Mails to Ireland

From Hoole History and Heritage Society

A talk given to society by Phil Cook: Thursday 23rd November 2023.

The history of letter mail goes back a long way. The Ancient Egyptians had a courier service for the distribution of official written papyrus documents circa 2,400BC. Later it was probably the Chinese who devised a post house relay system. This was refined and adapted by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantium's and others, including in America the Aztec and Inca civilizations. The Romans developed the Cursus Publicus, the most highly developed postal system of ancient times. The speed at which the despatch riders rode, using a system of staging posts where they changed horses, was not rivalled in Europe until the 19th century.

Tudor Post

The address leaf of an Elizabethan "gallows letter", sent by the Privy Council from London to Chester for sending to the Council of Ireland. Dated 21st of August, 1598 it arrived three days later bearing seals from the towns it had passed through. The gallows, which indicates urgency, is the two-post and cross-bar variety with a short rope hanging from it and can be found near the center of the image. The text reads: "For her Majesties speciall affayres To our very loving ffrend the Maior of the Cytye of Chester - Post hast - hast for lyfe".

The Royal Mail can trace its history back to 1516, when King Henry VIII established a "Master of the Posts", a position that was renamed "Postmaster General" in 1710. Taking mail to and from Ireland started in Tudor times and a weekly service by horse riders was established in October 1572 during the reign of Elizabeth I between London, and Liverpool, Via Chester, changing to Holyhead by 1576 to give a shorter sea crossing, although this did mean having to cross the sometimes treacherous Menai Strait. This weekly post was usually sufficient but it later operated on three days a week, with urgent messages carried by civil servants between London and Dublin.

By 1598 the 275 miles from London to Holyhead was covered at average of about 3 or 4mph, which was quite good considering the poor state of the roads, the hilly country during the final stages and the fact that some of this was done at night. The following year saw the establishment of a series of regular staging posts, usually inns, where horses could be changed.

Stuart Post

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England following the Act of Union in 1603 he moved his court to London. One of his first acts then was to establish the royal postal service between London and Edinburgh, in an attempt to retain control over the Scottish Privy Council.

On 31 July 1635 King Charles I made the existing service that was carried from Post to Post available to the public. Riders, who were usually men of military experience,carried the mail on horseback in a backpack over both shoulders. Due to the poor condition of the roads the Royal Mail system was slow and hard on the men and the horses they rode. The riders, or post-boys, wore scarlet livery, and barely travelled at no more than three miles per hour in those early years. They could manage a faster four miles per hour for an express delivery. Dirt roads were in notoriously poor condition and the journey was challenging for even fresh horses.

When the first local stage coach ran is not known but in 1637 there was a coach service linking Holywell with Chester, Nantwich and Birmingham. Twenty years later in 1657 (some records state 1653) there was the first notification of a stage coach between London and Chester taking 4 days. This proved to be optimistic for the journey time was increased first to 5 days and later to 6 days. This can surely at least help explain why nobody without a very pressing need travelled very far in those days. This service was later extended to run to Holyhead. Although not designated as mail coaches it is likely that some urgent items were illegally carried.

A Post Boy c 1700.

In 1653 Parliament set aside all previous grants for postal services, and contracts were let for the inland and foreign mails to John Manley who was given a monopoly on the postal service. This was an Act of Parliament in 1657 had established the Government monopoly of the carriage of mails and the position of Postmaster General was created. By the following year there was a daily coach service to London, departing from the White Lion Inn and picking up at the Yacht Inn.

The mail was robbed in 1703:

  • "The Mails from Ireland and Chester, due at London the 10th Instant, having been seized by Highwaymen between Dunstable and St. Albans, and several Letters opened; these are to give Notice thereof, that Care may be taken to prevent the Payment of such Bills of Exchange as may have been by this means intercepted. One of the said Highwaymen rode upon a brown Mare, wearing a Prize Coat, a long brown Wig, and a black Hat. Whoever shall apprehend and prosecute to a Conviction the Persons concerned in this Robbery, or any of them, is entituled to the Reward promised by Act of Parliament to such as shall apprehend and convict a Highwayman, and will be punctually paid it."

