Monthly Archives: August 2009

New items on our online catalogue

Earlier today we uploaded more than 4000 new records to our online catalogue, bringing the total available to the public to 81,238. The BPMA online catalogue records information about many of the objects and archive material in our collection, allowing anyone to search for it online before visiting us. Not everything we hold at the BPMA has been catalogued as yet, but we currently have 10 staff working full time to put this right. 

A special handstamp from the first flight of the Aerial Post between Windsor and Hendon in 1911

A special handstamp from the first flight of the Aerial Post between Windsor and Hendon in 1911

Some of the cataloguing team have been writing progress reports for this blog and now you can see the results of their work online. New to the catalogue are 2520 slogan dies, 841 objects from the Wilkinson Collection, 402 King George V black proof sheets, 440 handstamps and 158 records about the stamp artwork from the era of King Edward VIII.

Among the 440 handstamps are some real gems, such as special handstamps from the first flight of the Aerial Post between Windsor and Hendon in 1911. There is also an Aycliffe Penny Post handstamp from 1839-1843, and a group of handstamps used on board S.S Quest on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition in 1921-2.

Also of interest are handstamps formerly belonging to the British Post Office in Rio de Janeiro. These were returned to the GPO in November 1896 from the British Consulate, where they had lain since 30th June 1874 when the British Post Office in Brazil closed.

A photograph of King Edward VIII by Hugh Cecil, used on the definitives issued in 1936.

A photograph of King Edward VIII by Hugh Cecil, used on the definitives issued in 1936.

The digitisation of all stamps, proposed stamps, and album artwork from the reign of Edward VIII will be of particular interest to philatelists. The death of King George V on 20th January 1936, and the consequent accession of Edward VIII resulted in ambitious plans from the Post Office. It was decided that there would be three possible stamp issues, a temporary “Accession” issue, which would be replaced by a special “Coronation” issue, and finally a “Permanent” issue.

One of the King Edward VIII definitives issued in 1936

One of the King Edward VIII definitives issued in 1936

While four accession stamps were issued in September 1936, the King’s abdication three months later brought work on the Coronation and Permanent issue stamps to an abrupt end. However, there is still a wealth of material in the BPMA collections, including all the work which went into creating the four Accession definitives – photographs, artwork, essays and issued stamps – and all artwork and essays produced for the Coronation and Permanent issue stamps, produced right up to the week of the abdication.

To access the new material on the online catalogue please follow these links:
King George V black proof sheets
King Edward VIII stamp artwork
The Wilkinson Collection

Slogan dies
Handstamps

New podcast goes online: The Post Office during the Second World War

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Earlier this year several talks were given at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms to tie-in with the exhibition Last Post – Remembering the First World War. These covered various wartime and postal history topics, including talks on the Post Office during the First and Second World Wars. The talk The Post Office during the Second World War, given by Mark Crowley, is now available to download as a podcast.

Mark Crowley is a PhD student conducting research at the BPMA, who has previously written for this blog on The Post Office Home Guard. His talk presented a number of interesting insights into Post Office operations during World War 2.

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The Post Office played a vital communications role during the War, providing both postal and telegram deliveries, and telephone services. With many Post Office workers now in the forces, women were employed in large numbers to deliver and sort mail, drive Royal Mail vans and maintain the telephone network. Mark’s talk is peppered with stories of the bravery of some of these workers, who managed to keep telephone exchanges and sorting offices running even as the enemy bombs rained down.

Vital infrastructure such as post offices, sorting offices and telephone exchanges were often targets for enemy bombers, and many suffered bomb damage. Mobile Post Offices, offering telephone and counter services were set up in effected areas.

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

Unfortunately, many of the archive images referred to in the talk cannot be included with the podcast due to copyright reasons, but we hope to make some of these available in the future.

The British Postal Museum & Archive Podcast can be downloaded through iTunes or from our website. Last Post – Remembering the First World War is currently on a national tour.

Launch of the new Guide to the Museum Collection

by Victoria Heath, Development Assistant

The BPMA are pleased to announce the launch of a new publication – Guide to the Museum Collection – the first publication of its kind from the BPMA to showcase the items in the museum collection.

The guide has been a work in progress since early 2009 combining the work of the Development Assistant and the Curatorial Team. It was identified that there is no real publication that showcases the vast array of materials within the museum collection and that as much is kept at the museum store in Debden, Essex or within the secure areas of the archive in London a guide such as this would be an ideal way to reach those visitors who might not be able to travel to the collection. The guide also serves as the ideal souvenir for those attending events at the museum store such as for the open afternoons and evenings or the family events.

