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?).
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.)
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.
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.
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’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.