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Pneumatic despatch

Pneumatic despatch (or pneumatic dispatch) is the name given to Victorian PCPs using large diameter pipelines. These were generally more than 1 foot in diameter. The systems were beset by inadequacies in the technology, and experienced a mixture of political problems and bad timing. Unlike telegram conveyors, pneumatic despatch systems failed on almost every criteria set for them. In spite of this, they engendered a passion in those that promoted them.

London Pneumatic Despatch Company

The growth of telegram conveyors aroused the interest of the British Post Office in London. They commissioned two engineers (Gregory and Cowper) to investigate the possibility of a pneumatic tube based system between the General Post Office and a point on the corner of Little Queen Street and Holborn - to be the site of the West District Central Post Office. The engineers reported in 1855 and 1856 that such an idea was possible, (especially if 15" diameter used), but at significant cost. The Post Office dropped the idea.
In 1859 Thomas Webster Rammell and Latimer Clark combined Medhurst's ideas with knowledge of the Post Office's interest in PCP, to develop the London Pneumatic Despatch . Rammell had previously proposed the development of an elevated street railway using two-carriage trains powered by atmospheric railway technology: the victorian equivalent of modern automated people mover systems . They now proposed the development of an underground tube network within central London "for the more speedy and convenient circulation of despatches and parcels" . It seems the engineers had aspirations for the system to eventually transport all kinds of general freight, and passengers. The network would link the main railway termini to post offices and marketplaces. Capsules would be powered by compressed air in one direction, atmospheric pressure in the other, with the capsule acting as a piston and adapted it to work with a stationary steam engine, a large reversible fan, and very low air pressure or vacuum . The London Pneumatic Despatch Company (also sometime referred to as the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company) was formed on 30th June 1859 , and its Act of Parliament empowering the Company to open the streets and lay down tubes received the Royal Assent on 13th August 1859.
The company initially raised £25,000 in order to test the technology and construct a pilot route. Early experiments were conducted at the Soho works of Boulton and Watt in Birmingham . The first full-scale trial was on land owned by Vauxhall Waterworks and the London Brighton and South Coast Railway at Battersea, to the south-west of central London, during the summer of 1861. A single tube 30 x 33 inches ( quotes 2'9"x2'5" diameter) and 452 yards long, with curves up to 300 ft radius and gradients up to 1 in 22 was installed on the surface. 24 inch gauge track was cast inside the tube, upon which capsules fitted with vulcanised rubber flaps to make air seal ran. Power was provided by a 30 horse-power engine with 21 foot diameter fan. Single capsules weighed up to 3 tons, and achieved speeds up to 40 mph at pressures of 1 to 6 oz/sq in .
A permanent line was constructed between the Euston station of the London and North Western Railway (beneath platform one), and the North West District Post Office in Eversholt Street (1/3 mile), using a 30 inch diameter tube and similar technology to that tested at Battersea. The line was tested from 15th January 1863, and put into operation on 20th February 1863 ( states 1862). A single capsule, conveying up to 35 bags of mail could make the short journey between terminals in one minute, twice the speed of mailcarts. 13 journeys were operated each day, with a daily operating cost of £1 4s 5d. The Post Office were charged a nominal fee for use of the service, presumably to encourage them to accept the technology. Vance comments that the system had a much higher capacity than the requirement to move mail, and hence if the full costs of operating the limited postal traffic within the system had been passed onto the Post Office, the rate charged would be higher than the alternative mailcart.
The scheme caused considerable interest among the Victorian journalists .
The company sought to develop further lines within London, and attempted to raise an additional £125,000 of capital. The prospectus proposed a network of lines between "points so important that it is unnecessary to dwell upon the magnitude of the traffic that must naturally arise between them" (have modern transport planning techniques really changed that much in 140 years?). The first line was to have been a route linking the Camden Town and Euston (Square) stations of the London and North Western Railway.
