The Postal Museum: Step Inside London’s Secret Subterranean Mail Delivery System and Discover the Dangerous History of the Royal Mail

When was the last time you received a letter in the post? Today, with so many different ways to communicate, it’s never been easier to stay in touch with your friends and family (or even people you don’t really know). My visit to the Postal Museum yesterday made me reflect on the lost art of letter writing and also taught me that delivering post 500 years ago was an extremely dangerous profession!

Get on the secret Mail Ride

Over 90 years ago the Post Office opened its first underground mail system in London. The secret 6.5-mile long subterranean mail system ran from Paddington to Whitechapel and was used to carry four millions letters a day to the different sorting offices. The system was in use until 2003 and has recently been opened up as a tourist attraction. During a 15-minute ride you’ll drive through the narrow tunnels and see the underground platforms where employees would spent their entire days in the dark. I felt it was quite surreal to think there was such a sophisticated network underground with people almost living in their own worlds without the ‘regular’ people walking in the streets aboveground having any clue what was taking place right under their feet.

Now I have to say that I wasn’t especially impressed with the ride itself. Yes, it was intriguing to be part of a secret world, but the ride was over before I realised it. If the ticket price would only include the Mail Ride, I wouldn’t think it was worth it nor especially recommend it. However, the ticket also allows you admission into The Postal Museum just across the road which I thought was absolutely fantastic. Not surprisingly, The Postal Museum was one of the five finalists for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2018.

Visit the Mail Ride and Postal Museum // Dutch Girl in London
On the Mail Ride

Learn about pistol-carrying postmen and design your own stamp at The Postal Museum

The first thing you learn when you enter The Postal Museum is that it was a very dangerous profession. While nowadays unfriendly dogs might be the postmen’s biggest threat, in the past messengers would sometimes need to carry pistols with them to protect their precious post. Quite understandably when you realise that the first type of postal system in the UK was set up by Henry VIII in 1516 which meant that messengers would mostly carry important documents on them that could be of great value to those who wanted to plot against the king.

A visit to The Postal Museum is a treat for both young and old as it has plenty of interactive installations that will most definitely entertain the young ones. They can for instance dress up as mailmen and mailwomen from the past, but also ‘shoot’ plastic containers containing a letter to the other side of the museum through a tube system. Grown-ups will appreciate learning about the pirates who were a threat to the boats delivering post and precious items such as silver by water or what role the Royal Mail played during the two World Wars. Also, since the Royal Mail used to be associated with the royal family and government, the postal system was often under attack in the past by several social-political organisations such as the suffragettes and even the IRA.

Visit the Mail Ride and Postal Museum // Dutch Girl in London
Antique slides depicting scenes from the life of postmen

There are dozens of items on display that will tell you more about the fascinating history and evolution of postboxes, stamps, public relations and communication, but  what I enjoyed most in the museum were the various cases displaying letters and documents that were written decades or even several hundreds of years ago. Before the Penny Black, the world’s first pre-paid stamp, was introduced in 1840, the price for sending post got more expensive by the number of sheets you would send. This led to some clever, if not extremely complicated, solutions such as the cross-written letter from 1815 as you can see here. I’m not sure if you can decipher the letter that Mr Pinder sent to his sister?

Visit the Mail Ride and Postal Museum // Dutch Girl in London
Cross-written letter, dated 3 July 1815

The introduction of the Black Penny stamp meant that now everybody had to pay the same price for their post. While postage was initially paid by the receiver, now all senders had to cover the expenses. This included bishops and even the queen whose head was pictured on the stamp – clergymen and monarchs used to be exempt from having to pay postal expenses.

Oscar Wilde’s unusual postal system and more curious stories about the history of correspondence

As a coincidence, I recently picked up the wonderful book To the Letter by Simon Garfield from the local library. It’s a great chronicle of the history of letter writing illustrated with some fantastic stories such as Oscar Wilde’s unusual postal system: as he was “so brilliant and so busy being brilliant” he obviously didn’t have any time to leave the house to put a letter in the postbox, he would just stick a stamp on the envelope and throw the letter out the window into the street, relying on a helpful passer-by to find the envelope and post it, thinking someone would have dropped it by accident. “If we all did this it wouldn’t really work, but only people like Wilde had the nonchalant faith.”