Personally, I found it very enjoyable putting the guide together as I do not work with the museum collection too much in my daily role. The most enjoyable part was the 12 hour day out at the museum store photographing the objects with two colleagues and the professional photographers. It was a long day but I believe it was worth it when I see how fantastic the images are.

The images shown here are just a few that feature in the guide. More, including some which didn’t make the guide, can be seen on Flickr.

Painting of St Martins le Grand by James Pollard

Painting of St Martins le Grand by James Pollard

Flintlock Pistol

Flintlock Pistol

Chromolithograph valentine fan with 12 segments

Chromolithograph valentine fan with 12 segments

Pillar Boxes at the Museum Store

Pillar Boxes at the Museum Store

1970 BSA Bantam motorcycle

1970 BSA Bantam motorcycle

The guide is available in the online shop priced at £5 + postage and packaging.

Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms

If there is one man who can be said to have changed the face of the postal service forever it is Rowland Hill. Hill was a noted reformer in the Victorian era, pioneering pupil-focused mass education and working for the South Australian Colonisation Commission, but he also had an interest in the postal service. In 1837 he published and circulated the pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. During the 1830’s there were growing calls for postal reform and Hill’s pamphlet proved influential, ultimately leading to the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, in 1840.

A cross-written letter

A cross-written letter

Prior to 1840 the postal system was expensive, confusing and seen as corrupt. Letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender, and were charged according to the distance the letter had travelled and the number of sheets of paper it contained. As a result cross-writing, the practice of writing in different directions, was a common method of saving paper and money, and envelopes were rarely used.

For ordinary people the cost of receiving a letter was a significant part of the weekly wage. If you lived in London and your relatives had written to you from Edinburgh you would have to pay one shilling and one pence per page – more than the average worker earned in a day. Many letters were never delivered because their recipients could not afford them, losing the Post Office a great deal of money.

But while ordinary people scrimped and saved to use the postal system, many items, such as newspapers, were not subject to charge, and Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords had the right to frank and receive letters for free. Well-connected individuals could thus ask their MP to frank their mail for them, further reducing Post Office revenue.

After the Napoleonic Wars postage rates were high – a sly method of taxation – and there were many other anomalies and a number of local services with different charges. The system was ripe for reform.

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill’s solution was prepayment, and a uniform rate of one pence for all letters weighing up to one ounce. Hill made no mention of the method of prepayment but later proposed the use of stamped covers (an idea previously suggested by Charles Knight). At an official inquiry into the Post Office, Hill outlined his ideas further and suggested that “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash” be used. When the inquiry reported it recommended Hill’s plan to reduce postal charges and appended samples of stamped covers to the report.

The establishment of a parliamentary Select Committee chaired by fellow postal reform campaigner Robert Wallace followed, and at the same time a Mercantile Committee on postage was set up by merchants to campaign for lower postal rates. Rowland Hill was a member of the Mercantile Committee.

The Select Committee recommended Hill’s ideas in early 1839, but favoured a uniform rate of 2d. After public pressure was put on the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, the uniform rate was reduced to 1d, and on 15th August 1839 a bill was passed in favour of a universal penny post. The same bill abolished free franking and introduced prepayment in the form of stamped paper, stamped envelopes and labels.

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee the implementation of the bill and the uniform penny post was introduced on 10th January 1840. Covers, envelopes and the world’s first adhesive stamps, the Penny Black and Twopence Blue, were introduced in May 1840. The stamps quickly proved themselves to be most popular method of prepayment.

Rowland Hill’s idea for a universal penny post was quickly vindicated. The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically. The Post Office’s revenue was initially cut but with the increase in the number of letters it soon recovered.

Adhesive postage stamps were gradually introduced throughout the world and with the change to charging by weight, envelopes became normal for the first time. Hill’s brother Edwin invented a prototype envelope folding machine, enabling increased production to fulfil the growing demand.

The rapid increase in the use of the postal service is also partly credited with the development of the transport system, particularly the railways, and improved opportunities for businesses in the Victorian era and beyond. The lower charges also had wide social benefits and the increasingly literate working classes took full advantage of the now affordable postal system.

