The Sound of the Post Horn

20 December 2016

What could be more festive than the blaring of a brass horn? We had quite an adventure trying to sound our Post Horn…

This year, we were faced with quite a conundrum. How do you recreate a sound that hasn’t been made for years? It’s not possible to hear history – at least from before recording devices came along. We can’t listen to the past or capture the noises of bygone days.

But that’s exactly what we needed to do. In the new Postal Museum, several of our interactive exhibits will feature the sounds of a ‘Post Horn’ – an instrument used by Mail Coach Guards to signal their approach or give instructions. Can you spot the Guard with his horn in the painting below?

'The Chester to London Mail Coach', early 19th century (OB1995.520)

‘The Chester to London Mail Coach’, early 19th century (OB1995.520)

The horse-drawn coaches ridden by these protectors of the post could – and needed to – travel at great speeds across the country to make collections and deliveries on time. The powerful noise of a horn was the best way to get their messages across: usually some form of ‘Get out of the way!’

The calls themselves were made up of sometimes quite intricate patterns, using three different notes (and very occasionally a fourth). Very helpfully for us, versions of them are documented in an entertaining book called The Coach Horn: What to Blow and How to Blow It, an instruction manual written by ‘An Old Guard’ and first published in 1888:

Extract from 'The Coach Horn: What to Blow and How to Blow It', 1907 (Seventh edition)

Extract from ‘The Coach Horn: What to Blow and How to Blow It’, 1907 (Seventh edition)

Besides the notation, the book contains wonderful advice on actually playing the horn, including to, ‘as it were, spit into the mouthpiece, but without discharging more saliva than can possibly be helped’, and that ‘it is as futile to try to blow with a numbed lip as to try to win a race with a tired horse’. With advice like that, how could we fail?

The next step towards bringing these sounds to life: obtain a playable Post Horn. The ones in our collection aren’t for spitting on! What obscure heritage source would we employ to get hold of such a thing? Well, we used eBay. With some success.

Close up of Post Horn

Close up of our Post Horn

Though we found ourselves a Post Horn, we soon discovered a problem: while in some ways it was perfect, it came without its original mouthpiece. We couldn’t get it to make a noise. At all.

We challenged the most musically-minded staff at The Postal Museum – including Head of Digital Martin, with years of experience on the trombone – but no-one could raise even the slightest sound. We were going to need some help.

Signed photograph of Paul Hing playing the Post Horn at a Leicester City FC game

Signed photograph of Paul Hing playing the Post Horn at a Leicester City FC game

A little research revealed a lesser-known fact: that Leicester City Football Club have had a musician play the ‘Post Horn Gallop’ before every game since the 1930s. It’s so popular that it’s even available on their website as a ringtone! They put us in touch with their current Post Horn player, Paul Hing.

Not only did Paul own several Post Horns already, but he was happy to play for us for free. We found out when he was available (not on match days, of course), our exhibit developers booked a studio, and we gratefully made a donation to his favoured charity, a local hospice called LOROS.

One of Paul Hing's Post Horns

One of Paul Hing’s Post Horns

Paul brought along his Post Horns, including the beauty above, and we settled on which one was best for our recording. Incidentally, the Horn we had acquired earlier was apparently more of an ornament than an instrument…

Soon Paul was reeling off historic tunes for us – ‘The Start’, ‘Clear the Road’, ‘Pull Up’, ‘Change Horses’, and ‘The Post-Horn Call’. As it’s Christmas, we’ll even let you have a sneak preview – though to hear the rest you’ll have to visit us next year!

Can you tell which tune it is from the sheet music in The Coach Horn above?

Paul Hing with The Postal Museum's Andy Richmond

Paul Hing with The Postal Museum’s Andy Richmond

The day was a roaring success. In the excitement, our Access & Learning Manager Andy even had a go at playing one of Paul’s horns himself – with slightly less impressive results. Mind your ears…


 
We hope that any festive horns you hear this year sound a little more grand.

From myself and all of the team at The Postal Museum, have a very Merry Christmas!

– Ashley March, Digital Media Officer