Tag Archives: railways

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.

Ask A Curator

On Wednesday three members of our Curatorial team will be taking over our Twitter account as part of Ask A Curator Day.

Our curators manage our existing collections and actively acquire new objects to add more detail to the story of the British postal service. The objects within our collection include letter boxes, stamps, postal vehicles, paintings, hand stamps, archive documents and much more.

The three curators tweeting will be:

11am-1pm – Sarah Jenkins, who works with our collections including the recently digitised lantern slides.

1-3pm – Chris Taft, our Senior Curator. He has recently been working on our Mail Rail project to preserve rolling stock from this fascinating underground railway.

3-5pm – Emma Harper, who is organising the curatorial aspects of our move to a new home at Calthorpe House, and has previously worked with the Wilkinson Collection of pillar box memorabilia.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

If you have any questions for our curators tweet them on @postalheritage this Wednesday. Don’t forget to include the hashtag #AskACurator.

The London Postal School

Regular readers of this blog will have seen our recent post about the digitised lantern slides of Foreign Postal Workers we recently added to Flickr. We have now added more digitised lantern slides to Flickr, this time related to the London Postal School (LPS).

'London Postal School. Postmens Retiring Room. Tea Time' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/13)

‘London Postal School. Postmens Retiring Room. Tea Time’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/13)

The London Postal School was, as the name suggests, the General Post Office’s training facility for postal workers. The School taught trainees how to perform a variety of tasks and functions, from serving on a Post Office counter to sorting and delivering the mail.

As in today’s workplace training sessions students at the London Postal School attended illustrated presentations related to their work, but this being the first half of the 20th Century the students viewed lantern slide shows rather than PowerPoint presentations. The slides from these shows are now part of our Museum Collection, and they give an interesting insight into postal operations of the period.

One lantern slide shows the Post Office branch at Charing Cross, which is described as “very old”. With its ornate exterior and cramped interior it is markedly less modern than the Post Offices at Kentish Town and Albemarle Street.

'London Postal School. Very old P.O. Charing Cross B.O. Exterior' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/17)

‘London Postal School. Very old P.O. Charing Cross B.O. Exterior’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/17)

There are also a number of slides showing airmail operations, then a new and groundbreaking mode of postal delivery, and some showing the mail bag exchange system used on the Travelling Post Offices, rail services on which mail was collected, sorted and dispatched on the move.

'London Postal School. T.P.O. Bags in Position. Net down' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049-27)

‘London Postal School. T.P.O. Bags in Position. Net down’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049-27)

Finally, there are a variety of slides showing sorting offices and the various technologies employed there such as chutes, the “Creeper” conveyor belt system (below), and the stamping machine and facing table. What the trainees made of all this we’ll never know!

'London Postal School. Mails being conveyed by ''Creeper'' from/ the Landing Stage to Customs Baggage Room' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/40)

‘London Postal School. Mails being conveyed by ”Creeper” from/ the Landing Stage to Customs Baggage Room’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/40)

Visit our Flickr site to see the London Postal School lantern slides.

Disaster at Sea!

We have recently uploaded a new podcast, a recording of our Curator Julian Stray’s recent talk Disaster at Sea! In his talk Julian Strays looks at the handful of mail ships (and one mail train) which never reached their destination.

Amongst the famous maritime disasters discussed are:

HMS Lutine, a naval ship lost in a storm which had a large quantity of gold bullion on board

The Antelope, a packet ship operating in the West Indies which surrendered to the French and had to sink the mail it was carrying

RMS Leinster, a mail boat torpedoed in the Irish Sea by the Germans at the end of World War I

RMS Titanic, the famous passenger liner whose mailroom staff all died when she sank in the Atlantic on her maiden voyage

Also discussed is the Tay Bridge Disaster, in which a railway bridge collapsed during a storm while a train carrying mail was crossing it.

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty's Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty’s Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

You can listen to Disaster at Sea! on the BPMA podcast webpage, or subscribe to the BPMA podcast with iTunes. BPMA podcasts are available free of charge.

Mail Trains book

Now available from our shop is the book Mail Trains, telling the fascinating story of the development and history of carrying mail by rail, from the 1800s until today. The book is written by Julian Stray, one of our Assistant Curators.

