Monday, 19 February 2018

Postal Museum & Mail Rail

 15-20 Phoenix Place,
London WC1X 0DA

Thursday February 15 2018

On reflection half-term may not have been the best time to visit such a new, popular and very child centred museum  but we did have fun.

I had expected a somewhat tedious display of endless cabinets of ‘special stamps’ or maybe a serried rank of conserved pillar boxes, rather as we had seen them when they (the pillar boxes) were on holiday at Bruce Castle  while this building was being converted and expanded. . But the designers have come up with an attraction that offers information in a very accessible way – plenty of interaction for younger visitors and bright legible information boards, so none of that grovelling to read tiny captions. It is very clear why they have chosen the exhibits they have and like many museums nowadays have also focused in on the ‘individual’ stories of key personnel.

Not that historical context is forgotten – there is a well-illustrated electronic time line (except it’s more like a flip book) with all the key dates from Henry VIII decreeing that towns should have three horses available to convey the royal letters. It would take Charles II to ‘allow’ the public to share his mail coaches and deliveries. Without quite being the ‘Wild West’ the exhibition makes clear that transporting the mail whether by road, sea or later by rail was a dangerous pursuit and the weapons for defending the mail deliveries are all on display. Pirates were not unknown and in 1793 the ‘Antelope’ was attacked. Did you know there were post officials aboard the ‘Titanic’ who vainly tried to save the bags from the incoming waters?

Most extraordinary was the well documented occasion when an escaped circus lioness attacked the Exeter mail coach. The horse Pomegranate was hurt but fortunately no-one else was harmed – the lion recaptured, and the horse once restored was looked after by the circus proprietor and the mail of course remained intact. In 1963 (well within the living memory of today’s three visitors) was the daring but more violent great Train Robbery when it was perfectly clear the criminals knew which train and carriages to target and when to do it.

But back to the time-line – red had by now become the accepted colour scheme (not a Pantone shade I have just discovered) and can be seen in several models of post and pillar boxes (one free standing the other attached to a post or in a wall), the uniforms that were introduced at an early stage for the mail coachmen and the vehicles themselves which are dotted, but in a chronological order    throughout the museum.
Some richer merchants and business had also introduced private mail services but the uniform practice was for the post men to collect the fee at the point of delivery – and this was time consuming. It took Rowland Hill to introduce a payment at the point of postage, verified by a ‘stamp’ to revolutionise and speed up the system, and once the Penny Post came in there was no looking back. By 1850 the service was dealing with 347 million letters per year. (This museum is about the Post and not about stationery but I couldn’t help thinking that this would have been a good time to be in the paper and envelope trade…) The main means of local delivery was by foot or later by bicycle – Jo was entranced with an ‘experimental’ vehicle introduced in the Horsham area: a kind of penny farthing with stabilisers which allowed the postmen to carry letters and parcels in the robust baskets nicknamed the ‘hen and chicks.’   Often the innovator, the Post Office bought the first van in 1904.

A rather lovely classic motor cycle reminds us that Royal Mail took on both telegrams and telegraphing (very important during the wars) and telephones as early as 1912. So the phone boxes were red too.  The ones on show here have recorded voices recalling some war-time memories, and as we nostalgically pressed Button A (to get through) and then Button B (to get the change) we remarked that the phone booth did not smell of pee…The importance of mail to communicate between home and the various fronts is well illustrated with the rather interesting anecdote of a German soldier who wrote to the widow of the English man who had just fallen at his feet – he found a letter in the pocket – and there are other examples.  The postmen had their own 'pals' regiment.
Called the Post Office Rifles. The story of the VC winner is there too. In 1914 the Post Office was the largest employer in the country so when the men enlisted it was an opportunity for women to take over.

As someone who worked five Christmas shifts in the NW11 sorting office I loved every minute of it; the smell of wet sacking, the special knot for the piles of letters and cards (this was before the ubiquitous and altogether less reliable elastic band), the upside down card alerting you to a parcel or RD special, and trudging the streets before it even got light.

During the Second World War the risks were greater with bombs disrupting deliveries – but never for long after all they were dealing with 4 million pieces of post per week, and communication from prisoners of war went ‘free’. Although the solitariness of the distinct delivery ‘walks’ tends to attract loners the Post Office had a strong Union ethic. In 1933 they took on their first PR appointment and while the aptly-named  Stephen Tallents did not brand the Post Office quite as strongly as Johnson and Pick were doing for London Transport he still brought a wealth of ideas to promote the GPO, as it was known then. Key amongst them was Philip Grierson, the documentary film maker to set up the GPO Film Unit and sure enough you can sit down and watch some of its productions, including ‘Night Mail’ (admittedly a rather grainy print) which counted WH Auden and Benjamin Britten as co creatives on this magic account of how the mail is sorted aboard the train as it speeds overnight to Scotland. (Little did we know that half an hour later we would be doing it ourselves). All the charming posters are displayed and you can even browse the (typically parochial) in-house magazine with its small ads for strong boots and help for ‘itchy toes’. Tallents also introduced a gym at Mount Pleasant.

