Delivering text for the Postal Museum

The Postal Museum and Mail Rail are now open for business in central London – and in tunnels underneath it, too. With unique collections and experiences the capital’s new attractions reveal the untold story of how the postal service has shaped life in Britain.

I worked with the museum team to develop their tone of voice strategy in 2015, and then wrote the text for the exhibitions which are designed by Haley Sharpe. We wanted to create text that conveyed the epic impact of the postal system on our lives by providing, as it did for the first time, the power to communicate across vast distances.

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What really struck me as writer was the hardship, heroism, intrigue and ingenuity that have characterised the postal service over the last five centuries. Orders given to mail ships carrying strategic documents and state secrets across the British Empire bring home the sacrifice expected:

“You must run where you can. You must fight when you can no longer run, and when you can fight no more you must sink the mail.”

The museum’s displays go back to the post’s earliest years as a private service for Henry VIII. This was when people first coined the word ‘post’ for the locations of horses kept to transport the King’s mail. Other sections highlight the ingenious reforms that brought penny postage in reach of everyone in Britain in 1840 and with it, new customs such as sending Christmas and Valentine’s cards. We explore the role of the post in wartime and during tragedy – did you realise that the Titanic was a Royal Mail Ship? In a temporary exhibition we also show how letters and parcels have kept soldiers, immigrants and political prisoners in touch with those far away.

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Among the serious stories and the innovations, there are some quirks. Who wouldn’t love a five-wheeled pentacycle to deliver parcels? What about envelopes decorated with cryptic addresses that still arrived successfully with their intended recipients? Don’t forget the revolutionary design of Post Office communications in the era of the classic Night Mail film of 1936. My favourite poster is a stylish but desperate plea that workers should ‘save usable lengths of string’.

Mail Rail is a world in itself – an underground mail railway which at its peak carried four million letters every day and ran for 22 hours out of every 24. We tell the story of how Post Office bosses conceived the railway to overcome congestion at street level that kept the speed of deliveries below seven miles per hour.

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In the end Mail Rail operated successfully from 1927 until 2003. Now you can ride where once travelled sacks of letters, parcels of all shapes and sizes, and even unwrapped game and rabbits – allowed as long as they had a neck label and ‘no liquid was likely to exude’.

The museum team had a clear vision for the new audiences that the collections have the power to attract, aiming the new displays at families, school groups, independent adults and tourists – all non-expert visitors. It’s been a delight to tell life-changing stories and see the new displays so enthusiastically received.

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Read my piece on the British Postal Museum and Archive Blog about the influence of the postal service in Penang, Malaysia.