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The Flat Cap on ... Passports

Ordinarily The Flat Cap takes his holidays in the UK but some guys from the pub are planning a week away in Benidorm for next year and have asked Bert if he wishes to be included. Whilst he usually prefers all the creature comforts of Mrs. Ackroyd’s guest house in Blackpool The Flat Cap is thinking it might be good to challenge himself and take a trip abroad. Obviously this will need careful planning, some new t shirts, and perhaps more importantly a passport. Passports are what you need when you want to enter somebody else’s country legitimately. That isn’t how it was in the late eighth century. Back then nobody thought to ask the Vikings if they had a passport, and like most invading hordes they just sailed over and began wreaking havoc. But if they had wanted to just come sightseeing, or do a bit of shopping instead of robbing monasteries they would have presumably needed the right paperwork. This got The Flat Cap thinking about passports and he resolved to find out more.

Passports can trace their origins back to 450BC when the Persian king Artaxerxes gave one of his officials, called Nehemiah, a letter asking governors of the lands beyond the river Euphrates to give his employee safe passage. Nehemiah had a construction job at the time and needed to be in Jerusalem to oversee the building of the walls.

Passports as we know them today had to wait another few hundred years. Then in 1414 King Henry V of England came up with the idea of issuing documents known as “safe conducts” which basically asked that the individual named in the document was allowed to safely pass through maritime ports or city walls (also known as “portes” in French). The king decided who could have a passport, and just like today they were issued to foreign nationals as well as British people. Although kings and queens were busy people they always found time to sign passports. The oldest surviving example dates back to one signed by King Charles I on 18th June 1641. History doesn’t record what else he did that day but he probably spent some time hunting before it got too warm and had either a banquet or a barbecue in the evening.

From 1414 to 1778 passports were written in both English and Latin. Nowadays Latin is considered a “dead language” because it no longer has any speakers. Sanskrit is another dead language. The Pope speaks Latin but only in prayers.

By 1794 passport writing was taking up a lot of the monarch’s time so King George lll decided the job would be better done by the office of the secretary of state. It also didn’t help that George suffered from bouts of insanity caused by his porphyria. The Flat Cap thinks it’s bonkers giving passports to people who holiday abroad and besmirch Britain’s good name with their loutish behaviour. But in the late eighteenth century it was a mad bloke who was issuing the passports anyway. Today the Home Office is in overall charge so what could possibly go wrong?

The first modern British passports were issued in 1915. They consisted of a single page folded into eight and were held together with cardboard. Bearing the holder’s photograph and signature they also contained a description of the individual. So you could have had something like:

Name : Bob Spratt

Date of Birth: 12th May 1892

Features: Ruddy complexion (like a farm labourer or other outdoor worker), fat bulbous nose, squinty eyes and a big forehead. His hair could do with a brush, and his eyebrows need trimming

Unsurprisingly some travellers complained, and the need to list details regarding the shape of the holder’s face, complexion and other features was discontinued.

The Flat Cap decided that fascinating though passports are the only way he was going to progress his own application was to get a form. So he put his shoes and coat on and headed off to “the big post office” which stocks lots of forms and has six counters (although Bert has never seen more than two of them open at any one time). The big post office also sells a range of envelopes and boxes for when you need to post a large bulky item, or don’t want something to get damaged by an errant postal worker.

On exiting the premises The Flat Cap bumped into Mrs. Davis who used to work in the toy shop. That was until the toy shop closed and reopened as a bookmakers and she decided to retire. Mrs. Davis said her son had recently begun to work at the passport office in Liverpool and through him she had learned lots of interesting facts about passports, which she happily shared.

  • The best passports to have are those issued by Japan as they let you in more countries than any other without having to get a visa

  • If you rearrange the letters of the words "pop" and "stars" you get the word "passport". Even famous pop stars have to show their passports when entering and leaving countries; which they often do when they’re on a world tour. Queen front man Freddie Mercury had a passport in the name of Frederick Mercury” even though he was born Farrokh Bulsara. Best of all he liked people to call him “Freddie”

  • There are only four colours of passports throughout the world – red, blue, green and black

  • Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t have a passport because everybody knows her and she therefore doesn’t need one. And being the queen nobody asks her for a passport anyway

  • Even The Vatican issues passports and the Pope always has passport number one

  • Probably the rarest passports are the Queen’s Messenger passports. They are only issued to diplomatic couriers whose job is to transport HM Government documents abroad

  • At some ports and airports you can use something called an e-passport gate. This is a machine that checks it is really you. And if you’re not a “wrong ‘un”, as Mrs. Davis termed it, then you can get into the country without having to wait an hour to see a Border Force Officer. This is jolly useful because there are often long queues at ports and airports during the busy summer months

  • Passports last for ten years. It used to be five years but the government doubled their longevity to save money

  • Britons lose their passports in Spain more than in any other country

  • Mrs. Davis told The Flat Cap that hats, caps and sunglasses are not allowed to be worn on passport photographs

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