Visit the Mail Ride and Postal Museum // Dutch Girl in London

You’ve got mail

I don’t know about you, but I hardly receive letters or postcards in the post anymore, except for Christmas or my birthday of course. No, unfortunately it’s mostly bills or other boring stuff I could easily do without nowadays. Today I mostly use email and WhatsApp for longer written messages and rely heavily on Facetime to speak to friends, but I can’t deny that I’m always overjoyed when I receive an old-fashioned handwritten letter or postcard through my letterbox. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, I have kept pretty much most of the letters and postcards I have received since I was a little girl. My visit to The Postal Museum reminded me of the box of old letters I have kept all my life and I found it out once I got home again. Going through them brought back so many forgotten memories. Some of the letters were from my brother after my mum and I moved from the North of the Netherlands to the South, leaving my brother behind since he had just started uni there. Other letters from that time included post from some of my besties I also left behind up North and who would update me of the most mundane things in their everyday lives. I guess we didn’t have that many exciting things to tell each other when we were 10 years old.

Visit the Mail Ride and Postal Museum // Dutch Girl in London
Valentine’s letters and a printing block on display in The Postal Museum. The Valentine’s card in the right bottom corner wasn’t that flattering though: on the outside you would see a picture of a woman, but on the inside she would have the face of a wolf, revealing the sender’s feelings towards women.

I felt rather nostalgic when I found out notes and cards from people who are no longer alive and also looked bemused at some letters whose authors I can’t remember at all anymore. Going through all this post I have kept since I was 8 or 10 years old, was like going through a time machine and remembering events and people I hadn’t thought of for a long time. It brought back memories of all these great letter writing kits I used to have which contained sheets of paper with a horse printed on it and matching envelopes, and also memories of writing funny messages on the inside of the envelope so the receiver would first read a joke upon opening the envelope.

I bought some letter writing kits again last year as I like the idea of taking the time to sit down, put pen to paper and think about what I would like to share with the person I’d address the letter to (there’s no backspace option when writing a letter by hand!). The only problem is, is that my handwriting is so poor nowadays. It took me years at primary school to perfect my handwriting skills with a fountain pen. Going through my old school books and diaries, I can see how my handwriting has changed over the years, but I have to say that it looks truly horrendous now. Since I hardly need to write by hand nowadays, even my shopping lists are written digitally, I feel I lost the ability to write neatly again. This would be another good reason for getting back to sending handwritten letters!

Do you still send handwritten letters? Did this blog post remind you of sending handwritten letters in the past? Who did you write to, would you have pen pals? If you have any memories or thoughts on sending letters you would like to share with me, then please leave me a comment below! Looking forward to hearing your personal stories!
Zarina xx

For more information about the attractions, opening times and prices, visit the website of The Postal Museum here. Please bear in mind that it’s essential to book beforehand!

4 thoughts on “The Postal Museum: Step Inside London’s Secret Subterranean Mail Delivery System and Discover the Dangerous History of the Royal Mail

  1. What a nice post this time! At school we learned about the mail coaches that used to bring the mail and often were robbed. My father worked at PTT Zegelwaarden his whole career, he collected a lot of beautiful stamps because of that.
    The last letter I received (hand written!) was just a week or two ago. I really enjoy those. Nowadays it is so very easy to send someone a card by internet, they are not really hand written of course, but also fun to receive. I like the thought that someone really sat down and took the time to write to me.
    I still have a lot of letters I received in my lifetime as well, postcards from when I was a little girl, birthday cards. The stamps on those are just a few cents! The price you pay nowadays is often something that holds people back at sending X-mas cards etc.
    Also letters I received during my detention in Sweden, and received from inmates afterwards. My maternal grandmother wrote a postcard to me every Sunday evening as long as I was incarcerated, always the same sentences but they showed me she was thinking about me, loved me no matter what. Letters from my mother, I do not see her anymore so they represent a certain period of my life. Often I am sorry I did not make copies of certain letters I have written myself, important letters that is.
    With the modern media nowadays, like What’s App, I find that a lot of people read these but it does not really stick. It is too much “hap snap” like we say here in The Netherlands. Facetiming is something I do appreciate, like with my sister in France. An hour talking with her always passes so quickly!
    But there is nothing more pleasant then a hand written letter!

    1. Hi Esther, many thanks for your kind words and for sharing your personal stories regarding the topic. I think the last handwritten letter I received in the post was from you actually 🙂
      Yes, sending a digital message is so much more convenient, cheaper and faster of course and I guess that’s what makes receiving ‘old-fashioned’ post even more special.
      I was thinking about not having copies of my own letters the other day as well when I was going through my old post because some messages were written in reply to mine and I had no idea what it was about sometimes 🙂

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