Senior Curator Julian unveils the history of the revolutionary Victorian invention in a four-part series.

As Senior Curator at The Postal Museum, I am frequently asked what my favourite object is. This is almost an impossible question to answer as it is an incredibly diverse collection with many fascinating items. Postal History is frequently a story of failure and it is by experimentation, trial and refinement, combined with failure, that the postal service has been moulded into the successful administration that we enjoy today.

There are two (strictly speaking three) objects in our collection that I have always found intriguing examples of postal history, not least because of their monumental failure. Partly due to design, but also being victims of technological development in a time that knew no bounds but suffered through the materials and engineering available at that point in history. It is the Pneumatic Post that continues to fascinate this old curator.

Front of Wills’ cigarette card number 33 showing the inauguration of the pneumatic tube (2010-0383/33)

The early days

Despite frequent complaints as to cost, irregularity and overcrowding, most of us are fairly knowledgeable of the development of the railway as a mode of transport for both goods and people. Steam, diesel and electric have all proved their worth; each has also revealed its own particular Achilles heel. There are few people however, familiar with a form of propulsion that was championed by many, briefly flirted with, yet has almost completely faded from the railway landscape, leaving little evidence of the hopes of engineers, investors and an excited public. This was the pneumatic railway.

The idea is an old one- in 1667 pneumatic tubes were suggested by the French Engineer Monsier Denis Papin when he presented a paper to the Royal Society in London. Little came from this and over a century passed before a Mr. Medhurst published his scheme for ‘conveying letters and goods by Air’ in 1810, this is the principle of pneumatic transmission. Anyone that is familiar with a pea shooter already has a grasp on the simple principles involved, however to transfer that principle to far larger equivalents would not only be incredibly expensive and ambitious, but also beyond any engineering ability realised at the time.  In the 1820s a similar project for the conveyance of passengers was patented by a Mr Vallance, this progressed slightly further in that an experimental model was successfully demonstrated at Brighton.

The famous Rainhill trials took place in 1829 to establish the worth of stationary against mobile steam locomotives but there were still some engineers- Pinkus, Clegg, Samuda, Clark and Pilbrow, that preferred an alternative approach.

In 1835 H. Pinkus patented a slightly different form of pneumatic railway. This incorporated a piston being driven through a tube, connected to a carriage above via a longitudinal slot in the tube. The slot was closed by a flexible valve as the carriage proceeded. An interesting idea, it was ultimately a victim of its time with unsuitable materials being all that were available or identified. There were constant difficulties in maintaining pressure though this did little to dissuade various engineers from attempting to overcome the problem.

The Victorians were not ones to simply abandon experimentation in the face of failure and in 1840- Mr Clegg and Jacob Samuda carried out an experiment on the West London Railway with a tube of 9″ (229mm) diameter laid between tracks. Speeds of 30 mph (48kph) were realised by the carriages above. Deemed a relative success, three years later the Government advanced a loan to the Dublin and Kingstown & Dalkey Railway. A track 1 3/4 mile (2.8km) long was laid, complete with 15″ (381mm) tube between rails. This saw a degree of success when it opened for use by passengers. Enticing the directors of other railways, in 1845 the London and Croydon Railway obtained Parliamentary powers to run a pneumatic railway side by side with their other line. Some reports on this line record remarkable results. Speeds of up to 30mph (48kph) with 16 carriages are recorded. Still more remarkable, or frightening, depending on your viewpoint, was the 70mph (113kph) with 6 carriages reported as being achieved.

Again falling victim to limitations of available technology and materials, the hot summer of 1846 caused the tube to get so hot that it melted the composition that sealed the valve causing numerous and prolonged stoppages.

Other lines were subsequently constructed along the same principle- The short pneumatic railway at Crystal Palace captured the imagination of many however all were eventually abandoned due to cost or the difficulties in maintaining sufficient vacuum.

In 1853 Latimer Clark lay down a pneumatic tube between the Electrical and International Telegraph Company’s station in Telegraph Street and the Stock Exchange. This was 225 yards (206 metres) long and initially comprised of a tube 1 1/4″ (31.75mm) dia. Five years later the tube was 1040 yards (951 metres) long and the tube diameter had been increased to 2 1/4″ (50.8mm) diameter. This was the beginning of a network of tubes that was to radiate from the Central Telegraph Office. In 1869 Siemens received an order from the government to install an experimental line of 3″ (76.2mm) diameter tubes between the central telegraph station and the General Post Office. The London system grew and by 1897 included forty-two stations and was thirty-four miles in length. Similar systems had been established in Birmingham, Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

With an eye to adopting this form of transport for the mails as well as telegraphs, on 29 June 1855, Rowland Hill submitted a report to the Postmaster General that had been compiled by Gregory and Cowper, two external engineering experts. This specifically reported on the practicality of tubular conveyance of mails between the General Post Office in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, London and a point near Little Queen Street and Holborn. This system would have utilised tubes of nine and thirteen inches (229mm-330mm) diameter. While the report was favourable, the Post Office was reluctant to instigate such costly developments themselves, preferring, as always, aspiring independent concerns to carry the risks inherent with what was still a relatively new mode of transport, largely untried to the scale envisaged.

