Moving the Mail At Coventry Transport Museum

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 10 August 2006
a photograph of five men in postal uniforms riding large wheeled penny farthing style bicycles in a line across a courtyard

Experimental use of five wheeled centre-cycles at Horsham, 1880. © British Postal Museum and Archive

From the experimental five wheel ‘centre-cycles’ of the Victorian period to the equally experimental three-wheeled reliant van of the 1970s, our mail service has never been shy of innovative ideas when it comes to getting our mail delivered to us.

Moving the Mail: from Horses to Horsepower, an exhibition running at Coventry Transport Museum until October 24 2006, explores this fascinating and often varied history of road transport in the postal service.

Devised by the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) the exhibition includes rarely seen vehicles from the BPMA collection together with a range of fascinating images from the Royal Mail Archive.

a photograph of a woman in Edwardian garb sat atop a horse carriage on a cobbled street

During World War I, women were employed to drive the horse-drawn mail vans. © British Postal Museum and Archive

The centrepiece vehicle is a recently restored and original 1930s Mobile Post Office. This ‘office on wheels’ was a great innovation when it first made an appearance at the Marden and District Commercial Fruit Show near Tonbridge, Kent in October 1936. It went on to make numerous celebrated appearances at special events such as race meetings, shows and other grand days out until the early 1980s.

But it is the mail vans which have been part of our heritage for centuries and that are perhaps best known and cherished by the British public. Of various shapes and sizes these red liveried vans have delivered our letters and parcels to every nook and cranny of the UK – from city apartments to the remotest country cottage.

To achieve this level of service the postal service has by necessity experimented with a vast array of vehicles and been at the forefront of technology.

a photograph of four men posing on their motorcycles dressed in postal uniforms

Telegram Messengers on BSA Motorcycles, 1933. © British Postal Museum and Archive

Postal service vehicles were purposefully designed and manufactured by famous and innovative car manufacturers such as Morris and Daimler – and the classic Morris Minor and Morris Commercial vans can both be seen in the exhibition.

Alongside these vehicles is an eclectic array of coaches, cycles and motorcycles including a 1910 Dennis Van, an 1850s Mail Coach and a replica of the aforementioned 1883 Centre Cycle.

The exhibition also reveals how 'going green' is not a new concept for the postal service - the Post Office having experimented with electric vehicles for over a hundred years. When the adoption of motorised services was first suggested, electrically powered vans were first thought to be most suitable. Despite some successful trials the Post Office refused to commit themselves to the new technology.

a poster showing people using a large red van to collect their post

Leaflet produced to advertise the new 'Mobile Post Office' service, 1937. © British Postal Museum and Archive

Use of a variety of electric vehicles increased both prior and after World War Two, but with today's raised awareness of carbon emissions, electrically powered vans have increasingly been making a re-appearance – especially on our crowded city streets.

The wartime years are also covered – a time when delivering the mail on time was a potentially dangerous undertaking. Headlamps were covered whilst vehicle wings and bumpers were painted white to allow for greater visibility in the blackout.

The exhibition tells how motorcycle telegraph messengers at this time were also required to make their way through the streets with hooded headlights, their motorcycles sporting white edged mudguards. As in the First World War the use of horsedrawn vans continued alongside the motor-driven fleet, some of which were adapted to run on coal and gas.

a colour phtograph of a samll red three wheeled van

Reliant three-wheeled van, circa 1971. © British Postal Museum and Archive

Moving the Mail is a fascinating trawl through an absorbing history and is a welcome current addition to the collection of Coventry Transport Museum, which displays the world’s largest collection of British road transport vehicles.

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