Tag Archives: Post Office underground railway

Mail Rail Archive Open Day

On Saturday 14th September the Royal Mail Archive will be holding a themed open day to celebrate the Post Office Underground Railway (Mail Rail). Activities will run from 10.00am until 4.00pm, however the Archive search room will be open to visitors until 5.00pm as usual. The Post Office Underground Railway initially opened in 1927 and was the world’s first driverless electric railway. It ran from Paddington to Whitechapel, serving eight sorting offices along its six-and-a-half mile route.

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Jonathon Bradley, the photographer responsible for the Mail Rail Photographic Exhibition (currently on display in the search room), will be on hand to talk about his photographs and give informal workshops. Jonathon will also bring along his interactive Mail Rail game Mail Rush, and members of the public will be encouraged to take part.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

We will also have Mail Rail-themed craft activities available for children to take part in, while for older visitors there will also be original archive material on Mail Rail, including photographs, diagrams and leaflets, all dating between the 1910s to the 1970s, available to view. Archive and Curatorial staff will be on hand to discuss this material with members of the public.

Throughout the day there will be tours of the Archive repository, covering a selection of Royal Mail’s history. There is no need to book for these tours as they will be arranged on a demand basis.

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

This is a free, drop in event and there is no need to register, but please note that the Search Room will also be open for general research on this day. If you wish to carry out research you will need to sign up for a User Card (please see our website for information on signing-up for a User Card).

Hope to see you all there and if you can’t make it we should be live tweeting throughout the day!

– Penny McMahon, Archives Assistant

Find out more about our Mail Rail Archive Open Day on our website.

Mail Rail part of Our Bloomsbury

Here at the British Postal Museum and Archive, we’re always keen to engage our younger audiences with the story of the postal service – this is why we welcomed a group of local children to the archive last week to investigate the Post Office Underground Railway, aka Mail Rail. The workshop was day one of a two day mini-project, in collaboration with 1A Arts Centre.

The group began their investigatory workshop by using the wonderful resources at their (white gloved) finger tips – the archive repository. Helen Dafter, one of our archivists, led the children to where the material is stored; enabling them to explore and find out what sort of things are kept in an archive and how they are looked after.

The budding archivists next had the opportunity to use the skills they had discovered with Helen. Through investigating some original material related to Mail Rail, which they had helped to retrieve in the repository, they soon became experts on the incredible underground system!

Making notes on findings from investigating the images and material from the collection.

Making notes on findings from investigating the images and material from the collection.

The children’s detective work enabled them to find out the facts of the network, however they were just as interested to discover what life was like down in the railway. Images from the collection and the photographs displayed in our Mail Rail exhibition allowed the group to empathise with the workers and to understand how the system was operated. Original objects – such as mail bags also brought this understanding to life for the children.

The group were shocked to find the mail bags were almost as big as them!

The group were shocked to find the mail bags were almost as big as them!

Inspired by the collection and what they had discovered, the group finished the workshop by creating some collage art work.

The budding archivists at work on their collages.

The budding archivists at work on their collages.

On the following day the children made their way to the 1A Arts Centre, equipped with their new found expertise on the Post Office Underground Railway! During the creative writing workshop, ran by artist Teanne Andrews, the group developed stories exploring ‘the day in the life of’ a worker.

With Teanne at 1A Arts, working on their creative writing.

With Teanne at 1A Arts, working on their creative writing.

These workshops form part of a creative project, ‘Our Bloomsbury’, led by a group of partner organisations (Holborn Community Association, 1A Arts, Charles Dickens Museum, Elaine Duigenan, Art Workers’ Guild, October Gallery and British Postal Museum and Archive). Artist Elaine Duigenan and a team of young film makers have been filming a fantastic summer programme of workshops and events, held at the partner venues.  The final film will be screened at the Art Workers’ Guild during the Bloomsbury Festival, showcasing the diverse cultural and historical experiences on offer in the area. Keep an eye out on our website to find out more about the film and when it will be screened.

– Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

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.