The Pneumatic Despatch Company

In 1858 a proposal was made by the newly formed Pneumatic Despatch Company to establish in London a pneumatic post. This proposal, in draft form only, stated that the company’s aim was to convey despatches, messages and parcels through an underground tube linking the railway stations. Branches would also link the General and District Post Offices with the Houses of Parliament, Government departments in Whitehall, Somerset House, the India House, the Custom House, the Tower, the Mint, the Law Courts, the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, Lloyd’s, the Stock Exchange, the Docks, Joint Stock and general Banks, principal Newspaper Offices, important mercantile and manufacturing firms, hotels and larger shops.

Proposed layout for the London Pneumatic Post. Prepared in 1858 by T.W.Rammell, Engineer to the Pneumatic Despatch Company (POST 30/766)

An initial length of four miles (6.43km) was planned to test the commercial viability of the complete undertaking. This first length would have stations on a main line at Westminster, Regent Circus, Charing Cross, Wellington Street, Temple Bar, Farringdon Street, St. Martin’s le Grand and Bank, from the latter, a branch was to extend across the river Thames, (in an iron tunnel resting in a dredged channel on its bed), to a station at the London Bridge railway terminus together with a second branch from Wellington Street beneath the Thames to the Waterloo railway terminus. These two stations were to be included in the limited portion of the complete work because of their having the largest suburban traffic. These four miles would therefore be divided into nine sections with ten stations, to be worked from a single pumping station.

This ambitious scheme hoped to capitalise on the parcels, goods and messages that were usually carried by special messenger by offering a cheaper and quicker alternative. It was planned that this would become the favoured means by which telegraphic despatches were collected, conveyed and delivered, also that printed material such as newspapers, periodicals, parliamentary proceedings, circulars and books would be distributed by this means.

Once the pneumatic post had been established and had proven itself, the company hoped that the new system would be adopted by the Post Office for the general conveyance of letters in the London Postal District.

Total outlay for this was calculated to be £50,000, this would pay for the pneumatic and exhaustion tubes, station fittings, sundry apparatus, the pumping station and preliminary expenses.

Annual working expenses, including pumping, rent of ten stations, maintenance of staff, central office, management, repairs and depreciation was put at £6000, 5% interest on capita a further £2,500, this totalled £8,500 per annum. The initial scheme was realised in a somewhat altered format.


The Pneumatic Despatch Company was secured parliamentary powers to construct a pneumatic tube for the conveyance of mails and merchandise. The company was registered 30 June 1859. A capital of £150,000 was realised. Further Acts of Parliament followed in 1864 and 1872 that extended their powers.

The 1859 Act that conferred powers on the Pneumatic Despatch Company

In the summer of 1861 passengers on the steamboat to Chelsea watched with interest the experiments held on the bank of the Thames. Near the open quay which adjoined the premises of the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks near Battersea pier they could, see exiting an engine house, about 450 yards (0.4km) of black, iron tubing half sunk in the ground. First taking a winding turn, it then followed the bank of the river. Through the 2’ 9” (759mm) high and 2’ 6” wide (836mm) iron tube, four-wheeled carriers were blown.

The Pneumatic Despatch Company built an experimental tube on the banks of the Thames at Battersea, adjacent to the Victoria railway bridge. Illustration from The Illustrated London News, 24 August 1861

The tube itself was formed of sections of cast iron, nine feet (2.74m) long, nearly an inch (25mm) in thickness. Each was cast in one piece, weighed about a ton (907kg) and resembled a D lying on its side. Sections were fitted into each other with a socket joint packed with lead. Within the tube were cast raised ledges 2″ (51mm) wide and 1″ (25mm) high. These formed the rails on which the carriages ran.

The revolving disc in the engine house of the experimental pneumatic railway at Battersea. This created the vacuum required to draw the railcars through the tube. Illustration from The Illustrated London News, 24 August 1861

The experiments were so successful that the company’s engineers- Rammell and Clark, proceeded to lay a tube of the same dimensions and construction between the sorting room at the North West District Office (NWDO) at Eversholt Street to beneath Platform One of the London & North Western Railway at Euston Station. Despite some contemporary accounts stating that letters were carried from 1 February 1863, the railway was not open for traffic until 17 February 1863 and did not carry mails until 20 February following an inspection by the Post Office.

“The whole of the works were in the most admirable order, and, on the arrival of the first mail train at 9.45 a.m., the mail-bags, thirty-five in number, were placed in the cars by 9.47. The long chamber was then exhausted, and the train containing the first mails ever despatched by the agency of the atmosphere were blown through the tube to the station at Eversholt-street, reaching their destination by 9.48”

 The Illustrated London News, 28 February, 1863


Such excellent timings would prove almost impossible to sustain. The Company also announced that they had entered into agreement with the carriers Chaplin & Horne and Pickfords to carry parcels from their premises in Gresham Street to the London & North Western Railway, an extension into the Pickfords premises was contemplated.

