Tag Archives: Mail Rail

£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

Mail Rail Archive Open Day

On Saturday 14th September the Royal Mail Archive will be holding a themed open day to celebrate the Post Office Underground Railway (Mail Rail). Activities will run from 10.00am until 4.00pm, however the Archive search room will be open to visitors until 5.00pm as usual. The Post Office Underground Railway initially opened in 1927 and was the world’s first driverless electric railway. It ran from Paddington to Whitechapel, serving eight sorting offices along its six-and-a-half mile route.

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Jonathon Bradley, the photographer responsible for the Mail Rail Photographic Exhibition (currently on display in the search room), will be on hand to talk about his photographs and give informal workshops. Jonathon will also bring along his interactive Mail Rail game Mail Rush, and members of the public will be encouraged to take part.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

We will also have Mail Rail-themed craft activities available for children to take part in, while for older visitors there will also be original archive material on Mail Rail, including photographs, diagrams and leaflets, all dating between the 1910s to the 1970s, available to view. Archive and Curatorial staff will be on hand to discuss this material with members of the public.

Throughout the day there will be tours of the Archive repository, covering a selection of Royal Mail’s history. There is no need to book for these tours as they will be arranged on a demand basis.

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

This is a free, drop in event and there is no need to register, but please note that the Search Room will also be open for general research on this day. If you wish to carry out research you will need to sign up for a User Card (please see our website for information on signing-up for a User Card).

Hope to see you all there and if you can’t make it we should be live tweeting throughout the day!

- Penny McMahon, Archives Assistant

Find out more about our Mail Rail Archive Open Day on our website.

Mail Rail part of Our Bloomsbury

Here at the British Postal Museum and Archive, we’re always keen to engage our younger audiences with the story of the postal service – this is why we welcomed a group of local children to the archive last week to investigate the Post Office Underground Railway, aka Mail Rail. The workshop was day one of a two day mini-project, in collaboration with 1A Arts Centre.

The group began their investigatory workshop by using the wonderful resources at their (white gloved) finger tips – the archive repository. Helen Dafter, one of our archivists, led the children to where the material is stored; enabling them to explore and find out what sort of things are kept in an archive and how they are looked after.

The budding archivists next had the opportunity to use the skills they had discovered with Helen. Through investigating some original material related to Mail Rail, which they had helped to retrieve in the repository, they soon became experts on the incredible underground system!

Making notes on findings from investigating the images and material from the collection.

Making notes on findings from investigating the images and material from the collection.

The children’s detective work enabled them to find out the facts of the network, however they were just as interested to discover what life was like down in the railway. Images from the collection and the photographs displayed in our Mail Rail exhibition allowed the group to empathise with the workers and to understand how the system was operated. Original objects – such as mail bags also brought this understanding to life for the children.

The group were shocked to find the mail bags were almost as big as them!

The group were shocked to find the mail bags were almost as big as them!

Inspired by the collection and what they had discovered, the group finished the workshop by creating some collage art work.

The budding archivists at work on their collages.

The budding archivists at work on their collages.

On the following day the children made their way to the 1A Arts Centre, equipped with their new found expertise on the Post Office Underground Railway! During the creative writing workshop, ran by artist Teanne Andrews, the group developed stories exploring ‘the day in the life of’ a worker.

With Teanne at 1A Arts, working on their creative writing.

With Teanne at 1A Arts, working on their creative writing.

These workshops form part of a creative project, ‘Our Bloomsbury’, led by a group of partner organisations (Holborn Community Association, 1A Arts, Charles Dickens Museum, Elaine Duigenan, Art Workers’ Guild, October Gallery and British Postal Museum and Archive). Artist Elaine Duigenan and a team of young film makers have been filming a fantastic summer programme of workshops and events, held at the partner venues.  The final film will be screened at the Art Workers’ Guild during the Bloomsbury Festival, showcasing the diverse cultural and historical experiences on offer in the area. Keep an eye out on our website to find out more about the film and when it will be screened.

- Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

Venture to our Museum Store on 24th August to find out more about Mail Rail…

On Saturday 24th August we will be holding an open day at our Museum Store in Debden, just 20 minutes from the hub of Stratford, London.

Behind its unassuming façade, the Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits, each with a story to tell. As part of the Hidden Treasures 2013 event come and find out about a hidden strand of postal history – the Post Office Underground Railway.

Loading a Mail Rail locomotive at the platform, taken from the tunnel, 1969. (POST 118/CT00357)

Loading a Mail Rail locomotive at the platform, taken from the tunnel, 1969. (POST 118/CT00357)

The Post Office Underground (London) Railway, or Mail Rail as it was later called, opened on 5 December 1927 and ran under the streets of London transporting mail across the capital from sorting offices to railway stations, 22 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway. (POST 118/381)

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway. (POST 118/381)

One of many unique features of the system is that it was driverless and as such was hailed by the press as a ‘Robot Railway’. The railway played a pivotal role in the transportation of mail in London and continued, rarely interrupted, until 2003. This was due in no small part to the great skill and knowledge of the engineering and maintenance teams. The BPMA holds three rail cars in its collection, one being the only known complete example of the original car used in 1927.

1930s Mail Rail train after conservation.

1930s Mail Rail train after conservation.

Visitors will have a chance to see these and other objects relating to the railway and hear about the history of the Post Office Underground (London) Railway through our short Curator-led tours. Throughout the day you can also explore the rest of our stored collection, as well as take part in activities, enjoy some refreshments in the form of tea and biscuits, and watch film footage all connected to the fascinating Post Office underground railway (except perhaps the biscuits…).

There will also be a chance to see the BPMA’s most recent touring exhibition on The Great Train Robbery, which took place on a Travelling Post Office 50 years ago this August. The exhibition looks at the events of the robbery itself, as well as the vital role played by the Post Office Investigation Branch in the subsequent investigations, as reflected in our Archive.

Travelling Post Office bag apparatus. (POST 118/5744)

Travelling Post Office bag apparatus. (POST 118/5744)

There’s plenty for all the family and the event is free for all, so please do drop in throughout the day between 10am and 4pm. Full details of the event are available on our website.

- Emma Harper, Curator and Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is currently showing at Royal Mail Archive, Clerkenwell, London. Entry is free.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition

Jonathan Bradley previews his exhibition Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition, which opens at the Royal Mail Archive today.

For three quarters of a century, one of the most successful underground railways in the world transported mail under the busy streets of London until its service was suspended in 2003. It remained largely unknown to the general populous aboveground.

Waiting in the dark - 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Waiting in the dark – 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

The Post Office Railway (AKA Mail Rail) is a unique and remarkable infrastructure, being the only dedicated driverless mail haul railway in the world. It came to my attention some two years ago while surveying for another framework environment for the ongoing People : Space work. People : Space is a human spatial study and finding appropriate environments to deliver an artistic treatment to is not an easy task. However, the Mail Rail had the necessary attributes and photography began in 2011.

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

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

People : Space encourages viewers to look at spaces and areas that are or can be occupied by humans and visa-versa. Photographically capturing space is very challenging and this project often projects vistas that indirectly depict this. Frequently, the humanity element can be suggested. Within each of these pictures lies a distinct, tangible thread of humanity and though the photographs present and record a view of the railway in a quiescent state, the subtle compositional detail of the images lean the eye to regard these degrees of freedom – spaces that contained workers, movement and sound.

Relay board - 'Blue' relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Relay board – ‘Blue’ relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Consider the sound of footsteps, the noise of trains, mail being unloaded off conveyors and cherrys being clicked. Think of the people who walked the platforms, who loaded mailbags, the engineers and fitters tirelessly working in the car shed above Mount Pleasant Station, the section controllers shuffling levers and moving trains and the line crews who worked during maintenance hours who serviced the railway that is now dormant and silent. Contrast what was before with what you see today and consider these People and their Spaces.

Unable to Accept - Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Unable to Accept – Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is on display in The Royal Mail Archive, London. Entry is free.

A selection of exclusive prints signed by Jonathan Bradley are available from the BPMA online shop.