Opening of the pneumatic despatch tube at the Holborn end

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Article found in The Illustrated London News magazine of 18 November 1865.

The system of conveyance by atmospheric propulsion through tube, which was lately exhibited in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, and had previously been tried on the short experimental line at Battersea, as well as in the neighbourhood of the Euston-square station, in Seymour-street and Eversholtstreet, Camden Town, has now obtained an important practical extension by the opening of the line from Euston-square to Holborn - a distance of one mile and three quarters - whence it will be continued another mile eastward to the General Post Office. St. Martin’s-le-Grand. The premises. No. 245, Holborn, which are the present terminus of the line are well worthy of a visit of inspection.

Entering from the level of the street, the visitor passes along a corridor through a doorway, and emerges upon a gallery of considerable size, from which he looks down on a brick floor, supporting lines of rails, much as he might do from a railway platform down on to the line, but from greater elevation. Underneath the corridor which he has just entered he sees some mechanical appliances, suggestive partly of engine-room and partly of a pointsman’s gallery outside a railway station ; and below the level, again, on which the white-jacketed engineer in charge is standing, and supporting the platform on which both he and these mechanical appliances rest, are a couple of openings, looking like black, polished modem chimney-pieces, with the grates withdrawn. These are the mouths of the pneumatic tubes, of which one communicates with the North-Western Railway; the other, idle at present, will soon be drawing in and delivering mail-bags from and to the postal head-quarters in London. The mouth of each tube is shut, when the tube is exhausted of air, by iron folding-doors, which meet, not evenly, but at angle projecting outwards so to resist the atmospheric pressure from without. These doors are made to fly open on the approach of the train, the bolt which closes them being withdrawn by the action of a spring lever, which underlies the rails, and gives way beneath the weight of the train. The carriages am shaped like capital D turned over on its straight side and mounted upon wheels. Each end of the carriage has a raised hood, or flange, shaped so as to correspond with the interior of the tube, the dimensions which are 4 ft. in height by 4 ft. 6 in. in width. Their ordinary freight expected to be in the first instance letter-bags, then probably railway parcels, certain descriptions of market produce, and ultimately, it may be, general merchandise.

On the opening day the Duke of Buckingham, chairman of the Pneumatic Despatch Company, had invited a number of scientific gentlemen to inspect the apparatus. After the train had made some successful passages to and from, several of the party expressed a strong desire to pass through the tube themselves. They were warned that the line was "not constructed with a view to passenger traffic," and that they might find the way "a little rough." The spirit of adventure, however, prompted them to take this strange journey, and each of the waggons had soon as many occupants as it could comfortably accommodate in the recumbent posture enforced by circumstances. Tarpaulin coverings were obtained for one or two of the carriages, but the greater number of the excursionists had to fit themselves in as best they could among the bags of shingle, which made the temporary loading, taking care to keep their heads well below the edge of the carriages.

"The sensation starting, and still more so upon arriving (say some of the passengers), was not agreeable. For about a quarter of a minute in each case there was a pressure upon the ears suggestive of diving-bell experience, a suction like that with which one is drawn under a wave, and a cold draught of wind upon the eyes, having almost the effect of falling water; but, once fairly within the tube, these sensations were got rid of, or left behind, and the motion had little, more positive discomfort about it than would be attendant on riding on a 'lorry' over the worst ballasted line in England." The air within the tube was by no means foul or disagreeable; here and there a strong flavour of rust was encountered, but this was explained by the fact that, as the tube had to be laid in lengths, through various soils, and encountered in the process a large share of unfavourable weather, the corrosion on the surface of the iron could not be expected wholly te disappear until cleared away by the friction of constantly passing and repassing trains. On the arrival of the excursionists at the upper or Euston-square extremity of the line, they quitted their places for a new moments to inspect the smaller tube, which communicates with the Everholt-street distric post-office, and then returned by this way they had come to Holborn.

No doubt remained on the mind of any person who witnessed the opening trip as to the facilities which the system, if a sufficient number of stations can incorporated with it, is calculated to afford, not only to the postal service, but to the requirements of the general public. The scheme of the company, who, it seems, possess under their Act powers to lay down pneumatic tubes at any points within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Board of Works, is to construct similar lines to that now opened between the ten district post-offices and the General Post Office, and between the different railway termini and goods depots in London, connecting with these lines the six principal London markets and other important points. For these purposes it is calculated that some thirty-five miles of tubing and a capital of £1,250,000 will be required, the cost per mile roughly estimated being from £30,000 to 35,000. The expenditure of the company hitherto has been probably £150,000, which would be largely in excess of this supposed average ; but the sum mentioned includes the cost of preliminary experiments, and also of seeking for two Acts of Parliament. The company expect that great profits will eventually accrue to them from the carriage of goods. 

The author of this article and the artist of the drawing are unknown. Since it is published far more than 70 years ago, both are believed to be in the Public Domain.

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Opening of the pneumatic despatch tube at the Holborn end

  Last updated: 25-01-2019

Opening of the pneumatic despatch tube at the Holborn end

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