The pneumatic despatch was extended from Euston to Holborn. One source () suggests this line opened in 1862, although this seems unlikely given other evidence. Another source () suggests construction of the route did not start until September 1863, suggesting a route different from that shown in the company's prospectus (from Euston station, under Drummond Street, Hampstead Road and Tottenham Court Road to Broad Street, St Giles, where it turned sharply east under the company's offices at 245 Holborn). The first 'trains' ran on 10 October 1865, with a director's tour shortly after that date (shown in the accompanying picture). Capsules ran in tubes 4 feet 6 inches wide and 4 feet high. Power was initially provided by two horizontal engines with 24 in cylinders, three boilers, and a 22 ft diameter fan working at 150 rpm, creating air pressure and vacuum of about 5 oz/sq in . Capsules achieved an average speed of 17 miles per hour. The initial system was reported to be under-powered, primarily because of excessive leakage of air.
A further route from Holborn to Gresham Street, and hence by branch 'line' to the Central Post Office on Cheapside was under construction at the time the Euston - Holborn route opened. A 3/8 mile tube from Holborn to Hatton Garden had been constructed by the time of the 1866 financial crisis . £150,000 had been spent by this time. Construction was re-started in 1868, when unspecified additional finance was found for the route, and it was completed to Newgate Street (for the General Post Office) in 1869 . The Newgate Street terminus was 1,658 yards from Holborn and 4,738 yards from Euston. The journey time from the General Post Office was 17 minutes, at speeds of up to 60 mph. The route included a section with two gradients of 1 in 15 to take the tubes across the Fleet Valley - a point at which water tended to fill the tube, resulting in certain consignments arriving at their destinations wet.
In 1860 the Post Office had been cautious about using the Pneumatic Despatch, stating "in the event of their scheme being successfully completed and brought into operation, the Post Office will be quite willing to consider the question of extending to the Mail Service any advantages which the Company's plans are capable of affording" [3]. The failure of the Post Office to use the system, combined with the loss of capital resulting from the 1866 financial crisis, caused the company serious financial problems.
The company obtained further powers to construct additional routes in London from Parliament in August 1872. One source ([1]) suggests routes were constructed to St Pancras, Kings Cross and Liverpool Street stations. Another source ([8]) suggest the company intended to build an extension to Pickford's parcel depot [in the city of London], which was not started due to a shortage of funds. The company opened the system to the public for the carriage of parcels, 'in the face of a Post Office monopoly' [8]. During 1872 the company stopped paying the Post Office rent for the station site at the General Post Office.
At the beginning of 1874 the Post Office respoded by agreeing to use the system for traffic from the Central Post Office to Euston. However it found only a 4 minute time saving to be achieved, and doubted the system's reliability or ability to convey heavier loads. In October 1874 the Post Office informed the company that there was no long term prospect of Post Office traffic on the system, and the system was shut [1]. The company gave notice of its liquidation in June 1875, although it was not wound-up until 7 March 1882 [8]. Rammell, like many others who have taken an interest in PCP, was said to be obsessed with the construction of such pneumatic 'railways' [7].
The tubes were retained for at least 20 years, while the Post Office considered electric traction. The company was restored in 1895, in the belief that the Post Office would wish to use the old tunnels. In 1899 the American, Batcheller acquired the rights of the Pneumatic Despatch Company, with a view to developing services for the Post Office. The tunnels were eventually purchased by the Post Office in 1921, to run telephone cables in [8]. In 1928 a build up of gas in one of the disused tunnels caused an explosion near High Holborn. The Post Office was forced to investigate and fill in or ventilate all similar tunnels. In 1930 four of the original vehicles were recovered north of Euston. At least two of the original vehicles still survive. One is displayed in the Museum of London. The other was initially displayed in the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham, London, before being moved to the British National Railway Museum at York. It is on public display behind an exhibit from London's underground Post Office railway - a very visual statement of the relationship between the two systems.