Fawley Hill Steam and Vintage Weekend

Last weekend we went to the Fawley Hill Steam and Vintage Weekend, Henley on Thames. We took our 1927 Mail Rail car to the Weekend to raise awareness about our exciting plans to open a new postal museum in 2016.

The Weekend took place on Sir William McAlpine’s private grounds. Entertainment included a biplane flyover, traction engines, models, vintage buses, Morris dancers and a ‘heritage’ steam-driven fairground. Below are some we took at the event. You can find more photos on Flickr.

BPMA Campaign Director Jeanette talking to guests about our plans to turn Mail Rail into a visitor attraction.

BPMA Campaign Director Jeanette talking to guests about our plans to turn Mail Rail into a visitor attraction.

Camels dressed up in their finery, waiting for the afternoon race.

Camels dressed up in their finery, waiting for the afternoon race.

A Morris man dons an animal costume from a by-gone era.

A Morris man dons an animal costume from a by-gone era.

‘Boris’ the polar bear was on display: a life-size sculpture cast entirely in bronze, created to highlight the plight of polar bears.

‘Boris’ the polar bear was on display: a life-size sculpture cast entirely in bronze, created to highlight the plight of polar bears.

An old-fashioned gypsy caravan.

An old-fashioned gypsy caravan.

Display of wartime ephemera.

Display of wartime ephemera.

Pre-1970s Brabham Formula 1 racing car.

Pre-1970s Brabham Formula 1 racing car.

This steam driven fairground is over 100 years old.

This steam driven fairground is over 100 years old.

Flyover from a vintage biplane.

Flyover from a vintage biplane.

A vintage steamroller on the move.

A vintage steamroller on the move.

Mail Rail Conservation Project – Documentary Film

For the past year the BPMA have been engaged on a project to conserve the rail cars in its collection acquired from the Post Office underground railway, Mail Rail. This project has proved really exciting and has been followed keenly by a number of people. Back in April 2012 the BPMA held an open day at the Museum Store which gave visitors the opportunity to come and see the work being done and meet the conservator working on the project and the BPMA curators.

Throughout the main part of the project the BPMA commissioned a production company to document the process and create a short film that helps explain the work done. This film is now being made available for the first time via the BPMA’s YouTube channel.

Making the Mail Rail film.

Making the Mail Rail film.

As well as documenting the conservation work the film also offers a glimpse of the Railway as it once was, including black and white footage of the Railway from the 1930s and clips from the BPMA collection. These more modern clips show the Railway in 2005, after its closure. It is the last filmed footage captured of the trains being moved using the electric network. The BPMA holds much more of this footage that it hopes can be used in future projects or films.

Also in the documentary record are BPMA members of staff and the contracted conservator talking about the work being done and interviews with members of the public who attended the special open day at the Museum Store.

The conservation work on two of the trains is now complete but there remains more to do and the final phase of the project is to conserve the 1927 car held by the BPMA. This car is the only surviving example in this form of the original cars used when the network opened in 1927. It is the intention with this car to conserve as it is today and not to attempt to return it to the appearance it was in during its operational life.

1927 Mail Rail car.

1927 Mail Rail car.

Once this work is underway more details as to the progress will be published online.

The project to conserve the trains was funded by grants from the Arts Council England PRISM Fund, the Association of Independent Museums/Pilgrims Trust Conservation Scheme and donations from the Friends of the BPMA. The film was made for the BPMA by Voytek Ltd, a London based production company.

– Chris Taft, Senior Curator

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.

Initial HLF support for new Postal Museum & Archive secured

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is delighted to announce that the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has confirmed a first-round pass as part of a two stage application process to help move its world-class collections into a new, accessible and permanent home. Initial HLF support has been awarded for an application of £4.25m and development funding of £250,000 has been awarded. The new Postal Museum & Archive will be situated in Calthorpe House on London’s Mount Pleasant site, where the country’s oldest mail centre is located.

Visualisation of Calthorpe House (Feildon Clegg Bradley Studios).

