Mail van

From Chums, 4 January 1893

OK maybe there is a bit more to it. So, here is A Run with the Mail Van:

The Western Mail is one of the most remarkable trains in this country. It leaves Paddington station each evening at nine o’clock, and goes its way to the Land’s End like a great feeding machine, supplying in its transit nearly every western town with letters. It was with this train that I was to journey, and at half-past eight o’clock I found myself in Paddington Station, chatting with Mr. King, the superintendent of the two mail vans, the general custos rotulorum, and the especial guardian of all the important documents and parcels which go from London by this mail. The whole scene was then very busy. The terminus glowed with dozens of fine huge electric lights, porters were bawling, passengers were hurrying, luggage was being hurled here and there, a great express locomotive was being backed against the night express, and all was confusion, bustle, and method.

My attention, however, was not for the ordinary things of railway life. I looked at once for the mail vans and observed that two such carriages stood at the very head of the train. They were magnificent carriages, over forty feet in length, and a covered way of leather allowed exit from one into the other. Each van was lighted by more than fourteen bright gas-jets, and when I put my head into the first I observed a scene of great liveliness-but let me describe the van a little more closely.

Imagine a long carriage built something like a Pullman car, only one without windows or seats. Look on the right-hand side, and observe down the whole length of it a leather-covered narrow table, above which and receding slightly is a long rack with pigeon-holes innumerable. At this table stand many clerks, piles of letters in front of them, gas-jets above them, and plenty of work at hand to do. With lightning-like speed these experts are sorting the letters and putting into the pigeon-holes. Farther on other men are sorting parcels, whole others again are receiving at he carriage door great bags of letters which have just come from the mail carts standing there outside. The whole work must be done with such speed that no one has a moment to speak, hardly to breath. For myself, I presented my credentials and received a hearty welcome from Mr King but it was a welcome in a breath.

"Come in," he said, "and sit where you like. I am now checking the mail bags, and have not a moment to spare."

I accepted his invitation, and entered to examine the carriage, one half of which--the lefthand side, to wit--I have described for you. But the other side is, from our point of view, the more important. This is largely padded with leather, but there are innumerable brass hooks down its length, whereon the bags are hung, and there are two large openings in its side which we must notice very closely. The first I judge to be about four feet square, an opening unprotected from the air without, so that when you travel at sixty miles an hour, as we did presently, the air rushes in and sweeps is the space for the great net which catches the mail bags, and if you at the net you see that it is hung upon an iron folding frame, a frame which can be opened by a lever in the carriage and lowered. When the frame is shut the net is folded closely against the side of the mail van; when it is open the net is stretched out above the footboard of the carriage, and is ready to receive any bag dropped into it.

The second opening in this carriage was, as it were, the antithesis to the one I have described. It was unlike the first because it was covered by a sliding panel of glass, but when the glass was drawn back, you observed that two strong iron arms were fixed outside the carriage, and that this aperture gave access to them. The arms were curious things. In a normal position they stood up flat against the side of the van, but if any great weight were hung upon them they were drawn down against the strong iron springs, so that they stood out at right angles to the upright side of the vehicle. I noted that when the bars were so put out there was a clamp something like a padlock at the end of each of them, and I learnt subsequently that this clamp held the letter-bags, and only released them under pressure strong enough to force back its spring.

A This description may be voted prosy by you, but it is necessary to understand what happened en route. Let it suffice for the moment, and let me go on to that moment when the guard whistled, and the great engine began to move. Slowly from the bright lights we went out into the darkness. The scene within the two vans was now of the brightest, for the lights shone at the full, and the fourteen clerks were pitching letters into the pigeon-holes in a way that was inspiriting to see. Mr. King himself was doing fifty things at the one time, keeping an eye on the letters, giving directions, making up his total of bags, and checking. The left-hand side of the second van was now packed with letter-bags which had to be sorted before dawn, and it was with some interest that I learnt how the business was done. It seems that the letters are roughly sorted at the G.P.O. Our train, for instance, passed several big collecting and delivering places, the first being Southall, then Slough, Maidenhead, and Twyford. The letters to be delivered at these places were duly sorted and put ready before we left town, but the rest of them for towns beyond Reading were divided in district bags only. Thus, one great bag would have letters for small places between Reading and Didcot, and the clerks would have to sort them before Reading was reached; other bags had letters for towns between Swindon and Bath--and so on right down to the Land's End.

