Tag Archives: trains

Great Train Robbery podcast

Recently we welcomed the author Andrew Cook to the BPMA to speak about The Great Train Robbery, one of the most infamous crimes in British history. On 8th August 1963, £2.6 million (equivalent to over £45 million today) was stolen from a Royal Mail Travelling Post Office. The bulk of the money has never been recovered, and there has not been a single year since 1963 when one aspect of the crime or its participants has not been featured in the media.

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

But despite the wealth and extent of this coverage, a host of questions have remained unanswered: Who was behind the robbery? Was it an inside job? And who got away with the crime of the century? Fifty years of selective falsehood and fantasy has obscured the reality of the story behind the robbery. The fact that a considerable number of the original investigation and prosecution files on those involved and alleged to have been involved were closed, in many cases until 2045, has only served to muddy the waters still further.

When researching his book, The Great Train Robbery – the untold story of the closed investigation files, Andrew Cook spent a lot of time at the Royal Mail Archive, which holds extensive material about the robbery. In his talk at the BPMA Andrew explained how he did the research and what he found. A recording of this talk is now available as a podcast, which is free to listen to or download from our website, iTunes and SoundCloud.

Our exhibition The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive is currently on a national tour, or viewable online at the Google Cultural Institute.

Mail Rail Archive Open Day

On Saturday 14th September the Royal Mail Archive will be holding a themed open day to celebrate the Post Office Underground Railway (Mail Rail). Activities will run from 10.00am until 4.00pm, however the Archive search room will be open to visitors until 5.00pm as usual. The Post Office Underground Railway initially opened in 1927 and was the world’s first driverless electric railway. It ran from Paddington to Whitechapel, serving eight sorting offices along its six-and-a-half mile route.

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Jonathon Bradley, the photographer responsible for the Mail Rail Photographic Exhibition (currently on display in the search room), will be on hand to talk about his photographs and give informal workshops. Jonathon will also bring along his interactive Mail Rail game Mail Rush, and members of the public will be encouraged to take part.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

We will also have Mail Rail-themed craft activities available for children to take part in, while for older visitors there will also be original archive material on Mail Rail, including photographs, diagrams and leaflets, all dating between the 1910s to the 1970s, available to view. Archive and Curatorial staff will be on hand to discuss this material with members of the public.

Throughout the day there will be tours of the Archive repository, covering a selection of Royal Mail’s history. There is no need to book for these tours as they will be arranged on a demand basis.

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

This is a free, drop in event and there is no need to register, but please note that the Search Room will also be open for general research on this day. If you wish to carry out research you will need to sign up for a User Card (please see our website for information on signing-up for a User Card).

Hope to see you all there and if you can’t make it we should be live tweeting throughout the day!

- Penny McMahon, Archives Assistant

Find out more about our Mail Rail Archive Open Day on our website.

The Great Train Robbery exhibitions

If you visit the Royal Mail Archive today you can see our special exhibition The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive. It marks the 50th anniversary of the robbery, and is presented in conjunction with a talk to given by author Andrew Cook tonight.

Around 3am on 8th August 1963, £2.6 million (£45 million in today’s money) was stolen from a Travelling Post Office (TPO) en route from Glasgow to London. The audacity and violence of the crime, which later became known as The Great Train Robbery, stunned the general public and made international celebrities of some of the robbers.

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

Our exhibition tells the story of the investigations that followed, particularly the key role The Post Office Investigations Department (POID) played in helping police uncover the events of the robbery. The exhibition also looks more widely at the effects the robbery had on the role of the TPO and the security changes brought in by the GPO, as well as exploring the history and work of the POID both then and now.

Travelling Post Office. (POST 118/5743)

Travelling Post Office. (POST 118/5743)

Some of the images in the exhibition come from the Thames Valley Police Museum and these show several of the crime scenes, including one of the train carriages.

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

Also on display in the Royal Mail Archive today are original objects from our collections which are directly linked to the Great Train Robbery and the POID. After today a touring version of the exhibition will be on show at venues around the country – see our website for further details.

In addition, we have partnered with the Google Cultural Institute (GCI) to make the exhibition available on their website. This enables anyone, anywhere in the world, to discover the truth behind the Great Train Robbery legend through original material from our collection.

The Great Train Robbery exhibition on the Google Cultural Institute website.

The Great Train Robbery exhibition on the Google Cultural Institute website.

The Google Cultural Institute, created in May 2011, is a platform that provides access to works of art, landmarks and archive exhibits with just a few clicks of the mouse. All the content is chosen by Google’s 290 partners, which include museums as well as cultural institutions and associations. The purpose of the Cultural Institute is to preserve and highlight a variety of cultural heritage by providing free and simple access to all visitors through the use of web technology.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

View our Great Train Robbery exhibition online at the Google Cultural Institute.

