History of the Travelling Post Office

The year 1838 not only saw the opening of important railway lines, and the Act of Parliament, but also the introduction of two vital inventions: the travelling post office and an apparatus for picking up and putting down mail bags from a moving train.

Back in August 1826 Rowland Hill had first suggested the sorting of letters on mail coaches but this came to nothing. Now, a proposal by George F Karstadt, a long-standing Post Office surveyor, was formally made via George Louis, the Superintendent of Mail Coaches, on 6 January (though it may have originated with Karstadt’s son Frederick).

What was proposed was a “travelling office” where mail could be sorted into the required bags en route. Louis suggested that “the measure should be experimental and that two intelligent and well disposed persons should be selected to perform the experimental duty between Birmingham and Liverpool when the Postmaster General and Colonel Maberley [Secretary] will be enabled to judge how the experiment answers and how far it may be right to adopt it permanently when the Rail Way from London comes into operation.” He recommended one of his clerks (Ellis) and Frederick Karstadt who had not worked for the Post Office before. This was approved by the Postmaster General and Karstadt junior was duly appointed. The first run took place on the Grand Junction Railway later in January (probably on the 20th) using a converted horse box, the journey from Birmingham to Liverpool via Warrington taking four and a half hours.

After the experiment had been running for a few months a purpose-built carriage was proposed. At the beginning of May a sketch was submitted, with dimensions stated to be: height 7 feet, length 16 feet, and width 7 feet 6 inches, which caused arguments with the railway companies. The number of wheels was left to the railway company directors and engineers even though this was a basis for payment. It was eventually agreed that four would suffice. Lichfield, the PMG,approved with the necessary instructions given that it “may be commenced forthwith”. Initially, it was built for the London & Birmingham line even though this was not yet fully open. The following month, another was constructed to the same plan for the Grand Junction Railway to replace the temporary converted horse box. Four were built in all. On 1 October, after the opening of the full length of the London & Birmingham Railway the new Travelling Post Office was carried from London through to Liverpool and with the opening of the North Union Railway on 7 November it continued direct to Preston, thus accelerating all the mails carried further by coach to Scotland.

Illustrations of both the exterior and interior of the carriage in the Illustrated London News had the following commentary: “Here is a specimen of that exhaustless
ingenuity which bids fair to annihilate time and space an improvement which enables the Post Office to practically work double tides, in other words to duplicate time by travelling and working at the same instant.”

Despite improvements in construction over the years conditions on board were far from ideal, with poor ventilation and the risk of serious injury, or even death. Seating was first supplied only in 1859. Then, in 1900, lavatory accommodation was installed on an Irish TPO which was “highly appreciated” by the staff.