The Pneumatic Despatch Railway – The Surviving Record

Are there any survivors of the grand Victorian Pneumatic Railway? Senior Curator Julian investigates.

In this final part of the blog series on The Pneumatic Railway, I explore the aftermath of the Holborn Explosion and the remaining survivors of the railway.

Letter head for the long gone Pneumatic Despatch Company

Aftermath of the explosion

Following the Holborn Explosion in the underground tube on 20 December 1928, that resulted in the death of a Post Office Engineer, an enquiry was set up to establish the cause of the explosion and make recommendations. The Gas Light and Coke Company attempted to lay the blame on the Post Office and the Post Office struggled to divert the attention from its almost continued ignoring of the tubes despite records of gas being detected in the tube in the preceding years. The Post Office suggested in proceedings that:

“it was difficult to escape the conclusion that in the Gas company’s view they were entitled, as of right, to make use of the Postmaster General’s underground system for the purpose of diffusing the gas which they allowed to escape from their mains”


The explosions were attributed to the ignition of a mixture of coal gas and air in the Post Office tube but the actual cause was not specified though suspicions were held.

Claims for compensation flooded in, particularly after the Star printed a statement from the Postmaster General that he “will consider all claims for compensation in connection with the Bloomsbury explosion”. Over 150 people representing local businesses attended a meeting of ‘The Holborn Explosion Claims Committee’ held at Holborn Town Hall on 16 January 1929. Post Office lawyers examined all of the claims and argued successfully against their extent in almost all cases. Invariably the financial compensation was extensively reduced. There was a ‘halving’ agreement between the Post Office and the Gas Company whereby each party paid fifty per cent of the compensation. To quote just a handful from those submitted: Simplex Conduits Ltd. claimed £8636 14s 4d, they settled for £600.  Messrs. Leon Ltd of 48/49 High Street claimed £15282 8s 9d for loss of business, they settled for £200 plus costs. Anselmo Bozzino, owner of the restaurant at 64 High Street claimed £198 3s for loss of business and settled for £50.

One of the recommendations from the committee tasked with examining the explosion was that the tube should be ventilated throughout its length. Though the preference was for unused tubes to be filled in or removed. Inspections found that the area of the tube was ‘riddled with a network of gas mains’, the joints of which frequently failed. This, coupled with the imperfect seals between the sections of iron tube that formed the pneumatic railway, meant that simply venting the tube was not going to be a solution in itself. Infilling was recommended wherever possible.

The accident and the findings of the enquiry alerted the Post Office to its responsibilities though they took some months to actually get round to proper investigation. Articles in the Daily Telegraph in January 1930 reported on the complaints being made by Holborn Borough Council that little had been done to ventilate the tubes.

“The council, in a meeting, ‘viewed with serious alarm the apparent inactivity on the part of the Post Office authorities, creating as it must a feeling of uneasiness at the possibility of a recurrence of the disastrous upheaval twelve months ago’”

Daily Telegraph, 11 January 1930


In all fairness, the Post Office had now realised just how scanty their records were as to the location and extent of the surviving system and extensive searches and investigations as to location and condition of the surviving sections of tube were being carried out. Many sections of tube had gone or had been cut through in preceding decades. The engineer Dalrymple Hay had broken into one section near the junction of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street when constructing the London Electric Railway.

Considerable difficulties were encountered in locating branches of the tube and some that had never been properly recorded when built undoubtedly went undiscovered. It was presumed that the original engineers, when laying the tubes, had occasionally taken another route where it proved easier than that stipulated on their plans. Where the tube was located, it was often filled in with soil, though water and mud had frequently already found its way in. Some plans indicated future lines of tube extension and the Post Office Engineer-in-Chief reported in August 1930 that he thought many of the extensions did not exist, but he advised some exploratory excavations to make sure though few were carried out. His office did find some remnants however; from the old Holborn station, a tube from the east and one from the west, curved toward the footpath, crossed beneath it and were being used by Messrs. Morton, Hosiers as vaults for storage purposes. Beneath the east tube, a 3′ (0.9m) diameter iron tube was found running beneath it, extending some 50’ (15.2m) below Morton’s shop. This was broken up and filled in. When lavatories had been built at 96 High Holborn, the section of the tube from the west, extending from Morton’s had been demolished.

Numerous ventilating shafts, covers and ducts to the tube were discovered. Many of these had been installed by councils and other businesses without the Post Office being aware of them.