The post-war period looks at the further significant modernisations – mechanical sorting came in during the Sixties and the first post codes were trialled in Norwich in 1959 – who would have guessed that they would become so useful for satnavs and other forms of web-based route finding? I would have liked more on post codes and though one of the interactives offered it as a possibility for some reason this of all ‘buttons’ would not respond on the screen. There were generous supplies of child sized postal uniforms, several opportunities to ‘write notes’ and post them – very popular was the overhead zooming pneumatic tubes, which while novel were not really a Post Office thing; you could also listen and decode a Morse message and insert your ‘selfie‘ (with added features from an attractive range of crowns, moustaches and ears) onto a stamp design of your choice. Rather like Postman Pat you can choose your route, with or without good deeds en route,  to collect mail and still be in time for the right train.  

‘Novelty stamps, otherwise known to collectors as ‘First day Covers’, were very big through the second half of the 20th century but the Museum restricts its doubtless vast collection to displaying some key items – the Machin model which served for the Queen’s head which is still on stamps, the talents of David Gentlemen  David Gentlemen our most prolific designer of stamps and some children’s favourites featuring Beatrix Potter characters and Paddington Bear.

This kind of brought us to the end of the substantive collection, though one room is set aside for special exhibitions and the current one was about ‘keeping in touch’ stressing the importance of mail for separated families. The examples here included a young girl trafficked for sex and eventually given asylum in the UK, a divorced father not able to see his children but who wrote regularly on the most beautifully hand drawn envelopes, a Chilean political prisoner eventually freed by the pressure of a letter campaign and a Caribbean nurse who came over in the early Sixties to work in the NHS. All of the recipients of the letters treasured the regular deliveries of ‘news from home or distant family’ and we often forget in this day of instant texting/phoning and email how precious a proper letter can still be. The Post Office must know this more than anyone as with the exception of birthdays most post today consists of bills or advertising and is very impersonal. The decline of the letter post is not really alluded to.

So now it was across the road for our appointment with ‘Rail Mail’, the newly restored stretch of the 23 miles (37 kms) of underground railway which was built in the early 20th Century to collect and distribute mail bags between the mainline railway stations, the central sorting office at Mount Pleasant and other points. The line was constructed to be a faster alternative to road transport, and it seems a little odd given today’s volume of traffic around Mount Pleasant that it was decided in 2003 that this argument no longer applied…

This trip may not be for claustrophobes – the tunnels are narrower than the ‘proper’ underground, just 2 metres in diameter, and the trains are small because they were originally only meant to carry mailbags, not passengers or drivers. These days, your train has a driver and the carriages have seats and (for obvious safety reasons) Perspex roofs, but it is undeniably cramped and at times noisy and dark. However, it is well worth the discomfort. Your ride lasts 15 minutes and takes you on a loop, stopping at various stages for a recorded explanation by Ray Middlesworth, an engineer on the system up to its closure who has obviously been very involved in the restoration.  Stops include two stations (it would have been nice to be told exactly where we were at these points) where the walls are used for computer-generated animations of how the system worked and how three sample letters would have reached their destinations; you also get a glimpse down into a lower tunnel which serves as a rather sad graveyard for redundant rolling stock.

After your ride, there is a further museum display, logically enough largely concerned with the workings of the system you have just ridden. It ran 22 hours a day to a very tight schedule: Post Office workers would typically only have one minute to load and unload a train. As with the big museum across the road, there are good interactive displays giving you the chance to wrangle the complexities of the switching system etc. The museum also explores the wider theme of postal rail networks, with a  display of a 19th Century pneumatic railway (think an enlarged version of those note-and-change delivery tubes mentioned above) including a panel commemorating an intrepid Victorian lady who rode the tube for its full length in her crinoline! There is also a display commemorating the full-blown mail trains as seen in  'Night Mail'  with an explanation of the systems for picking up and dropping leather bags of mail at speed, and a chance to practice sorting mail in a simulated wobbly rail carriage.

You emerge into daylight and observe there are real live postmen criss crossing the courtyard of Mount Pleasant and small red postal vans going off in various directions doing what they have done for the last 500 years – delivering mail. We only tend to notice this service when it fails and we can grumble about ‘delayed in the post’ but need to remember that in spite of much mechanisation this is still a service delivered by people doing a combination of physical labour in all weathers, a decoding job and public relations when needed. This splendid museum encapsulates that history and continuing service wonderfully. 

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