The UK’s postal history is appealingly told in FCBS’s equally engaging renovation and extension of a former London printworks
Don’t try posting anything in the five postboxes lodged high in a verdant living wall at Mount Pleasant. These are part of the setting for the engaging new Postal Museum, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios opposite the Royal Mail’s major London sorting office (and controversial future development site).
Initially proposed for a site in Swindon, the £26 million museum now includes the Mail Rail, where (from September 4) visitors can ride on a loop of the subterranean postal railway that once carried mail beneath London.
‘It’s a great project. I pinch myself every time I’m down here,’ says FCB Studios project architect Lee Warr of the Mail Rail. ‘It’s an incredible environment – one of those places that’s secret and forgotten.’
The museum is an extensive refurbishment and extension of an inter-war former print building to house exhibition, learning, conservation and archive facilities. The architects resisted too literal references to the subject matter, aside from the entrance canopy’s subtle nod to the shape of an envelope. That’s left for the café, where the salt and pepper comes in mini red post and phone boxes.
The exhibition itself explores the postal system as ‘Britain’s earliest social network’. There’s plenty of historic material to draw on about a mode of communication instigated by Henry VIII, who set up his own personal letter transport system with ‘posts’ in every town. We learn about the establishment of the modern postal system, which was the largest employer in the UK by 1914, and how mail travelled by sea, land and air. Then there’s the uniforms, vehicles, stamps, postboxes and phone boxes, as well as what was actually sent in the post.
Films by the General Post Office’s pioneering film unit in the 1930s are screened, including the famous Night Mail documentary, and we learn about the postal system’s then innovative use of design and branding that began around that time. MacDonald Gill designed the GPO logo, using the Gill typeface designed by his infamous brother Eric.
There are plenty of interesting anecdotes and nuggets of information – how it was possible to send game by post with just a label around the neck, and how two suffragettes successfully posted themselves to 10 Downing Street (but weren’t allowed in to see the Prime Minister). On the Titanic, postal workers dealing with the 3,000 mail sacks on board tried to save the post in the flooding mail room even as the ship was foundering.
On my visit, the most popular exhibit was a pneumatic mail system for sending messages across the gallery – a mini version of the 40 miles of pneumatic network that once operated between important London locations such as Parliament, the Stock Exchange and the Central Telegraph Office.
The Mail Rail provides an immersive insight into the underground rail system that operated until 2003. Making this into a visitor attraction with the appropriate firefighting access and security features was a major challenge for the architects, who were able to utilise existing cast-iron shafts that stretch 13 metres down to the mail rail platforms. To preserve the industrial atmosphere, the practice aimed to use as light a touch as possible, adding a removable raised floor system that gives level access and hides the new services.
As well as the exhibition, the Postal Museum also houses the publicly accessible archive, which includes architectural designs for post office buildings. General visitors may be drawn rather more to the shop, where delights include cuddly phone and postboxes.