The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive

On Thursday 8 August we will be marking 50 years since The Great Train Robbery with a talk by Andrew Cook and a touring exhibition. Exhibitions Officer Dominque Gardner blogs today on the background and story of this famous crime…

The Travelling Post Office

Mail was first carried by trains in Britain in November 1830. The first Railway Post Office, later known as the Travelling Post Office (TPO), was soon introduced. TPOs ran from 1838 to 2004.

TPOs were specially adapted railway carriages. Post Office workers sorted mail whilst travelling to their destination, at speeds of up to 70mph. Workers sorted the mail, in often cramped conditions, and, until 1971, transferred mail on the move via a bag exchange apparatus.

Travelling Post Office bag exchange apparatus. (POST 118/5192)

Travelling Post Office bag exchange apparatus. (POST 118/5192)

The trains often carried large quantities of high value material. This combined with a relative lack of security on board made them a target in 1963 for the heist that became known as the Great Train Robbery.

The Great Train Robbery

In the early hours of Thursday 8th August, 1963, the Up Special TPO was travelling from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston. At 3am, it was held up by a gang of criminals in an orchestrated attack and around £2.6 million was stolen. The audacity of the attack and the brutality used stunned the GPO and the general public.

The TPO carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police.

The TPO carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police.

The TPO coach was carrying 128 sacks of High Value Packets, all with noticeable- and easily identifiable- red HVP labels attached. A staggering 120 sacks containing 636 High Value Packets were stolen in the Robbery. The money enclosed in the missing packets totalled £2,595,997.10s.0d. The £2.6 million stolen is equivalent to over £45 million today.

The banks offered an unprecedented reward of £250,000 for information about the robbery. £10,000 was added to the reward by the Postmaster General who rushed back from holiday after hearing about the crime.

The Investigation

The movements of the 77 PO employees on board the TPO on the night of the robbery were scrutinised. Many were interviewed at length, as were other staff that happened to live in or near the vicinity of the home of a robber. Within The Royal Mail Archive held at The BPMA there are witness statements of the TPO staff (POST 120/106-8) and files devoted to those Post Office employees suspected of potential ‘leakage of information’ (POST 120/128-9).

Despite intense speculation and the enquiries by the Post Office Investigation Branch (later Investigation Department) no proof has ever been found of a Post Office insider.

Wanted poster of the robbers and their associates. This was produced not long after the robbery and was widely distributed. (POST 120/95)

Wanted poster of the robbers and their associates. This was produced not long after the robbery and was widely distributed. (POST 120/95)

Arrests

Twelve suspects were tried and convicted within nine months of the Robbery thanks to the combined efforts of Buckinghamshire Constabulary, the Transport Commission Police, the Post Office Investigation Branch and New Scotland Yard. Many of those convicted were given maximum sentences of 30 years for armed robbery to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

Aftermath

The investigations that took place in the wake of the Great Train Robbery of 1963 were part of this long history of detecting crime in the postal service. Those playing a vital role in Royal Mail Group Security today are successors to those who helped apprehend the most notorious train robbers in history.

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

The investigations of the Post Office Investigation Branch into the Great Train Robbery are documented in a report prepared by Assistant Controller Richard Yates in May 1964. This report can be found in The Royal Mail Archive at The BPMA (POST 120/95). The BPMA also holds many other files concerning the Robbery including several detailing bank losses and property eventually recovered (POST 120/112-9) and observation reports (POST 120/130-3).

The exhibition will be on display in the BPMA Search Room on the 8th August to mark 50 years since the Robbery took place, from 10am to 7pm, followed by a talk by author Andrew Cook. The exhibition then goes on tour around the country. Full listings of the venues hosting the exhibition can be found on our website.

Please contact The BPMA Exhibitions Officer on 0207 354 7287 or dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk for more information or if you would like to hire the exhibition.

Classic Locomotives of Northern Ireland

Today Royal Mail has issued a miniature sheet on the theme of Classic Locomotives of Northern Ireland. This follows on from 2011’s Classic Locomotives of England and 2012’s Classic Locomotives of Scotland.

Working in collaboration with railway expert Professor Colin Divall of the National Railway Museum, and Northern Irish railway expert Norman Johnston, Brian Delaney of Delancy Design Consultants, trawled through thousands of photographs to find period photos of steam locomotives in Northern Ireland. The four chosen are:

1st Class – UTA Class W No.103. ‘Thomas Somerset’ with a Belfast-bound up express between the two tunnels at Downhill, west of Castlerock c1950.

1st Class - UTA Class W No.103.

78p – UTA SG3 Class No. 35. The SG3 Class locomotive shunts wagons at Portadown in 1963.

78p - UTA SG3 Class No. 35.

