Tag Archives: underground railway

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.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition

Jonathan Bradley previews his exhibition Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition, which opens at the Royal Mail Archive today.

For three quarters of a century, one of the most successful underground railways in the world transported mail under the busy streets of London until its service was suspended in 2003. It remained largely unknown to the general populous aboveground.

Waiting in the dark - 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Waiting in the dark – 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

The Post Office Railway (AKA Mail Rail) is a unique and remarkable infrastructure, being the only dedicated driverless mail haul railway in the world. It came to my attention some two years ago while surveying for another framework environment for the ongoing People : Space work. People : Space is a human spatial study and finding appropriate environments to deliver an artistic treatment to is not an easy task. However, the Mail Rail had the necessary attributes and photography began in 2011.

Descent to the Mount - Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Descent to the Mount – Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

People : Space encourages viewers to look at spaces and areas that are or can be occupied by humans and visa-versa. Photographically capturing space is very challenging and this project often projects vistas that indirectly depict this. Frequently, the humanity element can be suggested. Within each of these pictures lies a distinct, tangible thread of humanity and though the photographs present and record a view of the railway in a quiescent state, the subtle compositional detail of the images lean the eye to regard these degrees of freedom – spaces that contained workers, movement and sound.

Relay board - 'Blue' relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Relay board – ‘Blue’ relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Consider the sound of footsteps, the noise of trains, mail being unloaded off conveyors and cherrys being clicked. Think of the people who walked the platforms, who loaded mailbags, the engineers and fitters tirelessly working in the car shed above Mount Pleasant Station, the section controllers shuffling levers and moving trains and the line crews who worked during maintenance hours who serviced the railway that is now dormant and silent. Contrast what was before with what you see today and consider these People and their Spaces.

Unable to Accept - Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Unable to Accept – Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is on display in The Royal Mail Archive, London. Entry is free.

A selection of exclusive prints signed by Jonathan Bradley are available from the BPMA online shop.

150 years of London Underground

It’s the oldest and one of the most famous railway networks in the world, now the London Underground celebrates its 150th birthday on Royal Mail’s first stamp issue of 2013.

Issued today, the London Underground issue features ten stamps; six charting the history of the network, alongside a miniature sheet of four long-format stamps focusing on the design heritage of its iconic posters.

London Underground stamp issue.

London Underground stamp issue.

London Underground miniature sheet.

London Underground miniature sheet.

The issue date coincides with the anniversary of the opening of what was to become London’s Underground: the steam-driven Metropolitan Railway running between Paddington Station and Farringdon Street via Kings Cross. On 9 January 1863 the Metropolitan Railway opened, passengers were able to use the service from 10 January 1863 and within months 26,000 people were using it every day.

Fittingly it’s the Metropolitan Railway that features on the first of two 2nd class stamps, while the other shows railway workers, or Navvies as they were known commonly, excavating a tube tunnel.

London Underground, 2nd Class stamps – 1863 - Metropolitan Railway Opens. A contemporary lithograph of a steam locomotive on the Metropolitan line near Paddington Station. 2nd Class – 1898 - Tunnelling Below London Streets. Railway construction workers, known as Navvies, shown excavating a ‘deep cut’ tube tunnel.

London Underground, 2nd Class stamps – 1863 – Metropolitan Railway Opens. A contemporary lithograph of a steam locomotive on the Metropolitan line near Paddington Station. 2nd Class – 1898 – Tunnelling Below London Streets. Railway construction workers, known as Navvies, shown excavating a ‘deep cut’ tube tunnel.

Edwardian commuters travelling in from the suburbs are depicted on one of the 1st class pair of stamps, while the other features the Piccadilly Line’s Boston Manor, an example of many art deco stations built in the 1920s and 30s.

London Underground, 1st Class stamps – 1911 – Commute from the Suburbs. A carriage of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen illustrated on their commute to work from the suburbs. 1st Class – 1934 – Boston Manor Art Deco Station. Suburban expansion of the Piccadilly Lines in the 1920s and 30s led to the construction of many iconic art deco stations.

London Underground, 1st Class stamps – 1911 – Commute from the Suburbs. A carriage of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen illustrated on their commute to work from the suburbs. 1st Class – 1934 – Boston Manor Art Deco Station. Suburban expansion of the Piccadilly Lines in the 1920s and 30s led to the construction of many iconic art deco stations.

Classic rolling stock travelling on the tube’s ‘deep cut’ lines in 1938 and Sir Norman Foster’s Canary Wharf Station make up the £1.28p pair.

