Strange and peculiar things exist beneath the streets of London. There are entire forgotten and disused tube stations, crumbling skeletons, and even the ruined remains of an ancient Roman sea ship. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that Aldgate Station was built above a former 17th century plague site that housed an estimated one thousand victims from the bubonic plague. It’s easy to forget that the London underground, the subterranean world we walk over obliviously every day, is much more vast than the standard tube map would have us believe. Alongside familiar stations are many unknown sewers, tunnels, and crypts. Of these shadowy passages is one particularly charming and little known series of tracks called the Mail Rail.
The Mail Rail was an underground postal system that operated from 1927 to 2003, delivering thousands of letters via self-operated electric trains to different mail sorting centres throughout London and the surrounding area. The railway covered a large swathe of London from Paddington to Whitechapel. How did this underground network come into being and what exactly happened to it?
It all began due to the difficulty of transporting mail across the congested streets of Victorian London. It was thus proposed by Post Office Secretary Rowland Hill in 1850 that an underground mail delivery system be constructed. Due to financial difficulties, however, the project was terminated. But by the 20th century, mail delays had only increased, and an underground mail railway was proposed yet again. By 1914 tracks were being constructed and by 1917 were completed. The onslaught of World War One drained the country’s economy though, and the machinery and equipment to operate along the tunnels wasn’t put in place until 1923. Finally, the whole network didn’t begin operation until December 5th 1927. But it was worth the wait. At its peak, the Mail Rail helped deliver 12 million postal items daily.
The Mail Rail, however, was used for more than just post. In 1918 during the railway’s stalled production, the National Portrait Gallery coopted the underground space and used it as a storage zone for precious treasures such as the Rosetta Stone. Then in 1981, the Mail Rail became a Hollywood film set for the almost universally panned movie Hudson Hawk starring Bruce Willis. In the film, the railway was featured as the Vatican’s own underground postal railway. The Post Office used the profits from the film to help fund a local charity for disadvantaged children.
Adding to the Mail Rail’s ridiculous level of adorableness is the fact that they had hired cats to help out with rodents overtaking the tram tunnels. The Post Office Cats had their own wages and were treated with serious respect. The most famous of this particular post office brigade was Tibs the Great. Named after his size (9 pounds upon his death), Tibs was a recognized hero and was immortalized in a flurry of obituaries in local papers when he died in 1964. It is really worth including a hefty extract from Tibs’s obituary; it is full of gems. Entitled ‘Tibs the Great is no more’ it runs:
‘Tibs, the Post Office’s number one cat, the imposing 23lb giatnt who reigned at Post Office Headquaters for 14 years, is no more.
Mr. Alf Talbut, Cleaner at St. Martin’s-le-Grand, who has served his “Tibby” since the cat was born … first realised something was wrong when Tibs failed to turn up for his morning meal one Monday just before Christmas … Mr. Talbut needed the help of a colleague to carry Tibs to the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, where the veterinary surgeon was in no doubt. Tibs had cancer of the mouth.
Almost exactly on his 14th birthday the life of the Post Office’s senior cat was brought to a close. Tibs was an official member of the Post Office staff and was paid 2s. 6d, a week. He lived in the basement and all of his life never ventured from the precincts of his domain – where no rat had been seen since Tibs sorted them out early in his career. (He once brought a pigeon into the basement. It was freed, shaken but unhurt.)
Twice Mr. Talbut took him from Headquarters. The first time was to the PDSA where he was detained six weeks for treatment of an infected ear … His second outing was to a special cats’ and film stars’ party, where Tibs was the dominant figure among the cream of the cat world.’
Ruefully, his humble servant Mr. Talbut’s last quote is imbued with sorrow as he notes, “I looked after his mother, Minnie, she was a fine cat too, but Tibs was a worthy successor. I don’t think we’ll have another cat. There will never be another Tibs.”
Despite its versatile career, the Mail Rail shut down its operations in 2003. With more than half of the sorting centers closing down, the Mail Rail was no longer economically viable. With a slightly less congested city, Royal Mail returned to delivering mail over ground with mailmen, vans, and depots.
Yet one wonders with the advent of email and Skype, how much longer does our current post system have to live? The physical underground and over ground means of delivering mail is being replaced by the more ethereal passageways of cyber space. The ways in which humans communicate is always evolving and therefore so are the mechanisms through which we achieve such correspondence. Perhaps future Londoners will see our current post boxes and mail carriers as twee and as charming as we see the Mail Rail.
So what happened to the retired tunnels of the Mail Rail in the end? They have lain mostly empty and forgotten ever since operations shut down. According to one BBC reporter, there still remained an old kettle in the offices down there and even a rolled up 1959 ordnance survey map of Holborn. All of this history remained, abandoned underground, gathering dust. Yet now there are plans to revive the Mail Rail—not as a system to deliver post—but as a ride and tourist attraction. A 26 million pound project has been announced to remake the Royal Mail museum at Mount Pleasant in Central London where visitors will be able to ride the Mail Rail on a short loop.
So one shadowy lost corner of London’s underground past will be joyously revitalized. But with all those crypts and plague-ridden skeletons lying just nearby—let’s hope it ends there