During experiments at Battersea two men with horsecloths over them lay on mattresses in the carriages for a journey through the tube. It took sixty seconds to travel the 450 yards and they… ‘appeared to be perfectly satisfied with their journey’. Image: The Windsor Magazine, April 1900

The inspection was first made at the Eversholt Street station by the Postmaster General Lord Stanley of Alderley, and Sir Rowland Hill, Secretary to the Post Office. Prior to use for mails, cars were loaded with ‘stout planks’ for the inspection and run backwards and forwards.

On 20 February 1863 both the Euston and Eversholt stations of the Pneumatic Despatch Company were inspected. Present that day were the Postmaster General, Lord Stanley of Alderley, Sir Rowland Hill, Secretary to the Post Office, Sir Charles Rich, Company Director, Mr. Margary, Company Secretary, Mr. Rammell, Company Engineer, Mr Blake and Mr Stewart, London & North Western Railway. Illustration from The Illustrated London News, 28 February, 1863

The Wheatstone Telegraph, its wires being routed through the tube, was used to receive confirmation of arrival at the far end, a bell attached to the telegraph informed the attendant when his colleague at the other station was about to send a carriage on its return journey. Two people were also conveyed ‘without experiencing the slightest discomfort’.

Officials then moved to the Euston terminus, where ‘the small station reverberated with the sound of the receding train’.

From that date there were about 13 transmissions daily. The number of mail bags carried varied from one to thirty-five. Each railcar weighed about eight cwt (406kg) and the heaviest load was about ten cwt (508kg). Depending on the amount carried either two or three railcars were used. This was almost certainly the first pneumatic tube used for the conveyance of mails.

A writer for Littell’s Living Age recorded the experience:

“A mail guard opens a door, throws in two or three mail bags just snatched out of the guard’s van as it rolls into the station, the iron carriages are shoved into the tube, the air tight door at his mouth is closed , and the engineer, with a turn of a lever, directs a torrent of air upon them, and we hear them rumbling off on their subterranean journey at a rate, as we are informed, of twenty miles an hour. Ere we have done looking and wondering, we notice a water gauge, on which the eye of the engineer has been fixed, becomes depressed at one arm and elevated at another, ‘it has arrived’ he says”

Problems on the railway

The tubes were hermetically sealed with spring loaded doors. Air pressure to drive the carriages through the tubes was created by a fan. Discs of wrought iron, 21 feet (6.4m) diameter, were screwed to a sixteen spoke iron wheel. This was around 2’ (51mm) thick in the centre and diminished in thickness toward the outer edge of the disc. A 17hp steam engine turned this at a velocity of 70-90 mph (113-145kph), creating a centrifugal force that sucked air from the tubes. Creating a force of about 5-7 ounces per square inch (0.31-0.44psi), railcars were forced by air pressure in one direction and drawn by suction in the other at speeds up to 35mph (56kph). Difficulties were later encountered with maintaining pressure and the power was later increased to six times the original specification. Each journey took about five minutes for a heavy load and just three minutes for a light load.

The London Journal also recorded- “not only have letters and parcels been transmitted through the tube, but we hear also that a lady, whose courage or rashness- we know not which to call it- astonished all spectators was actually shot the whole length of the tube, crinoline and all, without injury to person or petticoat”

Luckily, it appears no passengers were being transported at the time of the occasional failures. In 1863 on 15 April there was a failure due to leakage to the fed valve of the boiler. On 29 April there were five failures resulting from leakage of the emptying pipe of the boiler. Another failure was recorded on 13 May, on this occasion a carriage was returned still loaded with its mail bags before reaching the District terminus. When the tube failed, carriages were drawn out with a rope. Though infrequent, these incidents failed to impress postal officials as to the merits of the new system. There were also concerns as to the cost of the tube. Working expenses of £1-4s-5d per day were about twice that of a mail cart over the same distance. Sceptical postal officials also reported that the time taken to convey bags from the sorting office to the mouth of the tube and again from the tube to the platform was so great that it was almost same time taken by use of mail carts.

The Daily Telegraph reported on 22 January 1864 that about 4500 trains had been despatched during the previous six months with ‘perfect regularity’. Though running at a loss, receiving little payment from the Post Office for the service they were providing, the Pneumatic Despatch Company was struggling to convince the Post Office to make greater use of their railway. Deciding to cut their losses, on 10 Sept 1866, Margary, Secretary of the Pneumatic Despatch Company wrote to Rowland Hill’s successor, John Tilly, asking how much notice was required to discontinue services between Euston and Eversholt Street. Tilley replied that a month would be adequate and the company immediately gave notice. This section of tube carried mails for the last time in October 1866.

Time Bill for twelve despatches of mail bags from Euston Station to the North Western District Office by Pneumatic Tube. A single despatch in the opposite direction is also recorded (POST 30/765)

This was not, however, the end of the story of the Pneumatic Post by any means. Part Two will explore the attempts by the Pneumatic Despatch Company to build an even larger underground postal railway.

– Julian Stray, Senior Curator

Sign up to our newsletter for stories of extraordinary communication and more.