It wasn’t that long ago that in order to tell your best friend the latest gossip, or hear from your love, you had to write it out on paper, seal it up, put a stamp on it and send it through the post. While you would never send a letter instead of an email or phone call now when you need a timely response, at one time, the post was your quickest option. And if you’re waiting for a quick response, it’s important that letters get delivered quickly. If you’ve ever been in London, you will know that this could be severely hindered by traffic. That was when the geniuses that worked for Royal Mail thought of the Mail Rail, or the Post Office Underground Rail (POUR) as it was first called.
While the POUR was actually conceived as far back as 1855, it took about 70 years for it to get going. With a few false starts due to lack of technological advancements and funding and then more delays due to the Great War, the POUR finally opened at the beginning of December, 1927, just in time for Christmas parcels to zip underground through London.
For just over 25 years, the Mail Rail whizzed millions of letters a day throughout London, a secret but important part of daily life in England’s capital. It even housed priceless works of art from London’s museums during the blitz of WWII. But as technology advanced and email and the internet became more of a mainstay in our lives, less and less letters were sent via the Royal Mail. With the decline of physical letters being sent, it became too costly to maintain the Mail Rail and in 2003 use ceased. (If you want to read a more detailed account of it’s history, visit the Postal Museum’s website, here.)
But a new life was on the horizon for the forgotten train tunnels and in September of 2017 the Postal Museum opened a small portion of the Mail Rail’s tunnels and trains to visitors.
If you’ve been following me for a while you will know that I find history absolutely fascinating and museums are often my happy place. But being able to step into history is even better so I was really excited to hear about the Mail Rail at the Postal Museum.
During your trip to the Postal Museum you will get a chance to ride on the postal rail that runs through small tunnels under the city. This train is minuscule, meant for letters and not people, Tim had to fold himself in to ride. But it was quite fun and the special effects team does a great job of illustrating the story of the postal rail while you take your short ride.
But after the ride and visit to the postal museum, I wanted more. That’s when I read on Secret London that you could sign up for limited guided walks through the tunnels and this sounded amazing. I booked as soon as I could. For… November. Then it was rescheduled for January and then March and finally for May when we were actually able to go! It was absolutely worth the wait!
We donned hard hats and high vis vests and I was implored to wear sensible clothing and not my normal vintage attire. Do you know how hard it was for me to go to London dressed modern?! But I did it and was glad I did. While I can do most things in the sensible heels of the 40s, I will admit it would have been quite difficult to walk through the small tunnels with heels on. Especially since I had to duck in place at my regularly short stature.
Our guides were great and told us how the tunnels were made, how each of the different trains were designed and even how they designed flood doors in case the tunnels ever flooded. My favorite part was learning that there was an entire world below the tunnel we were in. Dug out in a giant tube like shape, the railway platform bisects the tube, leaving us on the upper part of the postal tunnel. Underneath lie offices, personnel lockers and other behind the scenes places for those who worked here. It’s closed now as it’s a safety hazard but I so wanted to see it. Our guide told us that on the day they closed the workers weren’t quite sure how the rail was going to close or if it was going to be forever so they left a lot of stuff inside their lockers. There are shoes and clothes and other items down there still. I so want to see that!
Though we can’t go down and see that, they do have a few locker examples in the museum at the end of the tunnel walk. So at least you can get an idea of what was left. The tunnel walks are limited to Wednesdays and are often booked way in advance. I would also say they aren’t for everyone as it is close quarters in some places, big steps up and down and lots of uneven ground. but! The good news is I believe the train ride would be for almost anyone and you can experience that way more readily. They do a good job of outlining the accessibility of the rail here. If you’re interested in history, mail, stationary, London, feats of engineering or of course, the post, check out this museum. It’s one of a kind.