Tag Archives: pneumatic railway

Behind the object: the seemingly, uninteresting GPO truncheon

In this post, we asked Curator Emma Harper to talk about her favourite object. You will be surprised about what she came up with!

Asking a Curator to pick their favourite object is a bit like asking a child what they’d like to be when they grow up, in most cases the answer will change from day to day!

Should I choose the earliest letter box in our collection used in trials on the Channel Islands; the pneumatic rail car that was used to test the idea of using an underground railway to move the mail; or perhaps our recent acquisition of the diary of Post Office Rifleman, Thomas May, written when he was fighting in France in 1915.

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma's favourite object)

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma’s favourite object)

All of these are fascinating objects which help to illustrate the many interesting stories that our collection can tell. Instead however, I have chosen a truncheon. Now this may seem a lot less interesting than the items I’ve listed above but it is often the unassuming, apparently ‘boring’ items that can surprise us and this item, in my opinion, does just that.

A runner-up for Emma's favourite object: 19th century pneumatic railcar.

A runner-up for Emma’s favourite object: 19th century pneumatic rail car.

It is a fairly plain wooden truncheon with the handle painted white and the rest painted black. If you look closer however it not only has ‘GPO’ [General Post Office] inscribed on the back but also bears the coat of arms of the City of London, Queen Victoria’s cipher and a date ‘10/ APRIL/ 1848’. 1848 has become known as a year of revolutions and this particular date in April was the date of the Chartist’s mass demonstration on Kennington Common and procession to present their third National Petition to Parliament.  The Chartist movement was named after the People’s Charter which demanded political and electoral reform and in particular called for all males over the age of 21.

William Edward Kilburn - View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

William Edward Kilburn – View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

It was feared by the government that the Kennington Common rally would spark revolution not just in London but across the country and that government organisations such as the General Post Office could well be targeted. As the Illustrated London News stated on 15 April 1848: ‘the speeches of those gentlemen [the Chartists] had led the public to anticipate some serious disturbance of the peace of the metropolis, the Government and the civil authorities had made some extensive and well-arranged preparations to suppress effectually any violation of order or tranquility, should such be attempted.’ As a result, the government issued GPO staff with truncheons, including the one now in our collection, in order to protect themselves and Post Office property.

In the end the day passed off with relatively few violent outbreaks and, as far as I know, no direct attempts on the GPO.  While it may never have seen action, I hope I have shown how even the plainest of objects can add to our knowledge and understanding of history and our collection.

-Emma Harper, Curator

Mail Rail open day

Final preparations are now being made for the special open day taking place on Saturday 21st April 2012 at the BPMA’s Museum Store at Debden. The open day, which will start at 10am and run throughout the day till 4pm is themed around the Post Office underground railway, or Mail Rail as it became known. During the day while the rest of the Store will be available to visit special focus will be made on the story of the narrow gauge, driverless, electric railway that moved mail under London from 1927 to 2003.

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

The BPMA now holds three rail cars in its collection, one being the only known complete example of the original 1927 car. Two of the rail cars are being actively conserved and there are plans for the third. During the event on Saturday there will be chance for visitors to witness conservation first hand and to speak to the conservator undertaking the work. BPMA curators will also be on site to answer questions about the railway and there will be some formal talks and tours about the network and also the pneumatic rail system that preceded Mail Rail. The only known survivors of the 19th century underground system will also be on display.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

Throughout the day there will also be film showings and also activities for visitors of all ages. Others with an association with the railway will also be on site including one of the engineers who works on the railway maintaining it today.

There will also be a display of smaller artefacts from the BPMA’s extensive collection and many images from the Archive. Some more modern images of the network today will also be on display as part of an art photography project currently being undertaken by Jonathan Bradley Photography.

The event is free for all and is drop in throughout the day. Full details of the event are on our website.

Chris Taft – Curator

Great British Railway Journeys and Mail Rail

Anyone who watched this evening’s Great British Railway Journeys will have seen the Royal Mail’s underground postal railway featured. In the episode presenter Michael Portillo visited the Post Office (London) Railway, as it was originally called, and was given the rare opportunity to take a short ride on one of the trains. Today Mail Rail, as it is more affectionately known, remains closed and is not normally open to visitors, but due to the interest in the network, and to try and give as many people as possible a flavour of the railway, the BPMA guided Michael on his journey across this part of London.

A Mail Rail Train, circa 1990s

A Mail Rail Train, circa 1990s

The postal underground railway, despite closing down in 2003 after many of the stations it served above ground were no longer operating, and after the Travelling Post Office stopped running from the mainline London stations, holds great fascination for many. For this reason the BPMA are currently working to conserve three of the original railway cars in its collection, and are also planning on hosting a special Mail Rail themed open day at the BPMA Museum Store in Debden, near Loughton. The one day event, aimed at all the family, and specialists and non-specialists alike, will take place on Saturday 21st April 2012 from 10am till 4pm. Throughout the day BPMA staff will be on hand to help guide visitors round a series of events and presentations about the railway.

Mail Rail removal from Mount Pleasant, May 2011

Mail Rail removal from Mount Pleasant, May 2011

There will be an opportunity to listen to talks about the history of the railway, and its predecessor, the pneumatic railway, with a chance to see the only two pneumatic rail cars known to exist from the 1860/1870s London trials. There will also be film showings including never before seen film of the railway with its driver-less electric trains running for the final time. Curators will also be available to guide visitors around the Museum Store and explore some of the objects related to the railway in the BPMA collection, including the three rail cars that are undergoing or about to undergo conservation. During the day there will also be activities aimed at younger visitors.

Booking is not required but larger group wishing to visit are encouraged to contact the BPMA in advance to make their visit easier.

There is lots more information about the Post Office (London) Railway on the BPMA website and further details about the event will also appear on our website nearer the event.

– Chris Taft, Curator

The BPMA thanks The Arts Council England PRISM Fund, and the AIM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme for their support of the Mail Rail Conservation project.