The travelling post office

railway-post-office-clerk Night Mail is a 20-minute documentary on postal workers. On a train between England and Scotland, in the 1930s. Don't even pretend you're not rolling your eyes.

Essentially this “documentary” (which is more like a bunch of postal workers reenacting their nightly duties, badly and adorably) follows the mail-express, a fast-moving steam train that used to hurtle every night from London to Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen).

Inside the train was a travelling post office. There were no passengers, but 40 postal workers would spend the night on the train, picking up, dropping off and sorting half a million letters.

They wouldn’t stop to make deliveries or pick-ups, instead relying on what seemed to me hilarious systems of dubious reliance.

FOR EXAMPLE... to make pick-ups, mail workers on the ground would attach post-bags to spring hooks and dangle them over the tracks: the impact of the train as it passed would knock them into special holding boxes in the carriages.

There is a cute and crazy moment in the film where they plan a drop-off, which again is basically to dangle the bags (tied on with STRING) outside the moving train, allowing the speed of impact to knock the bags into cages beside the tracks.

One of the postal workers asks “Now?” and the other says, “No, it’s two bridges and 45 beats yet.” And then they literally hang out the train-doors as they go under first one bridge then two, and then start counting the beats: clackety-clack – ONE – clackety-clack – TWO… and when they get to 45, out go the bags and WHACK, they are knocked into the waiting cages.

How’s that for scientific precision!

And yet with this seemingly-crazy system did the travelling post office manage to deliver half a million hand-sorted letters per night, every night, delivering 500 million letters to the people of England and Scotland, each year.

Lordy. With that amount of work, they absolutely deserved their own documentary!

Do you want to watch it? Ok I know. But if you DO, it's here:

What to know about more "movies about mail?" Here's a list I made for myself to watch a while back.

Image credit: this is a vintage image of the mail train in the USA, because I couldn't find a good one to use of the England-Scotland train, and screen grabs from the film weren't great quality. It has no known copyright restrictions, and the Smithsonian Institution Flickr page describes it as "A Railway Post Office clerk is photographed holding a mail pouch and leaning out of a Baltimore & Ohio railroad car next to the car's mail exchange arm, as if waiting to make a mail exchange."