Postal Museum visit

Visit to the renewed Postal Museum and Mail Rail train.

On Tuesday 6 November at 12 noon.

From the announcement in the Summer Newsletter:

Our planned visit this past February was cancelled at the very last moment, due to the Mail Rail trains’ technical problems. We hope for better luck this time!

The museum brings five centuries of communications history to life as it reveals the surprising and fascinating story of the first social network through their extraordinary collections.

From interactive galleries to an immersive subterranean rail ride, modern research facilities to a wide-range of learning activities, the Postal Museum offers something for everyone, from all backgrounds and of all ages.

Ultimately, behind The Postal Museum lies the Postal Heritage Trust, an independent charity created to protect and share this rich history.
The museum itself has its origins in the early 20th century. Building on very humble beginnings in the basements of the GPO headquarters, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the National Postal Museum in the City of London in 1969. Built partly to house an award-winning collection of British Victorian stamps – donated by Reginald Phillips in 1965 – the museum provided public access to its collections like never before.

The Postal Museum has recently opened a 1-kilometre stretch of the track in London’s Mail Rail to the public, which was the world’s first driverless electric mail rail, a vital artery in Britain’s communication network. This secret and forgotten rail has now been opened to the public.

Ride through these hidden tunnels and discover a unique piece of industrial heritage. You will descend into the former engineering depot of the one hundred year old Post Office railway and board a miniature train and descend into stalactite filled tunnels to see among others the sorting office and the original and largely unchanged platforms.

After riding the Mail Rail you will discover even more about the history of the postal railway in the galleries and explore inspiring exhibitions packed with exciting stories behind the Mail Rail – from conception to resurrection. In the museum section, anticipated attractions include commemoratives stamps and telegrams from the night the Titanic sank.


From the report in the Winter Newsletter:

Postal Museum and Mail Rail ride

Report, by Evelien Hurst-Buist, on the visit on Tuesday 6 November

It can safely be said that most of the ANS members attending the visit to the Postal Museum signed on because they could not resist the temptation of a ride on the postal train right under the centre of London. But we were all in for a surprise: although the train-ride was fun, the excellent museum about the history of the postal service proved at least as interesting. We had no idea that the services’ history was so long and fascinating.

First of all its age: the very first postal system was instituted by Henry VIII, who appointed a Master of the Posts to deal with his correspondence in 1512. In the 1600s and 1700s, mail was carried by postboys, some as young as 11, others well over 40. It was no fun being a postboy: you were likely to be attacked by thieves, and travelled on horseback or on foot in all weathers, one of them even freezing to death on his horse! Over the years a system was created of riders ­ in relay between Posts or Stages. Each stage was around 20 miles in length: the distance a horse could comfortably travel at speed before needing to be changed. Postboys had to blow their horn at least every four miles to warn approaching travellers to make way and gatekeepers to open the gate so the postboy would not need to stop, thereby minimizing the chance of a robbery whilst slowing down. As this system was expensive to run, in 1635 Charles I opened the postal service to the general public, for a fee. In 1653 clever Oliver Cromwell appointed his spymaster John Thurloe as his Postmaster General, enabling Thurloe to intercept post at home and abroad.

The first postmark was introduced in 1661, after many complaints about late deliveries. This mark was put on the post on the day it was delivered at the office, so no letter bearer could detain the letter. Stamps show that by the early 18th century there was a transatlantic service by boat; a permanent service by packet ship was established by 1763. The journey by ship was hazardous, endangered by piracy and storms. Quite a few letters must have got lost on the way. Meanwhile at home theatre owner John Palmer suggested that the mail would be delivered a lot faster by coach than by postboy; authorised by William Pitt the younger, he proved this in 1784 by running an experimental coach between Bristol and London, and delivering the post a whole day faster, in only 16 hours! Soon mail coaches were running all over Britain, run by private contractors, with as only Post Office employee the guards, who dressed in scarlet coats with blue lapels and black hats, carried blunderbusses, and were expected to protect the mail with their lives! By the 1830’s however, the railways started to replace the mail coaches, and the last mail coach was run in 1846.

The Victorian times were a time of many changes: maybe one of the most famous of them is the introduction of the stamp, which enabled the sender to pay for the service rather than the recipient, with the price based on the weight of the postage, and no longer on the number of pages or the distance. A letter up to 15 ounces cost a standard one penny, which resulted in the first stamp, the famous Penny Black: they were only issued for 9 months, but 46 million were printed, with a staggering 6 million surviving today!

The Industrial Revolution saw a growing and moving population and an explosion in literacy, so that by 1875 a billion letters were sent a year. A certain enterprising Surveyor’s Clerk, the author Anthony Trollope (!), suggested the use of roadside letter boxes, the first of which were installed by 1853. The Postal Museum holds 200 examples of the various post boxes that have been in use over the centuries. The earliest ones were green, rather than red, but all bore the name of the reigning King or Queen on their front. In 1883 the Parcel Post was introduced. A remarkable fact: in Dickens’s time a letter posted in Gad’s Hill would be delivered in London on the same day, and there were several deliveries a day, so the sender might well have had a reply back on the same day!

Over the history of the Post Office, mail has been transported not only by horse, coach, ship and train, but also by cycle, motorbike, motor vehicle, plane and even by pigeon, during both world wars. The postal service was all-important during these wars, and not only in allowing the soldiers to stay in touch with their loved ones. During WWI 75.000 men left their jobs at the Post Office to fight in the war. There was even a postal regiment: the Post Office Rifles. 2000 were killed, and 4.500 wounded. During WWII, postal worker Frederick Gurr set up the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad, to try and rescue as much of the post as possible from bombed post offices.

The first electonic mail, telegrams, began to appear in 1830, and by 1900 more telegrams were sent in Britain than anywhere else in the world. During WWI telegrams became much feared, as they were used to inform families of the loss of their loved ones. Examples were on display.

From 1912 till 1981 – when British Telecom became an independent body – the Post Office also ran the telephone services, with the street kiosk being introduced in 1920. Its design changed over the years, and several of them are on display at the museum. It was also the first postal service to introduce post codes, originally for London only, as early as Victorian times. Other interesting displays are the wonderful posters designed over the years to entice the public to use the Post Office, whether for their Christmas letters or their airmail, and the display on the history of stamp design.

As you can see from this extensive report of the history of the Post Office, the postal train service only formed a tiny part of its long and rich history. The Post Office Railway had been thought about since Victorian time, and finally became reality in 1925. It was a separate entity, and designed to improve the mail service of the London Postal Region. After visiting the USA where both pneumatic and electric rail systems were used for delivery, Sir Robert Bruce, Controller of the LPR concluded in 1911 that the best solution for London would be a driverless underground electric system, linking Paddington to the Eastern District Office in Whitechapel, with several stops en route. Work began in 1915, but was not completed till 1925.

During WWI the empty tunnels were used to keep valuable artefacts of the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy. Despite the advice of the first Post Office Railway Manager, Evan Evans, to use wagons with bogies – swivelled wheels – the train wagons originally had four wheels, but these did indeed cause the excessive wear to wheels and tracks Evans had predicted, so were soon replaced by bogies after all. The Postal Railway had its own engineering team, and postal, cleaning and operating staff on duty 24 hours a day. By 2003 the running costs had become too high and the railway was closed. This must at least partly have been due to the introduction of electronic mail, and the subsequent reduction in postal mail.

So what was our short Rail Mail trip like? Well, it filled us with admiration for the people who had worked there, underground, 24 hours a day. It also made us realise we are not mail, and human beings are not the ideal shape to be squeezed into the tiny compartments meant for post. We were all quite pleased when the journey came to an end, as our joints were complaining mightily. The railway is probably best suited to children, of whom there were many!

We all left full of admiration for the magnificent work of the postal services over the centuries, and regret that the invention of the computer has led to the demise not only of the mail, but also largely of the hand-written letter. I still have the letters my mother sent me during our various postings in the eighties, but my own daughter will only have e-mails, and will they still be available to her in thirty years time?

A visit to the Postal Museum is an eye-opener, and greatly recommended. There is a good cafe there as well, when you feel there is so much to take in that you need a rest. A big thank-you to Marietta for organizing the outing, and to Chantal for leading it.