Mail Rail Map

If you read yesterday’s post about my Mail Rail trip, you’ll remember that my slight quibble with the experience was that there weren’t any maps showing the route that the tour takes.

Well, I’ve found one. And I think it explains why they don’t shout about the route.

I was Googling for any maps of the whole Mail Rail system when I came across this blog post from 2013 where John Bull examined the documents that made up the planning request that the British Postal Museum and Archive had submitted to Islington Council. For real document buffs, the blog post included a link to the original planning request.

But, for me, the interesting part is the diagram I’ve included at the top of this post. It’s a map of the intended route. And it ties in well with the tour I took on Saturday, so I’m going to assume there were no changes in the four years between the planning request and the exhibit opening.

The Mail Rail exhibit is the coloured sections. The Postal Museum is on the other side of the road in the Calthorpe House. The bit in green is the entrance hall and gift shop and the blue bit is where you queue and board the train.

And the pink shows the route that the train takes. You can see it doesn’t go very far. In fact, it doesn’t make it out of the Mount Pleasant complex. It goes from the depot, takes a sharp turn to the right and pulls into the south-east Mount Pleasant platform. That’s where you see the first multi-media presentation. Once it pulls out of that station, the train comes off of the main tracks and takes a maintenance loop which brings it back into the same station but on the north-west platform where it stops for the second multi-media presentation. After that, it returns to the depot where the passengers alight.

So, all-in-all, you don’t get to see much of the system at all. I knew that you wouldn’t go far, but I’m a little surprised that you don’t get any further than Mount Pleasant station. And that, I expect, is why they don’t publicise the route.

To be clear, I still think it’s well worth a visit. And it’s great to see such an interesting part of London’s communication infrastructure open to the public.

But I really hope that in the future, more of the system can be opened up – even if it’s just for occasional trips for enthusiasts. I know I’d be first in line for a ticket.


Riding the Mail Rail

I rode the Mail Rail yesterday. It was very exciting. More about that in a minute. Before that, I went to the Postal Museum.

I’ve often thought that the UK needed a museum about the Post Office. And the new (well, newish – it’s been open a couple of months) Postal Museum is a really good start.

Most of the museum is a pretty standard chronological look at the postal service in the UK. There are exhibits telling the story of the service from its earliest incarnation five hundred years ago. It’s interesting and the displays are well-designed but I couldn’t help thinking it was all a bit simplified. There were many places where I would have welcomed a deeper investigation. Mind you, I find myself thinking that in many modern museums, so perhaps the problem is with me.

Towards the end of the museum is a small cinema area where they show various short films associated with the Post Office (yes, this includes Night Mail). I could have sat there watching all of them – but I didn’ t have the time. And I think they missed a trick by not selling a DVD of the films in the gift shop.

The Postal Museum is well worth a visit. It’s not as big as I thought it would be. We went round it all in about 45 minutes.

But the reason I left it a couple a months to visit the Postal Museum was because it was only this weekend that the other nearby attraction, the Mail Rail, finally opened to the public.

The Mail Rail is an underground railway system which, between 1927 and 2003 was used to transport post around London. I remember hearing about it soon after I first moved to London and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

And last week it opened as a visitor attraction. New carriages have been installed which are (only just) more comfortable for people to sit in and you can take a 20 minute guided tour of the line. Well, it’s 20 minutes if you include the time the train is sitting in the platform as you all board.

I enjoyed the ride. To be honest, I would have been happy just riding around the tunnels for 20 minutes, but there are a couple of points where you stop and are shown a multi-media presentation about the system and the postal service. A lot of time and money has been spent on them and they were really enjoyable (if not particularly informative).

As you leave the platform at the end of your ride, you pass though an interesting exhibition on the history of the system.

If I had one suggestion for improvement, I would like to have seen a map of the system with the bits that the tour covers marked. I suspect that you don’t actually get out of the bits of the system under Mount Pleasant sorting office. [Update: I found a map. See here for details.]

I recommend a visit. I’ll be returning at some point in the future to see it again.

Here’s a video I took of my tour.


A Life Well Documented

Recently I realised that two seemingly completely different projects were, in fact, both facets of the same project. They both led me to putting more detail about my history into web sites and (once they are complete) this will mean that my life will become far better documented.