Mail Trains by Julian Stray

Central to the prompt delivery of the nation’s mail is its efficient and speedy transit the length and breadth of the country. From 1830, the Post Office relied ever more heavily on the overland rail network to provide what was for decades the ideal form of transport. Railway Post Offices, Sunday Sorting Tenders and District Sorting Carriages were amongst the services introduced.

Railway Post Offices, carriages dedicated to sorting mail in transit, became known as Travelling Post Offices (TPOs). TPOs received mail at the start of their journey and at stations or bag exchange points en route. Mail bags were opened by travelling postal staff and the contents sorted and included in new mail bags made up en route and despatched at the appropriate station. One of the most remarkable aspects of TPOS was the bag exchange apparatus. This enabled mail trains to pass stations of minor importance yet still exchange mail bags without halting.

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

During the Second World War mail volumes carried by rail increased. Letters were essential for maintaining morale and connecting families separated by wartime. The rail network carried immense quantities of mail; in 1943 British railways carried 25 million mail bags and over 90 million parcels.

The final TPO service ran in 2004 and although the volume of mail carried is considerably diminished, mail trains continue to form an important part of the United Kingdom’s postal service to this day.

Mail Trains is available from our online shop. Order before 10 April 2012 and obtain a 10% discount by entering the code BPMAW3BS1TE when you make your payment.

Visit our website to find out what life was like on the TPO in our Travelling Post Office online exhibition.

Hear Julian Stray’s recent talk on Mail Trains by downloading our free podcast. Download the podcast on our website or subscribe to the podcast via Tunes.

Classic Locomotives of Scotland

Classic Locomotives of Scotland, issued today, is the second of four miniature sheets highlighting some of the workhorses of the tracks, who criss-crossed the United Kingdom to satisfy its increasing industrial demands.

Classic Locomotives of Scotland

Classic Locomotives of Scotland

The earliest railways in Scotland were built for commercial and industrial purposes to convey coal to local waterways, but this quickly expanded to forge essential links with burgeoning industrial locations including factories, quarries and docks.

Many of the locomotives had working lives of several decades before diesel and electric technology completely took over in the 1960s.

A good example is the Andrew Barclay No. 807, Bon Accord, which features on the £1 stamp. Bon Accord was built in 1897 and belonged to the Aberdeen Gas Works and is shown working along the city’s Miller Street in June 1962.

Royal Mail worked closely with railway expert Professor Colin Divall of the National Railway Museum in York, and Scottish railway expert Dugald Cameron, to select the four locomotives featured on the miniature sheet – chosen from thousands of period photographs.

The Classic Locomotives series of stamps began with Classic Locomotives of England in February 2011, and moves on to highlight other locomotives that operated in Northern Ireland and Wales in future issues.

The Classic Locomotives stamps are now available from Royal Mail Stamps online. Visit our website to material from our collection related to Mail by Rail.

Mail Trains

Last year our Curator Julian Stray gave a public talk on Mail Trains; this is now available to download as a podcast. The talk looks at the long and often strained association between the Post Office and the rail companies.

Interior of Travelling Post Office, by George Charlton, 1935 (POST 109/375)

Interior of Travelling Post Office, by George Charlton, 1935 (POST 109/375)

Both underground and over, in sealed vans and Travelling Post Offices, mails have been conveyed, sorted and accelerated since 1830. Suffering the occasional mishap or celebrated by film makers (such as in the film Night Mail), the carriage of mail is considerably reduced today. Julian Stray’s talk touches on what went wrong, what changed, and why.

The talk is based on extensive primary research completed for the upcoming joint BPMA/Shire publication Mail Trains.

Download or subscribe to the BPMA podcast by visiting our website or through iTunes.

Visit our website to view a selection of items from our collection on the theme of Mail by Rail.

Great Train Robbery: opening files among the records of the Post Office Investigation Department

2013 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Train Robbery. Around 3am on Thursday 8th August 1963 just under £2.6 million was stolen from a Travelling Post Office (TPO) en route from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston. The attack on the train stunned the nation because of the enormous amount of money stolen and the highly organised style of the robbery. The event has proved to have enduring public appeal via books and films as well as continued fascination with the robbers themselves.

