Last week I was invited to join a private visit to the British Postal Museum at Mount Pleasant, the oldest mail centre in the United Kingdom. In particular we had the opportunity to tour the Mail Rail situated below the sorting office which has lain dormant since 2003. The British postal service is a national icon, instantly recognisable around the globe for its red pillar boxes and vehicles. Founded in 1635 the Royal Mail was for centuries at the forefront of innovation. Its ingenuity and adaptability saw it lead the way in technological advances and play a vital role in major world events. Since 2004 The British Postal Museum and Archive has worked to open up its stories for all to enjoy but, strapped for cash and in particular highly restricted in space, it has not been able to fully discharge its mission.
However, the Trust which was set up to develop the Museum has exciting plans to make this a reality. The £22 million project will provide:
Interactive exhibition space with five zones to explore
A temporary exhibition gallery
Subterranean Mail Rail exhibition in the old Mount Pleasant depot and ride through the tunnels
A state-of-the-art search room and archive repository containing 68,000 artefacts and records
Brand new research facilities
A dynamic and inclusive community space
Dedicated learning space reaching 10,000 school pupils and teachers a year
An onsite café and public courtyard
If the money is raised The Postal Museum will open in 2016. As well as the icons of the post the galleries will feature some unexpected objects including weapons used to hold up mail coaches and telegrams relating to the sinking of the Titanic (a Royal Mail Ship). Visitors will also encounter fascinating stories they may not immediately associate with the postal service including the suffragettes who posted themselves to the Prime Minister and the story of the world’s first programmable computer, ‘Colossus’. The Museum & Archive is the custodian of the greatest and most extensive collection of GB stamps and postal history in the world. This ranges from unique sheets of Penny Blacks, and all British stamps from 1840 to the present day through stamp artwork, adopted and unadopted, to essays, proofs, metal dies and printing plates. Much of this has never been seen in public before.
But for me the most fascinating part of the Museum will undoubtedly be the Mail Rail- the Post Office Underground Railway. This ran silently and industriously under the streets of London largely unnoticed for more than three quarters of a century every working day for 22 hours a day. It was the world’s first driverless, electrified railway. By the beginning of the 20th century, congested streets and fog (or smog) meant that mail transported between the main Post Offices and railway stations in London was severely delayed. In February 1911 a Departmental Committee recommended construction of an electric railway with driverless trains to alleviate the problem. In 1913 the Post Office (London) Railway Bill was passed as an Act of Parliament paving the way for a new railway – six and a half miles long with tunnels an average of 70 feet below ground. It would connect the West and East ends of London via eight stations from Paddington station to Eastern District Office in the Whitechapel Road.
The tunnelling work was completed in 1917, but the Treasury would not allow the Post Office to order or install the operating equipment during wartime. The high price of materials after the War meant that work on the railway did not resume until 1923. The railway was finally opened on 5 December 1927, sixteen years after the initial recommendation.
The trains ran in a single tunnel, 9 ft in diameter, with a double 2 ft gauge track. At the station approaches, the main tunnel divides into two 7 ft tunnels, each with a single track. Although the trains were much smaller than on London’s passenger underground, the stations look much the same, with grand circular walls. The tunnels were used during the First World War to store and protect art treasures belonging to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Gallery.
New trains were introduced in 1930, with each 27-foot long single-car train able to carry four mail bag containers. Every container held an average 15 bags of letters or six bags of parcels. Replacement trains were trialled in the 1960s and a new fleet introduced in 1980.
To mark its 60th anniversary in 1987, The Post Office Underground Railway changed its name to ‘Mail Rail’. Through declining use and closure of some of the above ground offices the system eventually became uneconomical to run. In 2003 the system was suspended and today remains closed but is still maintained by a handful of engineers as it is not safe to just let tunnels lie dormant.
The Mail Rail has been the only purpose-built underground mail transit system in the world. At its peak it conveyed 4 million letters a day, 22 hours a day, along 23 miles of track. It ran at an average speed of 35 mph in the 1980s and the average time taken to run trains from Whitechapel to Paddington was 30 minutes.
It has had its moments. On 20 December 1928, coal gas leaked into the tunnels and a spark from faulty wiring caused an explosion which tore up half a mile of High Holborn. During the Second World War, the Post Office Railway was used as dormitories to house staff from the sorting offices. The stations were also used as bomb shelters during the Blitz. Part of ‘Hudson Hawk’, the film released in 1991 starring James Coburn and Bruce Willis, was filmed in a section of Mail Rail. In the film, the Mail Rail system is portrayed as the Vatican’s Underground Postal Railway. In 2011 Michael Portillo also filmed a section of Mail Rail for the Great British Railways journeys series on BBC2. Christmas parties were held for Post Office staff and their families on the Mail Rail platforms including dazzling light shows, decorated tunnels and a special Santa train.
I hope they raise the money and if they do the Mail Rail ride will open in 2019. As the Post Office gradually delivers fewer letters and more and more junk mail and parcels from Amazon it will be important to have a Museum dedicated to showing exhibits from a time when perhaps we had a little more time for each other, writing courteous letters in a carefully written hand, and went to the shops every day where we gossiped with our neighbours while we waited to be served.
Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved