There’s a limited Tube service out of Clerkenwell this morning. Limited height, that is; the train I’m waiting for stands just five-foot tall, the surrounding tunnels not much wider. There’s also a slight delay on the line. One of the train’s doors has a fault, we’re told. But instead of muttered expletives and elbow jostling, my fellow passengers and I are grinning at each other.
We may be 70ft underground, beneath the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, but it’s not a lack of oxygen that’s making us behave this way. The palpable sense of geek glee in the air is the sort that can only arise from the opportunity to ride a tiny, shiny train into a labyrinth of tunnels that, although they’ve been around for over a century, have barely seen more than a handful of passengers.
“Welcome to Mail Rail. Please don’t lean on the doors, as it will delay the ride,” says a voice over the tannoy, as we stoop to enter the carriages. The ride in question is a 20-minute trundle east from Mount Pleasant towards Whitechapel and back: one of the many visitor attractions at the recently opened The Postal Museum, located in a converted former printing factory next to the Mail Centre.
When Mail Rail — then known as the London Post Office Railway — first shunted into action on 5 December 1927 — extending tracks originally dug in 1860 for a prototype pneumatic underground postal train — it was the world’s first electric railway with driverless trains. To combat congested roads, the General Post Office (GPO) shuttled mail between Paddington, Wimpole Street, High Holborn, Mount Pleasant, Liverpool Street and Whitechapel to the terminus at the Eastern District Office. It was then sent up to mainline stations, and onwards across the UK’s rail network.
As we descend into the tunnel, our driver switches to a cheery recorded narrative of the network’s history. We spy a train graveyard here (a couple of abandoned carriages in a siding) and flood-protecting sandbags there. When we pull into Mount Pleasant’s platform (serving the central sorting office above, it’s the longest in the network, and one that functioned as a wartime refuge for treasures from the nearby British Museum), a film projected onto the tunnel walls brings life to this ghostly subterranean warren. We hear of a young girl writing to the Queen, sweethearts keeping their love alive through wartime correspondence, and poet WH Auden’s voice echoing from beyond the grave.
In the 1930s, the GPO had its own documentary unit, with productions including Auden’s seminal Night Mail. It’s all very mighty Blighty, but viewed in conjunction with the adjoining museum’s collection of old carriages, worker’s kit and documentary clips, it builds a very human picture of post office life in days gone by, one that brings home the sheer scale of the workers’ endeavours. During the war, trains ran 22 hours a day, seven days a week, with barely a blink of interruption from bombing. It wasn’t unknown for workers to be physically sick with the effort of hefting mailbags with a 60-second turnaround. All manner of parcels were permitted, including game (as long as it had a neck label and ‘no liquid was likely to exude’).
You clearly had to be a certain type of person to serve this subterranean system; the museum’s gallery of quotes reveals a stalwart sense of camaraderie and pride among workers. Mail Rail was decommissioned in 2003 but in many ways it’s come full circle as a ride. During its first incarnation, as a driverless, pneumatic network, there was an account in The London Journal of a daredevil Victorian woman who’d squeezed inside one of the cramped carriages to ride the rails. She was, it breathlessly reported, ‘a lady whose courage or rashness — we know what not which to call it — astonished spectators and was shot the whole length of the tube, crinoline and all, without injury to person or petticoat’.