Tag Archives: Hudson Hawk

Mail Rail Trains Conservation Project

Our project to conserve two of the Mail Rail trains in our collection is now almost complete; the photographs accompanying this blog give some idea of the work done. Today we present an interview with one of the volunteers, Don Bell, who has helped complete this work and who has been trained up by George Monger, the conservator employed to do this work.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

Why did you get involved with the BPMA as a volunteer?

I used to work for Royal Mail as a Delivery Office Manager (DOM) and originally became aware of the Museum when working as a DOM in Tottenham where the old Museum store used to be. I was asked to get some Posties together to pose with pillar boxes from the collection to promote the 2002 Pillar Box stamps issue.

As DOM at Winchmore Hill I also became involved in volunteering and charity work further, including the setting up of a local fundraising charity.

I have also always been interested in the museum and vehicles in particular.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

What does your role as a volunteer involve?

Cleaning and preparing the Mail Rail vehicles and applying a layer of wax to the trains to act as a protective barrier. I also help care for few of the other vehicles in the collection supporting the work of the BPMA curators at the Museum Store.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

Have you learnt anything particularly surprising or interesting?

It was surprising to see the different colours of paint underneath the top coat on the Mail Rail trains, these coming from different eras, including paintwork for the film Hudson Hawk on one of the trains. [Mail Rail trains were re-painted as underground Vatican mail trains for the film]

When you volunteer you go in different directions, I am interested in the vehicles and would rather get my hands dirty than volunteer in admin – with this project, anything I can learn about conservation is a plus.

George [The Conservator employed by BPMA on this project] opened my eyes – he explained that the covers over the electric units would have got very hot in the vehicles working life and the paint bubbled. My original instinct was to clean it all off but George explained that you should preserve what’s left – not everything has to be pristine but rather should reflect the vehicles as they were.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

What is your involvement in the Mail Rail story?

I can remember helping out from time to time as overtime at the W1 Delivery Office, sometimes you got called down to help out and then would get roped into helping load the trains.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

What is your favourite object?

All of the Post Office vehicles, having worked in deliveries for all of my working life starting as a Telegram Messenger and continuing for 40 years.

I think there is so much potential if you could take the vehicles out on the road! The Mobile Post Office would be great for fundraising and advertising the Museum.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA's Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

Interview by Claire English

The BPMA would like to thank The PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, administered by Arts Council England, and the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant Scheme for kindly donating towards the Mail Rail conservation project.

If you are interested in volunteering for BPMA please visit the Volunteers page on our website for further information.

Mail Rail back to life for family fun at the BPMA Museum Store

by Laura Dixon, Learning Officer

On Saturday 13th June 2009 the BPMA will be opening the doors of the Museum Store for family visitors to enjoy a day of storytelling fun linked to London’s history, in particular the now defunct driverless underground post train, Mail Rail. 

The Family Day is part of the Story of London festival, which celebrates London throughout June at various venues across the city. Our event is using the StoryRoots team to help families find out more about our collections, London and Mail Rail.

What’s Mail Rail?

Unknown to most, the Post Office Underground Railway operated from 1927 to 2003, 70 feet below the congested streets of London. It delivered post from Whitechapel to Paddington, with nine stations in between, and crossed the city in 20 minutes. Mail Rail (renamed for its 60th birthday in 1987) covered the 6.5 miles using 23 miles of 2 foot gauge track.

Mail Rail was an environmental boon for Royal Mail as it relieved about 80 van loads of mail a day – around 12 million items – from the streets. London had been suffering congestion problems for years and in 1855 Rowland Hill suggested using underground transport to speed the post.

The tunnels for Mail Rail were completed between 1914 and 1917 but work was then put on hold while the First World War continued. Mail Rail opened for business on 5th December 1927.

Loading carriages on the Post Office London Railway

Loading carriages on the Post Office London Railway

Mail Rail tunnels were used during the War to preserve artworks from the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate. In later years Mail Rail diversified again when Bruce Willis stowed away in one of the carriages for a scene in the 1991 box office bomb, Hudson Hawk.

Goodbye Mail Rail

Mail Rail was closed in 2003 due to the expense involved in running it. (Read Mail Rail controller Amanda Smith’s’ thoughts on the closure.) Various suggestions for the use of Mail Rail and its tunnels were suggested but none of these have been taken up and the tunnels are now used for storage and emergency access.

Storytelling

Families coming to the free Family Day can book to attend at either 10.30am or 2.30pm and will be treated to a viewing of the short 1987 Mail Rail film which shows the route of the driverless trains speeding beneath the busy streets.

StoryRoots will then tell stories linked to Mail Rail and encourage visitors to get involved and create some of their own. There will then be a chance to turn stories into short films for use in a zoetrope!

Throughout the day there will also be the chance to take a tour around the Store with our Curator, complete quizzes and trails to help explore the space and take part in more craft activities, such as making your own letter box themed headwear!

We will also find a quieter corner to show the iconic GPO film, Night Mail.

Mail Rail is an important part of London’s transport and cultural heritage. Come along to the Museum Store on 13th June to find out more about it with our staff and storytellers.

For more information on this event please see our website.