Going to the postbox used to be an everyday thing. The Postal Museum and Mail Rail explores the history of the very first social network. Back when I was a BBC News producer, I was talking to the Post Office about a story and they asked if we wanted to film their underground train. That was the first time that I had heard about Mail Rail. Now everyone can visit and ride the Mail Rail at the Postal Museum.
Visiting the Postal Museum
Once upon a time if you wanted to send a letter you needed your own messenger. The first ever social network came about with the creation of a national postal delivery network that anyone could use for a small fee. The Postal Museum traces the origins of the system from an efficient way to organise Henry VIII army up today’s daily deliveries.
My Postal Museum favourite things
Letter boxes in the UK are red everybody knows that. Turns out that in the early days any old colour was OK until the distinctive red became the norm. I rather like this fine green and gold Victorian pillar box.
In 1821 the first adhesive stamps were used on letters called the Penny Black. In my stamp collecting days I was mad keen to see a Penny Black but never did, so was trilled to see a whole sheet of them at the Postal Museum (they don’t photograph well as they are behind an extremely thick sheet of protective glass). Also on show is the plaster cast of the Queen’s head used on British stamps. It is one of the most reproduced art works in the world and was made by Arnold Machin. The first stamps to use it went on sale in 1967.
When I was a child red telephone boxes could be found everywhere. How to use a telephone box in case of emergency was an important life skill. My class at Primary School has a special trip to the Phone Box outside the Village Hall to learn how to use Button A and Button B. Within a few years decimal currency and new machines made the lessons out of date. Still it makes me feel very old to have a part of my childhood in a museum.
What is Mail Rail?
What is Mail Rail, I hear you cry. Mail Rail is a six and a half mile long underground railway line that was dedicated to transporting letters and parcels across London. Four million letters used to be carried on the trains every single day, 220 staff worked for twenty two hours a day shuttling the mail around the six sorting offices on the network. The trains were tiny and not designed to carry people, all those letters and parcels hurtled along the dark tunnels on driverless trains.
Mail Rail history
Back in 1911 London traffic was so bad that severe delays were being caused to the postal system. Plans for an underground railway were drawn up. In the 1920’s Mail Rail finally opened running from Whitechapel in the East to Paddington in the West. Right in middle was the Mount Pleasant sorting office, one of the biggest mail sorting offices in the world. Mount Pleasant is where you will find the Postal Museum and Mail Rail today. Driverless trains ran underneath London delivering the post without delays until 2003 when Mail Rail shut. The stations and tunnels lay quiet and unused until 2017 when part of the network was reopened as part of the Postal Museum.
Riding the Mail Rail
Two trains have been adapted to carry people. They are very narrow and quite low (I’m six foot and sitting up straight was not possible). No big bag or coats are allowed on the train, you can stow them in secure lockers on the platform before you board. Once you are seated a glass roof is securely fastened and you set off on your 20 minute journey. Roy Middlesworth , who used to work on the Mail Rail is your guide. At you stop at old stations to watch a film projected onto the station walls. Tickets for the Mail Rail are included in entry to the Postal Museum.
Once your ride is over you can explore interactive displays with some of the very early trains, the history of the route and even the staff lockers. My favourite part was a sorting carriage which you can board and try to sort the letters as the carriage sways from side to side.
If you are over 12 and have a fondness for high viz jackets and hard hats then a walking tour in the Mail Rail Tunnels is for you. An expert guide will lead you down the tunnels and tell the stories of both the network and the people who worked on it. Walks only take place on certain days, check out the Postal Museum website for dates.
Wish you were here: 151 Years of the British Postcard 20 May2021 – 2 January 2022
Do you send postcards when you are on holiday? I used to spend a whole half day of any one holiday writing postcards to friends and family back home. Now I post pictures on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This special exhibition takes a look at the history of the postcard 151 years old this year, I wonder if it will last another 151?
Visiting the Postal Museum and Mail Rail
- Postal Museum and Mail Rail, Phoenix Place, Clerkenwell, London WC1X 0DA
- Thursday -Sunday 10am – 5pm (6.30pm on Thursday)
- Postal Museum and Mail Rail, Adults £16, children £9
- Tunnel Walk £55
- Have your ticket stamped to make it an annual pass, you only get one ride on the Mail Rail, extra rides can be paid for.
- Members of the Postal Museum can go as often as they want and three rides on the Mail Rail
Whilst you are visiting the Postal Museum how about visiting either the Charles Dickens Museum, The Foundling Museum, the Museum of the Order of St John or London’s Charterhouse which are all within walking distance.