Tag Archives: mail train

A visit down to Mail Rail

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.

Mail Rail was constructed in the 1910s and 1920s, and its six and a half miles of tunnels were built to connect eight different sorting offices and Post Office buildings between Paddington and the East End. Over the years the Post Office and Royal Mail sold some of these buildings, and Mail Rail eventually ceased operations in 2003. While the network is still maintained, BPMA has been undertaking work to conserve some of this unique rail system. As part of this project a group of BPMA staff recently toured the Mail Rail site at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office.

To get to Mail Rail you need to pass through a baffling series of doors and corridors before descending a staircase which takes you to the car depot and workshop. Here engineers serviced and repaired the network’s rolling stock, which once ran 22 hours a day, 7 days a week. While some rolling stock has been removed and conserved as part of our conservation project, some remains where it was when Mail Rail was in operation.

The car depot and workshop.

The car depot and workshop.

A walk through another series of doors, corridors and staircases took us to the station platforms at Mount Pleasant. Mail Rail engineer Ray explained that at its peak Mail Rail ran a “6 minute service”, with a new train of mail arriving every six minutes. Staff worked quickly to remove mail for Mount Pleasant and to load mail destined for other offices.

1980s Greenbat mail train on the Westbound platform.

1980s Greenbat mail train on the Westbound platform.

There was a great camaraderie between Mail Rail staff said Ray, and most spent their entire careers working on the network. This is evident when you walk along the Mount Pleasant platform: staff have added a dartboard, done paintings on the wall, and even mounted a display of stamps (which presumably fell off items of mail) near one of the mail bag chutes.

Painting on the wall of the Mail Rail eastbound platform, Mount Pleasant.

Painting on the wall of the Mail Rail eastbound platform, Mount Pleasant.

Stamps stuck to the trunking near the mail chute, Mail Rail Mount Pleasant.

Stamps stuck to the trunking near the mail chute, Mail Rail Mount Pleasant.

Visit our website to support our Mail Rail Conservation Project, and to add yourself to the Mail Rail mailing list. See more images from our visit to Mail Rail on Flickr.

Disaster at Sea!

We have recently uploaded a new podcast, a recording of our Curator Julian Stray’s recent talk Disaster at Sea! In his talk Julian Strays looks at the handful of mail ships (and one mail train) which never reached their destination.

Amongst the famous maritime disasters discussed are:

HMS Lutine, a naval ship lost in a storm which had a large quantity of gold bullion on board

The Antelope, a packet ship operating in the West Indies which surrendered to the French and had to sink the mail it was carrying

RMS Leinster, a mail boat torpedoed in the Irish Sea by the Germans at the end of World War I

RMS Titanic, the famous passenger liner whose mailroom staff all died when she sank in the Atlantic on her maiden voyage

Also discussed is the Tay Bridge Disaster, in which a railway bridge collapsed during a storm while a train carrying mail was crossing it.

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty's Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty’s Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

You can listen to Disaster at Sea! on the BPMA podcast webpage, or subscribe to the BPMA podcast with iTunes. BPMA podcasts are available free of charge.

Mail Trains book

Now available from our shop is the book Mail Trains, telling the fascinating story of the development and history of carrying mail by rail, from the 1800s until today. The book is written by Julian Stray, one of our Assistant Curators.

Mail Trains by Julian Stray

Central to the prompt delivery of the nation’s mail is its efficient and speedy transit the length and breadth of the country. From 1830, the Post Office relied ever more heavily on the overland rail network to provide what was for decades the ideal form of transport. Railway Post Offices, Sunday Sorting Tenders and District Sorting Carriages were amongst the services introduced.

Railway Post Offices, carriages dedicated to sorting mail in transit, became known as Travelling Post Offices (TPOs). TPOs received mail at the start of their journey and at stations or bag exchange points en route. Mail bags were opened by travelling postal staff and the contents sorted and included in new mail bags made up en route and despatched at the appropriate station. One of the most remarkable aspects of TPOS was the bag exchange apparatus. This enabled mail trains to pass stations of minor importance yet still exchange mail bags without halting.

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

During the Second World War mail volumes carried by rail increased. Letters were essential for maintaining morale and connecting families separated by wartime. The rail network carried immense quantities of mail; in 1943 British railways carried 25 million mail bags and over 90 million parcels.

The final TPO service ran in 2004 and although the volume of mail carried is considerably diminished, mail trains continue to form an important part of the United Kingdom’s postal service to this day.

Mail Trains is available from our online shop. Order before 10 April 2012 and obtain a 10% discount by entering the code BPMAW3BS1TE when you make your payment.

Visit our website to find out what life was like on the TPO in our Travelling Post Office online exhibition.

Hear Julian Stray’s recent talk on Mail Trains by downloading our free podcast. Download the podcast on our website or subscribe to the podcast via Tunes.

Mail Trains

Last year our Curator Julian Stray gave a public talk on Mail Trains; this is now available to download as a podcast. The talk looks at the long and often strained association between the Post Office and the rail companies.

Interior of Travelling Post Office, by George Charlton, 1935 (POST 109/375)

Interior of Travelling Post Office, by George Charlton, 1935 (POST 109/375)

Both underground and over, in sealed vans and Travelling Post Offices, mails have been conveyed, sorted and accelerated since 1830. Suffering the occasional mishap or celebrated by film makers (such as in the film Night Mail), the carriage of mail is considerably reduced today. Julian Stray’s talk touches on what went wrong, what changed, and why.