London Underground, £1.28 stamps – 1938 - Classic Rolling Stock. The classic trains introduced on the tube’s deep cut lines in 1938 became a London icon. £1.28 – 1999 – Jubilee Line at Canary Wharf. Designed by Sir Norman Foster Canary Wharf Station is one of the most recent additions to the Underground network.

London Underground, £1.28 stamps – 1938 – Classic Rolling Stock. The classic trains introduced on the tube’s deep cut lines in 1938 became a London icon. £1.28 – 1999 – Jubilee Line at Canary Wharf. Designed by Sir Norman Foster Canary Wharf Station is one of the most recent additions to the Underground network.

Each of the stamps features a timeline across the lower quarter of the stamps using different livery colours taken from London Underground lines.

The miniature sheet features a total of 12 classic London Underground posters across four long-format (60mm x 30mm) stamps.

London Underground miniature sheet. 1st Class stamp – London Underground Posters – Golders Green, By Underground to fresh air and Summer sales. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: Golders Green (1908) by an unknown artist 1908; By Underground to fresh air (1915) by Maxwell Armfield; Summer Sales (1925) by Mary Koop.

London Underground miniature sheet. 1st Class stamp – London Underground Posters – Golders Green, By Underground to fresh air and Summer sales. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: Golders Green (1908) by an unknown artist 1908; By Underground to fresh air (1915) by Maxwell Armfield; Summer Sales (1925) by Mary Koop.

London Underground miniature sheet. 77p stamp – London Underground Posters –For the Zoo, Power and The seen. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: – For the Zoo (1921) by Charles Paine; Power (1931) by Edward McKnight-Kauffer and The seen (1948) by James Fitton.

London Underground miniature sheet. 77p stamp – London Underground Posters –For the Zoo, Power and The seen. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: – For the Zoo (1921) by Charles Paine; Power (1931) by Edward McKnight-Kauffer and The seen (1948) by James Fitton.

London Underground miniature sheet. 87p stamp – London Underground Posters – A train every 90 seconds, Thanks to the Underground and Cut travelling time. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: A train every 90 seconds (1937) by Abram Games; Thanks to the Underground (1935) by Zero (Hans Schleger) and Cut travelling time, Victoria Line (1969) by Tom Eckersley.

London Underground miniature sheet. 87p stamp – London Underground Posters – A train every 90 seconds, Thanks to the Underground and Cut travelling time. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: A train every 90 seconds (1937) by Abram Games; Thanks to the Underground (1935) by Zero (Hans Schleger) and Cut travelling time, Victoria Line (1969) by Tom Eckersley.

London Underground miniature sheet. £1.28 stamp – London Underground Posters – The London Transport Collection, London Zoo and The Tate Gallery by Tube. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: The London Transport Collection (1975) by Tom Eckersley; London Zoo (1976) by Abram Games and The Tate Gallery by Tube (1987) by David Booth (Fine White Line Design).

London Underground miniature sheet. £1.28 stamp – London Underground Posters – The London Transport Collection, London Zoo and The Tate Gallery by Tube. Reproductions of three classic London Underground Posters: The London Transport Collection (1975) by Tom Eckersley; London Zoo (1976) by Abram Games and The Tate Gallery by Tube (1987) by David Booth (Fine White Line Design).

Philip Parker, Royal Mail Stamps spokesperson, said:

The London Underground has a unique status as the oldest and one of the busiest underground railway networks in the world.

For this first stamp issue of 2013 we have tried to capture the incredible history behind ‘the Tube’, which for millions of people is an integral element of their daily lives and an iconic part of London’s identity.

Both London Underground and Royal Mail share a rich and extraordinary design heritage, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a dozen classic Underground posters, featuring several artists who also designed posters for the General Post Office (GPO).

Please pack parcels very carefully, a poster designed for the GPO by Tom Eckersley. Several of Eckersley’s posters appear on the London Underground miniature sheet.

Please pack parcels very carefully, a poster designed for the GPO by Tom Eckersley. Several of Eckersley’s posters appear on the London Underground miniature sheet.

You can see a selection of GPO posters in our online exhibition Designs on Delivery. The Design on Delivery exhibition will be seen at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon, from 19 March as part of the Paintings in Hospitals scheme.

Royal Mail stamps and stamp products are available at most Post Office branches, online at www.royalmail.com/underground and from Royal Mail Tallents House (tel. 08457 641 641), 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.

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

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.

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

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.