In 1710 there were only two mail coach routes that did not serve London; one from Bath to Oxford and the other from Exeter to Chester.

The mail was robbed again according to a General Post Office notice of 22 January 1724:

  • "Whereas the Chester Mail was robbed this Morning, about Four a-Clock by two Highway-men, who overtook the Post-Boy between Redbourn and St. Albans, the one of them a lusty Man mounted upon a bay Horse in a loose Riding Coat, and a double-breasted Coat with Brass Buttons under it; the other a little Man mounted upon a grey Horse, also in a loose Riding Coat, who after having dismounted and bound the Boy, rifled the Mail, and took out most of the Bags, which they put into other Bags of their own, and tied them behind upon their Horses, and rode off towards St. Alban's: This is to give Notice, That if any Person or Persons who shall apprehend the said Highwaymen who have committed this Robbery, will, upon their being convicted, be intituled to the Reward of Two Hundred Pounds for each of them, as published in the Gazettes, over and above the Rewards given by Act of Parliament for Apprehending of Highway-men: Or if either of them, or any Person concerned with them as an Accomplice, shall make a Discovery of them, or either of them, or any of their Accomplices, so as they may be convicted, such Person or Persons so making the Discovery shall not only be intituled to the Rewards above-mentioned for each Person convicted, but shall also be intituled to a Pardon, as promised in the Gazettes by His Majesty's special Command."

John Palmer

Palmer's Bath Mail Coach.

It was John Palmer of Bath (1742 -1818) who is reputed to have introduced the coach or chaise to carry the mail after realising how vulnerable the post boys were on horseback and his idea was to form the catalyst of the postal service we have today. He initially met with resistance from officials who believed that the existing system could not be improved, but eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, allowed him to carry out an experimental run between Bristol and London. Under the old system the journey had taken up to 38 hours. The coach, funded by Palmer, left Bristol at 4 pm on 2 August 1784 and arrived in London just 16 hours later. It was a success and most of the doubters were won over. In 1785 Palmer introduced the first mail coach from London via Chester to Holyhead. The next year the Post Office agreed to assume responsibility for its running and thus legalised the carrying of mail by authorised stage coaches.

There were numerous inns along the route of the London to Holyhead road and these provided a vital service to the operation of the mail coaches, including fresh horses, provisions and a much needed break for travellers, although this was often only as long as it took to change horses and that could be very quick. One report stated that a team of 4 horses could be replaced in as little as 90 seconds. The innkeeper was usually the local postmaster. The sound of the post horn heralded the arrival of a mail coach and all was quickly hustle and bustle before, all too soon for the traveller, the coach started on its next stage with all speed and diligence. The route over the Menai Straits varied depending on the weather and the boatmen. Sometimes horsemen and later coaches went across the Lavan Sands to Beaumaris at low tide.

By 1768 the mails left London each weekday and the journey to Dublin took 6 days.

Jonathan Swift the Anglo-Irish satirist, author, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet, and Anglican Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, hence his common nickname "Dean Swift", travelled frequently between London and Chester and once wrote

When soon, by ev’ry hillock, rut, and stone,
Into each other’s face by turn we’re thrown…
Sweet company! Next time, I do protest, Sir,
I’d walk to Dublin ere I’d ride to Chester.