But look--we are getting up speed. We have roared through Ealing and Hanwell, and are nearing Southall. I took the opportunity to cross through the covered way from one carriage to the other, and stood by the side of the net opening, for I knew that letters were to be thrown out and taken in at Southall. As the station was neared all became busy. The glass partition hiding the hooks was drawn back, and the hooks were open ready to receive the bags. I noticed that one clerk produced two canvas bags of letters, and that another took down a great leather case with four stout straps across it, and wrapped the light bags by binding them in this hard case, and buckling them with four flaps. Meanwhile the clerk at the other window, looking out into the night, waited for the moment to lower the net. Wonderful to tell, this man judged that moment by the sound which the train was making. If he had lowered the net an instant too soon the whole side of the carriage might have been torn away. But he knew his work too well. He told me that every bridge, every stream, the sound that the carriage made passing over any point, was known to him by constant study, and that he had never had such an accident. It was nervous work all the same, and as the time neared I found myself getting more than excited. But listen--we have passed the last bridge; with one motion of the lever the net has dropped, and as it does so a big bell above us rings loudly, and continues to ring while the net is down. At the other opening the other clerk has hooked the two heavy leathern cases on the upright arms, and the weight of them has dragged the arms down so that they stand well away from the carriage. We are all ready, and we wait for the crash. Now for it--thud, thud, thud. I thought for a moment that the whole side of the carriage had come in. We seemed to roll and tremble, there was a sound as of tearing and ripping; before I knew where I was the two arms had been released and the bags had disappeared. In the same moment two other bags of a like kind had come whirling into the carriage. Here they flew, there they flew, there was a mighty dodging of heads, some quick execrations, the ringing of the bell ceased, the net was shut up with a bang--we had made our first collection.

When I had recovered my breath and assured myself that my head was not missing, I looked up to see that the busy clerks had already clutched the bag which we had taken, and were sorting it. I should tell you that the net when open has a strong leather band above it, and that at the side of the line there is a high steel arm, similarly made to the short arms on the side of our carriage. This arm is attended to by a man from the local post office, who hangs the mail bags on it a few moments before the mail is due. Directly the leather band on the net strikes the extended arm, it whisks the bag off into the net of our carriage, and lets the arm fly up straight again to be out of the way of following trains.

I should tell you that I had scarcely recovered from the surprise of one collection before the bell rang again, and another was made at Slough. So it was all the way down. Every few miles the carriage seemed to reel, there was a terrific thud, and we picked up bags. Most fascinating was it too to watch my friend, the clerk, listening in the dark places for the sound which told him when to let the bag down. Now the hollow ring of a bridge, now the echo of a cutting, or the peculiar whish of trees and shrubs that we passed, gave the signal. He never made a mistake, was never an instant too soon or too late, and the moment the alarm bell rang I heard the crash, and saw the letter bags come flying in. True, at the larger stations, Reading, Didcot, Bath, Bristol, we stopped, and amidst a scene of bright confusion gave our bags by hand to the mail men whose carts were about the door. But for those with me there was no rest. They had not time even to eat a sandwich or get supper. Through all the dark hours until the dawn broke over the hazy fields, and the mists lifted to let me see the letter apparatus by the clear light of day, it was the same round. The same busy sorting, the same throwing out of letters, the same crashing and reverberating. Next day, truly, the men would sleep while the world worked, but on the following night they would start from the West on their long journey; and so through all the year.

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