Tag Archives: restoration

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

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.

Restoration of a story…

Julian Stray, Assistant Curator, details the process followed by the BPMA Curatorial Department during the restoration of a blue airmail pillar box from the 1930s

Leaflet advertising the airmail service

Leaflet advertising the airmail service

Special post boxes for the collection of airmail were on British streets for less than nine years yet they continue to fascinate. Originally intended to be placed in prominent positions in London, by 1936, there were 139 in London and 174 in the provinces. Much of the interest in these boxes comes from the colour that they were painted: blue. This advertised the special facilities that they offered such as exceptionally late clearances.

For this reason and due to the general condition of the BPMA’s airmail pillar box (whilst on loan for an extended period it had been exhibited outdoors which caused its condition to deteriorate; some parts of the box were also missing and the box had been re-painted the incorrect colour a number of times) the exceptional decision was made by BPMA to restore it to an appearance contemporary to when it was in use during the mid 1930s. This would enable us to restore not only the pillar box, but also the story…

Airmail box being collected from its outdoor display area prior to restoration

Airmail box being collected from its outdoor display area prior to restoration

The first step was to assess the extent of the damage to the box and undertake preliminary work. WD40 and Duck Oil were used to loosen bolts, screws and hinges in order to remove them. Wherever possible these were retained for later re-use.

The box was then stripped and shot blasted with aluminium oxide. Care was taken to preserve the sharpness of such features as the maker’s name (Carron), and the George V crown and cipher. Nitromors was used when necessary on some brass work.

The base of the box was bolted to a specially constructed steel pallet. This enables future safe storage, transport and exhibition and is a preferred option frequently employed by BPMA with other boxes in the collection.

Stripped, shot-blasted box painted with red oxide primer

Stripped, shot-blasted box painted with red oxide primer

Some original blow holes from the day the box was cast were smoothed out with filler, replicating a practice originally carried out in the foundry. The box was then carefully rubbed down to enable red-oxide primer to be applied. The box and cap were painted separately.

Filler applied to some parts of the pillar box where blow holes were most prevalent

Filler applied to some parts of the pillar box where blow holes were most prevalent

Both the oval, enamel airmail sign on the cap, and the enamel ‘flag’ beneath the aperture were in quite poor condition. It was decided to conserve these in as original condition as possible and commission replicas to be fixed to the restored box. Restoration of the signs would have removed much that is original, and it is highly unlikely that more than a handful of original examples survive today. Such a curatorial decision permits the original signs to be available for research in their original and preserved condition.

Oval sign in original poor and damaged condition prior to return to the BPMA

Oval sign in original poor and damaged condition prior to return to the BPMA

Stocksigns, based at Redhill were engaged for the work of replicating the airmail signs. Founded in 1955, the company had purchased Burnham Signs (founded 1877) who, in turn, incorporated Garnier & Co. (established 1891). Garnier had been the original supplier of the small airmail signs to the Post Office in the 1930s. This commissioning was an attempt to preserve some continuity of provenance in the restoration.

The original mounting frame for the sign on the cap was also retained to preserve its provenance and act as a record of the colouration of the box for much of its recent time while on display. A contemporary and identical duplicate was located within the BPMA collection. This had been painted red for its working life. This was stripped of paint prior to application of primer.

Determining the original colour of the pillar box proved a challenge. Files relating to the commission and installation of the boxes in the 1930s survive within the Royal Mail archive maintained by BPMA. From these it was established that the blue colour was based on the airmail etiquettes (labels) attached to airmail correspondence at the time. The Technical Advisory Department of PPG Architectural Coatings worked with the BPMA on analysing the colour of a contemporary label. Additionally, paint flecks had been retrieved from the original layer applied to the pillar box and these were also analysed.

Flecks retrieved from the first layer of paint applied to the pillar box

Flecks retrieved from the first layer of paint applied to the pillar box

Thankfully, results from both proved identical and a correct shade was established from the Johnstones Natural Colour System. This was S-3050-R90B – a bright and vibrant blue that must have proved extremely eye catching when the boxes were first installed on British streets. It is interesting to note that subsequent re-paints of the airmail boxes in the 1930s frequently employed locally sourced paint and variations in shade would have occurred.

