Tag Archives: Mail Rail

Commemorating the start of the Second World War:

75 years ago today, at 11.15am Britain declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland two days earlier. In the year of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War it is important to remember not just the sacrifices made in that war, the “war to end all wars”, but also those that followed.

'Searching for the enemy.' 20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard.

‘Searching for the enemy.’ 20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard or The Post Office Home Guard.

During the Second World War the General Post Office (GPO) not only released men to fight on the front lines, but as in the First played a vital and wide reaching role at home.

Within days of the war breaking out, as men left their jobs to go and fight, women once again began taking on the vacant positions. Many more women were already employed by the GPO at the outbreak of the Second World War than the First but there was still an increase of approximately 78,000 during the course of the conflict. Not only were more women employed by the GPO, they were also given opportunities to take on jobs previously unavailable to them, such as working as an engineer or driving a post van. Women were even allowed to join the Post Office Home Guard, receiving much praise for the work that they did.

Women sorting the mail during the Second World War.

Women sorting the mail during the Second World War.

Not all male GPO staff left to fight on the front lines, for various reasons there were many who were left behind either because of unsuitability for service due to age or injury or because their skills were necessary on the Home Front to keep the war effort going. Perhaps two of the most notable and interesting of these stories belong to Tommy Flowers and Frederick Gurr.

Serious bomb damage at Mount Pleasant during the Second World War.

Serious bomb damage at Mount Pleasant during the Second World War.

Flowers was an experienced telephone engineer who had been responsible for helping to improve the telephone systems before the war. During the war he was working at the Post Office Research station in London, Dollis Hill. It was while he was here he was invited to Bletchley Park to assist with the code breaking work that was occurring there. During his time at Bletchley Park, Flowers worked on the team that cracked the Enigma code and also created Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, which enabled Britain to crack the code of the German High Command.

Gurr’s story is equally impressive. A postman on the verge of retirement when the war broke out Gurr took it upon himself to create the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad. He was concerned that the ordinary salvage squads didn’t recognise the importance of the mail and, as such, his own squad would rescue not only valuables from bombed out Post Offices but also supplies and the mail itself, ensuring that the Post Office could prevent mail being delayed more than 48 hours due to enemy action. For his services Gurr was awarded the British Empire Medal by King George VI.

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Gurr’s scrapbook of GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad

These stories show not just the bravery and commitment of individuals but also how great the Post Office’s contribution was. It is commonly known that the Post Office remained dedicated to ensuring delivery of mail but it’s these surprising and often under-told human stories that really shaped the Post Office in the Second World War.

It’s these stories and many more that we intend to bring to light in The Postal Museum revealing Britain’s social, communications and design history.

£4.5 million from HLF for The Postal Museum

We are delighted to announce today that the BPMA has secured £4.5m in funding towards The Postal Museum, including Mail Rail, following a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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The news means that we have now raised over 95% of the funds needed to build a new, national museum in Central London and open up the old Post Office Underground Railway to the general public for the first time in its 100 year history.

Talking about the decision Sue Bowers, Head of HLF London, said:

“This wonderful new museum and archive repository are set to be enhanced by plans to open up the historic ‘Mail Rail’ for visitors to experience.  Proposals for major redevelopment work will help people learn more about the key role the postal service played in shaping the modern world.  It will also regenerate a part of London that has strong community involvement but ranks high on the list of social deprivation.  The combination of all these factors make for an exciting project and we’re delighted to be confirming an investment of £4.5m today.”

We’re now working to secure the last necessary funds to move into the build phase for the museum, which will begin later this year.

On this exciting day, we’re also happy to announce that we have now set up a website specifically for news and information relating to our plans. Postalmuseum.org is a one-stop-shop providing all the latest on The Postal Museum and Mail Rail. We’ll be updating it regularly so be sure to check back for new content.

Finally, I’d personally like to thank all those that have supported us to date and will continue to do so in the future as we begin to realise our dream of opening up this nationally, and internationally, important part of our collective social history. We couldn’t have got here without you.

-Adrian Steel, Director

Sand traps and narrow tunnels: a trip down to Mail Rail

On Tuesday the Creative Design team headed down to Mail Rail for a refresher view of what will be the exhibition space and ride. The Creative Design team is responsible for planning the content and interpretation in The Postal Museum and Mail Rail, including what objects will be on display.

Many people have heard of Mail Rail, AKA the Post Office Railway, the driverless electric railway system that moved post under the streets of London for more than 75 years, but few have had the opportunity to see it. We are working towards conserving its heritage, and opening up a section in Central London as an exhibition and ride.

The Creative Design team consider how to incorporate the hoist (large yellow structure) into the new exhibition space.

The focus of this workshop was to identify key features to preserve and use in the exhibition and ride. Led by Ray Middlesworth, Royal Mail engineer for 27 years (and recent Mail Rail celebrity), we started off in the depot and still operating workshop, which will be transformed into an exhibition. We want to preserve the industrial heritage of the space, incorporating it into the new exhibition space. Right now the biggest safety concern is tripping. A removable floor that sits over the original will solve this and ensure visitors can still see the tracks below.