88p – Peckett No. 2. Peckett No. 2 reverses wagons into the British Aluminium Works at Larne in 1937.

88p - Peckett No. 2.

£1.28 – CDRJC Class 5 No. 4. The Class 5 locomotive Meenglas shunts a carriage at Strabane in 1959

£1.28 - CDRJC Class 5 No. 4.

The Classic Locomotives of Northern Ireland miniature sheet and other stamp products are available from Post Offices across the UK, online at www.royalmail.com/classiclocomotives, and by phone on 08457 641 641.

Oh, Doctor Beeching!

2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dr Richard Beeching’s The Reshaping of British Railways which led to a major reduction and restructuring of the country’s railway route network (these measures became popularly known as the Beeching Axe). Two long-term effects of Beeching on mail transport were increases in transport by road and routing via London.

Controversial both at the time and subsequently, Beeching’s first report (he followed up two years later with a second, The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes) identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway line for closure, representing 55% of all stations and 30% of route miles; the intention being to address increased competition by road transport through cutting less profitable rail services. Beeching had been tasked to write the report by a former Postmaster General, Ernest Marples (who had moved to the Ministry of Transport).

There are a number of files in The Royal Mail Archive which reflect the impact of the report on the General Post Office, some of which have recently gone on our online catalogue among the last batch of files from the decentralised registry POST class, POST 122. 18 April 1963 saw a special Postal Controllers’ Conference held at GPO HQ to discuss the effects of Beeching’s report (POST 73/183). A Steering Group within the Post Office had also been set up meeting regularly throughout 1963. At a wider level, the Post Office was represented on an inter-departmental Working Party.

 POST 73/183, Postal Controllers’ Conference with copy of the Beeching report (from POST 18/208)

POST 73/183, Postal Controllers’ Conference with copy of the Beeching report (from POST 18/208)

Despite these arrangements, Director of Postal Services Brigadier K S Holmes made this assessment at the April Conference:

…it did not seem that Dr Beeching’s proposals would be likely to cause us grave difficulties from a service angle.

For those interested in matters concerning the transport of mail by rail these files should give an insight into a period of great change in the British railway network.

Gavin McGuffie – Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

A visit down to Mail Rail

Many people have heard of Mail Rail, AKA the Post Office Railway, the driverless electric railway system that moved post under the streets of London for more than 75 years, but few have had the opportunity to see it.

Mail Rail was constructed in the 1910s and 1920s, and its six and a half miles of tunnels were built to connect eight different sorting offices and Post Office buildings between Paddington and the East End. Over the years the Post Office and Royal Mail sold some of these buildings, and Mail Rail eventually ceased operations in 2003. While the network is still maintained, BPMA has been undertaking work to conserve some of this unique rail system. As part of this project a group of BPMA staff recently toured the Mail Rail site at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office.

To get to Mail Rail you need to pass through a baffling series of doors and corridors before descending a staircase which takes you to the car depot and workshop. Here engineers serviced and repaired the network’s rolling stock, which once ran 22 hours a day, 7 days a week. While some rolling stock has been removed and conserved as part of our conservation project, some remains where it was when Mail Rail was in operation.

The car depot and workshop.

The car depot and workshop.

A walk through another series of doors, corridors and staircases took us to the station platforms at Mount Pleasant. Mail Rail engineer Ray explained that at its peak Mail Rail ran a “6 minute service”, with a new train of mail arriving every six minutes. Staff worked quickly to remove mail for Mount Pleasant and to load mail destined for other offices.

1980s Greenbat mail train on the Westbound platform.

1980s Greenbat mail train on the Westbound platform.

There was a great camaraderie between Mail Rail staff said Ray, and most spent their entire careers working on the network. This is evident when you walk along the Mount Pleasant platform: staff have added a dartboard, done paintings on the wall, and even mounted a display of stamps (which presumably fell off items of mail) near one of the mail bag chutes.

Painting on the wall of the Mail Rail eastbound platform, Mount Pleasant.

Painting on the wall of the Mail Rail eastbound platform, Mount Pleasant.

Stamps stuck to the trunking near the mail chute, Mail Rail Mount Pleasant.

Stamps stuck to the trunking near the mail chute, Mail Rail Mount Pleasant.

Visit our website to support our Mail Rail Conservation Project, and to add yourself to the Mail Rail mailing list. See more images from our visit to Mail Rail on Flickr.

Mail Rail Trains Conservation Project

Our project to conserve two of the Mail Rail trains in our collection is now almost complete; the photographs accompanying this blog give some idea of the work done. Today we present an interview with one of the volunteers, Don Bell, who has helped complete this work and who has been trained up by George Monger, the conservator employed to do this work.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

Why did you get involved with the BPMA as a volunteer?