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Rowland Hill continued to influence the Post Office, becoming Secretary to the Postmaster General in 1846 and Secretary to the Post Office in 1854. During this period Hill established the Post Office Savings Bank, which encouraged more people to save, and introduced postcodes to London – essential in a city made up of lots of little villages all growing into each other, where streets in different parts of the city often had the same name.

Fittingly, Rowland Hill and his reforms have been celebrated on several postage stamps, including four stamps released to mark his death centenary in 1979, and the 1995 Communications stamps which commemorate the campaign for a universal penny post and the introduction of the Penny Black. Rowland Hill has also been honoured by three public statues and is buried in Westminster Abbey, a mark of how important his work was. There is also an awards scheme named after Hill for innovation, initiative and enterprise in the field of philately, and the Rowland Hill Fund, established in 1882, offers financial aid to past and present Royal Mail workers in times of need.

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

For more on postal history during the Victorian era please see our online exhibition Victorian Innovation.

Walking back through 400 years of postal history

by Jennifer Flippance, London 2010 Project Officer

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

For the last three years BPMA has been running popular walking tours, which take you into the heart of old GPO London, exploring 400 years of postal history and developments in the iconic street furniture of telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The full tour lasts around 3 hours but next year, as part of our programme of activities to celebrate the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, we’re developing a ‘highlights’ version that will last around 1.5 hours and finish up at Guildhall Art Gallery. This will give you the opportunity to visit the fascinating exhibition, Empire Mail: George V and the GPO which will contain many significant objects and items of postal history from the reign of George V, when the GPO (General Post Office) was at its height.

Last week, Chris Taft, one of the curators at the BPMA who helped to develop and run the tours, took me out on the route of the new walking tour.

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1920s

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1935

It takes in the old GPO heartland around St Martin’s Le Grand, once the bustling hub of communication throughout the empire. This incorporates the majestic former GPO headquarters of King Edward Building – opened in 1910, the front of which is still standing today – and the sites of GPO North, the Central Telegraph Office and GPO East, from where crowds gathered each night to witness the spectacle of racing mail coaches leaving London.

Today King Edward Street is overlooked by a statue of Rowland Hill, the social reformer who revolutionised the postal service in 1840, making mail communication within reach of ordinary people for the first time.

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Then travel further back in time to the site where the ‘bishop mark’ the world’s first postmark was struck in 1661. Continue to the area of the City where many coffee houses clustered in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Coffee houses were significant in the development of communication because many had the facility for visitors to post letters. Due to the coffee shop owners’ close relationships with ship owners, this was considered a more efficient way of carrying letters overseas than using the Post Office.

A little further on is the site of the office of the Postmaster General. In 1680 this was the only place you could post letters in the country. By 1808 the office was called “the most important spot on the surface of the globe.”

Dates for the new walking tour will be announced later in the year.

The last full-length walking of 2009 takes place on Saturday 26 September (1.00 – 4.00 pm). Click here to find out how to book tickets

Treasures of the Archive Prestige Stamp Book

Tomorrow Royal Mail releases the Treasures of the Archive Prestige Stamp Book, written by Douglas Muir the BPMA’s Curator of Philately. The book ties-in with the Postboxes Miniature Sheet also released tomorrow, and explores some of the amazing artefacts held by the BPMA.

The cover of the Treasures of the Archive Prestige Stamp Book features a sheet of Penny Blacks in our collection

The cover of the Treasures of the Archive Prestige Stamp Book features a sheet of Penny Blacks in our collection

The BPMA cares for the visual, written and physical records of over 400 years of British postal development. These records include stamps and stamp artwork, posters and photographs, documents and postal history, and objects large and small. Many of these are celebrated within the Prestige Stamp Book, including the Penny Black, Mail Coaches, the telegrams from the Titanic, the Penfold pillar box, the GPO Film Unit, stamp artwork from the era of King Edward VIII, and GPO posters.

The Prestige Stamp Book is lavishly illustrated with images of items from the BPMA collection and contains four exclusive stamp panes unavailable anywhere else, including all four of the Postboxes stamps.

The Postboxes stamps celebrates the many types of wall box which provided a cheaper and more practical alternative to large pillar boxes in less populated or remote areas. From 1857 wall boxes began appearing in walls, buildings or brick pillars and were later to be found on poles and lamp posts.

Production of wall boxes ended in 1980, and in 1995 freestanding pedestal boxes were introduced, but around 114,000 post boxes of all kinds still exist across the UK.