Visualisation of Calthorpe House (Feildon Clegg Bradley Studios).

The first-round pass means that the BPMA can now progress to the feasibility stage of its development and work up detailed proposals ahead of a round two application in 2013 to secure the remaining £4m. Further activities to generate funding to create a state of the art museum and visitor facility are taking place throughout 2012-13. The opening of the new museum is planned for late 2014.

The new Postal Museum will provide access to the BPMA’s unique collections of 400 years of postal, social and design history. The collections, which include iconic objects such as red pillar boxes and postal vehicles, as well as every British stamp issued since the Penny Black, original design artwork, posters and photographs, are currently stored in cramped and inaccessible conditions. The new centre will also enable a vast expansion of its educational programme and engagement with young visitors.

Visualisation of exhibition space.

Visualisation of exhibition space.

The fascinating story of the Post Office Underground Railway will form part of the exhibition, together with other captivating stories from social, postal and design history.

Sue Bowers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said:

The British Postal Museum and Archive’s collection gives us a fascinating insight into 400 years of postal history and how it has shaped our world today. We’re pleased to be giving initial support for this exciting project to regenerate the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant site and give an internationally important collection a permanent home in the heart of London. We will be working closely with the Postal Heritage Trust over the coming months as they progress plans to secure a full Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said:

The British Postal Museum & Archive is a national treasure of global importance. London plays a central role in its rich history so it is entirely fitting that this city would house a suitable showcase for the collection, creating a fantastic new visitor attraction to boot. I am thrilled that money from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been awarded to enable this exciting project to progress to the next important stage.

Adrian Steel, Director of the BPMA commented:

We are delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund has given such a strong indication of its support for a new Postal Museum & Archive. HLF initial investment of £250,000, together with public recognition from such a prestigious funder, is a ringing endorsement of our work to preserve Britain’s postal heritage. It allows us to embark on the next stage of this exciting project to bring the human story of communication, industry and innovation to everyone.

Join The British Postal Museum & Archive mailing list to receive updates on our New Centre project and other activities.

Mail Rail Conservation Project Update

Some of you may remember from previous blogs, beginning with coverage of the retrieval of two of the trains from the Post Office Underground Railway tunnels below Mount Pleasant, that the BPMA are currently working on an exciting project to restore our three ‘Mail Rail’ train carriages.

We are pleased to report that conservation work on the first of the Mail Rail trains held by the BPMA is now almost complete. The whole train has been be closely inspected, cleaned where relevant and treated with a special wax to prevent any further deterioration.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A similar programme will now be commenced on the 1980s train. Like the 1930 train this will be worked on from one end to the other with much of the surface grime and grease being removed to allow the vehicle to be displayed safely. The surfaces however will not be restored to an as new condition and the trains will continue to reflect their working history.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The next challenge is to consider how we tackle the final train in the Store, the original 1927 rail car. This rail car is much smaller than the others and raises some interesting questions. Up until now we have very much been conserving, rather than restoring the trains. However with this train it has been heavily restored in the past with some original features removed. There is also a question as to the correct colour this train should be painted. Presently it is green but in early use it was probably a grey colour. In order to decide what level of work to do on the train we must first undertake some further research.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

This is where the benefit of the BPMA holding the Royal Mail Archive alongside the museum collection becomes invaluable. Over the coming weeks we will be using documents in the Archive to try and gather as much information about these trains as possible. Once we have been through the research we can consider what approach to take, whether to restore the trains to something like it was in the past, or to simply conserve what we now have, much as we have done with the other two trains.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

Once this research phase is complete we shall have a much clearer ideas of the best approach to take and will understand better the time-scales.

We would like to thank supporters of this project, Arts Council England through the PRISM Fund, the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme, and a number of individuals who help to make this work possible.

Chris Taft – Senior Curator

Join the Mail Rail Mailing List and be the first to know what’s going on underground! Contact our Fundraising & Development Officer, Claire English: claire.english@postalheritage.org.uk.

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

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.