64 Trav Post Office B White June 2017
At our June meeting Brian White described how the Post Office started to use the developing railway system to carry mail in the 1830s. Prior to this all mail had been carried by mail coach using the principal roads to reach the various parts of the UK. The coming of the railways led to the suggestion that this form of transport could lead to a much quicker and more reliable means of delivering mail as well as providing the opportunity for the mail to be sorted in transit.
The first so-called Travelling Post Office (TPO) was formed from a converted horse box and came into operation in 1838. Later on purpose-built carriages were brought into service which provided better, if somewhat limited, facilities for the wellbeing and comfort of the sorting staff. A feature of the carriages was a letter box incorporated in the side of the TPO which allowed the public to post letters when the mail train was standing in a station. Another feature of the early TPOs was the provision of a coke stove fitted on the outside of the carriage; this was to provide the heat necessary to melt the sealing wax used to seal letters and packets. The design of the TPO coaches improved as the passenger rolling stock was improved with the final design being based on the British Rail Mark 1 coach. Although the TPOs were sometimes attached to ordinary passenger trains, dedicated mail trains could be formed of several different types of vehicle which allowed for the storage as well as the sorting of the mail.
In the early days it was soon realised that it was very inefficient to have to stop at every station where mail was to be exchanged. This led to the development of the system whereby buffalo leather pouches containing letters and packets could be exchanged on the move at specific places where the necessary line-side equipment was installed. The outgoing pouches were suspended about 5ft above the ground from metal arms which were lowered from the side of the carriage. The incoming pouches were collected in an extendable rope net fixed to the side of the carriage with an opening into the carriage side to receive the pouches. The lineside equipment consisted of a similar moveable rope net at low level to collect the outgoing pouches together with a tall metal post with a ‘u’ shaped top from which the incoming pouch was suspended. All the pieces of equipment on the carriage and at lineside could be stored out of the way when the exchange had been completed. The apparatus remained largely unchanged for over 100 years until the last use in service in 1971. The sorting of mail in TPOs ended in 2004 but in recent years special trains have been used to transfer mail in bulk between the various distribution centres. Nowadays much of this transfer is done by road and by air. A number of TPO coaches, dating from 1960-1969, have been acquired by the Nene Valley Railway and are used to illustrate the sorting of mail on the move and the exchange of the leather pouches using 2 sets of lineside equipment.