Postal history

London: The Postal Museum

By way of introduction, I should say that I visited the Postal Museum before Covid-19 had started to spread in London, and I certainly wouldn’t advise going into a museum and trying on communal dressing-up clothing at this point in time, if in fact there were any museums still open. As of yesterday, every museum in London that I follow on social media is closed, including the one I work at (though since my job is mostly office based, I will be working from home and still getting paid, at least for the time being. I’m not sure what the situation is like for FoH staff (at other museums, there’s none where I work), but I do sincerely hope they are still getting paid as well, especially the ones employed by large institutions that can afford it!). I have two more posts after this from places I visited before the pandemic was in full swing, but after that, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do. I will probably try to post something every week just so I don’t fall out of the habit, but I’m not yet sure what the subject of those posts will be. Suggestions welcomed!

I swear I don’t have a vendetta against every museum in London (if I stopped going to every museum that rejected my job applications, this blog wouldn’t have lasted very long), but lately, it probably sounds like I do. And actually, my issue with the Postal Museum is the reverse of the one I have with most other museums – they were willing to hire me, but I turned them down because one of the women who interviewed me would be my direct manager, and she seemed really mean in the interview so I didn’t want to work under her, and even if she had been nicer, the job just sounded so terrible. As they described it to me, it sounded like I would mostly be telling overweight people that they were too big to ride Mail Rail and dealing with overflowing toilets. I guess I should at least give them points for being honest, because my current job involves dealing with the public toilet, which I didn’t know until after I started (officially it is not part of my role, but because my office is next to the toilet and my desk is the one that people can see from the door, guess who gets asked about it constantly?), but nevertheless, I was angry, I suppose because they expected people to take an awful job for awful pay. At any rate, I had been offered another marginally less awful-sounding job at around the same time (not my current job – I only lasted three months at the not quite as awful but still pretty horrible job), which is why I had the option of turning this one down. They opened in 2017, but because of whatever odd grudge I was holding, I didn’t visit until a few weeks ago, and then only because I was looking for something to do with a friend who I know is a bit of a train nerd.

As I knew from my interview, the Postal Museum is divided between two sites, one a short distance down the street (and on the other side of the road) from the other, which I suppose is not ideal for a museum that seems to be aimed primarily at children. I don’t know if it particularly matters which site you start on – as you are given a timed slot for Mail Rail, it might be easier to start with that, but you can buy tickets at either site. Admission is a whopping £17, and there doesn’t seem to be a reduced ticket if you only want to visit the museum; however, if you are an Art Pass holder, then the museum is free, with an optional £6 supplement if you want to ride Mail Rail (Mail Rail being the miniature train that was originally used to carry mail through tunnels under the streets of London to various Royal Mail depots for sorting. Think miniature as in those kiddie train rides at a funfair, not miniature as in model railway sized). Since it was Marcus’s and my first visit, and we were with our friend who had to buy the normal ticket as he doesn’t have Art Pass, we decided we might as well give it a go, and it’s probably good we did because it is the most fun part of the whole experience.

 

Except for the queuing, that was not fun. When you get inside, you will likely be met with a massive queue, even with the reserved time slot, and because there are only two trains, each of which holds maybe thirty people, and each ride takes fifteen minutes, you will likely be waiting upwards of half an hour at busy times. Because you are riding in a train that was originally built to carry mail, the dimensions are not terribly large, which was why it was implied at the interview that we would have to turn quite a few people away. However, they are bigger than you think – my friend is a fairly big lad, and he got inside, and Marcus, who is 6’2″, did as well, though he basically had to hold his head at an awkward angle the whole time so it didn’t bang against the ceiling, and his legs were so far into my side of the seat that my hip was hiked up in the air in a really uncomfortable manner. If you’re riding with a tall person, I suggest not trying to share a seat with them! Still it was only fifteen minutes, and once the train started moving I forgot about most of my discomfort and just enjoyed the ride, which included a few short video presentations and a train “graveyard.” You don’t get to ride the entirety of the tunnels, which stretch to Liverpool Street (the museum is in what I think is Mount Pleasant – basically a weird area of central London that isn’t particularly near any stations. It’s a 15-20 minute walk to Farringdon, King’s Cross, and Russell Square), but you head out, loop around, and come back.

 

There is a small museum when you exit Mail Rail with more information about the railway and a few interactive elements – my friend and I enjoyed racing trains (I won), and there was a life-size mock-up of a mail room on a train (different from Mail Rail, this would have been on an actual full-sized train), where postal workers would have to sort letters whilst the train was moving, and the floor even moved so you could experience this for yourself, which was great fun, except I felt a bit ill for about ten minutes afterwards. By the way, we were the only people here without children, and the people who had children were making no effort to control them, so they were just running around screaming the whole time. It wasn’t so bad in here, as it was a less crowded floor area, but it was pretty awful in the main part of the museum, which we headed to next.