Walking around the depot space, we identified objects and features we want to stay. The lockers, used by Mail Rail engineers, will hopefully be an interactive in the new exhibition. The lockers have ‘inherited’ much of their contents from when engineers left, including tools and the odd old uniform here and there.

Inside one of the lockers.

Inside one of the lockers.

Next we headed into the tunnel and walked some of the route which will be the actual ride. The tunnels are no larger than 7 ft and walking proved to be quite difficult at times. Calcium deposits measuring a few inches dotted the tunnel walls. During maintenance work, engineers would sometimes come back looking like they had been snowed on as they broke off into their hair and on their clothes Ray told us.

Entrance to Mail Rail tunnels from Mount Pleasant.

Entrance to Mail Rail tunnels from Mount Pleasant.

In the tunnels (approaching platform 1) we came across a bay full of sand bags at the end of a track. These weren’t used to stop flooding, but to slow down any trains on the second track.

Ray telling us about the sand trap by Platform 1.

Ray telling us about the sand trap by Platform 1.

To get a very rough idea of what the ride will be like, we took a ride on the VIP train, built in 1967. Unlike the electric-powered trains that use to transport mail around the network, the VIP train is powered by a battery locomotive. There isn’t much lighting, but we were able to pick up on features to possibly include from old trains to a dartboard showing the last game ever played before it closed over ten years ago.

Find out more about the history of Mail Rail and how you can support help make it happen!

-Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager

Photographs courtesy of Vicky Parkinson, Head of Archives and Records Management

The BPMA turns 10!

Tomorrow the BPMA turns 10 years old. Director Adrian Steel reflects on the last ten years in today’s post.

In the next couple of weeks we will be celebrating a couple of major milestones. On 9 April I will be marking five years at the helm of the good ship BPMA, and even more excitingly on 29 March, BPMA itself will be 10 years old.

GPO Greetings Telegram. James Matwuss-Judd. 1962

GPO Greetings Telegram. James Matwuss-Judd. 1962

Back in 2004 there was a great deal of work being done to set up what was then a very new idea: an independent charity to manage the heritage services of a larger institution. This is now more commonplace but was then pioneering.

Catalogue team meeting back in 2006. Recognise any familiar faces?

Catalogue team meeting back in 2006. Recognise any familiar faces?

Looking back over the ten years, BPMA’s achievement is not one of big bangs but stage-by-stage advance. Under the leadership of Tony Conder, BPMA’s first CEO, we established our independence from Royal Mail through a series of partnerships, exhibitions and ventures culminating in the opening of the Museum of the Post Office in the Community at Ironbridge in 2009. For the first time BPMA had its own exhibition space and its own visitors, over 100,000 in the first year. Other exhibitions such as ‘Moving the Mail’ at the Coventry Transport Museum also began to draw the crowds.

There were also attempts at pursuing our core mission – giving Britain’s postal heritage a new home – but these seemed to come unstuck for a whole series of reasons, much to BPMA’s great regret. In the end, 2011 proved to be the year when things started to go right for us on this score. The Postal Services Act affirmed the importance of securing Britain’s postal heritage and that same year Royal Mail offered us a building in London, plus core funding, to make the museum happen.

Stocktake back in 2007.

Stocktake back in 2007.

Planning permission was granted in 2012, along with a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Round One pass and grant for our project. There have been bumps along the way, a lot of media interest of late, and a phenomenal effort from BPMA colleagues past and present for which I am very grateful. At the time of writing, ten years after our foundation, we await only the HLF’s grant verdict before we can literally begin to build our future.

Our vision for the next ten years is to secure and open this first class new home, the Postal Museum & Mail Rail, in 2016; cement our place as a sustainable, national, cultural attraction; grow the BPMA’s services nationally and internationally; and, from the base we will have, to grow digitally, grow our funding and build for the future. Based on our record to date I am sure that we will successfully deliver on this.

Here’s to the next ten years of BPMA! 

-Adrian Steel, Director

Mail Rail gets the green light

Last week we received some very exciting news with regard to our plans for the new museum as Islington Borough Council approved our planning application to develop a stretch of the old Post Office Underground Railway – Mail Rail – into a unique subterranean ride.

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Waiting in the Dark ©Jonathan Bradley 

The announcement resulted in a great deal of media coverage for the BPMA including pieces on the TimeOut, Daily Mail, Wired and BBC News websites.

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Staff working on Mail Rail 

The decision means that, as part of a visit to The Postal Museum, due to open in central London in 2016, visitors will be able to explore the hidden world of Mail Rail under Mount Pleasant through an interactive exhibition and a 12-15 minute subterranean ride through 1km of the original tunnels, following the same route that much of the nation’s mail took for nearly 80 years from 1927-2003.

