Going Underground: From Post horns to Mail Rail

By Robert Dodds

At the Festival of Marketing this month in London, the National Trust explained their use of neuroscience to help them really understand their visitors, to get under their skin - almost literally, because one of the techniques described was the Galvanic Skin Response, or GSR, measuring emotional response.  I wonder how they would measure the warm nostalgic glow I felt when I visited the Postal Museum in London recently?  I went to the Museum with restrained enthusiasm, I must confess.  The real objective of the visit was a ride on the Mail Rail, a miniature underground railway completed in the 1920s to move mail around London without spending hours in traffic jams - a problem then as now!  More of that in a bit, though.

I have to say that the Postal Museum turned out to be fascinating, not least because my partner and I have lived through six decades that the museum covered.  Red telephone boxes (press buttons A and B to get your money back, or someone else’s if you’re lucky), bakelite phones, telegrams, ‘Blue-ies’ for Services Air Mail, First Day Covers of the Battle of Britain and all.  And we discussed later the ‘joy’ of party lines, the six months you could wait for a new phone line to be installed, the introduction of first and second-class mail and, not so long ago, two posts daily.  The exhibition moves from the introduction of the Royal Mail under Henry VIII, on through mail coaches, the Penny Post, green pillar boxes, the Post Office Rifles in World War I, the Blitz in WWII and in the Sixties, new uniforms to meet the needs of Commonwealth immigrants.  Definitely worth a visit.

And should you book for the Mail Rail?  Well, I can attest from personal experience that on return home your friends will give you that quizzical pitying look reserved for total geeks.  “Why on earth did they do that?”, they are wondering. Full disclosure: One of our daughters works for Royal Mail, so we have heard tales before of what the old timers got up to before it closed in 2004.  It is a completely novel experience, sitting in the old electric ‘carriages’ where mail bags used to trundle along at up to 30 mph, the tunnel so small that without the perspex carriage roof you could in places reach up and touch the tunnel roof and sides.  The stops at the old stations have a brilliant series of multimedia presentations - the ‘Posties’ wheeling trolleys around, grafting away, hopping over the railway cat stalking the platform - the seventies described as a time of new technology and strikes.  Then as part of the exhibition, maintenance staff lockers and tool boxes, complete with tobacco tins (I remember those!) labelled for storing small parts, and the catching net for the railway Travelling Post Office.  I especially liked the piece on the Victorian pneumatic railway, a precursor of the rail mail.  Eat your heart out, Elon Musk, with your vacuum hyperloop - the Victorians were there 150 years ago!  Mind you, it lost money and closed quickly.*

All in all, Mail Rail was a great and warming experience.  The construction over hundreds of years of an information network (from mail to telegrams and then telephones) that brought people closer together and enabled commerce and industry to grow at unprecedented rates.  Sound familiar?  And it was all British, from the post horns to the telephone exchanges, the Greenwood & Batley electric locomotives to the Posties’ uniforms.  I’m no jingoistic patriot, but it left me with a warm glow of British pride.

Robert Dodds, Marketing Director, October 2017

My colleague, Jon Young, writes on how visitor attractions can engender emotional responses.

*You can read about pneumatic railways in a New Statesman article by Ian Steadman.

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