A Travelling Post Office, 1958 (POST 118/5269)

A Travelling Post Office, 1958 (POST 118/5269)

At the start of 2011 I discovered that some entire files related to the robbery within POST 120 (the section of records in the Royal Mail Archive for the Post Office Investigation Department) had continued closure date stickers on them (50 years post the date of the last document in the file, so from 2013 to around 2020). The precise reasons for closure proved difficult to ascertain. I felt it was important that as interest increases in the run up to the anniversary we were clear about what was and what wasn’t open.

The first thing we did is collect up all the relevant files and with my colleague Helen Dafter I started going through them noting down any personal details that might fall foul of data protection legislation. We also asked for assistance, liaising with The National Archives (TNA). TNA recommended the preferred method of closure to be redaction, so removing names and details on a surrogate of the original document rather than closing whole files. Current Royal Mail Group Security staff came in to examine the files and we consulted with Scotland Yard.

Second page of a confidential list of 28 suspects given to the Post Office Investigation Branch by the police. Note ’27’ and ‘28’ (‘Two Post Office men – not named’) and the handwritten addition of ‘Ronald Arthur Biggs’. (POST 120/95)

Second page of a confidential list of 28 suspects given to the Post Office Investigation Branch by the police. Note ’27’ and ‘28’ (‘Two Post Office men – not named’) and the handwritten addition of ‘Ronald Arthur Biggs’. (POST 120/95)

In the end we decided that very little justified continued closure since many of the people involved are now dead. Data protection, not disclosing information that would cause individuals distress if it were revealed, after all only applies to the living.

What the files reveal is the story of the Post Office Investigation Branch’s (IB) investigation and how significant this was to tracking down the culprits. They also shine light on an issue mentioned by Postmaster General Reginald Bevins immediately after the event, that there might have been an ‘insider’ at the GPO providing information to the robbers. The IB carried out observations of suspected individuals for years following the crime but no evidence of involvement was found.

First page of a report into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’ who may have assisted the criminals (from POST 120/128). None of the suspects were found to have any connection with the robbery.

First page of a report into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’ who may have assisted the criminals (from POST 120/128). None of the suspects were found to have any connection with the robbery.

Over 2011 interest in the material has continued to grow with Duncan Campbell Smith including a chapter on the robbery in his Masters of the Post and the historian Andrew Cook carrying out research for a proposed book in 2013. Researchers from BBC Radio 4’s The Peoples Post have consulted the files and Lion TV have made a documentary for Channel 4, which airs tonight.

– Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives and Records Management

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.

Great British Railway Journeys

Railways have been used to deliver mail since the early 19th Century – almost as long as they have been in existence. Our collection contains a lot of interesting material on this topic, but it is the Post Office Underground Railway (aka Mail Rail) which people find most fascinating. This driverless railway was built by the Post Office in the early 20th Century. From its opening in 1927 until it closed in 2003 it carried mail under the streets of London – more than six million bags of letters a year.

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway, 1935 (POST 118/381)

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway, 1935 (POST 118/381)

This Friday’s episode of Great British Railway Journeys will take a look at Mail Rail, with host Michael Portillo being given the rare opportunity to take a ride on the service. The Railway’s primary purpose was to carry bags of letters and parcels, but a special carriage was built by Post Office engineers for use by VIPs. The programme will also include an interview with our Curator Chris Taft, an expert on Mail Rail and its history.

Mail Rail removal from Mount Pleasant, May 2011

Mail Rail removal from Mount Pleasant, May 2011

Here at the BPMA our curatorial team are working, with the support of Royal Mail, to preserve the story of Mail Rail through collecting, conserving and making accessible objects and records relating to its history. A project is underway to conserve three Mail Rail trains, with special Mail Rail events taking place later this year (keep checking this blog for further information on these). You can see images of the retrieval of three Mail Rail cars from underground at Mount Pleasant sorting office on our Flickr account.

Great British Railway Journeys is broadcast on BBC-2 at 6.30pm on weekdays. The episode featuring Mail Rail airs on Friday 6th January 2012 and will be available on BBC iPlayer thereafter.