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The BPMA’s vision for Mail Rail 

The Mail Rail ride is part of the BPMA’s project to create the Postal Museum which will reveal the extraordinary stories of British social, communications and design history through the universally iconic postal service. By opening up almost 400 years of records and objects from the reign of King Charles I to the present day, The Postal Museum will reveal unusual and exciting episodes from British history. It will showcase curious items including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial, a Victoria Cross and flintlock pistols used to defend Mail Coaches in the 19th Century.

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delivering…The Postal Museum 

We are still waiting on the outcome of an application for £4.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a decision on which is expected in May this year, which will allow us to start construction work on the Postal Museum, now including the Mail Rail ride. This is obviously a very exciting time for us here at the BPMA and we look forward to sharing our progress with you over the coming months. 

New display panel to be installed at our Search Room this week

We have recently been working with a designer to produce a new display panel, which is due to be installed this week in the Archive’s entrance lobby. This will show visitors our vision for the new museum we are planning both at Calthorpe House – down the street from the Archive’s current location at the corner of Mount Pleasant – and in part of the old Post Office Underground Railway network, Mail Rail.

Artist's impression of how the Mail Rail exhibition might look.

Artist’s impression of how the Mail Rail exhibition might look.

As you may be aware, our museum collection is currently held in storage in Debden, Essex. Due to lack of display space public access to this collection, a wonderful array of historical post office vehicles, letter boxes, uniforms and equipment, is severely limited, and the new museum will allow us to showcase these fantastic treasures in the manner that they deserve. There will be an interactive exhibition space with five zones charting the development of the Post Office and Royal Mail over the centuries, as well as a dedicated learning space which will be able to hold 10,000 school pupils and teachers every year.

Proposed exterior of the new postal museum at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of a proposal for the exterior of the new postal museum at Calthorpe House.

The new museum will also contain a state-of-the-art search room and archive repository with brand new research facilities, and we will also be opening a section of Mount Pleasant’s subterranean Mail Rail depot as a permanent exhibition space charting the history of moving the mail.

Next time you visit us, please take a moment to view the display and see what we have in store for the future, and do feel free to let us know what you think of our plans.

- Robin Sampson, Archives/Records Assistant

BPMA at Autumn Stampex 2013

On Wednesday, 18 September, the fantastic British National Stamp Exhibition, Stampex, will open its doors once more. Stampex is free of charge and open to the philatelic community and indeed anyone at all interested in stamps, postal history and other related items. Stampex runs from Wednesday 18 September right through to Saturday 21 September.

Stampex at the Business Design Centre, Islington.

Stampex at the Business Design Centre, Islington.

The show is located at the Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 0QH. Stampex will be open as follows:

Wednesday 18 September, 11.30am – 7.00pm
Thursday 19 and Friday 20 September, 10.00am – 6.00pm
Saturday 21 September, 10.00am – 5.00pm

The Friends of the BPMA will have an area at Stampex once more, to share news about BPMA exhibitions, events and activities and offer a great opportunity for visitors to buy a selection of products from the BPMA Shop.

Come along and find out more about our fundraising plans for the new museum and archive. Visitors will also have the opportunity to buy tickets for our forthcoming evening talk being given by BPMA Senior Curator Julian Stray- entitled Mr Poppleton’s Horse: The History of horse-drawn mails. The talk is taking place on Thursday 19 September at 7pm, at the Phoenix Centre, next door to our Archive in Clerkenwell, only a 20 minute walk from the Business Design Centre.

At the Friends’ stand you will be able to view some of our exhibition panels from our brand new exhibition on The Great Train Robbery, shortly to leave on a national tour around the UK and marking 50 years since the robbery took place. The exhibition explores and uncovers the role of the Post Office Investigation Department following the robbery, and their instrumental role alongside the Police in elucidating the events of the robbery and apprehending those involved. Exhibition highlights include images taken on the night of the robbery, suspect lists, and an early Wanted poster, plus details from the GPO files held at the archive. The robbery changed the way the GPO tackled security- on its Travelling Post Offices and more widely in UK post offices, and more information on this will be available for visitors to view.

Travelling Post Office (POST 118/5745)

Travelling Post Office (POST 118/5745)

Also available from the Friends of the BPMA will be a great selection of BPMA shop stock to purchase. Brand new items that will be available include the postcards featuring images from the new BPMA exhibition on Mail Rail- all images taken by Jonathan Bradley Photography.

Descent to the Mount - Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Descent to the Mount – Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

The Mail Rail exhibition brochure will also be available to purchase, featuring text and images from the exhibition and unique insights into the Mail Rail network by BPMA Head of Collections, Chris Taft, and Jonathan Bradley, the photographer who first conceived the idea of photographing the Mail Rail network. We are also pleased to offer for sale the paperback version of Masters of the Post by Duncan Campbell-Smith. Duncan Campbell-Smith will soon be giving a talk on our behalf entitled The Royal Mail Past and Present, at the Guildhall Library, London, on 24 October, 7pm- 8pm.

There will be lots to see at Stampex and in the area where the Friends will be- please do come and find us!

- Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer