Continuing the theme of the Royal Mail…
Those were the days: In 1936, the UK’s GPO—General Post Office—had enough money to fund a Film Unit that could produce a documentary about one of the more unusual aspects of their service, and even commission no less a poet than W. H. Auden to write them a poem about it, no less a musician than Benjamin Britten to do the original score.
This was Night Mail—a 25-minute documentary (available in three parts on YouTube; click here) about the train from London to Scotland that not only carried the mail that distance overnight, but picked up and delivered mail along the way without stopping, and had seven on-board sorting offices where workers spent the night shift swaying with the train and sorting the letters posted that day in the south for delivery in the north.
This isn’t some boring black-and-white educational film that the substitute teacher (UK: supply teacher) puts on because she doesn’t have a clue what you’re supposed to be studying. Okay, it is in black and white, true, but it will without doubt fascinate film buffs, steampunk fans, social historians and history buffs generally, plus Anglophiles, steam train enthusiasts, and postal nerds—as well as people who just like weird, old, nifty stuff.
At the time, a steam train called the Postal Special (aka the Night Mail) left from Euston Station in London every night at 8:30 bound for—to borrow Auden’s phrases—“working Glasgow”, “well-heeled Edinburgh” and “granite Aberdeen”. And every night, postal workers on board would pick up, drop, or sort half a million letters.
Sacks of mail came from all points, converging on the main line at 34 different stations at which workers strapped the mailbags into big leather pouches, suspended the pouches from poles by the track, and set up nets to catch the mail coming off the train. A system of spring clips operated such that just before the train steamed past the station, it deployed a net, the impact released the spring clip, and the net snatched the pouches from the poles and into the train so quickly that you can hardly see it happen (though I suppose you could slow down the film and look frame by frame).
The same system automatically swept leather pouches from the train into the stations’ nets, but launching the mail from the train required a carefully timed manual operation. Under the guise of teaching a new employee the ropes, an old hand tells viewers how to get it right—a matter of counting the bridges and the clicks of the wheels beneath you: two more bridges, then 45 beats, then push the leather pouches (which must have been colossally heavy) out of the train.
As the Postal Special steams away having picked up the mail, the announcer says “those letters were posted in Bletchley half an hour ago”; it’s a boast about efficiency involving a name that, at the time, indicated an ordinary English town. In a very few years, WWII would change that.
The film boasts about and romanticizes Britain’s industry, too, and in a way that wouldn’t be done today. Smoking furnaces in the industrial midlands are said to rise up from “the plain like gigantic chessmen”. But despite the pride in up-to-date 1936 industrialization, workers in the vans sorted letters by hand. Each worker had 48 pigeonholes, each pigeonhole labeled in chalk with the name of a town. It had to be chalk, because as the train picked up and left the mail and kept going, they’d finish with town after town and start on the towns to come.
There was at least one stop: at Crewe in Cheshire, they unloaded five hundred mailbags and took on another thousand, changed the engine, let off English crew members and took on some Scottish ones—and it all happened in 13 minutes. We see a messenger go to the station bar to call the Scottish crew to board, but no jokes about drunken Scotsmen, please; this is just normal behavior all over Britain, where a casual drink is something to enjoy without the moral overtones I grew up with in the American Bible belt.
This wasn’t the only train of its kind, either. For one thing, what goes up to Scotland must come back down to London again; it was the Glasgow to London Postal Special that was hit by the Great Train Robbery.
The general name for these sorts of trains is TPOs: Travelling Post Offices. Many countries have had them, and while they ran for a good long time in the UK, something that seems so improbable in the 21st century couldn’t last. The Postal Special on that route carried on until 2004, when the Royal Mail found it was cheaper to send the post by road and air. Postal sorters on the Night Mail, some of whom had worked together over 20 years, were sad to give it up. It was a coveted job (though nobody really explained why) and hard to get because there was hardly any turnover; the newest worker, at least on the crew I saw interviewed, had been on the job 11 years.
And so, like the City of New Orleans—made famous by Arlo Guthrie, who sang of the “three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail”, a clue that the train must no longer have been what it once was—the Night Mail “got the disappearing railroad blues”.
With the announcement of new budget cuts every day, it’s amazing to think that at one time, there was money enough for the post office to make films at all, much less to get Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden on board (figuratively in the case of Britten, but Auden directed the second camera unit for some scenes).
I hope you can take a look at the film. If nothing else, look for the part near the end where the announcer almost chants (rather than reads) Auden’s poem, to the rhythm of the wheels.
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time…
In my next blog post, I’ll have a lot more to say about that poem.