From 1785 a new mail coach service operated from the Swan with Two Necks in London to the Eagle & Child in Holyhead, both public houses, taking some 45 hours to complete the journey using the roads that had been improved under the Turnpike Acts. The Mayor and Council Men of Chester were delighted that the PMG had decided that this service was travelling via Chester. The coach left London 8:00pm and reached Chester at 1.00am on the second day, where there was break of an hour for refreshments. It then travelled via Saltney and Hawarden to Northop, where there was a 10 minute break. The horses were not changed until Holywell. It is interesting to note that the horses were almost always mares and were a cross between heavy cart horses and Welsh Cobs. Many of them were partially blind but this mattered little as they always travelled the same route and were thus familiar with every twist and turn. The mails were then taken across the Irish Sea, weather permitting, by Post Office sailing packets, a journey that took another 20 hours. Delays could also take place waiting for suitable weather to cross the Menai Strait. Each mail coach also carried a guard (who was the only post office employee on the coach), armed with pistols, shotgun and a sword to protect against highway robbery which was common at this time. This was despite the penalty of death or transportation to the colonies if caught. The mail boy riding from Warrington to Chester was robbed in 1796 near to Mickle Trafford. The two culprits (James Price and Thomas Brown) were later executed and gibbeted near the scene of their crime. Earlier, in 1770, the Chester to London coach was attacked by two highwaymen on Finchley Common in what is now North London. In 1790 the highwayman William Lowndes was incarcerated in Chester Gaol to await trial for attacking post boy James Archer at Great Budworth on 11 March 1788 armed with a pistol and a stake with a nail through the end. He was also suspected of having robbed the mail between Chester and Frodsham on the 20th June 1789. As Postmaster Palin of Chester wrote:

  • "On the llth of April, 1789, about Eleven Weeks previous to the 29th of June, 1789, the Day on which the Mail between Chester and Frodsham was robbed, he went with his Wife and Child to live at Beaumaris in North Wales, assuming the Name of William Hutchinson, and lodged with one Mrs. Corry: In a few Days after this Robbery, he absconded from Beaumaris, and early in August following he negotiated at Oxford a Bill of Exchange for £14 1&. which was taken out of this Mail, and endorsed it in the Name of "Wm. Mall."" (General Post-Office, July 6, 1790)

William made at least seven escape attempts assisted by his bigamous wife Amy Clarke (initially of Alfreton, Derbyshire). He was eventually hanged at Boughton and gibbeted on Helsby Hill.

To prevent corruption and ensure good performance, the guards were paid handsomely and supplied with a generous pension. The mail was their sole charge, meaning that they had to deliver it on foot if a problem arose with the coach and, unlike the driver, they remained with the coach for the whole journey; occasionally guards froze to death from hypothermia in their exposed position outside the coach during harsh winters. They were supplied with a timepiece and a posthorn, the former to ensure the schedule was met, the latter to alert the post house to the imminent arrival of the coach and warn toll gate keepers to open the gate (mail coaches were exempt from stopping and paying tolls). Since the coaches had right of way on the roads the horn was also used to advise other road users of their approach. Several different short pieces could be played on the posthorn, each having a different meaning, including "start", "pull up", "slacken pace" and "clear the road". Further detail is found in: "The Coach-Horn" - what to blow and how to blow it.

In coaching days mail was sometimes exchanged without stopping. Mail to be “dropped off” was literally thrown off in a strong bag. That to be collected was hung on the end of a long pole and pulled off. (A precursor to the mail exchange of the later railway Travelling Post Offices). If the guard failed to collect the bag off the end of the pole the coach would have to stop and he would have to go and collect it.

Dublin in the first part of the 19th century was sometimes called the “Second City of Empire”. There was also the not insignificant fact that following the 1800 Act of Union Irish M.P.’s sat at Westminster and they soon demanded improvements to the roads and a faster means of getting official letters to and from London.

Thomas Telford

An Act of Parliament of 1815 authorised the purchase of the existing turnpike road interests and, where necessary, the construction of new roads, to complete the route from London to Holyhead, the present day A5. This made it the first major state funded road project in Britain since Roman time. Responsibility for this work as well as realigning and resurfacing the existing roads was awarded to the famous engineer Thomas Telford. Part of the route was surveyed by a young man, aged just 16 at the time, and born just a few miles from here, his name was Thomas Brassey.

