The Auto-levellers Standard Advanced

News coverage in the aftermath of a rave that was held in the former Royal Mail sorting office on Addiscombe Road, Croydon, has increasingly and understandably focused on the tragic death of 15-year-old student Rio Andrew, who had been attending the rave, and the subsequent police investigation into his death.

autoPrior to these awful events, the former Croydon sorting office had not been standing empty for long. The go-ahead for the closure of the building and the transfer of its operations to a new site on a hard-to-get-to, out-of-town industrial estate, together with a plan to redevelop the Addiscombe Road site into flats was announced at the beginning of 2014, and this amid wider claims that the Royal Mail’s entire property portfolio may have been undervalued at the time of privatisation. According to the UK’s National Audit Office and others, undervaluation seems to have been a characteristic of the Royal Mail privatisation as a whole, although Business Secretary Vince Cable suggested that the rapid rise in the value of shares did not show that they had been undervalued, but was merely ‘froth’.

In the words of the Telegraph‘s Steve Swinford,

Mr Cable denied that the government has under-valued Royal Mail, and insisted that the prices will “settle” at a lower level.

‘Other interesting models are the “Self Levelling Cart” or “Auto Leveller”’

‘Other interesting models are the “Self Levelling Cart” or “Auto Leveller”’

On the eve of privatisation, the Labour Party’s Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Team had said:

The prospectus for Royal Mail’s privatisation published last week outlines that it currently operates from 2,000 sites across Britain including delivery offices and mail centres. There are fears that once the privatisation is complete these assets — many in prime locations — will be flogged off giving a large windfall to investors, while the taxpayer is short changed by the low sale price for the company and customers could be left having to trek miles to inconveniently-sited delivery offices. The prospectus highlights three sites within London at Mount Pleasant, Nine Elms and Paddington as being “surplus”. Some reports attach a value of more than £500 million to the Nine Elms site, and a value of £1 billion to the Mount Pleasant site. But the document fails to specify which of Royal Mail’s other sites across Britain could be sold off and how much money this would raise. A disposal plan could see delivery offices — pick up points for parcels and mail — closed and moved to out-of-town locations, where land values are cheaper but which are inconvenient for customers.

This seems to be exactly what has happened in Croydon, and the pattern is likely to be repeated at sorting and delivery offices around the country.

Speaking of things supposedly finding their own levels, anyone watching the BBC London News report on the rave, and who has worked in a Royal Mail sorting office — as I did during the early 1990s, at London’s former St. Pancras Way (NW1) and Upper St (N1) depots — might have been surprised  to see news footage of a fully-loaded auto-level trolley (at left in the photo below) being used by people leaving the building.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 10.43.00

I don’t know to what extent auto-levels — ‘autos’ for short — are still used in contemporary Royal Mail processing (the British Postal Museum and Archive holds a number of them, which they list as being in use until 2001) but in the 1990s they were ubiquitous. Whether empty, or full of packets, one was forever ‘tipping’ i.e. emptying mailbags into them, pushing them from one place to another, or ‘throwing off’ (i.e. sorting) their contents. The name comes from the sprung, wooden base which lifts as the load lightens, allowing the contents to be accessible at a constant level, and thus reducing potential for back strain that might otherwise be caused by postal workers repeatedly bending to retrieve items from the bottom of a trolley with a fixed base.

My postal-themed, Bristol novella Missorts Volume II, is set in and around another vast, derelict former Royal Mail sorting office, this one at Bristol Temple Meads, to which I was granted unique access during 2008-9. The site was littered with broken and abandoned equipment.



Bristol-based art producers Situations, who published Missorts Volume II (as a companion volume to my permanent public soundwork Missorts), filmed a series of short, one- or two-minute readings from the novella, to promote a limited edition paperback that they brought out at the end of 2013. Here is one of the films. It is entitled, of course, ‘A Broken Auto-level Trolley’.


Find out more about the limited edition paperback of Missorts Volume II.