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British Industrial History

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Pneumatic Despatch Co

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Pneumatic tube engineers, of 6 Victoria Street, Westminster

Sir Rowland Hill of the General Post Office commissioned two engineers to investigate the feasibility of a pneumatic tube-based package transport system for the General Post Office in London. In 1855 and 1856 they reported favourably but there would be significant cost. The scheme was not progressed.

In 1859 Thomas Webster Rammell and Josiah Latimer Clark proposed an underground tube network in central London. The company was founded[1] with offices at 6 Victoria Street, Westminster.

1859 An Act of Parliament was passed granting certain powers to the Pneumatic Despatch CoLtd[2].

1860 A prospectus was issued for the company, which would build on the experience of the Electric and International Telegraph Co which had used such a system between Lothbury, Cornhill and the Stock Exchange for some years[3].

1860 Thomas Webster Rammell gained a patent on improvements to pneumatic railways and tubes[4].

1861 The first full-scale trial of the pneumatic system was at Battersea during the summer. A single tube was installed, 452 yards long, with curves of up to 300 feet radius and gradients of up to 1 in 22. The 2-foot gauge track was cast inside the tube. Wheeled capsules were fitted with vulcanised rubber flaps to make an air seal. Power was provided by a 30 horse-power steam engine. Single capsules weighed up to 3 tonnes, and achieved speeds up to 40 mph. The first line would be between the North West District Office of the GPO, in Eversholt Street, and Euston Station.

1862 Access to Euston station was agreed; the tube would be 2ft 9in high and 2ft 6in wide; the pump would be moved from Battersea[5].

1863 A permanent line of 2-foot gauge was constructed between Euston railway station and the North West District Post Office in Eversholt Street, a distance of approximately a third of a mile. Operation started on 20 February. A capsule conveying up to 35 bags of mail could make the short journey in one minute.

The company sought to develop further lines within London. Work started on a line from Euston to Holborn in September 1863 with a cross section about 4 times as large as the original tube. The tubes were constructed by the Staveley Coal and Iron Co.

1863 The system was described and illustrated in The Practical Mechanic's Journal. Air was drawn out or forced into the tubes by a fan 21 ft diameter, driven by a single cylinder engine of 15" bore, 16" stroke, supplied by James Watt and Co. A pressure of 3" - 4" of water was produced by the fan (called the pneumatic ejector) at 100-110 rpm.[6]

1865 Operations started on the new line. The engineers were Messrs Samuda, Rammell and Clark[7]. Another line, from Holborn to Gresham Street via the General Post Office on St Martin's le Grand, was under construction.

By 1866 a tube from Holborn to Hatton Garden had been constructed but was halted due to financial problems.

1868 Construction re-started on the Holborn to Hatton Garden line which was completed to St. Martin's le Grand in 1869.

1874 The Post Office made several trials of the system; transport underground was indeed faster than on the surface but handling the mail in/out of the cars and up to the surface was a protracted process and the Post Office concluded that the system did not provide substantial time savings, so its use was abandoned.

1874 As a trial of a means of reducing pollution in the Metropolitan Railway's tunnels between Gower Street and Portland Road, valves were introduced connecting with the Pneumatic Despatch Co's tube, to suck out the smoke produced by the trains[8]. The immediate effect was favourable but later reports suggested there had been of little general benefit[9].

1875 the company went into liquidation.

1895 Mr George Threlfall found out about the disused tubes, and that the Pneumatic Despatch Co had been granted unusually wide powers by Act of Parliament. He devised a scheme for re-equipping the tubes using electric power but it took him considerable time to track down the old plans. He then formed a scheme to bring the old company back into existence in order that it might lease the rights and the tubes to a new enterprise, the London Despatch Co, that would make use of electric power[10] [11].

1897 The Pneumatic Despatch Co was restored to the list of Joint Stock Companies, as if it had never been removed, and the accounts for the years 1875 to 1896 would be submitted[12].

1905 The London Despatch Company was finally liquidated.

1921 The Postmaster General purchased the tubes, etc of the Pneumatic Despatch Co[13] to re-use the tubes for running telephone cables.

1924 The company was liquidated[14].

1927 After a gas explosion attributed to gas build up in the tubes, the Post Office had to fill in or ventilate its Pneumatic Despatch tunnels.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Times, 4 October 1876
  2. London Gazette Issue, 16 August 1859
  3. The Times, 29 May 1860
  4. London Gazette Issue 22792, 27 November 1863
  5. The Times, 26 November 1862
  6. The Practical Mechanic's Journal, June 1863
  7. The Times, 8 November 1865
  8. The Standard, 29 July 1874
  9. The Morning Post, 15 May 1889
  10. The Times, 5 October 1899
  11. The Times, 14 October 1899
  12. London Gazette Issue 26818 29 January 1897
  13. London Gazette Issue 32525, 22 November 1921
  14. London Gazette, 4 January 1924