The completion of this road transformed the journey between London and Holyhead. The jewel in the crown was his daring suspension bridge over the Menai Strait, but the route includes many other fine examples of civil engineering as it passes through breathtaking mountain scenery in North Wales. He insisted on solid foundations for his new road, and in 2000 an archaeological study by Cadw (Wales’ historic monuments agency) found that circa 40% of the original remained, beneath and beside the modern road. He also ensured that the horses drawing the coaches faced no gradient steeper than 1 in 20. Telford's improvements to the Shrewsbury-Holyhead road were largely complete by 1818, although the Menai Suspension Bridge was not completed until 1826. Until Telford’s suspension bridges were completed over the river estuary at Conwy and the Menai Straits there were hazards in crossing these two stretches of water. In 1807, for example, a ferry crossing the River Conwy sank killing all but two passengers. Two weeks later another boat capsized trying to cross from Bangor to Anglesey with the loss of 14 lives. The worst case was in 1785, when a boat carrying 55 people went aground on a sandbank on the south side of the Menai Strait. As they tried to release the boat, it began to fill with water. Rescuers in Caernarfon heard of the crisis, but with the strong wind and the night closing in, and the danger of itself running aground, the lifeboat did not manage to reach the stricken boat. Only one person survived. When Telford’s new road through North Wales was completed Chester ceased to be a major hub on the Irish Mail route and activities centred round the White Lion Inn in Northgate Street declined but did not cease.

The chief fount of information for travellers at one time was Ogilby’s Britannia, first printed in 1675. This Bowles' 1782 version of the Road Map from Chester via Hawarden (Harding), Denbigh, Conwy and Bangor to Holyhead. In places the "old road" crosses the coastal sands.

In 1820 a Royal Mail Coach departed from Holyhead every afternoon at 2pm and was due to arrive in Chester at about 4am the next morning. Another mail coach departed every afternoon at 4:30pm for London by way of Capel Curig, Shrewsbury, Birmingham, Daventry and St Albans and arrived two mornings later at about 6:30am. These mail coaches were the fastest on the route but anybody making such a journey would have needed a lot of stamina and fortitude. There was also a daily Chester to Holyhead Royal Mail coach and in 1830 it departed from Chester at 7-45pm and reached Holyhead the next morning at 7-00am. A Royal Mail Steam Packet sailed from here at 7-30pm, weather permitting, and arrived in Dublin at 4:00am.

Mail by Rail

The arrival of the railways soon had people demanding a rail route from London to the west coast of Britain and a connecting ferry to Ireland. The last Royal Mail stagecoach service from Chester to London was in 1839.

Early "post van" from the LBR.

The first mails to Ireland by rail took place on 24-01-1839 from London via the London and Birmingham Railway, the Grand Junction Railway to Newton (le Willows) and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. They were then taken by an Admiralty packet boat to Kingstown, (present day Dun Laoghaire) the overall journey taking about 24 hours.

From 6th April 1841 the Dublin mail was conveyed by the Chester and Crewe and Chester and Birkenhead routes at the insistence of the Postmaster General, as this was shorter than the Grand Junction Railway route via Warrington to Liverpool. However at Chester the Grand Junction Railway, which had absorbed the Chester and Crewe, refused to agree to any through running and mail bags had to be carried from one station to the other. This was not a satisfactory arrangement and in May of that year the attitude of the Grand Junction towards the Chester and Birkenhead brought it into conflict with the Postmaster General. Under the terms of the Railways Conveyance of Mails Act of 1838 he had considerable power over the railways and it was he who had directed that mail for Ireland should be forwarded by the Chester and Birkenhead. Eventually the mail van was allowed to be shunted through on a single line that connected the two routes at the insistence of the Postmaster General but passenger coaches or goods wagons were not allowed to use this link.

It was the 1838 Railway Conveyance of Mails by Rail Act that required all railway companies, those already built and those not yet built, to carry mail at a standardised rate. The Act obliged the railway companies to carry mail by ordinary or special trains, day or night, as required by the Postmaster General. Special vehicles were to be supplied by the railways for the sole purpose of carrying mails and, if required, for sorting of letters during the journey. This was one of the first occasions when the government intervened in the running of the railways. It was only the payment the railway companies were to receive for doing this that was open to negotiation.

The idea of sorting mail on the move pre dates the railways for Rowland Hill is claimed to have suggested the idea that it could be done on mail coaches back in 1826. It was a decade later that a long standing Post Office employee made a suggestion to the Superintendent of Mail Coaches and the result was that on 20th January 1838 a trial run took place using a converted horse box between Birmingham and Liverpool via Warrington. This proved to be so successful that within a few months a purpose built carriage had been proposed.

