Tag Archives: Post Office London Railway

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.

Illustrating Empire Mail: George V and the GPO

by Jennifer Flippance, 2010 Exhibitions & Projects Manager

The BPMA’s major exhibition this year – Empire Mail: George V and the GPO – runs until 25 July at Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London.  Big exhibitions like this take several years of planning, starting with a theme and developing the story around it. Objects must be selected and conserved (including any loans from other institutions), text and captions written and images chosen to bring the story to life. Empire Mail explores the reign of George V (1910-1936), innovations in the General Post Office and George V as a stamp collector – one of the finest of his time.

Selecting images to use in an exhibition can certainly be a challenging task.  Each image has to earn its place, illustrating a different aspect of the exhibition’s story.  Inevitably there will be many wonderful images that don’t quite make it.

I wanted to share some of these as I think they still deserve to be seen.  If you haven’t yet been to see Empire Mail: George V and the GPO, you might wonder which ones were chosen!

1. Field Post Office, First World War

Field Post Office, First World War

We used two other photographs of First World War Field Post Offices in the exhibition, so this one didn’t make it, but I still really like the image. Sending and receiving mail was vital for troop morale and Field Post Offices would be set up in any appropriate location. Notice the F.P.O sign on the windowsill and the poster promoting war savings certificates as an appropriate gift for a sweetheart!  Unfortunately we don’t know where or when this photo was taken.

2. Coronation Aerial Post, 1911

Coronation Aerial Post, 1911

Two women posting into a special aerial post box at the officers of the Windsor Chronicle.  The 1911 Coronation Aerial Post was the world’s first regular airmail service.  One of these red, wooden post boxes (on loan from Windsor & Royal Borough Museum) can be seen in the exhibition and we would have liked to include this image of it in use. Unfortunately, because this is an image from a newspaper it would have been very poor quality once blown up to the size needed for display.

3. Aerial mail rehearsal, August 1911

Aerial mail rehearsal, August 1911

We had some good images of the September coronation airmail flights and the rehearsals the month before, so this one did not make the grade. It shows a postman with mail sack approaching one of the planes during a rehearsals. (This particular plane – a Valkyrie Monoplane – was used in the rehearsal, but not the actual mail flights.)

There were 20 flights in total (16 from Hendon to Windsor and 4 on the return leg) each generally carrying 2 mail sacks with a combined weight of about 50lbs.  Only special postcards and envelopes were carried, examples of which can also be seen in the exhibition.

4. Dryman Post Office, Glasgow

Dryman Post Office, Glasgow

The exhibition team all liked this pleasant rural scene from the 1930s with the iconic George V Morris van, however the image didn’t quite fit in with the exhibition themes. The photograph was most likely taken for the Post Office magazine, illustrating the work of Post Office employees in different parts of the country.  We do have one of the Morris vans on display.  Moving it into the gallery took some very careful manoeuvring!

5. Light aircraft about to leave Newtownards airfield, Northern Ireland, carrying air mail, 1935

Light aircraft about to leave Newtonard airfield, Northern Ireland, carrying air mail, 1935

There were many good airmail photos to choose from and unfortunately this one is from just outside the dates covered by the exhibition. Airmail was still a relative novelty during the 1930s; here a small plane is operating out of a small airfield with a grass runway. But even this scene was advanced compared to images of the open wood and fabric aircraft making that first airmail flight just 24 years previously!

6. Messengers on motorcycles, 1934

Messengers on motorcycles, 1934

This photograph was almost chosen for the section illustrating the development of motorised mail transport. We are lucky to have one of the original BSA B33 motorbikes on display, a unique survivor from the introduction of motorcycle telegrams delivery in the early 1930s. Messengers had to be at least 17 years old and were expected to ride at 15mph – something I suspect they didn’t always adhere to!

7. Post Office London Railway, 1926

Post Office London Railway, 1926

This fascinating illustration shows the route of the Post Office underground railway that runs from Whitechapel to Paddington Station and also how the mail was transported from the sorting offices via chutes and lifts to the railway below. This image is rather busy and in the end we chose to use a simpler map of the route alongside plans, photographs and original objects.

An online version of Empire Mail: George V and the GPO can be found on the BPMA website.

