Secret Subterranean London

Arts organisation Illumini have curated Secret Subterranean London, a week of events exploring the labyrinth below the streets of London, which starts next Friday. As part of the season our Curator Chris Taft will give a free talk on the Post Office Underground Railway which was used to carry post through central London.

Loading carriages on the Post Office Underground Railway with mail bags

Loading carriages on the Post Office Underground Railway with mail bags

In the early 20th Century mail traffic through London was overwhelming and congested city streets caused many delays. The Post Office’s solution was to build a dedicated railway located underground which would avoid these problems.

Construction of the railway began in 1914 but was delayed due to the First World War, although the tunnels which had been completed were used to store precious artworks during Zeppelin raids.

The route of the Post Office Underground Railway

The route of the Post Office Underground Railway

The railway finally opened in 1927, and ran from Paddington Station to Whitechapel delivery office via a number of Post Office buildings in central London. The trains on the railway were driverless – a world first – and controlled by levers in switch cabins at each station.

Post Office Underground Railway switching desk

Post Office Underground Railway switching desk

Later re-branded as Mail Rail, the railway remained in use until 2003.

In his talk Chris Taft’s will cover the history and operations of the railway, and show rare images and footage of Mail Rail from our collection.

One of the trains with Mail Rail livery

One of the trains with Mail Rail livery

Other events taking place as part of Secret Subterranean London include a tour of the subterranean amphitheatre The Grand Entrance Hall (which once echoed to the sound of fairground entertainers but lay forgotten for 140 years), and live shows and interventions from artists and performers.

The Post Office Underground Railway talk will take place at The Basement, Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LT on Sunday 12th September at 11am. Tickets are free. For more information please visit www.illuminievent.co.uk.

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