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By Sarah Carr on

Ten Years since the end of the Travelling Post Office

Sarah Carr from the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) looks at the history of the Travelling Post Office. 

Ten years ago today the Royal Mail’s Travelling Post Offices (TPO) undertook their final journey. The TPOs were used for sorting and delivering mail for over 160 years, running routes the length and breadth of the country from Newcastle to Penzance and Swansea to London.

Postal workers sorting mail, c 1929. © National Railway Museum / SSPL
Postal workers sorting mail, c 1929.
© National Railway Museum / SSPL

When they were introduced in 1838 the Travelling Post Offices were a pioneering way of transporting mail. Before the invention and widespread use of automobiles and aircraft the TPOs offered an efficient way to transport mail across the country.

TPO picking up a mail pouch at Colwyn Bay, 1909. Post could be collected and sorted on the move. National Railway Museum / SSPL
TPO picking up a mail pouch at Colwyn Bay, 1909. Post could be collected and sorted on the move.
National Railway Museum / SSPL

Over their long history they also encountered a variety of disasters. Among the worst of these was in 1879 when the TayBridge collapsed as a Travelling Post Office was crossing. Everyone on board was killed but there was an attempt to rescue the mail from the bottom of the River Tay.

Illustration taken from the Illustrated London News, (3 January 1880), entitled 'View of the Broken Bridge from the North End'. © Science Museum / SSPL.
Illustration taken from the Illustrated London News, (3 January 1880), entitled ‘View of the Broken Bridge from the North End’.
© Science Museum / SSPL.

The most famous disaster that befell a TPO was undoubtedly the Great Train Robbery. On 8th August 1963 a gang of 15 people held up a TPO which was travelling from Glasgow to London. After attacking members of the train staff the robbers got away with over £2.6 million, which would be about £45 million today. In partnership with the Grampian Transport Museum, Aberdeen the BPMA are running a detailed exhibition about the Great Train Robbery between 29th March and 27th October 2014. The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive can also be viewed online through the Google Cultural Institute

Site of the Great Train Robbery, August 1963. © National Media Museum / SSPL.
Site of the Great Train Robbery, August 1963.
© National Media Museum / SSPL.

By the beginning of the 21st Century the TPO service was starting to become less effective. After the implementation of speed limits on some stretches of track, delays from track maintenance and the cancelation of a number of routes, the Royal Mail reconsidered its dependence on the railway and took the decision to transfer much of its transportation to air and road. Concerns over the health and safety of those working on the TPOs also contributed to this decision. Conditions were cramped and basic, with only an urn and small food warmer by the way of kitchen facilities, and workers were continually being thrown into walls and counters. On 9 January 2004, the TPOs ran for the last time.

Sorting mail on the TPO, Newcastle to St Pancras, 1987. © National Railway Museum / SSPL.
Sorting mail on the TPO, Newcastle to St Pancras, 1987.
© National Railway Museum / SSPL.

The story of the Great Train Robbery and social history of the Travelling Post Offices will be made accessible to the public as part of the BPMA’s major fundraising campaign to deliver a new, sustainable, national postal museum.

To find out more about the Travelling Post Offices visit the BPMA’s website.

To see first hand what it was like working on a Travelling Post Office the National Railway Museum has recently opened up access for members of the public to explore our TPO and watch the classic film Nightmail. 

TPO in our Station Hall at the National Railway Museum.
Travelling Post Office in our Station Hall at the National Railway Museum.

16 comments on “Ten Years since the end of the Travelling Post Office

  1. The Colwyn Bay picture is unusual in that it is in effect an ‘action shot’ of a locomotive. The immaculate permanent way and the two staff against the shed are stationary witness to this captured moment.
    Thank you, i find these trawls through the archives fascinating.

      1. I’m a photographer, I truly appreciate the work of other photographers and often ‘official’ images don’t name the ‘photographer’ because they were ’employees’.
        However their skill is appreciated and a great photograph is what it is for all its provenance and historical gravity and despite its official status, still remains an image of creative value worthy of the pride of the companies they represented,

  2. Thanks for posting. I can honestly say that I didn’t know anything about TPOs before I read this article, and never really questioned just how the post used to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’. A great article.

  3. Reblogged this on sed30's Blog and commented:
    Where does the time go! Down this neck of the words the postal dock at East Croydon has disappeared under the recent modernisation. I think the dock at Redhill is still there though.

    1. Hello sed30, recent modernisation of East Croydon! I remember when they still had the black and white boards which showed the destination of each train and there were plenty of bricks, now it’s all glass and metal, I imagine the postal dock was deemed a thing of the past; like the rest of the solid purposeful construction that was demolished.
      We inhabit a virtual world of private ownership with no presumed service to the ‘passenger’.
      ‘Royal Mail’ is a name given to private equity and Travelling Post Office just means the public have to walk further to the next ‘Post Office’ because New Labour closed the ones in between!
      So things have moved on and the railways are as dynamic as they have ever been, It is just that we know what could have been and we are left with what you are given.
      Chufty puff.

      J.

  4. Still trying to trace demise of TPO named at Carlisle ‘Borders Mail’ by Hon Willie Whitelaw. Was it scrapped and if so, when?

  5. In memory of my old dad, Tommy Fyfe, who spent 30 odd years working on the Glasgow-London TPO from the 1950s to 1985.

    1. Penzance Derby finished in 90s this TPO then was known as the Penzance Bristol TPO Being crewed by staff from Penzance & Plymouth hope that helps you Neil chandler

      1. Chris – Postman’s Badges – Did the tpo workers still have a postman’s identification badge if so did it have the postman’s home town location on or anything else special on. The workers on the London Mail Rail had POR ( Post Office Railway) and at a later date MRL (Mail Rail London), thaks – Alan

  6. Where is the carriage named Borders Mail at now after the TPOs came to a end in January 2004 as I worked on the TPO that that carriage was on the Penzance to Bristol rail hub & then went to work on the Great western TPO
    Plymouth to London PRDC

    1. Chris, as you can see, I too ask this question. Was at naming ceremony in Carlise in 1991. Subsequently seen many times at Cambridge (its base) up to 1996 when all mail traffic ceased in Cambridge. Have no idea where it went after this.

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