The committee of the Chester and Holyhead Railway met on 21-07-1848 to arrange the opening of the its railway across Anglesey. The secretary reported that a letter had been received from the Post Office informing the Chester and Holyhead Railway that the Night Mail from Euston on 31-07-will go by way of the Holyhead Railway. The committee was informed that Llanfair would operate as a temporary station to serve omnibuses between there and Bangor via the Menai Suspension Bridge and getting a grand view of the nearly complete Britannia Tubular Bridge on the way. Mail would also be transported this way by luggage vans.

There are various theories as to who devised the idea of a Travelling Post Office. One states that a Nathaniel Wordsell of the L&M who devised a system for collecting and delivering mails without the train stopping. His device consisted of a series of prongs on the side of a coach and on pillars at the lineside. Bags were hung on the pillars and large hooks attached to the coach prongs pulled them off. He tried to sell the idea to the Post Office but they rejected it. A Post Office clerk, John Ramsey, came up with a similar idea. Earlier a Frederick Karstadt had suggested a similar system and had even obtained a provisional patent on the idea and had it tested near Winsford. An iron frame covered by a net was attached to the Travelling Post Office carriage. This opened out to receive a bag suspended from the arm of a standard, or gibbet erected at the side of the railway line. At the same time as a bag was delivered into the net another was dropped.

The Uniform Penny Post was introduced on 10 January 1840 whereby a single rate for delivery anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland was pre-paid by the sender. A few months later, to certify that postage had been paid on a letter, the sender could affix the first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black that was available for use from 6 May the same year. As Britain was the first country to issue prepaid postage stamps, British stamps are the only ones that do not bear the name of the country of issue on them.

The transport of mail by rail soon led to a regular and frequent delivery and despatch of mail throughout the country. The introduction of the penny black and twopenny blue postage stamps led to an increase in letter writing. Before then, postage was typically charged to the recipient, who could refuse to pay. Costs were high and complicated, and fraud was rife. For example, MPs and peers could post items for nothing and this was a widely abused privilege. In the 1830s, politicians were reportedly writing an improbable 7 million letters a year. Dare I suggest they were not being entirely honest about their expenses?

In June 1842 a parliamentary select committee was set up to look into the question of post office communication with Ireland. It was probably co-incidence that this was so soon after the problems at Chester (transferring from C&C to C&B) as it was to look into the benefits of a rail route to a port, probably Holyhead or Porth Dynallaen on the Lleyn Peninsula.

An Act of Parliament permitting the Chester & Holyhead Railway to use its own steam powered ships was passed on 22nd July 1848. The Chester and Holyhead Railway had thus become a ship, dock and railway operator, one could almost say an integrated transport operator, for trains were run to connect with the mail boats.

Regarding the Chester and Holyhead Railway a Parliamentary Committee wrote:

  • “The transit from Holyhead to Dublin may be fairly considered as a portion of the railway enterprise: but for the railway to Holyhead there would be little opening for any profitable employment of steam vessels in that passage; and but for securing the transit of passengers to and from Dublin the railway to Holyhead would never have been constructed.”

Chester Station

The Irish Mail was the first train to call at the new Chester Station on 1st August 1848, having left London Euston the previous evening at 8-45pm. It reached Chester at 3-43am and Bangor at 5-25am. Until the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits was completed the train terminated at Bangor and the mails were taken on by coach over Telford’s Suspension Bridge, completed in 1826 to Llanfair PG and thence by rail to Holyhead. It had originally been suggested that the Menai Straits would be crossed using Telford's Menai bridge, with the railway coaches and wagons being hauled across by ropes. The line through to Holyhead was opened on 21st August 1850 and the mails then went all the way by rail. The Irish Mail train was always run to meet the needs of the mail, not the passengers. The contract with the PMG, stipulated that mail was to arrive in Dublin and London at a time which was suitable to deliver it to customers in the morning. It was no coincidence that the Royal Mail sorting office at Chester was relocated to opposite the station from the main 1842 built Post Office in St John Street. Picture, as an increasing amount of mail was soon being transported by rail. In 1839 an average of 4 letters was received per person per year and by 1890 that figure had risen to 60.