The talk is based on extensive primary research completed for the upcoming joint BPMA/Shire publication Mail Trains.

Download or subscribe to the BPMA podcast by visiting our website or through iTunes.

Visit our website to view a selection of items from our collection on the theme of Mail by Rail.

Morten Collection Object of the Month: January 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

This month’s object: Travelling Post Office Mail Bag Apparatus

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

The Travelling Post Office (TPO) was first introduced in January 1838, travelling on the Grand Junction between Birmingham and Liverpool. The TPO is closely linked with Rowland Hill’s penny postage, which led to an increase in letter writing and the need to transport more mail at speed. The TPO ceased operation in 2004 as more and more people used emails rather than letter writing to communicate.

Travelling Post Offices functioned as mobile sorting offices, allowing post officers to sort up to 2000 mails an hour while on the move. In its heyday there were some 77 services from London to Plymouth, Bristol, Newcastle and others.

In 1936 the GPO Film unit produced a film about the TPO entitled Night Mail that contained a poem by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten.

The picture featured here shows a wooden and metal model of a mail bag exchange apparatus and forms part of a set consisting of track, carriages, a hut and smaller items relating to the Travelling Post Office.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses like this were used between 1852–1971 on Travelling Post Offices to pick up and put down mails without the need for trains to stop. The concept of exchanging mail whilst in transit is nothing new to railways and was used before where mail bags were often thrown onto and off coaches while in motion.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses operated in the following way: Mail was simply put into leather pouches weighing between 20lb and 60lb that were attached to an arm which would suspend it 5ft above the ground and 3ft away from the carriage side. The carriage was equipped with an extendable net, fitted to the body side, with an opening into the carriage behind it to catch incoming pouches.

It is alleged that the duty of putting the bags on poles was so unpopular that some postmen paid others to do the duty for them.

For more on TPO’s see the BPMA’s online exhibition The Travelling Post Office.

The Morten Collection at Bruce Castle

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Greetings from Bruce Castle, Tottenham, North London – the former home of Sir Rowland Hill!

Today Tottenham is part of the thriving London Borough of Haringey and home of the famous football club Tottenham Hotspur, but over 150 years ago it was a small village and home to Sir Rowland Hill, future inventor of the postage stamp. He lived at Bruce Castle, a16th Century manor house, from 1827 where he was headmaster of a school for boys.

Today the former manor house is grade 1 listed and houses the Museum and Archive of Haringey. Among its exhibits we find many things related to the local area such as a 1930s office, World War II photographs, the history of the building, as well as a large collection of postal history objects, books and documents.

Two pages from the Visitors Book from the Hotel d'Europe, 1817-1826

Visitors Book of Mail Coach travellers staying at Hotel D’Europe between 1817-1826. The book is bound and consists of 361 pages.

This is thanks to former postal worker W.V. Morten and the Union of Communication Workers (now the Communication Worker’s Union). Very little is known about W.V. Morten himself, other than his complete devotion to the postal service, studying and collecting things on every aspect. When he died in the 1920s the Union of Communication Workers realised the importance of his collection and bought it for safekeeping and to prevent it from being broken up or going to America. As the Union had no storage or exhibition facilities, Bruce Castle with its postal connection seemed the obvious place for it to go.

Painting of mail train going past a mail bag apparatus point

Painting of mail train going past a mail bag apparatus point

In the decades following the Collection has expanded and now comprises of some 30,000 pieces including advertising posters, Victorian newspaper cuttings, mail box models, photographs, drawings, postmarks, stamps, mail coach tickets, books and even a vet’s receipt for a horse. We hold material ranging from a14th century telegram to a 1980s advertising brochure for a telephone system.

A letter from Normandy, 1397

Mail from Normandy, 1397

In recent years the museum as a whole shifted its emphasis away from postal history to the local history of Haringey. As a consequence of this the Morten Collection was somewhat neglected and when I came to work at Bruce Castle as part of Pistols, Packets and Postmen, a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and involving the London Borough of Haringey, the Communication Workers Union and the British Postal Museum & Archive, I found a mountain of work waiting for me. Documents have to be catalogued and old information computerised, objects stored to modern conservation practice, digitised and sorted. The entire collection has to be brought back to life from the obscurity of the museum’s storage area through educational activities, exhibitions and talks.

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

This is not a one-person job, and I’m relying on the help of volunteers. A retired union worker is helping with the re-housing of the collection and an aspiring librarian catalogued large sections of the postal history books. A retired postal worker says: “I love coming to the museum as it gets me out of the house and makes use of my knowledge of the postal service. I have met some nice people too!”

A poster advertisement for accomodation at the Lion Hotel, Clumber Street, Nottingham, and a new mail coach called Little John, leaving every day at 1 O'Clock (except Sundays) and travelling to Mansfield, Warsop, Cuckney, Worksop, Retford, Tickhill, Doncaster and Sheffield.

Poster advertisement for accommodation at the Lion Hotel, Nottingham and a new Mail Coach

Whether you are an aspiring archivist or museum professional, a postal heritage enthusiast or just a retired person seeking a challenge, Bruce Castle wants to hear from you! At present we have opportunities for volunteers to help with re-housing, digitisation and basic cataloguing. No experience or PC skills are needed, just enthusiasm and the willingness to learn new skills.

If you are interested send me an email at: Bettina.Trabant@haringey.gov.uk or ring me on 02088088772.

Over the next few months we’ll be giving BPMA blog readers a glimpse of the Morten Collection through a series of Object of the Month articles as part of Pistols, Packets and Postmen – keep visiting!