 

The actual Postal Museum bit was also really fun and interactive, and even with all the children running around, there were enough things to play with that we still got to have a go on most of them. However, I didn’t get to read all of the text because some woman with a huge pram kept parking it right in front of one display after another, making it impossible to look at them (this was most annoying in the section about historic ships carrying mail that still managed to make it to their destinations despite various calamities, which I was obviously keen to read. She noticed us struggling to read around her pram, she just didn’t care).

   

I initially enjoyed the story of the lioness who escaped from the circus and attacked a mail coach (which were used to carry mail around the country before the advent of trains, but also carried a few passengers. It was a faster ride than stagecoaches, but there were no scheduled meal breaks or toilet stops, only stops to pick up mail, so it would definitely not have been for me!), but after researching this for this post, it seems that the museum took a lot of artistic licence with the account. The impression I got from the museum was that the lioness was subdued by a Newfoundland, reclaimed by her owner, and things ended well for all participants (you can read the account above and see if you agree with me). Nope. In reality, the lioness attacked the horses, attacked and killed the Newfoundland, and was ultimately found hiding under a granary by her owner, the passengers having all fled and hid in a nearby inn whilst the lioness was occupied with the dog. I get that it’s a child-orientated museum, but if you can’t be truthful about what happened, don’t even include it. You could relive the inaccurate version of this story in a little choose your own adventure style game, where I chose to leave behind the man who left the coach for an unscheduled toilet break (it was the right choice, as I delivered the mail on time as a result, even after the encounter with the lioness).

 

I do love a dressing-up opportunity, and there were lots in this museum! I didn’t manage to fit into the lady postal carrier jacket (it was either child-sized, or I have unusually wide shoulders), but most of the other ones worked, especially the hats (I genuinely think I might have to get the one on the left. It matched my outfit)! Interestingly, postmen were not provided with trousers as part of their uniform until the 1850s (they presumably provided their own before that, rather than just going naked underneath, funny though that is to picture). Postwomen didn’t have a full uniform until WWI, when they joined Royal Mail in greater numbers to replace the men off fighting (a few women worked as letter carriers in the 19th century, but they didn’t have an official uniform), and those outfits included a skirt. They weren’t given the option to wear trousers until the 1940s, and then only because a woman named Jean Cameron had led the way by campaigning to do so because trousers were much more practical than skirts, particularly in very wet (all of Britain?) and cold areas of the country.

 

There were some artefacts here too, but they were rather few and far between with the interactive elements taking pride of place. My friend was complaining that there weren’t even any penny blacks, but I had managed to spot some, so I directed him around the corner to where I had found an entire damn sheet of them hiding in a nook. They were also some splendid posters from the mid 20th century, some of which were for sale as prints in the shop.

There was a temporary exhibition on the Great Train Robbery at the time of our visit, and though this was the one part of the museum that was clearly directed at adults, it was actually my least favourite bit. I’d heard of the Great Train Robbery (mainly because I was really into the Sex Pistols as a teenager), but I didn’t know much about it, and this exhibit seemed to assume a level of knowledge I didn’t possess, with only eyewitness accounts to explain what happened before we were presented with random lists of names of suspects, and I left still not fully understanding the sequence of events. I’m also not sure why the robbers were treated like folk heroes, since one of the postal workers later died from his injuries after being smashed over the head during the robbery. But I did learn that I am slightly shorter than the stack of paperwork Royal Mail has on the case, which I guess is something.

The part Marcus was most looking forward to, the Post Office cats, was actually just outside the exit of the museum (so I think you could probably view it if you just visited the cafe). Some post offices used to have official cats that were paid 1s 6d a week to keep the post offices rodent free (which was not bad going in the 1860s when the tradition started, since housemaids were only paid £7-£11 per year back then. Obviously the cats weren’t really paid as such, that was simply the amount that was allocated to them for their food and other expenses (tiny hats?)), and the Postal Museum decided to revive the tradition by having a competition in 2017 to find a different ceremonial Postal Museum cat each month. The winners were photographed in an adorable tiny hat, as you can see here.

 

I’ve heard the woman who runs the shop here speak at a couple of different training courses, and it’s a perfectly fine shop, but not as amazing as I was expecting given the awards it has apparently won. The only things I would have bought were the prints of old Royal Mail posters, and I’ve already got more prints than I know what to do with. There was a machine where you could buy exclusive Postal Museum stamps though (which you can actually use to post things), so Marcus got a couple of those, and I just designed my own stamp inside the museum (which you cannot use to send things, though they do email you a copy). You can see Marcus’s end result, which was better than mine, above.