Empire Mail: George V and the GPO

by Jennifer Flippance, 2010 Exhibitions & Project Manager

Empire Mail: George V and the GPO, hosted by Guildhall Art Gallery, in the heart of the City of London, is the BPMA’s flagship exhibition for the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, produced in conjunction with the Royal Philatelic Collection.

King George V riding his horse, Anzac

King George V riding his horse, Anzac, a gift from the Australian government. This photograph was later used as the basis for the Australian Silver Jubilee stamps, issued in 1935.

The exhibition explores the reign of King George V (1910 – 1936), an era of conflict, change and innovation. Investigate the passions of the ‘philatelist king’, alongside the extraordinary period of design and creativity in the General Post Office during the period.

Displays include some of the rarest and most valuable stamps in the world alongside vehicles, pillar boxes, posters and pioneering works from the GPO Film Unit. Empire Mail: George V and The GPO will explore themes from the King’s reign such as innovations in mail transportation, the first Atlantic air crossing, the rise of graphic design in the 1920s and 1930s, and the impact of conflict.

The items on display are sourced from the unique and complementary collections of the BPMA and the Royal Philatelic Collection. These include a sheet of unused Edward VII Tyrian Plum stamps plus the only one known to have been used – sent on an envelope to George V on 5 May 1910 when he was Prince of Wales and arriving the day he became King following the death of his father.

'Post Office' Mauritius: The most famous stamps in the world?

'Post Office' Mauritius: The most famous stamps in the world?

There are many gems from King George V’s own collection, including two examples of the famous Post Office Mauritius stamp, among them an unused 2d, bought by the King when Prince of Wales in 1904 for the then record sum of £1,450.

Other highlights include: items and original film footage from the 1911 Coronation Aerial Post; original stamp artwork for the first ever UK commemorative stamp produced for the 1924/5 Wembley Empire Exhibition; the only Victoria Cross won by the Post Office Rifles during the First World War; mail carried on pioneering (successful and unsuccessful) transatlantic air crossings; and objects and images from the Post Office Underground Railway.

The BPMA’s fully restored blue airmail pillar box will be seen in public for the first time, alongside other pillar boxes of the period and vehicles, including a 1945 Morris “Red Van” in George V livery and a 1933 BSA motorcycle.

As an added attraction, between 8–15 May, there will be regular demonstrations by staff from the security printers Enschedé, who will be printing reproductions of the 1929 PUC £1 on an intaglio press.

A series of free lunchtime talks will also take during the exhibition’s run.

For further information on Empire Mail: George V and the GPO please see the BPMA website. An online taster of the exhibition has also been produced.

Museum Store Tours

Pillar boxes arranged in a line at the British Postal Museum Store

Pillar boxes at the British Postal Museum Store

Throughout the year we open up our Museum Store to visitors. The Store is a working space, where our curators look after our collection of large objects – everything from pillar boxes and cycles, to mail vans and sorting equipment. There are also some interesting surprises, like the desk of Sir Rowland Hill and a Post Office (London) Railway (or Mail Rail) car.

Join us throughout 2010 for an afternoon or evening tour led by one of our curators. There are also several special events at the Museum Store this year, including Britain Loves Wikipedia and an Open Weekend (more details to follow).

Museum Store Tours 2010
Afternoon Tour, March – Wednesday 3rd March, 2.00-4.00pm
Afternoon Tour, April – Wednesday 7th April, 2.00-4.00pm
Afternoon Tour, May – Wednesday 5th May, 2.00-4.00pm
Afternoon Tour, June – Wednesday 2nd June, 2.00-4.00pm
Evening Tour, June – Monday 7th June, 6.00-8.00pm
Evening Tour, July – Monday 5th July, 6.00-8.00pm
Afternoon Tour, July – Wednesday 7th July, 2.00-4.00pm
Afternoon Tour, August – Wednesday 4th August, 2.00-4.00pm
Afternoon Tour, September – Wednesday 1st September, 2.00-4.00pm
Evening Tour, September – Monday 6th September, 6.00-8.00pm
Afternoon Tour, October – Wednesday 6th October, 2.00-4.00pm
Afternoon Tour, November – Wednesday 3rd November, 2.00-4.00pm 

Museum Store Special Events 2010
Britain Loves Wikipedia – Saturday 20th February, 10.30am-4.00pm
Open Weekend – Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th May, 10.00am-4.00pm

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.