The Downpatrick & County Down Railway has signed for a large consignment with a former Travelling Post Office, or TPO, being delivered to the heritage railway.
The vehicle has been moved into the DCDR workshops where some remedial work will take place to prepare it for display in the DCDR’s Carriage Gallery for visitors to explore and learn the history of the postal service and its connection to the railways.
Museum curator, Neil Hamilton, explained what a TPO is:
“A TPO is essentially what the name says – it’s a specialised railway vehicle where mail is sorted en route to its destination. The DCDR is delighted to be able to display this unique piece of railway heritage in our viewing gallery.”
The first train to carry post was in 1830 when the General Post Office (GPO) signed an agreement with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and soon the Post Office was quick to see that railways would be very useful for transporting mail, with Westminster passing the Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act of 1838 which required railway companies to carry mail, by ordinary or special trains, as required by the Postmaster General.
By 1855, the Post Office started to use special sorting carriages or Travelling Post Offices on trains. Post Office staff would work on sorting the letters as the train travelled on its way and mail bags were dropped off and collected as the trains sped to their destinations.
Trains had a special net for catching mail bags that were hung out for collection on the route and a similar net would catch the sorted bags for the different towns and villages on the way. The Travelling Post Office was a great system and served the country for nearly one hundred and fifty years delivering many millions of letters. It helped to speed up the mail and also to develop rural towns as business owners were able to send and receive correspondence and packages more easily.
Ireland’s railway companies operated their own Travelling Post Offices, and with the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State nearly a hundred year ago, responsibility for the TPOs passed to the new Department of Posts and Telegraphs in the south, later becoming An Post in 1983.
Neil Hamilton pointed out that “Irish TPOs were equipped with letter boxes on either side of the carriage so that mail could be posted whilst the train was stopped at a station on route. A notice under the post boxes declared that an additional half pence stamp was required for availing of this privilage! Today, the post-marks from TPOs are highly valued by stamp collectors”.
The infamous Great Train Robbery of 1963 in England took place with the hijacking of a TPO.
While TPO use in Great Britain continued until 2004, by the 1990s only two TPO routes were still operated in Ireland by Irish Rail and An Post, to Galway and Cork, which were finally axed in 1994 with mail being moved solely by road.
Stephen Ferguson, Assistant Secretary Museum Curator of An Post, said, “I am delighted that our Travelling Post Office carriage, number 2977, has found a new home in the ancient town of Downpatrick.
“Since we moved mail transport to road back in 1994, we have been trying to find a suitable place where our carriage might be publicly displayed and appreciated. Various ideas were explored over the years but it was only when I got in touch with Neil Hamilton and his colleagues at the Downpatrick and County Down Railway that I felt we were on the right track.”
He adds “By way of this long-term loan, An Post and the D&CDR will have the opportunity to bring before a wider audience the historic connections that have existed between the Post Office and the railways for well over a century and half.
Mr Ferguson continues, “At a time when both the postal and railway services face huge competitive challenges, it is important to recognise the vital contribution made over many generations by postal workers and railwaymen to the development and maintenance of communications in Ireland.
“There is a wealth of service, tradition and pride in these great institutions and I am happy that our TPO will be cherished by the committed people involved with the D&CDR. I am grateful for the help we have received from Irish Rail in organising the move from Dublin to Downpatrick and look forward now to working with Neil Hamilton and the team here to tell what is the fascinating story of the links between mails and rails.”