The same year that Chester station opened (1848) the Chester and Holyhead Railway began operating a packet boat service between Holyhead and Kingstown (now called Dun Laoghaire) in connection with these trains. A packet boat was a small vessel designed to carry packets of mail, scheduled cargo and paying passengers. This was one of the first railway operated shipping services in this country. They did however not carry the mail. (The first was across the Humber estuary between Hull and New Holland in 1846.)

Until 1850 the Admiralty was responsible for the safe passage of the mail by sea and they awarded the contract to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CDSPC) as they had faster vessels and could easily achieve, in good weather, the two round trips each day which the contract demanded. In 1850 the Post Office took over responsibility from the Admiralty and they continued to use this company. This was much to the disappointments of the Chester and Holyhead Railway who had already purchased four vessels in anticipation of automatically getting the contract. Their railway company ships could not achieve the two round trips a day. They did thus not make the profit on the Irish mail sea traffic that it had anticipated and had to be content with what it could make from carrying third class passengers, parcels and livestock. In 1870 there was some disquiet expressed in Parliament that the Royal Mail to Ireland was not being carried under the control of a single operator, but nothing changed. It was not until November 1921 that the contract was awarded to The London and North Western Railway following the Anglo Irish War of Independence and the partition of Ireland.

The Irish Mail train first appeared in London and North Western Railway timetables as Fast Irish Mail in Feb 1861, changing 2 months later to Express Irish Mail. By Jan 1864 it had become plain Irish Mail according to Bradshaw’s Guide. It had always been known as The Irish Mail by railway staff. From the very start an Admiralty messenger gave the guard a chronometer, set at GMT, in a pouch, to be taken to Holyhead and then put on the ferry to Ireland. Picture shows it being transferred at Holyhead. It was returned the following day when another watch arrived. This ensured that Dublin was on the same time as London, As local Dublin time was 25 minutes behind GMT. This practice continued until 1939 despite the fact that a daily time signal had been sent by electric telegraph for many decades.

Another interesting arrangement was the provision of a Late Fee Post Box in which letters could be posted actually on the train itself whilst it was still at Euston or Holyhead. It can be seen in this same Picture Later this facility was provided on other mail trains operating to Scotland and the West Country. Envelopes bearing a Travelling Post Offices postmark, such as this one, are now prized items by collectors.


Travelling Post Offices (TPO’s) first appeared on “Irish Mail” in 1852 and in 1861 the train became the first on the LNWR to have gas lit coaches. By 1863 it was the fastest train leaving London Euston and was noted for its good time-keeping. The train included two Travelling Post Offices and mail was exchanged at speed at numerous points between London and Holyhead. It ran as a night service only until 1873 when an extra daily daytime service was added. The TPO allowed postal staff to sort letters whilst en-route and facilities were soon introduced to allow mail bags to be collected and off-loaded at designated locations while the train was moving at speed. The bags were placed into leather pouches which, when filled could weigh up to 60lbs. To pick up a net was extended through a sliding door and this would catch a leather pouch containing mail bags. These were hung on an installation alongside the track. To set down mail a pouch was suspended from a retractable arm and as the train sped past the drop-off point the bag would be knocked off the arm by a line-side net. Sometimes multiple pouches were used, each suspended from a metal arm mounted on the side of the mail coach next to a sliding door.

Rather rudimentary Sleeping Coaches were introduced on the Irish Mail train in 1875. Before then passengers could obtain from the guard, for a fee, special twin sticks and a cushion that could be laid across a compartment. Specially designed Sleeping Coaches were introduced in 1891. One was included in the formation of the 7pm service from Euston to Holyhead, returning on the 1am from Holyhead and this operated until 28-09-1991. In 1876 pre-ordered luncheon baskets were given to passengers at Chester. There were two choices available, up market at 5 shillings and standard at 2 and 6 pence. The standard basket, called a Democratic had a pint of ale or stout, cold meat or pie, cheese and bread. The up-market version was called an Aristocrat and contained a pint of claret or ½ pint of sherry; chicken, ham or tongue; butter, cheese and bread.

