For the last two years, I have been fortunate to work on an exciting regeneration project located beneath the streets of London. This project will see the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) become the custodian of a section of the Post Office Underground Railway, more commonly known as the ‘Mail Rail’.
Following a successful HLF application, the project is gaining momentum, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to post a blog about it!
So, who are the BPMA? They are the leading resource for all aspects of British postal history. Caring for the visual, physical and written records of over 400 years of postal heritage, they are the custodian of the nationally significant collections of the Royal Mail Archive and the museum collection of the former National Postal Museum. The BPMA’s mission is to increase public access to these collections, making the story they tell of communication, industry and innovation available to everyone. The Mail Rail project forms part of a wider vision to relocate the archive, search, learning and staff facilities, along with a dedicated 500 sqm exhibition space under one single roof.
The Mail Rail is somewhat of an enigma. It is surrounded by an air of mystery and intrigue – not many knew it existed until the recent press coverage, and those that did were unaware of its true extent. As you can imagine access is now limited, with previous entrances either sealed up or built over. The remaining entry points have been secured, preventing any unlawful access and safeguarding the future of the system. This has made the Mail Rail even more appealing and a target for “urban explorers”, some of whom have gained access and have documented their visits.
As well as moving the mail around London, it has also been utilised as a storage facility for the National Portrait Gallery, and even a film set, making an appearance in the Bruce Willis flick “Hudson Hawk” (it portrayed a Postal Railway under the Vatican).
Part of the UK’s industrial heritage, the Mail Rail is well documented within the archive and museum collections. It is an integral part of the story of how the Post Office continuously explored pioneering ideas to speed mail delivery. With the arrival of the railways, cross London mail transportation became vital. Railways were heavily utilized for nationwide mail distribution, but the stations were not always in the same locations as the sorting offices. The Mail Rail was the missing piece. It provided a 24 hour, delay free link, transporting the mail between Paddington and Whitechapel for almost a century. The reliance on road vehicle distribution ultimately caused the demise of the Mail Rail. Post was no longer required at the stations, so the entire system was moth-balled in 2003.
It has remained this way since, with only a team of original engineers maintaining the system. The stations remain, and the tracks are still used (by London Underground, and more recently Crossrail). Some equipment and machinery has been removed, but the spaces left behind have remained largely untouched for over a decade.
The Mail Rail is not listed, but it is a heritage asset; it provides an insight into a unique system and its inner workings. The emphasis of our scheme is on preserving the industrial feel. We believe this can be achieved by maintaining a light touch, removing only redundant and dangerous services, whist ensuring that any new installations are reversible.
This proposal will provide public access to the Car Depot via the Workshop spaces at the street level, where a dedicated exhibition and events space will be located within the existing vaulted structure. From here visitors will also be able to board a train and ride the Mail Rail to the Mount Pleasant Platforms, where audio and visual interpretations will tell the story of the Mail Rail.
I will endeavour to post updates as we progress with the project; in the meantime check out the following for further Mail Rail information. Enjoy!