Dirs: Harry Watt and Basil Wright
Starring: Staff of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the General Post Office

A film documenting the way the post was distributed by train in the 1930s

Night Mail is a documentary film about a London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) express mail train from London to Scotland, produced by the GPO Film Unit as their crowning glory. The film ends with a ‘verse commentary’ by W. H. Auden, his now classic Night Mail poem written for existing footage. Benjamin Britten scored the film, which was narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg. This was the first film ever to be called a documentary, a word invented by John Grierson for this picture. The film would not normally qualify for such an A-Z but it has become a classic of its own kind, much imitated by adverts and modern film shorts (though the less said about BR’s Night Mail 2 from 1986 the better). Night Mail is widely considered a masterpiece of the British Documentary Film Movement and documents the way the post was distributed by train in the 1930s, focusing on the so-called ‘Postal Special’ train, a train dedicated only to carrying the post and with no members of the public, travelling on the main line route from Euston to Glasgow, and on to Edinburgh and then Aberdeen (or ‘working Glasgow, well-set Edinburgh and granite Aberdeen’ as they are in the poem). There were 40 members of the GPO, or Travelling Post Office sorting personnel onboard. There were seven sorting vans, with six personnel to each van. Each member of the crew would work 48 pigeon holes per shift. External shots include many of the train itself passing at speed with some interesting if somewhat shaky aerial views early on. Although most of the interior shots of the sorting van were actually shot in a studio, as it was the GPO Film Unit Studios at Blackheath accurate recreations of the van interiors could be relied upon. These ‘vans’ were then gently rocked, and the staff requested to walk with a distinctive gait so as to give the illusion of movement. However, much actual footage was blended in with these sets, particularly in the pick up and drop off of mail bags at speed by the specially designed ‘hook and net’ mechanisms on the side of the mail vans, so the whole recreation works well. As recited in the film, the poem’s rhythm imitates the train’s wheels as they clatter over track sections, beginning slowly but picking up speed so that by the time of the penultimate verse the narrator is at a breathless pace. As the train slows toward its destination the final verse is more sedate. All the locos in the film are LMS and the main stars of the show are unrebuilt ‘Patriot’ Class 5XP 4-6-0’s and ‘Royal Scot’ Class 6P 4-6-0’s (control are informed at the beginning that the train is hauled by a ‘Class 6 loco’). There is an excellent ground level view of No.5537 Private E. Sykes V.C. passing a track gang at work on Bushey Troughs and the departure scene from Crewe uses No.5501 Sir Frank Ree. Other locomotives are seen in the footage filmed at Crewe, namely LMS Class 4P ‘Compound’ 4-4-0 No.1078, another ‘Patriot’ in the form of No.5513, a Class 5MT ‘Black Five’ 4-6-0, and two shots of Class 5MT ‘Crab’ 2-6-0 No.2933. ‘Black Fives’ appear in a number of run-bys north of the Border and there is a shot of what looks to be a ‘Jubilee’ on the approach to Glasgow Central near the end. A view of the bridge over the Clyde is also seen in this final sequence with at least one tank loco visible. The film ends with a shot of many locomotives stabled at an unidentified shed with the camera focusing in on ‘Royal Scot’ Class 6P 4-6-0, No.6108 Seaforth Highlander, which is being cleaned by shed staff. Night Mail’s significance is due to a combination of its aesthetic, commercial and nostalgic success, and several sections have been used as stock footage in other films. The arrival at Crewe of ‘Patriot’ No.5513 and shots of the departure of the mail from Crewe, for instance, are used in the 1941 movie Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (qv). The stations at London Euston and Bletchley also feature and London Broad Street apparently ‘doubled’ for Crewe in one or two night shots. Several unknown stations appear throughout the early sequence, though one aerial shot shows the train passing north through Bushey and the station at which the local train is shunted clear took place at Cheddington, using the former Aylesbury branch platform. Although the film is not without process errors, the most noticeable of which is the arrival of the same ‘Crab’ 2-6-0 at Crewe twice in the space of five minutes and the fact that most of the run-bys feature express trains and not the ‘Postal Special’ at all, it is perhaps a little churlish to comment on these too much and they should not detract in any way from a film that is now well over 80 years old. The 13 minute booked stop at Crewe was particularly well handled and much enjoyment can still be gained by ‘watching the Night Mail crossing the border bringing the cheque and the postal order………’

This is believed to be Bletchley, looking north. In the distance a steam loco is shunting but it is too far off to identify conclusively.
A ‘Royal Scot’ is framed neatly by the windows of an unknown signal box. This shot appears in reverse in the Vera Lynn musical We’ll Meet Again (1943).
An express heads through an unknown station. The running-in board just visible on the right has smaller additional text beneath the main name to announce connections so this is clearly a junction station.
‘Patriot’ No.5537 Private E. Sykes V.C. is about to spray the track gang at work on Bushey Troughs
This is the old Aylesbury branch platform at Cheddington. A local would not be shunted out of the way like this here, but then the scene merely implies that such a scenario needs to occur to allow the mail to have priority over all other traffic.
Just out of interest, this shot shows the station sign at Cheddington reflected in the carriage window of the local, thus it is in reverse. It reads: CHEDDINGTON CHANGE FOR MAIN LINE
There are many shots of trains passing through the countryside but this is my favourite. A glorious view of an express passing farmland on a distant embankment.
The unsung heroes. The crew onboard could not sort the mail without the men on the ground hitching them up to the hooks for collection. This forgotten task occurred at 34 separate points on the route between London and Glasgow.
A ‘Royal Scot’ again, and the mail is about to be collected. The force with which the bags are snared is quite alarming but no doubt the staff quickly became used to it.
Somewhat out of sync, this scene follows that of the pick up. The mail travels on through the dusk, its progress watched by a lady standing on the boundary fence on the left!! The Watford DC Lines in the foreground denote this is somewhere on the southern end of the West Coast main line.
The by now familiar shot of ‘Patriot’ No.5513 arriving into Crewe
Hughes ‘Crab’ 2-6-0 No.2933 brings its train into Crewe. These locos were nicknamed ‘Crabs’ because, it has been said, footplate crews felt a scuttling motion when on the footplate due possibly to the highly-angled outside cylinders and valves effecting the locos ride qualities at speed. Whatever the origin, they are a rare loco on film.
‘Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb, the gradient’s against her but she’s on time’. Blending in to the remote hillside a train is captured heading up Beattock (and hopefully not Shap!!) with a banking loco at the rear.
This is the approach to Glasgow Central. The loco bringing in the mail appears to be a ‘Jubilee’ class 4-6-0 as the cabside number looks like it begins with ’55’ (it could be 5562 Alberta). However, I know that some Jubilees including Alberta were built in Glasgow, but can someone confirm that they regularly worked into Glasgow (assuming the location to be correct).
Seaforth Highlander getting cleaned on shed. If the journey has been filmed in the correct order then this should in theory be Polmadie in Glasgow. But can anyone confirm for sure which depot this is? Note the large smear down the smoke deflector that has seemingly been overlooked!
As an aside, I have seen several sources state that ‘Royal Scot’ No.6115 Scots Guardsman is the ‘star’ of the show, being used as the train loco. Given what I have mentioned in the text above this is not the case and of the few Royal Scot’s to appear in film only Seaforth Highlander has been identified. I believe the problem has arisen through the use of this stock shot of No.6115 at Euston (?), most notably by BFI for use as the title image for their film link to Night Mail. Type a Google Search for Night Mail 1936 and you will see what I mean.