Odd as it may seem now, London once had a separate transport network solely for its post. The Mail Rail ran for 75 years, covering eight stations and 6.5 miles (Whitechapel to Paddington). At one time the system was responsible for transporting over 4 million letters a day. However, the service was suspended in 2003.
Little was heard about the subterranean network after that, until, in 2017, the new Postal Museum announced that the Mail Rail was to be its number one attraction. Better yet, instead of transporting mail, the reopened service would instead transport passengers – on a 15 minute “immersive underground exploration”.
Ok, before you start getting excited, or start making plans to use the service to get to work, we should add that the Mail Rail is currently closed (along with the museum) due to the Coronavirus Crisis – so it looks like you will need to fix that puncture on your bike after all.
Since the lockdown began, in common with countless museums up and down the land, the Postal Museum has shifted to delivering online content. As part of that move, the museum have launched a thrilling virtual tour of the Mail Rail.
Mail Rail From Home gives history lovers a chance to experience the Mail Rail service in the comfort of your own living room. The ride is narrated by a former Mail Rail employee: engineer Ray Middlesworth, and the 10 minute ride offers a glimpse of London’s other tube service.
Middlesworth makes an excellent tour guide, offering ‘passengers’ a series of tasty morsels of information about the service. We learn about some of the most significant events in the Mail Rail’s history, from the service being bombed during the Second World War to the facilities appearance as a background in the Bruce Willis film Hudson Hawk!
The film finishes with a series of clips showing the path of individual letters through the postal system. We are introduced to three characters: the Colonel – who is writing to the poet W H Auden, Kathleen – who is keeping in touch with her ‘sweetheart’ in the Navy, and Mary – who has written to Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II). The film shows the journey that each letter makes to get to its final destination.
We see the workers in the sorting office sorting the letters out into specific destinations. We see the mail workers loading mail onto the Mail Rail system. Each worker had less than sixty seconds to unload and reload the mail carriages!
In a time when the efforts of our key workers are being highlighted more and more, the film gives us a fascinating insight into the incredible efforts that the Postal Service go to in order to ensure that the nation stays connected. A key service indeed.
You can access the Mail Rail here.
For information on other ways to access London’s museums and galleries in lockdown, please click here.