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.

14 responses to “The Great Train Robbery

  1. thank you it was most helpful =, im a student in the university of stanford and you guys made me ace my assignment, thanks ya bosos and have a good night :D

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  3. tony comben

    As a young Metropolitan Police constable I was assigned to meet the train when it arrived at Euston and escort it to St. Pauls sorting office. When the train failed to arrive I was told of the robbery and informed New Scotland Yard. Initially they thought I was joking. I still have my copy of the wanted poster.

    • Hi Tony, I am researching the events of the Great Train Robbery for a television documentary. If you get this message can you please get in touch with me? Look forward to hearing from you soon, Michelle

      • Hello Michelle. I was reading your posting and you may be interested as my father was a junior detective on the case and I have the original wanted poster along with a numerous book collection on the case.

  4. john branagh

    thanks very much
    my nephews school project will benefit well from this :)

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  7. tom caswell

    i to have an origanal wanted poster for the robbers if anyones intrested its for sale

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  9. Pingback: Great Train Robbery: opening files among the records of the Post Office Investigation Department | The British Postal Museum & Archive

  10. My Grandfather (now deceased) was a police doctor in Bournemouth and had the dubious honour of retrieving a key to the boot of a car that one of the robbers had hidden inside their body. (Don’t think too hard about this.) The boot contained vital evidence. He appeared in court I believe, as the ‘key witness’. This is a great story, only, nobody in the family knows which Great Train Robber it was. I’m told it’s now in the museum. Can anybody help, PLEASE?! A name, one name, will do. Thanks.

    • The robber in question is Roger Cordrey, who was arrested in Bournemouth. However, this particular story has a bit of an “urban myth” quality – it’s mentioned here and here, but not more widely, and isn’t mentioned in the file on the investigation we have here at the Royal Mail Archive (although it might be in some of the more detailed evidence files) or in the 1960s book on the robbery. We don’t have the key in our collection either. There are (at least) two books coming out next year by Andrew Cook and Nick Russell Pavier/Stewart Richards, the latter dubbed the definitive account, so perhaps there will be more detail on this story in one of those.

    • From The Great Train Robbery: The Untold Story from the Closed Investigation Files:
      ” I am a registered medical practitioner residing at 61 Grove Road, Bournemouth. On the 15 August 1963 at 1.15 pm I removed a Yale type key from the rectum of Roger Cordrey and handed it to a police officer. M.J. Saunders”

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