diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Royal Mail has three museums.
i) The Royal Mail Archive at Mount Pleasant, Clerkenwell (for research, and where the stamps are)
ii) The Museum of the Post Office in the Community at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Ironbridge (to tell the postal story)
iii) The British Postal Museum Store at Debden, Essex (for larger objects)

The latter is a storage facility, and only occasionally open. Tours of the The British Postal Museum Store are run on the afternoon of the first Wednesday of the month, for those who can do Wednesday afternoons, but weekend access is much rarer. Yesterday's Open Day, entitled Pillar Box Perfection, was therefore a special opportunity to get inside.
Access is by car, close to junction 5 of the M11, or you can walk from Debden station at the far end of the Central line. The Museum Store is housed in a very ordinary-looking grey warehouse by the railway, very close to the building where the Bank of England prints our banknotes.

What a lot of stuff... but then, when you stop and think about all the things the Royal Mail has needed to do over the years, that's perhaps not surprising. First up by the door are a selection of phone boxes, just to get the telephone thing out of the way. The rest of the room is taken up with accoutrements for the delivery of mail, of which there are many. Let's start with Pillar Box Alley.

Britain's first pillar boxes were installed on Jersey in 1853, courtesy of novelist-to-be Anthony Trollope. They soon spread to the mainland, in a variety of styles, most of which can be seen here down 'Pillar Box Alley'. Many are beautiful, especially the early designs, one especially ostentatious version painted green with gold acanthus leaves. Scotland's Suttie box had an ostentatious crown on the top, while the city of Liverpool was granted special dispensation for an especially large box with a chunky lock to improve security. Much of the story of the early years is of gradual design optimisation. It took a while to realise that slots facing upwards caused the mail inside to get wet when it rained. It took a little longer to decide that horizontal slots were harder to steal mail out of than vertical. But before long beauty combined with practicality, and the sentinels of our street corners were set.
I hadn't realised before quite how deeply the foundations of certain pillar boxes are buried in the ground. But I guess they need to be, else any old reprobate with a JCB could come along and wrench the box out of the ground and whisk it away. I doubt they'd find much of value in a pillar box today, but the booty haul would once have been quite considerable.

The archetypal Victorian box was the Penfold, hexagonal and elegant with a leafy design on top. A number of these survive around the country (including just down the road from Little Holland House in Carshalton Beeches, damn, missed that). Indeed Royal Mail attempts to keep all its historic boxes in situ, so there might be a rare survivor down your street. Most of the boxes we see today have their origin in 1879's "Anonymous" pillar box, so called because the sovereign's name was initially omitted from the front. Pillar Box Alley also includes a pair of boxes featuring Edward VIII's monogram and a bright blue Air Mail depository, right up to modern oval doubles and futuristic rounded stumps. Even better we had the Museum Store's guides to tell us about some of the designs in great detail, but you had to hang around for quite some time to hear the full story.
If you're thinking "ooh, pillar boxes, fascinating" you might be interested in joining the Letter Box Study Group, "the acknowledged authority on the history and development of the British roadside letter box", who for £23 a year will keep you updated on the heritage of these fine objects.

  • The little machines they used to sell stamp books out of.
  • Racks of pigeonholes used for sorting mail into.
  • Mini postboxes of the kind found embedded in walls.
  • An elegant leather desk for writing telegrams on.
  • Two machines used to convert postcodes into patterns of dots on envelopes.
  • A mobile post office that once ran round rural Wales.
  • Postbikes, postvans and other post-related vehicles.
  • A TV Detector van, once used to scare licence naysayers witless.

    And, ooh, a Mail Rail train. If you're not aware, a mini underground railway used to run between Paddington and Whitechapel purely for the transference of mailbags [map]. I was even taken to see it once in the 1970s, as a very special treat, and remember the rattling of the trains as they vanished off through the low tunnel portal. The trains look a little bigger above ground, with chunky locomotives of a sit-on-able size at each end and a few trucks inbetween. Mail Rail closed in 2003 because high-volume cross-London transport was no longer needed, and may one day be opened up as a tourist attraction, but will more likely crumble.

    According to the BPMA Twitter feed, just over 150 visitors passed through the doors of the Museum Store today. They're very pleased with those numbers, indeed they received only 249 visitors during the whole of the previous financial year. But Londoners (and Essexites) I'm very disappointed in you. Less than 0.002% of you thought to turn up today, despite advance publicity, even though rather more of you would have enjoyed it. Alas there isn't yet a publicised date for the next truly open day, but watch out for those Wednesday afternoon tours if you're interested. Or hang on until the new Postal Museum is opened at Mount Pleasant, hopefully in 2016, and make sure you visit that.
    You might also enjoy reading the Postal Heritage blog, or delving through their comprehensively large collection of Online Exhibitions.

  • << click for Newer posts

    click for Older Posts >>

    click to return to the main page

    ...or read more in my monthly archives
    Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18
    Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
    Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
    Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
    Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
    Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
    Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
    Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
    Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
    Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
    Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
    Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
    Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
    Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
    Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
    Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
     Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

    eXTReMe Tracker
    jack of diamonds
    Life viewed from London E3

    » email me
    » follow me on twitter
    » follow the blog on Twitter
    » follow the blog on RSS

    my flickr photostream