The first project started when I dug out an old box of photographs. I was relatively late into digital photography so I have huge numbers of photos which just linger in boxes and albums instead of being enjoyed on Flickr. Also in the box I found the negatives for most of the films so I decided to start getting the negatives scanned in and put on CDs (if anyone is interested, it looks like Boots are the cheapest place to get this done).

This scanning is still in progress, but when I got the first few CDs back I realised that there were lots of photos of holidays and that I only had the vaguest of ideas when some of these holidays took place. So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve done pretty much all I can to tie down the dates of all of the holidays I’ve taken in the last fifteen years. I’ve gone through old passports looking for stamps. I’ve searched for email confirmations of flight bookings. I’ve even gone through my invoicing records to see which days I didn’t invoice clients for (an unexpected advantage of being a freelancer). As I’ve been going through this process, I’ve been adding the trips to my Dopplr account.

The project has expanded from just covering holidays. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in that time and I’ve also added those details to Dopplr. I don’t think I’m very far from having a complete record of every conference and meeting that I’ve ever spoken at.

The other project which eventually led in the same direction was my discovery of Songkick. Songkick aims to produce a complete directory of gigs. Users can add details of gigs they attended and mark themselves as having been at gigs added by other people. Trying to track down the dates of obscure gigs you attended in the late 1980s turns out to be a surprisingly addictive pastime. I’m sure I’ll never get everything into my account, but it’s certainly fun trying. I don’t even mind that the first gig I ever attended was supremely embarrassing.

Songkick currently has one obvious omission. It would be great if they would publish a users list of gigs (or “gigography” as they call it) as an iCal feed so that I could subscribe to it in Google Calendar. I’m sure that something like that will be added to the site soon.

There’s an obvious crossover between these two projects of course. Some gigs (more usually, festivals) can also count as holidays. Every time I went to Glastonbury or the Cambridge Folk Festival, that’s going to need to be listed in both Dopplr and Songkick.

Two interesting projects. Neither of them will ever be 100% complete, but it’s fun trying to get as close as you can. Of course, they both appeal to the “High Fidelity” style list geek in me. If these tools had been available thirty years ago I would certainly have been using them. And that would have given me an incredibly rich set of data about how I spent my time. One that I’m now painfully trying to piece together a bit at a time.

I’m fast coming to the conclusion that you can’t ever have enough data about your life. I’m now looking for new data sets that I could add to my life history.


Internet Genealogy

In 1992 I started tracing my family history. The two main tools for amateur genealogists (at least until they get back to about 1840) are the indexes of registrations of births, deaths and marriages and the returns from the census which has been taken every ten years since 1841 (there are earlier censuses, but they don’t record individual names).

Back when I started, accessing these records was a painfully manual process. The BMD indexes were held in large leather-bound volumes in St Catherine’s House on the Aldwych. The members of the public were free to search these volumes looking for references to their ancestors. Once you had the reference numbers you needed, you could fill in a form, pay £5.50 and a week or so later a copy of the certificate would drop through your letterbox.

The census records were slightly easier to deal with. They had been scanned onto film and microfiche, so you had to go to the Public Record Office on Chancery Lane to spend hours searching for your ancestors’ names – often written in a hard to read nineteenth century hand. And, of course,  the records were ordered by parish, so if your ancestors moved it became a very hit and miss affair. I spent many days hunched over a microfiche reader or risking physical damage by lugging the oversized BMD indexes around and I still have piles of notebooks full of the notes I took over fifteen years ago.

I largely stopped research several years ago. It was just too hard to make much progress. I didn’t have the time to put into in. Towards the end of the period I was working on the project the census and BMD records were both brought together in the Family Records Centre in Islington, but the basic process was still just the same.

Recently I decided to get back into tracing my family tree. And I’m amazed to see how much things have changed in  the intervening years. These days you can do most of what I did fifteen years ago from the comfort of your own home. All of the census records are available online as are a large proportion of the BMD indexes. I put this down to a combination of two factors. Firstly the Public Records Office (who own the census) and the General Register Office (who own the BMD data) have become more aware of the potential of sharing this data across the internet. And secondly there has been a massive increase in the public’s interest in genealogy. This is obvious from the success of TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are and the large number of family history magazines that are published each month.

