Search

Mail Rail: Celebrating Clerkenwell’s subterranean social network as Postal Museum opens

PUBLISHED: 14:11 28 July 2017 | UPDATED: 16:33 28 July 2017

Post Office underground railway: a man operates a shunting vehicle in 1935. Picture: Royal Mail

Post Office underground railway: a man operates a shunting vehicle in 1935. Picture: Royal Mail

Royal Mail Group plc

Posting a letter in 1927 was the equivalent of using Whatsapp today. It was instant messaging, early 20th century style.

Post Office underground railway: car depot and workshop at Mount Pleasant. Picture: Royal MailPost Office underground railway: car depot and workshop at Mount Pleasant. Picture: Royal Mail

At its peak, four million letters a day would go through Mount Pleasant Mail Centre’s underground rail service.

Later branded “Mail Rail”, the letters would be plonked onto a driverless train to Paddington station.

It opened in 1927, closing in 2003. But the heritage is not lost. On Friday, the Postal Museum, next to Mount Pleasant, opened to the public in Phoenix Place.

And on September 4, it will be followed by the re-opening of Mail Rail across the road. Visitors will be able to experience a subterranean world previously closed to the public.

A Mail Rail carriage. Picture: James MorrisA Mail Rail carriage. Picture: James Morris

Today, the Gazette was lucky enough to hop on a train for a preview tour ride. Many of the platforms remain unchanged, down to the musty smell and a Winmau dartboard on the wall, which engineers would use to pass time in between carriage stops.

For Tim Ellison, deputy director of the Postal Museum, it’s a celebration of a “massive piece of industrial history”.

He said: “The Post Office has a real tradition of innovation, and this was part of that.

“At the time of construction, most materials were delivered via horse-drawn carriage in London, causing huge congestion in the streets. This underground system was designed to solve that.

Tim Ellison, deputy director of the Postal Museum, on the underground Mail Rail tracks. Picture: James MorrisTim Ellison, deputy director of the Postal Museum, on the underground Mail Rail tracks. Picture: James Morris

“It massively sped up the process from A to B. Letters would be loaded onto trains here, transported to Paddington and distributed from there.

“Mail was taken incredibly seriously at the time. If a letter was late, whoever was responsible had to explain why. People used to set their watches by the arrival of mail coaches.

“Here, there were four million letters every day, with trains running every seven minutes and for 22 hours a day. It gives you an idea of the importance of mail – people used it to arrange meetings like we would with Whatsapp today.”

After 76 years, Mail Rail was no longer needed. But Tim added: “It absolutely did its job. It was incredible innovation, but the world around it changed by 2003. Of course, not as many letters were being sent.”

Post office underground railway: workers load the train. Picture: Royal MailPost office underground railway: workers load the train. Picture: Royal Mail

Over the years, ideas for the vacant Mail Rail site included a mushroom farm and a cycle superhighway. But Tim, who first started working on the museum project in 2009, is glad its legacy has been preserved: “We have stories people haven’t heard before. It’s an industrial legacy.

“This underground section would be under threat otherwise. It doesn’t have listed status, and if people wanted to build above the ground, it could damage the infrastructure. By opening up I feel we are preserving it for many years to come.”

Ray Middlesworth, 59, lives in nearby Clerkenwell Road. He joined the Royal Mail as an apprentice in 1974 and started working on Mail Rail as an engineer in 1987. When it closed in 2003, he was the man who shut the power off.

He and three other colleagues stayed on in the intervening years. As a scheme built with public money, Royal Mail had a duty to maintain the tunnels, meaning Ray stayed underground. He will now work for the museum as an advisor.

Engineer Ray Middlesworth started work on the Mail Rail in 1987. Picture: James MorrisEngineer Ray Middlesworth started work on the Mail Rail in 1987. Picture: James Morris

“When we shut the power off in 2003, it was a moment in history,” he said. “It was great working down here.

“One of the best moments was when scenes from Hudson Hawk [starring Bruce Willis] were shot here. We manually controlled the trains. It was a high pressure job, as we had to make sure world famous film stars got home safely!

“We were still happy working down here after it closed. The only thing was, there used to be hundreds of us down here, so it took a while getting used to it being so much quieter.”

Visit postalmuseum.org for more.

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Islington Gazette visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Islington Gazette staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Islington Gazette account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Islington News Stories

10:08

An architect has slammed “petty” Islington planners who have again told him to demolish his multi-award winning block in Clerkenwell.

08:27

Sheltered housing tenants in Islington fear planned cutbacks to the service could see people left to die in their flats.

Two people were injured after a gunman opened fire in Essex Road last night.

Yesterday, 13:04

Wireless Festival chiefs face a battle to stay in Finsbury Park after Haringey Council announced a licence review will take place next month.

Yesterday, 11:16

A reward of £10,000 is being offered for information into the 2013 disappearance of Kilburn man Robert Duff – who police believe may have been murdered.

Wed, 16:28

A cyclist is critically injured after a crash in Clerkenwell this morning.

Wed, 15:22

Islington’s revamped Milner Square Gardens has been celebrated by the community following its £235,000 revamp.

A murder investigation has been launched after a 25-year-old man was stabbed to death in Tufnell Park last night.

PROMOTED CONTENT

Fostering older teenagers means giving them the skills for life as an adult. Here, a supportive lodgings carer with Islington Council and young adult who has left care share their stories

Newsletter Sign Up

Islington Gazette twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read

Show Job Lists

Digital Edition

cover

Enjoy the
Islington Gazette
e-edition today

Subscribe

Education and Training

cover

Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now