Overall, considering I only paid £6, I did enjoy the museum, but if I had paid £17, I think I’d be significantly more annoyed. It is really fun and family friendly, which unfortunately has the side effect of attracting lots of children, and I am not a fan. I think I prefer a museum where the children’s area is self-contained, rather than spread throughout, as it seems to encourage misbehaviour in the entirety of the museum (though the parents certainly could have done a much better job of stopping it). As a result of this, although the museum isn’t yet three years old, it is already looking a bit worn and grubby in places. I also didn’t appreciate the historical inaccuracies – this isn’t really the kind of museum for history snobs like myself; in fact, I’d say it’s more of an attraction than a museum. 3/5 for the £6 I spent (I’d say the Mail Rail side gets 4/5, but the actual museum only 2/5), but I’d downgrade it for value for money if I’d spent the full admission fee – maybe I’d have better luck visiting at a less busy time than a Saturday, but it was the only time my friend could make it. And I’m still glad I didn’t take the job – I’m pretty sure all those screaming children would have sent me ’round the bend in a matter of weeks.

 

Essex: British Postal Museum Store Open Day

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A few Saturdays ago, I read that the British Postal Museum Store in Debden was having an open day, and although my interest in pillar boxes was next to non-existent, I thought it would be something to write about for this blog, so away we went!  Firstly, you should know that this is a “store” in the British sense, not in the American one.  Foolishly (I should really know better by now), I had imagined it would be a museum with a nice little shop attached, where one could perhaps purchase postal memorabilia.  In reality, it was simply a “store” in that it is a warehouse where the Post Office stores its miscellany.  I don’t even think they had postcards for sale (which is a huge missed opportunity, who wouldn’t want to post something from an historic letter box?).

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What they did have, however, was a rather large collection of pillar boxes and mail trucks, amongst other things.  The Postal Museum Store isn’t generally open to the public, although they say you can call to arrange a private tour, but they do have four open days each year, where admission is free, and they have various activities lined up (and supposed refreshments, but all I saw were cups of watery looking orange squash, though people were clearly getting bourbon biscuits from somewhere). The Museum Store is located in an unassuming warehouse in the middle of a vast industrial estate, so we had some trouble finding it.  As we’d left it until mid-afternoon, we’d already missed the two-hour tours that were being offered, so just poked around on our own. (Honestly, it was not big enough in there for me to see what possibly could have held my attention for two hours, though I’ve no doubt the tour was very detailed and informative.)

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I feel as though I’m struggling to come up with something to say about the Postal Museum Store.  As it is, in essence, a warehouse for all the bits and bobs that haven’t found a home elsewhere, it wasn’t terribly well organised.  I mean, sure, things were lumped together by type, but there was one section that was full of random desks and cabinets with little explanation of how they came to be there.  Although there was a whole lineup of pillar boxes, only a few of them had tags that actually explained what they were; the vast majority had merely been assigned a number, which meant little to me, as I am no connoisseur of letter boxes.  I wanted to see dates and captions on everything, as you would in a museum, and that was just not what this place was about, so it was ultimately kind of a disappointment to me.

Self service postage machine from the early 2000s.  Oh, how I wish these we still in general use, as going to the post office is one of my most hated chores.

Self service postage machine from the early 2000s. Oh, how I wish these were still in general use, as going to the post office is one of my most hated chores.

However, whilst we were there, a man approached us with a survey about the possibility of creating a Postal Museum in London, to which I gave my full, enthusiastic support, because I think an actual, well-organised museum would be awesome!  Quite frankly, I’m not sure why there’s not one already, as we all know that the British basically created the modern postal service. The best thing about a museum in London would be the potential to utilise the old postal tunnels, which still run beneath the city, as their use was only discontinued in 2003.  They even had wee little trains running on them, which the survey man said they could possibly open for rides, which would make the museum doubly amazing.  It’ll probably all end up falling through though, as do most things I think are good ideas.

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I think the Postal Museum Store as it exists is probably best for die-hard fans of letter boxes, and people who actually work for Royal Mail, as the lack of signage presumed a level of knowledge about the postal system that the average person simply doesn’t possess.  Some of the Victorian era pillar boxes were certainly handsome, and the informational posters about the previously mentioned postal tunnels were intriguing, but most of the rest of it went right over my head.  Without appropriate explanation, it was more like wandering through the eccentric collections of some man who really loved letter boxes, rather than a proper museum (guess we maybe should have taken that two hour tour after all…).

I had the Postman Pat song stuck in my head for the rest of the afternoon, which is unfortunate since I only know the part about Postman Pat and his black and white cat, so was forced to fill in the gaps with bits of the Ramones "Beat on the Brat." At least it rhymed...

I had the Postman Pat song stuck in my head for the rest of the afternoon, which is unfortunate since I only know the part about Postman Pat and his black and white cat, so was forced to fill in the gaps with bits of the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat.” At least it rhymed…

I’m going to give it a 1/5, which maybe isn’t entirely fair of me, since it isn’t a museum, and wasn’t trying to be, but I didn’t enjoy it very much, and it is my blog, after all.  If they do open an actual museum (they have archives in London already, but I believe their actual exhibition space is quite small, and again, access is limited), I’d be keen to see it, because I think there is a lot of potential there.  Britain has a rich postal history, and it would be nice if it could be properly showcased somewhere.  Until then, I’ll leave the Postal Museum Store to the likes of Letter Box Society, and other true fans.