Four iconic wall mounted boxes appear on the Miniature Sheet and within the Prestige Stamp Book:

1st Class – George V Type B Wall Box

This example with the royal cipher of George V was cast by W T Allen & Co Ltd, London, between 1933 and 1936, and is from Cookham Rise near Maidenhead.

56p – Edward VII Ludlow Box

Introduced in 1887 this type of standardized box derives its name from the foundry where many of them were made. This example is from Bodiam, East Sussex.

81p – Victorian Lamp Box

The lamp box could also be attached to lamp post or other such structure. This example is from Hythe in Kent and was installed in 1896.

90p – Elizabeth II Type A Wall Box

This Elizabeth II Wall box is located in Slaithwaite near Huddersfield and would have been made between 1962 and 1963.

Postboxes stamp pane from the Treasures of the Archive Prestige Stamp Book

Postboxes stamp pane from the Treasures of the Archive Prestige Stamp Book

Other products available as part of the Postboxes stamp issue are a Presentation Pack, First Day Cover Envelope, Stamp Cards, Press Sheet, Generic Sheet, and special First Day Covers cancelled and stamped from Tallents House.

For further information on these releases please see the Royal Mail Stamps & Collecting website. Details of some of the letter boxes held by the BPMA can be found in the Collections section of our website.

Mahatma Gandhi’s centenary

Forty years ago today the General Post Office released the first British stamp to commemorate an overseas leader and the first to be designed by an overseas artist. The stamp in question celebrated the birth centenary of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, although it was released to coincide with Indian Independence Day (15th August), rather than Gandhi’s birthday (2nd October).

Gandhi Centenary Year 1969 stamp

The designer of the stamp was Biman Mullick an Indian graphic designer and illustrator then teaching at the Folkestone School of Arts and Crafts. Mullick’s design was simple but effective, showing Gandhi in front of the Indian flag. “The design brief gave complete freedom to the designers,” Mullick said. “Mahatma Gandhi maintained an extremely simple life style. This was a lead for me. I set out to achieve stark simplicity in this design.”

Scans of newspaper articles and other material related to the stamp issue can be seen on Mullick’s website. One interesting item is a Post Office press release from 14th May 1970 stating that the Indian Philatelic Society gave the Gandhi stamp a Gold Medal at the international Gandhi stamp exhibition in Calcutta that year. Mullick’s website also contains information about Bangladesh’s first stamps, which he designed following that country’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The British Postal Museum & Archive holds a great deal of material about the Gandhi stamp, including essays and unadopted designs. Six other artists submitted designs for the stamp – Bradbury Wilkinson, Rosalind Dease, Harrison & Sons, Philip Sharland, R. Stribley and Martin Stringer – and many of the un-adopted designs included the Charkha (spelt “Chakra” in our archives) or spinning wheel.

“The spinning wheel eventually became the symbol not only of Gandhi, but also the symbol of the Indian Congress Party,” noted a caption for one rejected design. “Ashoka’s Wheel, on the Indian National Flag of today, has a clear link with Gandhi’s spinning-wheel” it continued.

While the Charkha did not appear on the Gandhi stamp, it was used in poster advertising for the issue.

Gandhi Centenary Year 1969 poster

Gandhi Centenary Year 1969 poster

A rejected design by Mullick also featured Gandhi’s honourary title Mahatma (“Great Soul”) in devanagari, the script used for many South Asian languages.

Gandhi Centenary Year 1969 unadopted stamp design with Charkha and Mahatma in devanagari

Gandhi Centenary Year 1969 unadopted stamp design with Charkha and Mahatma in devanagari

Apart from Benjamin Franklin, Gandhi is the only overseas leader to have been honoured with a British stamp.

War time postal publicity campaigns

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist (Cataloguing)

The Second World War hit postal and telecommunications services hard. Lack of personnel due to conscription meant that all services were under pressure and the Post Office used the Public Relations Department to carry their twin calls for understanding and assistance to the general public.

One of the Post Office’s main concerns was the delivery of mail to HM Forces overseas. Delivery times for letters sent via Air Mail services were greatly slowed down due to enemy action in the Mediterranean and the Post Office needed to find a speedier alternative; it decided to adopt the Airgraph service.

