Obituary: Henry Tilling, Scottish Post Office chairman, heraldist and soldier

Henry Tilling, Scottish Post Office chairman, heraldist and soldier. Born: 24 January, 1924, in Dorchester, Dorset. Died: 23 January, 2019, in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, aged 94.

Henry Tilling

Henry Tilling proved one of our nation’s more remarkable adopted Scots. Fastidious for accuracy in all matters, his work brought to our streets pillar boxes showing the Scots crown correctly used, and shown throughout the corporate identity of Royal Mail.

“Why would you use a crown that’s wrong?” he queried, not mentioning that we Scots had previously employed the crown of St Edward.

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When the Queen ascended the throne in 1952, a row erupted about the historically incorrect Royal cypher EIIR on pillar boxes, and several had the numeral defaced. Winston Churchill, then prime minister, suggested using the Crown of Scots in Scotland.

Henry came of an old Dorset family, following his father Thomas, head postmaster in Llandudno, into the GPO, what he termed “the family firm”. A career civil servant, Henry became private secretary to the PMG, then Tony Benn.

Accompanying Benn across London on his first engagement, Postmaster General Benn asked him his interests outside the office. “Heraldry, and orders and medals” came the response. “It was not the best start” recorded Benn in his memoirs. But the same Benn came to value the calm and clever Henry very highly.

For Henry, it was a demanding post, caught between serving his political master, and loyalty to GPO director general Sir Ronald German. The latter became a particular responsibility on the occasions when, after an ample lunch, Sir Ronald would return to the office and vanish deep into an armchair.

Tony Benn’s forecast was that Henry’s career would reach great heights. His promotion in 1977 as chairman of the Scottish Post Office Board came with a warning from his London colleagues not to “turn native”. Henry cheerfully ignored that advice, turned native, and won friends everywhere through his wit, open manner, considerable intellect and unfailing interest in his command.

He fought his corner effectively, managing changes instituted by London, some of which, recalled his colleague James Mackay, “seemed unsuited or daft from a Scottish perspective”.

In his role as chairman of the Scottish Postal Board, Henry sat on CBI Scotland Council. His contributions at meetings were incisive, to the point, and rarely without. He spoke as he wrote, clearly and distinctly, his mellifluous voice coming in measured sentences, grammatically precise. He gave humour to the driest topic. A long-time member and office-bearer of the Heraldry Society of Scotland, only he could lecture on such an abstruse subject as “Peninsular Medals As Heraldic Charges”, and have the audience in a high state of mirth throughout.

Similarly, when recorded for the oral history of the Post Office in 2002, Henry brought intellectual fun when explaining how acronyms were employed in the Post Office.

He was involved throughout his long life in the Order of St John, joining St John Ambulance Brigade as a 15-year-old in 1938, and eventually becoming a divisional officer in London. Through his work, particularly in Scotland, he eventually rose to the rank of knight. With his friend and fellow knight Charles Burnett, he co-authored a major account of the charitable work of the Order in Scotland across 120 years from 1879.

He and Charles together originated two Royal Mail projects, an airmail letter featuring items from the National Museum of Antiquities, and a set of stamps commemorating the quatercentenary of the Order of the Thistle in 1987.

Henry’s passage through Oxford University was interrupted by the Second World War. In early 1944, he was commissioned into the Dorset Regiment, and went ashore at Arromanches in France in July 1944.

As part of 30th Corps, he headed an infantry company in Operation Market Garden, as back-up to the taking of the bridge at Arnhem. In the disaster that followed, the young Captain Tilling was taken prisoner at the Rhine bridge, and he celebrated his 21st birthday as a PoW in Oflag VIIB in Bavaria.

Following demob, he rejoined University College, graduating in English after “sitting at the feet of C S Lewis and JRR Tolkien”.

Henry died a day short of his 95th birthday. At his funeral, pipers from the Post Office Pipe Band, founded by him, played the tune composed in his honour: “George Henry Garfield Tilling”.

He is survived by his wife Meriel, daughter of Rear Admiral Sir Alexander McGlashan, and by sons Giles and Neil, daughters Laura and Rachel, and eight grandchildren.