It hasn’t all been successful. When the 1901 census was first put online in 2002, the site soon collapsed under the strain and remained unavailable for over six months. These days the government just licenses the data to commercial organisations like Ancestry and FindMyPast and lets them deal with the scaling issues. This leads to a slightly confusing situation where different companies have access to different sets of census data and you might end up having to pay more than one company in order to have access to all of the data you need. It’s not ideal but it’s far better than it was when I started out.

For example, all of the census search sites have indexed the data. That means that you’re no longer just skimming scans of the original documents. You can search for names and you’ll be given a list of matching records from anywhere in the country. That has helped me track down a large number of previously missing ancestors. Of course, you’re relying on someone else’s interpretation of nineteenth centrury handwriting, but you get used to typical transcription errors. I’m finding that my mother’s surname, Sowman, is often mistranscribed as “Lowman”. An easy mistake to make if you see the original document.

BMD records are also being indexed. But at a slower rate. A wonderful project called FreeBMD are working on it. Currently their coverage is great for the nineteenth century, but patchier for the twentieth. They’re working on that though and are still looking for volunteers to help with the project.

Soon after I started out, in the 90s, I bought a book called “The Genealogists Internet”. To be honest it was rather a desultory affair. There wasn’t much out there and what there was had been created by genealogists with very little knowledge of the power of the internet. Recently I bought a copy of the fourth edition. And what a change their has been. These days the internet has amazing amounts of genealogical data available. The book’s web site has a links section which I’m still working my way through almost a month later. Plenty of interesting stuff there.

If you’re interested in tracing your family tree then now is a great time to start. You can make great progress just sitting in front of your computer. I’ve got my tree back to the late eighteenth century without any trouble at all. And I’m from a line of complete peasants who made no mark on the world at all.

If you try to trace your family (or if you already have), I’d be very interested in hearing how you did.


James Cross, Lifeboatman

Commemorative Tankard My family have lived in the same part of Essex for over two hundred years. The earliest record I can find is a Thomas Cross who was born in Little Clacton in 1789. Thomas was my great, great, great, great grandfather. The family moved to Great Clacton soon afterwards and then (once it was created in 1871) to Clacton-on-Sea.

Coming forward a couple of  generations from Thomas, we find my great, great grandfather James Cross. He was born in Great Clacton in 1844. By all accounts, James loved boats and loved the sea. When the Clacton-on-Sea life boat service was set up in 1878 he signed up very quickly and soon became the second coxswain on the boat.

Over the following years James was involved in many sea rescues. One of the most famous was in 1881 when the French lugger Madeline was wrecked on Gunfleet Sands. The Clacton life boat saved the lives of the sixteen crewmembers. This was big news at the time and the French Government presented James and the coxswain with gold medals. The tankard in the picture dates from the same year and we’ve always assumed that it is associated with the same event. The tankard has been in our branch of the family for as long as my father can remember. We assume that the medal is in some other branch of the family. There’s a photo of it on this page. I should try to track down that part of the family. The engraving on the tankard says:

Presented to
James Cross
By The Subscribers
To The Fund
Raised In Recognition Of
Brave Services Rendered In The
Clacton On Sea
Life Boat

James remained second coxswain of the life boat until 1884. On January 23rd of that year, the boat was called out to investigate some flares that had been seen off the coast. The rescue went tragically wrong and the life boat very nearly capsized. Most of the crew managed to hang on, but James Cross and Thomas Cattermole were washed away and drowned. James left a wife, Sarah Jane, and seven children, including my great grandfather Albert. I remember knowing this story when I was young. The old lifeboat house on Clacton Pier had crew lists and news cuttings on the wall and I used to enjoy going to read them. The lifeboat has now moved to a new building. I should go along and see it they still have that information on the wall.

Fifteen years ago, when I started researching my family history, no-one seemed completely clear exactly where James fitted into the family tree. Filling in the details of his life was one of the earliest (and most satisfying) successes that my research had. These days, of course, this information is all on the internet and far easier to find. One of the motivations for writing this post was to see it any other relations find it and get in touch. As I said, James had seven children so he should have plenty of descendants.

When I was visiting my parents last month I finally got my act together and took some photos of the tankard. Shiny tankards aren’t the easiest things to photograph, but I out of the dozen or so photos I took, there were a few that were usable. Hence, the photo at the top of this entry which gives me an excuse to write something about my family history.