Favourite archive item: the Great Train Robbery

For our final blog for Explore Your Archives week Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager tells us about his favourite item from the archive, which, as you probably know from Head of Archives Vicky’s blog earlier this week, is no easy task!

When asked to pick my favourite object I (eventually) chose a Great Train Robbery file in part because I have worked  with it a lot so know it well but also because I feel it’s something people are surprised to find out we have. Although the train in question was a Travelling Post Office people don’t always associate the incident with the postal service. This particular file  is the main investigation report compiled by the Post Office’s own police force, the Investigation Branch (IB), into the infamous August 1963 robbery.

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Most of the file is made up of an in depth 40 page account of the robbery, investigation and subsequent trial, prepared by IB Assistant Controller Richard F Yates in May 1964, nine months after the robbery took place.

The file also includes schedules of arrests and prosecutions, a ‘confidential list of 28 suspects given to the IB by the Police’, memoranda, correspondence, details of the attempts to locate missing suspects, press cuttings, and a police poster showing wanted suspects. It also has snippets of people’s personal experiences of the incident and investigation such as that in the image below where Yates starts his report with an indication of how he became involved with the investigation.

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Yates’ in depth report details key events in the investigation including establishing the amount of money stolen, the journey on the night of the robbery, the systematic search of the Cheddington area, the discovery of the robbers hideout at Letaherslade Farm, and the subsequent arrests of the suspected robbers. It also includes notes on how the investigation was conducted, on page 10 he explains: ‘The extensive publicity given to this case inevitably produced an enormous amount of inaccurate and bogus information and this had to be examined with more than the normal care having regard to the seriousness of the offence.’

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Despite the investigation coming to an end around 1970 this year, over 50 years after the incident took place, there was interesting development. Gordon Goody, regarded as the mastermind of the robbery, unveiled Patrick McKenna as the Ulsterman . McKenna’s name is glaringly absent from all the files we have at the BPMA. Despite the Sun suggesting last year that the IB’s chief suspect was a ‘Thomas’ O’Reilly, our records show that they and Tommy Butler quickly dismissed him as a possibility: ‘[Butler] does not consider, however, that any useful purpose would be served by questioning [James Patrick] REILLY [incorrectly identified by the Sun as a railwayman]’.

I like this file for several reasons. It shows how the investigation developed over time, what the Post Office considered important at the time (Ronnie Biggs, subsequently the most famous of the robbers, being merely a footnote), and how they continued investigating and observing behavior for many years after the robbery. It demonstrates complex, messy history as it is happened and developed. Given that it was written almost a year after the robbery it is an exaggeration to call Yates’ report the first draft of history but draft it is, complete with amendments and footnotes based on subsequent knowledge. There is no neat ending simply a petering out as the last of the robbers Bruce Reynolds was caught in 1968, Biggs remained a missing fugitive, the driver of the train Jack Mills died and some of the investigators involved retired.

This is just a snapshot of the contents of one of many files on the Great Train Robbery. You can find out more about the robbery itself and the investigation that followed from our online exhibition on Google Cultural Institute.

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

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