In January, Pirelli- General Cable Works Ltd contacted the Post Office about the London Maidenhead cable that had been cut during the explosion. In order to install new cables and ducts, they informed the Post Office that they would have to demolish a section of the tube. Some sections of the tube, particularly a cavity discovered at High Holborn, were filled in with concrete, the cost being shared between the Post Office, Holborn Borough Council and the London County Council. The remaining tube at High Holborn underwent special consideration and an electrically powered fan and ventilating covers were installed. Unfortunately within a year it was discovered that the ventilator was actually connected to a sewer!

What survives?

Why did this ambitious plan for a pneumatic railway failed? The surviving archives simply records the decisions, what remains unsaid are the personalities behind. Possibly officials in the Post Office were simply riled at being told they had to provide premises for a young upstart pretender, or possibly use of the pneumatic tubes was actually impractical- expensive and time consuming.

The idea has been adopted elsewhere. Pneumatic tubes, admittedly of considerably smaller bore, have been used for the transmission of postcards and small letters in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Italy. The USA has also flirted with the system.

I am not aware of a single piece of the tube surviving from either the original Eversholt – Euston section, or the Euston-Holborn-St. Martin’s-le-Grand section above ground. Undoubtedly there must be surviving sections below ground, even if packed solid with earth, rubble or concrete. When works were carried out in the vicinity of Euston station in the 1960s, a section of tube was unearthed but there is no account of any having been recovered  It would appear that none of the machinery associated with any of the stations and operating of the tube can be identified as having survived either.

Building work at Euston in the 1960s unearthed a portion of the lost pneumatic tube. Image: Previously The Postal Museum: Portfolio collection

Considerable correspondence and some ephemera survive within the official contemporary files. By far the great majority of these can be viewed in the Archives maintained by BT and The Postal Museum (see Sources).

Possibly the most exciting and remarkable surviving elements of the Pneumatic Tube system are what was discovered in 1930. When the office of the Engineer-in-Chief was carrying out exploratory work, it uncovered a 60’ (18.3m) length of the original tube underground at Seymour Street, the tube then disappeared beneath Euston station. Within this, on 27 February 1930, they found four ‘trucks’ that were recovered and the tube filled in.

“Looking like relics of a former civilisation, four rusty trucks, clinging to rusty rails, were brought to light yesterday by workmen filling a disused underground tube in Seymour Street, near Euston”

Daily Mirror, 1 March 1930


On 28 February 1930, the Daily Mirror reported on the recovery of ‘an old mail-bag truck’

One of these was sent to the Post Office Record Room where it was stored sub-ground at King Edward Building. The second went on loan to the Tottenham Council Museum (postal section). The third was loaned to Hull Transport Museum and the fourth was sent to the Post Office London Engineering Department in Denman Street, this fourth item was recorded as having a ‘portion missing’.

In 1930 the Daily Mirror carried a report on the discovery of a ‘long-forgotten experimental pneumatic tube’ during excavation work near Euston Station.

The intervening years have seen the first and third of these disappear, their fate or whereabouts unknown. The second and fourth are held by The Postal Museum who arranged for conservation treatment on the intact railcar to be carried out, its long term survival is now assured. The other is in two halves, damage that appears to have been caused when it was cut out of the tube on rediscovery in 1930. Preserved in its current state and awaiting conservation treatment, the two halves of this item display some of the original fittings, such as (now charred) wooden blocks mounted at one end. Undoubtedly these caught alight when the tube was cut open to extract the rail carriages in 1930. Remarkably, there also are some remnants of the sealing india-rubber flange remaining on the top edge. The two railcars are rare survivors that bear silent witness to a lost, mostly unloved and very particular failure in postal communication.

The only known surviving intact Pneumatic Railcar, now on display in The Postal Museum. This was used in the original, smaller gauge railway and was used to convey mails from 20 Feb 1863

The only survivors from the Pneumatic Railway photographed in The Postal Museum’s large object store prior to the complete example going on display. The one closest is in two halves. Both were in service until October 1866. They are beside an example from their electrified younger cousin, the Post Office (London) Railway.

The railcar in two parts is currently located in our off-site large object store and can be seen on any of the scheduled public tours of that location, however visitors to The Postal Museum’s Mail Rail depot can see the remarkable intact pneumatic car on display there, alongside the much larger examples from the Mail Rail network that followed after this interesting, though ultimately doomed, Victorian experiment in pneumatic transport of mail below the streets of London.

– Julian Stray, Senior Curator

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