Jonhstones Professional undercoat and Professional gloss paint in the established shade were applied using good quality ½” and 2” brushes. This work was spread over five days. This permitted fine work to be painted, followed by large areas. A 36 hour hardening period was timetabled midway prior to similar applications of top coat. The cap and frame were painted separately and attached to the box once dry.

Julian Stray applies blue undercoat to some of the ‘fine work’ of the prepared pillar box

Julian Stray applies blue undercoat to some of the ‘fine work’ of the prepared pillar box

The base of the box was painted with standard Post Office letter box gloss black: 222T9000, Cromadex, whilst the interior of the pillar box was painted with the correct lead colour: S-7500-N Johnstones durable matt. The steel pallet to which the box was bolted was also similarly painted for a muted appearance during display.

Black paint is applied to the base

Black paint is applied to the base

Contemporary internal cage and chute were sourced from Romec, the engineering wing of Royal Mail. Bolts for attaching the cap and a new Chubbs lock and four keys were supplied by Goldcrest Extol Ltd. Where possible, original screws and bolts were retained and re-used, however many of these proved to be already damaged or wanting. Correct brass replacements were obtained from Clerkenwell Screws Ltd.

The box is starting to come together

The box is starting to come together

The Royal Mail archive also proved indispensible when researching the collection plate to be replicated and installed in the exhibited box. Research revealed that most current thinking revolving around two enamel collection plates being installed in a dual or double plate holder was incorrect. During the time that these boxes were in use for airmails, Post Office officials understood that such an experimental service would entail frequent alteration of displayed collection times – not least because flight times altered between summer and winter.

Because of the high cost of production of enamel collection plates, it had been decided at the time that simple card plates would be printed by the National Savings Bank. These were eventually produced in a large, landscape format that included detail on both postage and air fees on the right, and times of collection on the left. These notices (P.A.4) were protected from the weather by a thin sheet of celluloid. To reduce the risk of theft or defacement, a thin, central crosspiece was included in a new design of collection plate holder.

An original proof for the collection plate produced for the box installed outside London G.P.O. EC.1 was found in the archive; this was chosen for the reproduced design. (Some readers will recall this site as being outside the original National Postal Museum in King Edward Street, London.) A good match for the off-white card of the original collection plates was sourced from The Paper Mill Shop. This was printed in the correct blue print that again reflected the adoption of the colour blue for much of the advertising material associated with the airmail service in the 1930s.

Collection plate

Collection plate

About this time, problems arose with the production of the replica enamel signs. Stocksigns admitted defeat with the curved sign as the necessary skills for producing such times has sadly declined in recent times. Difficulty was also experienced by their graphics team tasked with replicating the font used on the original design. This was based on Trajan Roman characters. Additional photographs and advice was provided by BPMA and a good match was subsequently produced. Text was in bright white and an accurate colour match for the base colour of the sign was found within the Stocksigns portfolio: Pantone Blue 072C (reference 93.SC.451/263B). This is somewhat darker than the paint applied to the pillar box but remains correct for the time.

An alternative approach was taken with the curved enamel notice. Despite some deterioration having occurred to the notice over the years, this was by no means as extensive as that which had occurred to the oval sign above the box. Therefore the decision was taken to bring forward the conservation of the original curved sign. It would be protected from future decay and refitted to the box. It was retrieved and a specialised enamels conservator from Plowden & Smith Ltd. was engaged to carry out conservation work. Friable corrosion was removed with a scalpel, glass brush and fine garriflex. Curator antiquing liquid was applied to even out the colour and a layer of microcrystalline wax was applied.

SP171 Airmail 'flag'. Images show condition prior to, the second following, conservation work.

SP171 Airmail 'flag'. Images show condition prior to, the second following, conservation work. (Images: Plowden and Smith Limited)

Cleaned and original escutcheon and collection tablet holders were refitted together with a contemporary enamel tablet from the BPMA collection. Hinges were oiled and the cap re-fitted. Finally, the completed oval sign and its newly painted frame were bolted to the cap. This completed our restoration of the airmail pillar box. It will be on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London until 25th July as part of the exhibition Empire Mail: George V and the GPO.

Box on display at Guildhall Art Gallery

Box on display at Guildhall Art Gallery

In addition to those companies mentioned above, BPMA were also pleased to receive advice and assistance from Brian Nicks, Arthur Reeder, Nigel Slater and Robert Waite.