On 12 September 1880 there was an attempt to blow up the Irish Mail train from London to Holyhead near to Bushey in Hertfordshire. An explosive device had been placed on the track but it failed to detonate properly. Warnings that the train and the Britannia Bridge were targets had been given as this was a time of "Fenian" activity in the country. Watford historian Henry Williams noted in his 'History of Watford':

  • "At that time a Russian Grand Duke had been in London and was expected to have been a passenger in the Irish mail from Euston that passed Watford a short time before the parcel was found, and it was for the purpose of wrecking that train that the dynamite was laid."

Such was the quantity of explosives that, if detonated, the train would have been destroyed. Those responsible were never identified.

Circa 1888 the first rudimentary Dining Cars were provided for First Class passengers only and meals had to be booked before joining the train and passengers had to remain in the same coach for the entire journey. Restaurant Cars where food could be cooked en-route appeared in 1895 and breakfast and lunch were provided on the Up service from Holyhead and tea on the down service from London.

Postcard of the mail picking up at Colwyn Bay.

The introduction of the vacuum brake in 1882 (following the Armagh rail disaster) and 8 wheeled bogie carriages in 1893 also helped improve the service. Directly connected with the speedy carriage of mail was the introduction of the first water troughs in the world, installed near Colwyn Bay (Mochdre & Pabo) in 1859 and these allowed the locomotives to replenish the water supply in their tenders whilst still running at speed, thus allowing the 84 miles from Chester to Holyhead to be run without stopping. The system was invented by John Ramsbottom, the locomotive superintendent of the LNWR. In 1871 these troughs were moved to Aber and two other sets of troughs were installed west of Prestatyn and south-east of Flint. They remained in use until the demise of regular steam workings in the early 1960’s. There was also a set (one for each line) at Christleton that were unusual in that they were partially inside the tunnels

The train did not carry a headboard until 1927, although it was always known as The Irish Mail by staff and passengers alike. The use was suspended during the war, being resumed in 1948.

In 1934 the London, Midland and Scottish Railway produced a booklet - The Story of the Irish Mail 1848-1934 – and it contained a table giving journey times from London to Dublin. A few of the dates I list here;

  • In 1710 it took 7 to 14 days by horseback or private coach and a sailing packet.
  • By 1812 this had been reduced to 4 days by mail coach and steam packet.
  • The opening of Telford's Menai Suspension Bridge reduce the time to 35 hours by the New Holyhead Mail Coach and an Admiralty steam packet.
  • When the Chester & Holyhead railway was opened through to Holyhead the time was down to 14 hours using the City of Dublin Steam Packet.
  • In 1934 this had reduced to 9 hours using LMS trains and ships.

Irish Mail boats at Holyhead post WW2- This picture shows The Irish Mail train at Chester, probably in the 1950’s. On the left can be seen part of the original No 3 signalbox and beyond it part of the former LNWR goods warehouse.


On 20th February 1963 the evening train departed Euston on time at 8-40pm. The weather was not good, it was cold and it was snowing and consequently there were not many passengers aboard. Shortly after departure seven men in the coach next to the brake/guards coach attacked the guard and ticket collector and tied them up. Shortly after this one of the dining car staff arrived in the next coach serving teas and as he entered this last coach he too was attacked and tied up. The second dining car member soon became concerned about the whereabouts of his colleague and went towards the rear of the train. On reaching the brake coach he found the door locked and heard voices shouting it’s alright it’s the police. He immediately became suspicious and pulled the nearest communication cord.

Unaware of what was happening and and in view of the terrible weather the driver of the train decided not to to stop the train as soon as he could but eased it along to the next station, Hemel Hemstead, about a mile away. As soon as the train stopped at the platform the would be robbers fled the train taking a few packages with them from the mailbags they had cut open What they were after is speculation but reports at the time suggested that gems were being moved from Amsterdam to Dublin. It was also suggested that a consignment of new £5 notes had been moved on the train the previous night and the gang had got the wrong date. If they had been successful they had planned for the train to be halted by tampered signals near a bridge at Tring where two cars were waiting.