Sending an Airgraph involved customers writing a letter on a special form which was transported to a central despatching office and photographed onto a film. At the Receiving Office, large prints on bromide paper could be made from the films and despatched by post to the addressees. Although there was a slight delay for processing at each end, the service had the benefit of being faster than normal Air Mail as the films travelled in comparatively small high speed aircraft.

The service proved to be popular and in May 1942 it was extended to include civilian correspondence. The Public Relations Department were called in to help ‘popularise’ the service and as part of their strategy they produced a series of posters encouraging the public to use the service. These included posters by Hans Schleger (A.K.A Zero) (POST 110/2971), Jan Lewitt and George Him (POST 110/2972), and Anthony Frederick Sarg (POST 110/3194).

Send Airgraphs - they save aircraft space, designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg

Send Airgraphs - they save aircraft space, designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg

Austin Cooper also designed posters advertising airgraphs: (POST 110/4151 and POST 110/1184); in addition he produced a poster to advertise the first Christmas Airgraph in 1943 (POST 110/1185).

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, designed by Austin Cooper

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, designed by Austin Cooper

The Airgraph for the following Christmas was advertised in a poster produced by Leonard Beaumont (POST 110/1193). The Christmas Airgraphs proved very popular, with six million incoming and outgoing for the two years that they were available.

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, produced by Leonard Beaumont

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, produced by Leonard Beaumont

Closer to home, the telecommunications service was under pressure to perform and it was forced to drastically reduce the services that were on offer to the public as it simply could not cope with the demand. In the years 1943 and 1944 the Public Relations Department were instrumental in getting the public to reduce their use of the trunk telephone service. They did this in a number of ways, including the use of newspaper advertisements and the production of a short film to be shown in most cinemas.

They also produced a number of posters encouraging the public to ‘write instead’ of using the telephone or telegraph services. These were designed by artists such as Leonard Beaumont (POST 110/1188), Hans Schleger (A.K.A Zero) (POST 110/3200) and Hans Arnold Rothholz (POST 110/1187).

Think Ahead, Write Instead, designed by Hans Schleger (A.K.A Zero)

Think Ahead, Write Instead, designed by Hans Schleger (A.K.A Zero)

Posters produced for these two wartime campaigns were displayed on postal vans as well as inside post offices and they helped to create a situation where the public worked in partnership with the Post Office to ensure that available services were effectively operated.

Some of the other major publicity campaigns coordinated on the Home front during the Second World War by the Public Relations Department were: ‘Post Early in the day’, the annual ‘Post Early for Christmas’ campaign and a campaign beseeching the public to ‘write clearly and correctly’. The latter practice was essential so that inexperienced staff, standing in for those at war, could effectively sort the mail.

Posters played a key part in spreading the word of these campaigns and artists such as Hans Schleger (Zero), Tom Eckersley and Jan Lewitt and George Him helped to get the message across.

The BPMA exhibition Designs on Delivery: GPO posters 1930-1960 will open at the London College of Communications on 7th October 2009. 2b9pdhtfur

The Office of Postmaster General: Its holders in the Twentieth Century

by Dr Adrian Steel, Acting CEO

The office of Postmaster General (PMG) was abolished upon the creation of the Post Office Corporation by the Post Office Act of 1969, forty years ago this year. BPMA is holding a talk about this great change in the Autumn. We are occasionally asked about some of the politicians who held the office and went on to great fame, notably Clement Attlee (Postmaster General in 1931, Prime Minister 1945-1951, and one of only two Labour Prime Ministers to use their given first name) and Neville Chamberlain (Postmaster General 1922-1923, Prime Minister 1937-1940). However, 32 politicians held the office between 1902 and 1969, and of the others there are some notable points of interest.

Neville Chamberlain’s half-brother Austen was PMG from 1902-1903, the only holder of the office to subsequently win the Nobel Peace Prize. He was honoured for his role in negotiating the Locarno treaties of 1925, aimed at bolstering peace and stability in post-Great War Europe, and the following year French and German statesmen were similarly recognised.

Sir William Joynson Hicks (PMG 1923) later became Home Secretary in Stanley Baldwin’s 1924-1929 Conservative government. As such, during the 1926 General Strike he was the hate figure of the trade unions, whose propaganda used the shortened name ‘Jix’ to enable better-rhyming abuse to be created. PMG in the 1924-1929 government, Sir William Mitchell-Thompson, was at the helm at the inception of television. Later, as Lord Selsdon, he chaired a 1930s commission on the introduction of public television and was one of few people to appear on the first day of BBC broadcast television in 1936.

