What I loved about my visit to the Postal Museum
The Postal Museum celebrates the history of the Royal Mail with a large collection of postboxes, stamps, letters and more. Their claim to fame is a unique visitor experience ride, called the Mail Rail, that runs underneath the city of London. Let me tell you what I loved about my visit to the postal museum, as well as a bit a bit of history about the museum.
I think I have to mention that I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about historic pillar and post boxes. I tend to go around photographing and tweeting historic pillar and post boxes and I get excited when I see a Victorian or Edwardian one. This hobby is a bit unusual but it is probably why I enjoyed my experience at the Postal Museum so much. It was a little bit of heaven for me!
History of the Museum
Like many other museums the Postal Museum has its origins in one person’s collection. Reginald M. Phillips (1888-1977) was a British businessman and philatelist (stamp collector) who donated his huge collection of stamps to the Royal Mail archives. Consequently Royal Mail opened The National Postal Museum in 1969 to display the stamps.
Over the years, they added more material including uniforms and postboxes. In 1998, the Royal Mail gave collection to a charitable trust and sold the building where the museum had been housed. The trust named themselves ‘The British Postal Museum and Archive’ and moved to Loughton in Essex.
In 2016 construction of a brand-new museum in Clerkenwell, London began. Developed around a stretch of Royal Mail’s disused underground railway, the museum created a unique visitor attraction. The new museum opened on 28 July 2017 as ‘The Postal Museum’ and has been hugely successful. Visitors had booked out all of the available slots for the Mail Rail when the museum first opened.
The Displays and Collection
The Postal Museum has over 60,000 items in its collection documenting 400 years of postal history. They have stamps, vehicles, letters, posters, clocks and telephone boxes. These are a couple highlights from the collection.
This fascinating telegram was sent from the Titanic to the Secretary of the Post Office in London on the day that the ship hit an iceberg and sunk. The secretary had heard that Titanic had run into trouble and they made enquiries out of concern for post office workers who were on board the ship.
Amazingly the officer writing for the White Star Line states that ‘there is no danger of loss of life’. How wrong he was when less than three hours later the ship was at the bottom of the ocean.
Also in this display were letters from children to Father Christmas and First World War letters to and from soldiers, on the front-line. These tangible pieces of history capture moments in time and a poignant message to the viewer was displayed alongside them. It read “can you remember the first letter you sent?” In all honesty I cannot, but I felt sad that communication through letter writing is disappearing in favour of WhatsApp, email and other lines of online communication.
I made a promise to myself to get out my writing set and write to a friend. When was the last time you wrote a letter? Treat yourself to a lovely set of paper and envelopes and write a letter to your mum, best friend or even a long-list friend. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it and you’ll feel great for it.
When we picture a post box we think of a tall, round, red one with a black base. But there are lots of different varieties and the prettiest has to be the London ornate box. In 1857 the government department of Arts and Science held a competition to design a new post box and this ornate design was the result. The purpose of the competition was to make post boxes more attractive and, I am sure that you will agree, it worked. But the designers had missed one key feature when producing the initial design for the London Ornate Box – an opening to post the letters through!
There are now only about three of these post boxes still in use in relatively posh areas of London (I asked the sales assistant behind the till).
These and other historic postboxes are rare on the streets and searching for them has become a hobby for many people (check out this twitter feed for example).
The Mail Rail
Beneath the city of London are small tunnels with train track that the Mail Rail. The Royal Mail used the train to transport letters and parcels between mainline stations and sorting offices, ready to be delivered to people’s doors. The Postal Museum has restored and reopened one section of this train line (3 stops I think) and refurbished a couple of the trains for people to ride in.
The Royal Mail had never meant for these little, driverless trains to transport people. As a result the museum had to transform the train to make it safe. From what I’ve heard, it was a health and safety nightmare! Drivers now control the trains and the carriages have been equipped with locks and clear perspex roofs.
After squeezing into the seat, the train transported us along 2 km of track and to three disused platforms. Throughout this we heard and saw the history of the development of the Mail Rail projected on the walls of the tunnel. It was a fifteen minute journey which I really enjoyed!
More information about the Mail Rail
Royal Mail began building the Mail Rail in 1915 and they completed it by 1927, after a short halt in construction for the First World War. By 2003 the Mail Rail had become too costly to run and Royal Mail closed it down. Although mail vans now sit in traffic above ground – something Mail Rail had sought to prevent, the general population are sending more emails and fewer letters by ‘snail mail’. Perhaps this has helped to ease the burden on our delivery service in the city centre?
I had heard a lot about the museum and this ride and was so excited to experience it. I do appreciate that not all people like the idea of tight enclosed spaces underground but it is totally worth it! The perspex roof makes it feel more spacious than it actually is and the tunnel is light and has large open areas.
If the train really isn’t for you there is actually a virtual reality version so you won’t miss out too much. Just ask at the reception.
Fascinating Mail Facts (maybe useful in a pub quiz one day)
- The first official royal postman was Sir Brian Tuke. King Henry VIII appointed Tuke as Master of the Posts in around 1512. Prior to this, mail had been delivered by individual couriers.
- In 1859 Charles Dickens had his own wall-mounted post box installed outside his house at Gads Hill in Kent.
- Royal Mail facilitated the delivery of around 12.5 million letters every week to the Western Front during the First World War. News from home helped to keep up the soldiers’ morale.
- Royal Mail owned public telephones and the phone lines until British Telecom took over in 1981. This explains certain similarities in design, like their red colour.
- Before 1837 paying for the postage of a letter was a luxury. It cost as much as 12 loaves of bread at that time! The Victorian era introduced a set, affordable price for stamps.
- The memory size of the computer that ran the Mail Train was a mere 256 KB.
There are a couple of other things I want to tell you about…
The gift shop was brilliant. I spent a small fortune in there and definitely had to restrain myself. I have one tip about the gift shop before you buy anything. The museum is split into two parts and there are different merchandise in each shop so make sure you have seen everything before you make a choice to buy. Unless you’re like me and just buy everything.
The museum is very interactive. There is lots to do as well as lots to see and this made it a lot of fun. Along with the usual colouring in and touchscreen displays, there were computer games and phones to listen to oral history. The thing that I loved the most however, was the pneumatic pressure tube. You wrote a message, popped it in a container and sent it up an actual pneumatic tube! It was brilliant.
I was really impressed with how the material was presented in the museum and I had a really interesting and interactive time. I would definitely recommend.
Let me know what you enjoyed about this post and if you would like to read similar posts in the future. Having something to focus for enhances my experience of a museum visit and I take more away than had I just floated through.
I am also thinking of doing a dedicated piece on different post-boxes. What do you think?