage for a special day
Nothing replaces a hand written letter
“When I first set up the society, I didn’t have any expectations or intentions really, just this feeling that we should keep writing letters. If ever I’m moved by anything, a letter is the first thing I think to write.
“I say that the experience is summed up by the three Ts – letters are tangible, they travel and they can transport you through time.
“The romance of it is that you don’t know whether it will ever get there. You send it out into the world, you leave it in the hands of the postal services and they do this amazing job.
“Nothing replaces getting a letter that’s solely for you where one other person has taken time to think about you exclusively.
“My hope is that handwritten letters will go on forever and ever, and if we encourage just one person to write a letter to a friend or relative I see that as a triumph!”
A feature of the society’s Facebook page includes favourite postboxes, like this one in Dublin…
This yellow letterbox comes from Barcelona, Spain
… and this blue one from the USA, complete with unusual postie
- To join the society please write to: The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society, PO Box 9347, Swanage, Dorset, BH19 9BG
- More about the society is on its website