Western District Post Office, 35–50 Rathbone Place (demolished)
By Peter Guillery, on 11 August 2017
This, the second of our postal posts, is a complement to the story of the East London Mail Centre published here on 11 November 2016 with its mention of the narrow-gauge Post Office Underground Railway or ‘Mail Rail’. Since then, in July 2017, a section of Mail Rail has been restored to use and opened to the public at the Postal Museum at Mount Pleasant (see www.postalmuseum.org). This railway was a mail-transport line that connected Whitechapel to Paddington. Tunnels at a shallow depth (averaging around 70ft) and 9ft in diameter were built by John Mowlem and Company in 1914–17, though the tracks were not laid and equipment fitted until 1924–7 for what opened as the world’s first driverless electric railway.
Another aspect of the line’s history relates to a site in south-east Marylebone, the area that is covered in the Survey of London’s forthcoming volumes 51 and 52, set for publication in late 2017. A site immediately above the mail-transport line in the West End, on the west side of Rathbone Place, suffered significant Second World War bomb damage. Despite the railway the Post Office faced growing problems with access and loading at its West End offices (Western Central District Office, New Oxford Street: Western District Office, Wimpole Street; and Western District Parcels Office, Bird Street). This was said after the war to pose ‘the worst postal accommodation problem in the country’.1 It led to a decision to replace the last two depots and their underground stations with a new Western District Office at Rathbone Place. The site was designated for compulsory acquisition to this end in the London County Council’s Development Plan of 1952, and passage of the Post Office Site and Railway Bill in 1954 enabled the purchase of 2.3 acres, in the event voluntary. With Sir William Halcrow & Partners as engineers the railway was expensively diverted from a diagonal south-east to north-west path across the site to take on an east–west line for a station with two platforms square to the intended building. The cut-and-cover underground works were carried out in 1956–9. Elbow room thus gained permitted a facility less like a Tube station than the line’s earlier stops. Designs for the building above were reworked in 1960 by Alan Dumble, a senior architect in the Ministry of Works. Its first, in the event only, eastern phase was largely up by 1963. The new Western District Office was opened on 3 August 1965 by the Postmaster General, Anthony Wedgwood (Tony) Benn.
On the long Rathbone Place frontage the building’s concrete frame was expressed in a 28-bay grid between Portland stone-faced stair towers. The fourth storey was set back leaving the structural frame as openwork. Along the pavement, mural artwork was intended but never made. A plan to extend westwards, also not seen through, meant that the utilitarian rear elevation was left starkly open to view from Newman Street behind a large parking yard. Here art did eventually arrive – the flank wall of 15 Newman Street facing the Post Office yard, and Oxford Street beyond, was the site of Banksy’s ‘One Nation Under CCTV’ mural of 2008.
Inside the post office a ramp led to a basement with parking for vans above the railway station. When new this was among the most mechanized post offices in Europe, with chain conveyors in the upper-storey sorting halls and spiral chutes to despatch mail down to the railway. Its opening coincided with the introduction of post codes and the use of electromechanical sorting machines. The fourth floor housed a canteen and other facilities for staff who numbered more than a thousand. A reconfiguration in 1974–6 provided a bar, games room and lounge, and incorporated stained glass and war memorials from antecedent post offices. A small aedicular Ionic War Memorial of c.1920, transferred from the Wimpole Street office, faced Rathbone Place from 1981 to 2013.
The railway closed in 2003 by which time staff numbers had begun a steep decline justified by decreases in demand for the post. Remaining postal services in what had become the West End Delivery Centre relocated to Mount Pleasant in 2013. This shift had been long in the planning and in 2011 the Royal Mail Group with PLP Architecture had proposed redevelopment of the whole site as ‘Newman Place’, offices, shops and housing with a diagonal pedestrian throughway. Later that year Royal Mail sold the site to Great Portland Estates, retaining an interest through a profit-sharing agreement. A new scheme was prepared and granted planning permission in 2013. This enlarged project, designed by Make Architects (Graham Longman, lead architect), has led to Rathbone Square, two L-plan blocks enclosing a central open garden or courtyard landscaped by Gustafson Porter and rising six to eight storeys for offices to the south-east, 162 dwellings to the north-west, with shops, restaurants and bars. The post office was demolished in 2014 and the new buildings have gone up since. The dormant Mail Rail line has been retained.
1 – British Postal Museum and Archive, POST 20/23, GPO report, January 1954