I used to work for Royal Mail as a Delivery Office Manager (DOM) and originally became aware of the Museum when working as a DOM in Tottenham where the old Museum store used to be. I was asked to get some Posties together to pose with pillar boxes from the collection to promote the 2002 Pillar Box stamps issue.

As DOM at Winchmore Hill I also became involved in volunteering and charity work further, including the setting up of a local fundraising charity.

I have also always been interested in the museum and vehicles in particular.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

What does your role as a volunteer involve?

Cleaning and preparing the Mail Rail vehicles and applying a layer of wax to the trains to act as a protective barrier. I also help care for few of the other vehicles in the collection supporting the work of the BPMA curators at the Museum Store.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

Have you learnt anything particularly surprising or interesting?

It was surprising to see the different colours of paint underneath the top coat on the Mail Rail trains, these coming from different eras, including paintwork for the film Hudson Hawk on one of the trains. [Mail Rail trains were re-painted as underground Vatican mail trains for the film]

When you volunteer you go in different directions, I am interested in the vehicles and would rather get my hands dirty than volunteer in admin – with this project, anything I can learn about conservation is a plus.

George [The Conservator employed by BPMA on this project] opened my eyes – he explained that the covers over the electric units would have got very hot in the vehicles working life and the paint bubbled. My original instinct was to clean it all off but George explained that you should preserve what’s left – not everything has to be pristine but rather should reflect the vehicles as they were.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

What is your involvement in the Mail Rail story?

I can remember helping out from time to time as overtime at the W1 Delivery Office, sometimes you got called down to help out and then would get roped into helping load the trains.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

What is your favourite object?

All of the Post Office vehicles, having worked in deliveries for all of my working life starting as a Telegram Messenger and continuing for 40 years.

I think there is so much potential if you could take the vehicles out on the road! The Mobile Post Office would be great for fundraising and advertising the Museum.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA's Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

Interview by Claire English

The BPMA would like to thank The PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, administered by Arts Council England, and the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant Scheme for kindly donating towards the Mail Rail conservation project.

If you are interested in volunteering for BPMA please visit the Volunteers page on our website for further information.

Ask A Curator

On Wednesday three members of our Curatorial team will be taking over our Twitter account as part of Ask A Curator Day.

Our curators manage our existing collections and actively acquire new objects to add more detail to the story of the British postal service. The objects within our collection include letter boxes, stamps, postal vehicles, paintings, hand stamps, archive documents and much more.

The three curators tweeting will be:

11am-1pm – Sarah Jenkins, who works with our collections including the recently digitised lantern slides.

1-3pm – Chris Taft, our Senior Curator. He has recently been working on our Mail Rail project to preserve rolling stock from this fascinating underground railway.

3-5pm – Emma Harper, who is organising the curatorial aspects of our move to a new home at Calthorpe House, and has previously worked with the Wilkinson Collection of pillar box memorabilia.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

If you have any questions for our curators tweet them on @postalheritage this Wednesday. Don’t forget to include the hashtag #AskACurator.

Mail Trains book

Now available from our shop is the book Mail Trains, telling the fascinating story of the development and history of carrying mail by rail, from the 1800s until today. The book is written by Julian Stray, one of our Assistant Curators.

Mail Trains by Julian Stray

Central to the prompt delivery of the nation’s mail is its efficient and speedy transit the length and breadth of the country. From 1830, the Post Office relied ever more heavily on the overland rail network to provide what was for decades the ideal form of transport. Railway Post Offices, Sunday Sorting Tenders and District Sorting Carriages were amongst the services introduced.

Railway Post Offices, carriages dedicated to sorting mail in transit, became known as Travelling Post Offices (TPOs). TPOs received mail at the start of their journey and at stations or bag exchange points en route. Mail bags were opened by travelling postal staff and the contents sorted and included in new mail bags made up en route and despatched at the appropriate station. One of the most remarkable aspects of TPOS was the bag exchange apparatus. This enabled mail trains to pass stations of minor importance yet still exchange mail bags without halting.

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

During the Second World War mail volumes carried by rail increased. Letters were essential for maintaining morale and connecting families separated by wartime. The rail network carried immense quantities of mail; in 1943 British railways carried 25 million mail bags and over 90 million parcels.

The final TPO service ran in 2004 and although the volume of mail carried is considerably diminished, mail trains continue to form an important part of the United Kingdom’s postal service to this day.

Mail Trains is available from our online shop. Order before 10 April 2012 and obtain a 10% discount by entering the code BPMAW3BS1TE when you make your payment.

Visit our website to find out what life was like on the TPO in our Travelling Post Office online exhibition.

Hear Julian Stray’s recent talk on Mail Trains by downloading our free podcast. Download the podcast on our website or subscribe to the podcast via Tunes.