The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

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The History of the Travelling Post Office

Mr Brian White

8 March 2010

It was standing room only at Marylebone to hear Brian White, a “Travelling Post-man” of 30 years service tell us about the history – and his life and times – of this departed institution. Brian is one of the volunteers at the Nene Valley Railway who has been instrumental in resurrecting the coaches and equipment to carry out live TPO drops and pick-ups.

We tend to associate the TPO with rail transport but, as Brian pointed out, mail had “travelled” long before railways and the maxim “the mail must get through” brought many a hardship on a cold and freezing night when mail coaches had broken down. There were even proposals to sort mail “on the move” in a horse-drawn vehicle – but sense was seen!

Mail was sorted on trains from around 1838, but the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 brought a quantum leap in the volume of mail in the UK, from around 83,000 letters a year to over 15 million! This required some new thinking.

Nathaniel Worsdell on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway is credited with building the first recognisable rail-borne mail vehicle in 1840, and pretty basic it was too: more or less the standard four-wheeler with stagecoach body and some appropriate fittings inside. No heat; no loo; no corridor connection. They were tough in those days!

Progress in carriage improvement was slow – as indeed it was generally on the railways until rudimentary 8-wheelers came along around 1870 and then bogied vehicles a little later. Coke stoves were fitted to melt sealing wax, but were often the source of illness or even death from carbon monoxide poisoning – not to mention the risk of fire in an accident. Corridor connections were introduced – with offset gangways: not, as some suppose, to create space for the sorters, but to ensure that mail vehicles could not be coupled to passenger vehicles – in other words, to keep the public out.

This, of course, meant that it was necessary to turn vehicles from time to time to ensure the gangways connected.

Brian took us through the saga of the moving pick-up of mail and the various mechanisms that were used - from pouches hung on the end of a pole on a station platform for the guard to collect “on the move” to mechanised equipment. When the GPO declined to buy the original patent from Worsdell (for £3000 – a tidy sum in 1840) they set about designing their own version that did not work well. Later a Mails Supervisor, John Dicker, devised the version we see still in use on preserved lines and in the films. The pick-up pouches are made from buffalo hide and can weigh up to 60lb – not much fun to handle on a cold, wet night. A single pick-up could involve hanging up to 16 pouches being put out by the train crew and deposited in the lineside net – or hopefully deposited there. Very often the pouches would “miss” and, moving at 55-60mph, could travel quite some distance alongside or away from the line depending on what they might hit on their travels. Postmen had to ensure that all the pouches were accounted for – each one was numbered in chalk and the final number was followed by “F” (final). So if the full set was not in the net, it was out with the lantern and set off on a rabbit hunt.

Brian mentioned some of the accidents and events that have befallen the TPO, from the postman burned to death in the Grantham accident of 1906 to the Great Train Robbery of 1963. The security – or lack of – connected with “high value movements” – generally returning used bank notes to the Bank of England (before the robbery) was testament to the law-abiding nature of this country at the time.

And to bring us up to date Brian commented favourably on the “BRUTEs” – the high sided mesh four wheeled trolleys we used to see on stations and which could be piled high with mail bags – as opposed to the Royal Mail’s bright idea of using nylon mail bags which slid off their flat bed trolleys if piled more than one layer high: that’s progress!

Brian and his NVR colleagues operate a rake of Mk1 TPOs that came out of service in 2004. Before this they had formed a group around the former NRM-owned vehicle M30272M which was donated by the Museum in 1995 and which is the only surviving vehicle from the 1963 Great Train Robbery (the NVR already had a Southern TPO vehicle 4920 on loan from the NRM as a static museum). The Group has recently been given an historic GNR TPO vehicle body (1885) that had been in use by the Balby & District Horticultural Society as a shop and meeting room near Doncaster.

Also see visit report to Nene Valley Railway,

For more details see the Nene Valley Group’s website www.tpo.org.uk