Going Postal

I’ve written about abandoned Underground stations before, and even entire abandoned lines beneath London’s streets. This one, however, is a real one-off. Whereas most of the abandoned spurs of the Tube were closed due to lack of passengers, this one never had any passengers at all. Despite this, it lasted seventy-six years. It ran through Central London and had eight stations. And it was never actually owned by London Transport.

Give up? Actually, some of you have probably already worked it out, and may allow yourselves a smug grin. I’m talking about the London Post Office Railway.

The London Post Office Railway was opened in 1927. It carried letters and parcels from Paddington in the west to the Whitechapel in the east. Its “stations” were sorting offices. At its peak, it was carrying over four million letters per day. Its trains were automatically controlled and electrically driven, operating for nineteen hours a day and 256 days a year.

It wasn’t the first such railway – it wasn’t even the first such railway in London, in fact. Inspiration came from the Chicago Tunnel Company’s freight-only subway system. Like the Post Office Railway, this was narrow gauge and electrically powered, opening in 1906. Yet while this was the most obvious source of inspiration, even this was a whippersnapper compared to London’s first post office Tubes.

The very, very first experimental postal railway was a short line in Battersea, built in 1861 and shown right. It was air-powered, built by the Pneumatic Despatch Company. The experiment was a success. The Post Office, fearing competition from the increasingly popular telegraph service, expressed a strong interest, as did the London and North Western Railway. The first “proper” line was opened on 15th January 1863 – just five days after the Metropolitan Railway, the first underground passenger line – and ran from the LNWR’s Euston Station to the North West District Sorting Office. This was later extended to Holborn and later Cheapside and Gresham Street. The company had grand plans for an entire network of lines under the city, but as it happened, despite very favourable rates, the Post Office weren’t all that interested after all. The system went bust in 1875. At least one of the knee-high carriages survives in the Museum of London’s collection and the tunnels are now used for cables.

I’ve mentioned before that gridlock in the city is nothing new, and in the early years of the twentieth century this prompted the Post Office to take another look at the underground railway idea. Approval was given in 1911, construction began in 1915 and the system was open in time for Christmas 1927. As well as Paddington and the Eastern District Post Office in Whitechapel, the six-and-a-half-mile-long line called at six intermediate stops, including Liverpool Street station and the main sorting office at Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell. The trains, if you can call them that, were stored and maintained at a depot under Mount Pleasant.

[PARENTHESIS: Mount Pleasant actually sounds like a rather pleasant place. In reality, the name derives from heaps of industrial waste on the banks of the River Fleet. This is the famous British sense of irony at work]

1930-built train, preserved at the National Railway Museum in York.

The railway, as I said earlier, was a great success, reaching its peak after the Second World War. Extensions serving Euston, King’s Cross, Camden, Islington, Waterloo, Southwark, Cannon Street and latterly Willesden were proposed but never constructed. It kept going through the War, despite one direct hit at Mount Pleasant in 1943, and like so many other Tube lines, served as an air raid shelter (albeit one used only by staff).

"What'll I tell the wife, Jess?"

The post office, ‘lack the day, isn’t exactly the most hip and with-it service, and with the coming of the Information Age had to make a few changes. This included cutting many post offices, several sorting offices and Postman Pat. I’m not joking about that last one, by the way. The Post Office used to sponsor Postman Pat, it doesn’t any more and in the most recent series he no longer works for them. As you can see in the above picture, he is a victim of red tape.

As a result of the cuts, by the late 1990s there were only four stations left on the Post Office Railway. The Post Office dynamically responded by renaming the system “Mail Rail” in 1997. In 2003, when it was decided that the Paddington sorting office would be moved, Royal Mail threw up their hands and decided to close the damn railway once and for all. There were protests of mismanagement from the Communication Workers’ Union, who argued that the line wouldn’t be so expensive to run if it was properly maintained and used to its full capacity. Nevertheless, it was decided that the post would go by road, which was cheaper. So on 30th May, it rattled off into the history books. It may be relevant to note that this was also the year when post trains disappeared from national rail.

Although the line was never as well-known or glamorous as its passenger-carrying chums, it’s had a couple of moments in the sun. In 1997, it was used in the BBC fantasy series Neverwhere (along with various other nooks and crannies of subterrainean London) and in 1990 it posed as a Vatican line in the flop movie Hudson Hawk, making Bruce Willis one of its fewpassengers. I’m told the latter film is alright if you suspend your disbelief, lower your expectations and have a sense of humour about it – beer helps.

A few of the trains have been preserved. The tunnels have been mothballed. Every so often someone suggests a use for them – while they’re very unlikely to ever see use for post again, they could conceivably be used for goods traffic. One idea is that they might be used for valuable or perishable items. I’ve even heard it suggested that it might be used for passengers, but this idea is frankly barmy – the trains were barely wide enough for one person, let alone enough for the line to pay its way, and rebuilding seems a little pointless given the extent of work needed. I fear that the London Post Office Railway is destined to remain one of those abandoned curiosities beneath our feet. Still, we can hope…

Further Reading

http://www.mailrail.co.uk/ – Excellent fan site from which I got much of the information in this entry. Not updated since the line’s closure, sadly, but otherwise very comprehensive.

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5 Comments

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, East End and Docklands, Film and TV, Geography, History, Islington, Kings Cross, London, london bridge, London Underground, London's Termini, Politics, The City, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark, West End

5 responses to “Going Postal

  1. Jim Birch

    “In 1912, workmen digging a tunnel for New York’s new subway discovered a carpeted room decorated with oil paintings, chandeliers, and a grandfather clock.

    According to Tracy Fitzpatrick in Art and the Subway, it was the waiting room for an early prototype subway built in 1870 — a block-long tunnel in which a single car was pushed by a giant fan. Funding had failed, and the project had been forgotten.”

    http://www.futilitycloset.com/2009/03/07/a-long-wait/

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