This article is written in partnership with the Postal Museum.
Mail Rail was a private tube line, just for letters and parcels. The 10.5km railway operated beneath the streets of London from 1927 to 2003. Today, the public can ride a section beneath Clerkenwell, as part of the Postal Museum's Mail Rail attraction. But what became of the nine former stations between Paddington and Whitechapel?
Paddington Sorting Office
The western terminus of the Post Office Railway — as Mail Rail was originally called — was right beside Paddington station, on London Street. This attractive 1892 baroque building was designed by Sir Henry Tanner (perhaps best known for Blythe House near Olympia), with 1907 additions by Jasper Wager. The building remained in Royal Mail's hands until 2014. It is now likely to be demolished as part of the Paddington Cube development.
Bird Street Western Parcels Office
The next station along was the Western Parcels Office on Bird Street. This occupied the western side of the road, where today you'll find a row of chain restaurants. The building was badly damaged in 1944, by one of the few V2 rockets to hit central London. The blast destroyed part of Selfridges and killed 18 people, besides putting the parcel office out of action for a time.
Today, there are no indications that a post office, let alone a subterranean railway, ever existed on the site. In fact, the whole street has been covered in astroturf and benches to create an oasis for Oxford Street shoppers
Wimpole Street Old Western Delivery Office
A short hop to the east brings us to the former site of the Old Western Delivery Office. Today, the row on Wimpole Street is dominated by the Royal Society of Medicine, who extended their premises northwards into the former delivery office (the row to the left of the photo above) in the early 1980s. The one clue to the building's former purpose can be found high up at either end of the terrace, where Edward VII's cypher can be seen. Like parts of the post office buildings at Paddington, this row was designed by Jasper Wager in the early years of the 20th century.
Rathbone Place Western Delivery Office
Our third stop along Oxford Street has recently undergone a radical transformation. The major sorting office between Newman Street and Rathbone Place was still operational in 2013 (although, of course, the Mail Rail trains had ceased in 2003). The now-vanished complex is still visible in Google Maps:
The site has since been cleared and replaced by a modern housing and commercial development known as Rathbone Square. Hints of the former industry can still be found around the site, including the post box shown in the top image.
New Oxford Street
The next stop east on Mail Rail is another that has recently undergone a complete transformation. Many will recall the concrete battleship of a building that once stood on New Oxford Street:
In recent years it has been used for fashion shows and street art exhibitions, but the premises was originally a major sorting office, with its own Mail Rail station. The hulking structure was demolished and a new office and retail development known as The Post Building is rising in its place.
Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell is home to a still-operational sorting office. It is here that you will find the Mail Rail visitor attraction and Postal Museum. The site also contains a war memorial (just to the left of shot), which has itself migrated east along the Mail Rail route. It was previously attached to the Wimpole Street delivery office, and then the Rathbone Place site, moving on each time when those sites were sold.
King Edward Street
This statue of Rowland Hill, founder of the universal penny post, stands proudly outside King Edward Buildings, former headquarters of the General Post Office. Hill was the first to advocate an underground railway for carrying mail. His 1855 proposal was eventually taken up by the Pneumatic Despatch Company, who ran small cars operated by air pressure between Euston station and this site until 1874. You can find out more about this ancestor of Mail Rail at the Postal Museum, which has one of the cars on display.
Like its pneumatic predecessor, Mail Rail also connected to the King Edward Buildings site, just north of St Paul's Cathedral. This charming Edwardian building is today home to a financial services company, but retains many reminders of the postal past. As well as the Hill statue, you might spot several royal cyphers, a plaque to mark the building's foundation, and a functioning post box. Round the corner, a replica Penfold post box stands outside the Post Office's former St Martin's-le-Grand premises.
Tracking the Central line, Mail Rail then heads east across the City to Liverpool Street. The mainline station, along with the now demolished Broad Street station, were served by Mail Rail platforms beneath the Great Eastern Hotel (now the Andaz, which also harbours a little-known Masonic temple). The site is the red-brick building in the centre-background of the photo.
Whitechapel Eastern Delivery Office
Mail Rail's eastern terminus is one of only two former stations still carrying a Royal Mail logo (the other being Mount Pleasant). Indeed, this concrete building on Whitechapel Road remains in use as a Post Office. It has connections to another subterranean railway, too. One of the management sites for Crossrail's Whitechapel station operated from its upper floors.
Take a ride on the Mount Pleasant section of Mail Rail by booking through the Postal Museum.