Tag Archives: Post Office Railway

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.

2013 Royal Mail Archive openings: bring on the 20-year rule

The start of the year has traditionally been the time we’ve made batches of material available to public research for the first time based on the long-standing ’30-year rule’. This year things are slightly different since the ’30 year rule’ is no more and we (along with The National Archives and some other holders of public record material) are starting a ten year transitional period to a ’20-year rule’.

Closed until various dates until 2013.

In the past we opened files that had reached the thirtieth anniversary of the latest document in them over the previous year on the 1 January of the subsequent year. So on 1 January 2012 we opened all files that had documents from 1981 in them.

Material at the BPMA will now generally be available to researchers according to the 20-year rule transitional timetable which like transfer to The National Archives will deal with two years’ worth of files each year until 2023.

This is set out below:

1 Jan 2013 - Files from 1982 and 1983 will become open

1 Jan 2014 – Files from 1984 and 1985 will become open

1 Jan 2015 – Files from 1986 and 1987 will become open

1 Jan 2016 – Files from 1988 and 1989 will become open

1 Jan 2017 – Files from 1990 and 1991 will become open

1 Jan 2018 – Files from 1992 and 1993 will become open

1 Jan 2019 – Files from 1994 and 1995 will become open

1 Jan 2020 – Files from 1996 and 1997 will become open

1 Jan 2021 – Files from 1998 and 1999 will become open

1 Jan 2022 – Files from 2000 and 2001 will become open

1 Jan 2023 – Files from 2002 will become open (end of transition phase)

N.B. A very small number of files (or parts of files) in The Royal Mail Archive have extended closure periods generally under Freedom of Information Act personal information exemptions; these will be unaffected by this change.

This process has applied to more than 500 files this January, particularly material from the following POST classes: POST 19 (Postal Business Statistics), POST 52 (Stamp Depot), POST 69 (Royal Mail Board and its Predecessors) and POST 73 (Regional Administration and Operations).

Below I’ll tell you about some of the files that have interested me the most. A few of them focus on two of the major issues affecting UK politics in the early 1980s, Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands.

POST 23/219 relates to the operation of a rival postal service in Derry/ Londonderry.

William Ross MP had complained in December 1978 about Sinn Fein Christmas mail (which would deliver Christmas cards in the city at a lower rate than the Post Office) and whether it infringed the Post Office monopoly. A letter from Danny Carty, PO Northern Ireland head, to Minister of State Adam Butler discusses the issue. Press releases had been sent out every year since 1975. Stamp Collecting magazine had ‘issued the Sinn Fein press release without really understanding the issues involved’. On the issue of the monopoly Carty wrote about the dangers of going to court:

Goliath might slew David on this occasion, but at what price to the Post Office in Northern Ireland.

Following up in December 1982 Carty informed PO Chairman Ron Dearing:

Sinn Fein Christmas Post is not going to go away…I have discussed this issue at my executive meeting today and the view, with no voice of dissent, was we should do nothing. I realise this is the soft option, pragmatist that I am, but feel this is the sensible approach to take at this time.

Ron Dearing wrote to Philip Cooper, Under Secretary, Department of Industry, 1 December 1982:

I want to avoid being drawn into a position of taking legal proceedings against Sinn Fein for two reasons:-

1). part of their objective will be to promote confrontation wherever they can, and the Post Office has particular value to them in this context because it is seen as representing the UK Government and because the Post Office in Dublin is perhaps the best remembered point in the fighting that took place before the establishment of the Irish Republic.

2). risk of violence to postmen on their walks (part of the time in the dark)….For if our postmen became the centre of a campaign and were subject to threats of violence, and some actual violence, we might find that staff were understandably unwilling to make deliveries in Roman Catholic areas or indeed more widely. Then the Sinn Fein would really have won the battle.

This service was still in operation at Christmas 2012.

The context in which these developments were occurring can be seen in the contents to POST 23/370. This covers civil disturbances at the time of the IRA hunger strikes and their impact on postal services. In a memorandum covering the week 20-26 April 1981 (hunger striker and MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Bobby Sands had died on 9 April) it lists 14 serious incidents including attacks on sorting offices, vehicles and post boxes. On 17 April…

Rioters attacked Londonderry HO Sorting Office with petrol bombs, bricks and iron bars. Staff on duty managed to extinguish petrol bombs which landed on roof of building and in the yard. No injuries.

Other memos put the events into context detailing deaths of hunger strikers and other political events.

Civil Disturbances Weekly Report, 20-26 April 1981. (POST 23/370)

Civil Disturbances Weekly Report, 20-26 April 1981. (POST 23/370)

POD/AN/1060 (yet to be assigned a finding number but available) contains material on mail to the Falkland Islands in the run up to, during and following the Falklands War. A telex to Royal Research Ship John Biscoe just after the Argentinian invasion reads:

Did you hand the mail over to anyone in Port Stanley? If so who? Or have you still got it on board your ship? An urgent reply would be appreciated.

Telex to RRS John Bisco(e), 15 April 1982 (POD/AN/1060)

Telex to RRS John Bisco(e), 15 April 1982 (POD/AN/1060)

The cost of contacting members of the British Task Force sent to recapture the Islands became a subject of public interest. In response the Post Office introduced free aerogrammes.

Towards the end of the file there is an interesting set of questions and answers, particularly on the issue of mail during the Argentinian occupation. In response to ‘Why did you handle this mail when we were at war with Argentina’ this sheet states:

It is our responsibility to carry out a postal service whenever and wherever possible. It is for the Government to decide whether this service should be terminated.

POST 104/33 concerns the end of the telegram service from the Queen (the means by which congratulatory messages marking 100th birthdays and 60th wedding anniversaries had been sent since 1917). With the switch to British Telecom’s telemessage the issue of delivery time from the sorting office where it was picked up through the post to the recipient became significant. This file contains correspondence between Ron Dearing and Royal Private Secretaries. In response William Heseltine wrote on 25 September 1982:

It will be interesting to see how the new system works and I will certainly take advantage of your offer of further assistance if the new system does not come up to Her Majesty’s expectations.

Unfortunately on the first day BT had equipment failure and five of the messages did not arrive. According to a memo of 12 October 1982:

It will be wise for us to start thinking of a wholly PO service eg Intelpost, Datapost.

Today these messages are sent on cards by Royal Mail Special Delivery.

POST 108/80 is a MORI report on ‘The Reputation of the Post Office’ which highlights:

The split of the Post Office into separate postal and telecommunications entities is now firmly established in the people’s mind. The split (and the creation of British Telecom) is the dominant theme of ‘recent changes’ associated with the Post Office. The ending of the telegram scheme is the second most common theme; few are aware of new services such as Intelpost…Few spontaneously mentioned the freezing of prices – price increases appear to be more memorable.

POST 119/177 is a Plessey report looking into the possibility of extending the Post Office Underground Railway (Mail Rail) to other main London railway stations including Marylebone, Kings Cross and Waterloo. An unextended Mail Rail closed in 2003.

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, cover. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, cover. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, diagram of possible extensions. (POST 119/177)

Plessey report, Post Office Railway Extension, 1982, diagram of possible extensions. (POST 119/177)

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

The Royal Mail Archive is open to the public, find opening hours and visitor information on our website.

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.