All aboard the Mail Rail: A horse's sick note and cats with pensions at the £26 million Postal Museum

By Culture24 Reporter | 12 February 2016

When the Postal Museum’s new home opens in Clerkenwell next year, the ride next door – Mail Rail, a one-mile loop through the disused miniature tunnels of what was the world’s first driverless, electric railway – looks like it could steal the thunder of the five-zone, five-century central space of the £26 million development

A photo of mail trains in a large tunnel beneath London as part of the postal museum
© The Postal Museum
“These tunnels were so hidden,” says Adrian Steel, the Director of a drive to tell British industrial and communication history through the evolution of the postal service.

“They were used to protect the Rosetta Stone during the First World War."

A photo of the book ulysses by james joyce as part of the royal mail's postal museum
© The Postal Museum
This first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses was intercepted.

© The Postal Museum
“Our archives contain so many great stories," says Steel. "The Post Office used to officially employ cats. They even had pensions and employee numbers.

A photo of a black and white photo of a newspaper photo of a cat with royal mail
© The Postal Museum
“The artefacts evidence some of the great historical events of our time, such as the fate of the Titanic and the golden age of Victorian innovation and social change.”

A black and white photo of daleks from dr who next to a camper van with royal mail
© The Postal Museum
An original Post Bus was used to deliver mail to remote and rural areas.

It also provided a vital means of transport to locals at the same time. But here it's shown with a Dalek duo.

A black and white photo of suffragettes at ten downing street with the royal mail
© The Postal Museum
The archives wind around two-and-a-half miles of shelving, with a horse-drawn mail coach in a red pillar box standing in the earliest part of the timeline, when weaponry was needed to protected the mail from highwaymen, pirates and lionesses.

This photo shows Suffragette "human letters" being delivered to 10 Downing Street in 1909.

A photo of a royal victoria cross medal issued during world war one as part of the royal mail's postal museum
© The Postal Museum
The Post Office salvage squad had to brave the blitz, saving mail from bombed post offices and pillar boxes.

Sergeant Alfred Knight, a member of the Post Office’s own regiment, the Post Office Rifles, became the battalion’s only Victoria Cross recipient in 1917.

A photo of a poster showing a woman against purple as part of the royal mail's postal museum
© The Postal Museum
Art and design are entwined in the story: the mail’s marketing department carried out revolutionary work during the 1930s. This poster was created by Dutch-born artist Pieter Huveneers in 1957.

A photo of a postage stamp design showing queen elizabeth's head with royal mail
© The Postal Museum
In 1963, the original plaster cast, used for the portrait of Elizabeth II still on stamps today, was created.

A priceless sheet of the renowned rare stamp, The Penny Black, represents the huge social change that made it affordable for everyone to communicate over long distance for the first time in history.

A photo of a post office telegraph from new york discussing the titanic with royal mail
© The Postal Museum
This is one of the telegrams sent in the aftermath of the RMS Titanic hitting an iceberg in 1912.

© The Postal Museum
One of the most popular items in the collection is this sick note issued for a horse in 1898. “Mr T C Poppleton’s horse of The Post Office is suffering from sore shoulders and unable to perform his official duties”, the note reads.

By the late 19th century the volume of mail delivered every day by horse was huge – and growing. And in this pre-motor vehicle era it’s no wonder horses had to be signed-off due to over work.

A photo of a stamp showing scotland as the 1978 world cup winners with royal mail
© The Postal Museum
In a parallel universe, slightly presumptuous stamp designs were produced to celebrate Scotland's victory at the 1978 World Cup - a competition they narrowly exited at the group stage. The stamps were never issued.

© The Postal Museum
Competition for the contracts to provide the coach, horses and driver for mail coach services, adopted in 1787, was fierce: it meant status and a regular income in addition to passenger fares.

The mail coach service was replaced by railway transport for mail in 1830.

© The Postal Museum
Only two pneumatic rail cars are known to exist from the London trials of the 1860s and 1870s.

The London Pneumatic Despatch Railway conceived the idea in 1859, but it ultimately proved too expensive and unreliable to maintain.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three postal museums to see

Bath Postal Museum
Learn about famous locals Ralph Allen and John Palmer. Listen to the lives of postal workers past and present. Find out what it was like on a mail coach. Hear about 'The History of Writing' with actor Richard Briers. We all love a good story and Bath Postal Museum is full of them.

Colne Valley Postal History Museum, Halstead
A privately owned Postal History Museum in the heart of East Anglia. The collection has been built up over a number of years by one man and now comprises more than 70 ex-British Post Office letter boxes together with Stamp Vending Machines, documents and associated artefacts. The museum houses the second-largest private collection of postboxes in the UK, no less, and is an invaluable resource for teaching and historical research.

Bruce Castle Museum, London
The family of Sir Rowland Hill, who reformed the British postal system and became famous for introducing the Penny Post, ran a progressive school for boys at Bruce Castle during the Victorian period. It opened as a Museum in 1906 and now houses the Borough of Haringey's local history collections and archives.
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