Later that year, on 8th August 1963 the Glasgow to London Mail Train was successfully robbed of £2.6 million near to Tring: The Great Train Robbery. When eventually caught and questioned some of the gang members admitted to being responsible for the attempted heist on the Irish Mail.

At Chester there was a fenced off dedicated pathway from the new sorting office to the station and this can still be seen today. I believe that initial thoughts were for a bridge over Brook Street Bridge to the station, similar to those that existed at Shrewsbury and Bristol Temple Meads.

This First Day cover was produced to commemorate 125th anniversary on 01 August 1973 and shows a train leaving Holyhead.

The last train to be called the Irish Mail complete with a headboard ran on 12 Maay 1988 between Euston and Holyhead. Some Irish mail was still carried by rail until 1994 when it was all transported by road or air. Although the train service continued to operate, the name was dropped completely in June 2002 as part of a policy by Virgin Trains not to operate named trains.


The Irish Mail train was involved in four serious accidents, briefly summarised here.

  • On 20th August 1868 the train ran into wagons near Abergelee that were being shunted into a siding. One of them was carrying 50 wooden barrels of paraffin oil, some 1700 gallons in total. Some of them fell from the wagon, broke and the heat from the firebox of the loco helped ignite the paraffin and the ensuing fire caused some of the gas lit coaches to also burst in flames and 33 people died.
  • Another occurred on 14th September 1870 at Tamworth. It was caused when a signalman's error accidentally diverted the down Irish Mail express onto a dead end siding, where part of the train crashed through the buffers and into the River Anker. Three people were killed, and thirteen injured.
  • The next was on 16th August 1915 between Blisworth and Weedon when it ran into a train that had just derailed at a speed of 60mph. Many on the train were either Irish or soldiers and despite many being seriously injured there were only three fatalities. Weedon does seem an unlucky place for the Irish Mail;
  • The fourth was 27th August 1950 when the train hit wagons being shunted at Penmaenmawr.


On 1st August 1998 the 150th anniversary of The Irish Mail was celebrated at Chester. There was a parade from the Town Hall to the station led by Thomas Brassey (a.k.a. local blue badge guide John Whittingham) that included the British Aerospace band, Freemen and Guild members of the City and members of the Victorian Society in period dress. Lady Brassey, a direct descendant of the great man was unable to attend due to ill health. A special cake in the shape of the main station building was cut by the Lord Mayor as the afternoon London HST, with a power car named “The Irish Mail” was in the station as the band played on. Picture of HST but not at Chester. (I do have some pictures of this event but some time ago I put then away so safely that I now cannot locate then.)

2016 was the 500th anniversary of the founding of Royal Mail and special stamps were issued.

The [3 170th anniversary] of both the station and the Irish Mail was on 01 August 2018 and the Society had a stand at the station, as did several other societies. A First Day Cover was produced

This First Day cover was produced to commemorate 170th anniversary of the opening of Chester Station on 01 August 2018.

Whilst looking for some pictures to accompany this talk I discovered that the Wabash Manufacturing Company of Indiana made a hand car during the early 1900s. It was a four-wheeled vehicle propelled by pumping the handlebar and steered with the feet on the front wheels. In the USA it is colloquially known as an “Irish Mail”.

With Christmas fast approaching you may be sending, or receiving cards, with a robin on. As the early postmen wore a bright scarlet livery they soon became called ‘robins, or ‘redbreasts, after the little bird and some artists began drawing robins on cards instead of postmen. This is a picture of Moses Nobbs, mentioned in Linda’s article in the November Roundabout. He started out as a guard in 1836 and served the Post Office for 55 years and is seen here in a watercolour painting in scarlet livery uniform. Easy to see, I think, how the nickname for a Postie became a Robin and hence the Red Robin Christmas Card.

There are, I stress, other theories as how this came about but this picture just seemed fitting to bring this talk a a conclusion.

The connection between the railways and the carrying of mails was immortalised in the poem Night Mail by W.H.Auden which begins; This is the Night Mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order. Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, the shop at the corner, the girl next door...

Sources and Links