I love an amazingly quirky museum, and luckily in London we have our fair share of oddball things to see and do, many of which I’ve written about on this blog. But when I heard The Postal Museum was finally opening in London this year, I got on the waiting list for tickets quicker than I eat a MacDonald’s on my way home from a night out.
Because The Postal Museum is not just a museum – it’s also home to Mail Rail, and with a combined ticket I would have a chance to ride it. Another unusual underground rail attraction to explore? Count me in!
The Postal Museum
Based at Mount Pleasant, home to UK’s Royal Mail postal service that has been delivering letters since 1516, The Postal Museum is dedicated to telling the story of the first social network. Considered to be one of the greatest British inventions, the history of the thing we probably all take for granted in the modern age is an interesting one – five centuries of communication all packed under one roof.
There’s Henry VIII tasking Sir Brian Tuke with establishing a national postal network to serve his Royal Court. Wartime letters exchanged from the front line to loved ones. And of course the variety of vehicles that have delivered our precious mail over the past 500 years. The Postal Museum covers it all, with exceptional exhibitions and pieces of history long forgotten and taken for granted.
The Postal Museum is the public face of the Postal Heritage Trust, established in 2004 to take over the conservation of postal history. In fact, the archives were established way back in the early 1800’s, meaning The Postal Museum has access to some unique collections to share with a public interested in how communication has changed over the years.
What to see whilst at the London Postal Museum
Although the museum is small, it’s packed full of great things to see. I spied numerous styles of postboxes (they weren’t pained red in London until July 1874 and actually used to be green), and uniforms of postmasters through the ages (which are very different to the posties of today). You can also see a whole sheet of Penny Blacks, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, and I even got to explore a postbus which was used to deliver mail in rural areas.
I learnt so many new facts about the UK whilst there – all through the lens of postal communication. For example during the First World War, every male postal work received a letter to enlist – so many did that they created the Post Office’s own battalion, the Post Office Rifles. In the 1800’s the mail was unfair and inefficient and extremely expensive to use (except for MPs, who could use it for free). However back then you paid to receive mail, not send it so many tricks were deployed, including hiding a message on the envelope so you could read it and hand it back without paying!
The Mail Rail
The Postal Museum was fascinating, but what I was really excited about was getting to see inside Mail Rail (and getting a ride too)! I manage to snag a the last right of opening day by signing up for the waiting list months in advance, and my experience didn’t disappoint – like a kid a Christmas, I had been excited for this for almost forever. Well, for as long as I knew there was another disused railway hiding under London’s busy streets.
A combined ticket gets you in to ride along on a 20 minute journey in a specially designed train through the original tunnels and station platforms under Mount Pleasant – and it also includes a special exhibition all about the Postal Railway and its long history.
You board the tiny trains at the former engineering depot of Mail Rail and are narrated along by Ray, a former engineer on the railway. I don’t want to ruin the trip for you, but you make stops along some of the disused platforms to hear about what life was like working down in the tunnels, as well as the sheer volume of mail they transported.
Mail passed through London for 22 hours every day via this railway, and yet it is a hidden and lesser known part of our infrastructure. It operated from 1927 until its closure in 2003 and ran from Paddington Head District Sorting Office in the west to the Eastern Head District Sorting Office, with Mount Pleasant as the biggest of eight platform stops on the route. Built due to road congestion causing far too many delays to the postal service in London, it was inspired by the Chicago Tunnel Company. At times it runs close by the Bakerloo Line (near Oxford Circus).
Unfortunately using Mail Rail became five times as expensive as transporting post by road, and in 2003 it sadly (and controversially at the time) closed – but it became a permanent part of London’s fascination with the subterranean.
At the time of writing, tickets for the Mail Rail aspect of the museum have been in short supply due to its popularity, but don’t let that put you off (and do plan well in advance). A timed ticket for Mail Rail combined with Postal Museum access costs £16 with a charitable donation, or £11 without a ride on Mail Rail. The museum has a beautiful cafe and gift shop area too, with seating outside in nice weather. If you are a fan of the quirky and London’s unusual history it’s well worth a visit.