As PMG under Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s, Ernest Marples oversaw the first Premium Bonds draw. He later found greater fame as the transport minister who appointed the railway-axing Dr Beeching to chair British Rail, and as the introducer of the parking meter. His life ended in controversy, he died in Monaco having fled Britain amid claims of tax evasion on a large scale.

Tony Benn is perhaps the most famous ex-PMG still alive, but at age 96 his successor, Edward Short, PMG from 1966-1968, and now Lord Glenamara, is at present the oldest living parliamentarian.

Tony Benn as Postmaster General

Tony Benn as Postmaster General

The Great Train Robbery

Yesterday Justice Secretary Jack Straw granted the release from prison of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. Biggs is severely ill with pneumonia and is not expected to recover.

The Great Train Robbery was one of the most notorious robberies of the 20th Century. It took place on the morning of 8th August 1963 against a Travelling Post Office (TPO), a railway carriage especially adapted for Post Office workers to sort mail on the move. The target of the gang of robbers was the second carriage from the front of the TPO, which was a High Value Packet (HVP), where registered mail, including cash, was sorted.

The BPMA holds a large number of working files detailing the investigation of the robbery, which come from the Post Office Investigations Unit of Royal Mail (POIU). The POIU was formed in 1793 and is recognised as the oldest investigating authority in the world. It is still in existence today and works with the police to investigate crimes which take place on Post Office property.

Contained within the POIU files on the Great Train Robbery is a confidential report dated 12th May1964 which details the facts as they were known at the time. The report states that shortly after 3am on 8th August 1963 the train driver, Jack Mills, noticed an amber light at Sears Crossing. This was unusual, but as per regulations he applied the breaks and moved the train forward slowly to the “home” signal, which was showing a red light indicating he must stop. Once the train had stopped the fireman, Mr Whitby, walked along the track to find a railway telephone with which to call the signal box and ask whether the train could proceed. However, Whitby discovered that the telephone wires had been cut, and so returned to the engine to tell Mills.

At this point both Mills and Whitby were attacked, with Mills sustaining severe head injuries. Despite this, Mills was forced to drive the train half a mile down the tracks to Bridego Railway Bridge (located in Ledburn near Mentmore, Buckinghamshire). As Mills realised during the journey, the gang had uncoupled the rear of the train, leaving only the HVP and the first carriage attached.

When Mills stopped the train the rest of the gang, about 15 in total, boarded the train and offloaded the moneybags in the HVP into vehicles waiting under the bridge. They then drove off with £2.6 million in used £1, £2, £5 and £10 notes. Amazingly, the passengers and most of the crew in the carriages behind the HVP didn’t realise what was happening.

Because of the large amount of money stolen – equivalent to more than £40 million in today’s money – a great many articles about the robbery appeared in the press, which resulted in police being bombarded with information and tip-offs, many of which turned out to be false leads. These are detailed within the POIU files, along with observation reports, lists of suspects (including the dates of their arrest, charges and length of sentence [if found guilty]), letters sent giving information on suspects, statements taken from staff and police personnel involved, a copy of the Metropolitan Police report, accounts of the investigation and trial, reports into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’, photographs and diagrams of the interior of the carriage and layout of the track, original items from the robbery such as labels, wrapping and advice slips, items used as evidence in the trials, press cuttings where the robbers and their accomplices relate their story, plans of the train and railway track, Police photographs of some of the suspects and a ‘Wanted’ poster.

The Great Train Robbery: Wanted Poster. Some of those pictured in this poster would later turn out to have no connection to the robbery.

The Great Train Robbery: Wanted Poster. Some of those pictured in this poster would later turn out to have no connection to the robbery.

Investigations into the Robbery continued throughout the rest of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, with POIU reports including information on the recovery of some of the money, the escape of Ronnie Biggs from Wandsworth Prison, and Bigg’s subsequent move to Australia. Other, less pertinent, information was also included, such as how Bigg’s wife Charmian had sold her life story for £30,000, prompting the establishment of a relief fund to aid train driver Jack Mills, who never recovered from the injuries he received during the robbery. The public donated more than £34,000 to the relief fund, although Mills died of pneumonia in 1970. An inquest concluded that there was nothing to connect Mill’s death with his existing injuries.

The files make for fascinating reading, charting the progress and thoroughness of the investigation into one of the great crimes of the 20th Century.