Victorian high tech: the pneumatic railway

I was tracing one of my character’s walks through Holborn, using Google street view and walking my little man along, when I noticed the street name changed to “Holborn Viaduct” and then I came upon structures that looked Victorian and bridge-like. Turned out I was on top of this:

Photo by Matt Brown, Wikipedia

So I looked it up. There wasn’t much at the Wikipedia page, but I found much more at this engineering site. According to this:

Holborn Viaduct is 427m long and 24.4m wide, and is a complex structure mainly of masonry. It incorporated subways for a sewer, a gas main, telegraph wires, the pneumatic despatch railway used by Royal Mail and an Edison electric power station.

What the heck is a “pneumatic despatch railway”? So I went down that rabbit hole for an afternoon.

Way back in 2013 the New Statesman published an article about what they call the “Victorian hyperloop”, a pneumatic railway for the mail in London.

It was a fascinating technology, essentially an underground tube with cars that carried the mail across town. It was tested above ground at Battersea.

The first one was inaugurated at Holborn (did it go through the viaduct? no, it went under it, but not till 1865, two years too late for my character).

People could fit in it.

And they experienced “no ill effect”.

Illustrated London News, 7 February 1863 p. 135.

It was so exciting that it appeared on a cigarette card:

From The Postal Museum

A human-sized line was run from Crystal Palace in Sydenham so people could try it and see how it worked.

It worked very well. You put your mail (or busybody investor) into the car, and sealed up the end, forming a vacuum. One direction pushed, the other sucked. The first section was supposed to be a straight shot from the Euston Station packages depot to Holborn, but the Duke of Bedford didn’t want the digging, so it had to have a turn. They ran another from the General Post Office. Telegraph wires ran alongside for signalling. Some reports said it got up to 60 miles per hour; other estimates were more modest. Either way it got the mail there in minutes, and avoided the streets above, which were overcrowded with unregulated traffic, including carts, horses, pedestrians, cabs, etc.

Illustrated London News, 28 February 1863

There were approvals for more branches, but not enough money. A few technical problems, yes, and it didn’t save as much time as hoped, but the main problem was cash.

The New Statesman was using the pneumatic railway (also known as an “atmospheric railway”) to tease Elon Musk, and rightly so. This thing was planned to run all over London, underground. Infrastructure was part of the plan. Even though it ran out of money, and was left derelict, pneumatic tubes for papers would become part of businesses and banks (the bank up the street has one, and I remember the thrill of using one at the drive-through bank when I was a child).

I think it’s a shame that the reporting of new hyperloops is so ahistorical. Even this criticism of Virgin Hyperloop only cites the TGV and a similar Chinese line from seventeen years ago. I would have loved to know about this Victorian model before.

4 thoughts to “Victorian high tech: the pneumatic railway”

  1. Pneumatic railways have been missing from all the Steampunk novels I’ve read.

Comments are closed.