In 1974 the Post Office experienced a spate of violent robberies from sub post offices. On 15 February 1974, New Park Telegraph Sub Office was attacked. The Sub Postmaster, Donald Skepper, was shot and killed in the raid. Seven months later on 6 September 1974, Derek Aston the Sub Postmaster of High Baxendale Telegraph Sub Office was shot and killed in similar circumstances. On 11 November 1974, Langley Telegraph Sub Office was targeted. The Sub Postmistress, Margaret Frances Grayland was severely beaten and suffered several skull fractures. Her husband, Sidney James Grayland, was shot and killed. It was suspected that these attacks were linked and Lancashire Police, together with the Post Office Investigations Department, began a detailed investigation.
The investigation began by examining other Post Office related crimes that had similarities to the ones in Harrogate, Baxendale, and Langley. In total 180 attacks on post offices between 1964 and 23 October 1974 were identified for reinvestigation. Of these 167 were determined to be definitely unconnected, while the remaining 13 were regarded as possibly related.
The size of the investigation into these attacks cannot be underestimated. In total 6,000 named criminals were listed for elimination by Lancashire Police. The possibility that some who worked for the Post Office was considered and a list was compiled of almost 500 employees of sub post offices who had admitted offences against the Post Office since April 1971. All of these were eliminated from the enquiries. A further 3,800 employees of the Albright and Wilson factory near Langley post office were interviewed, but no suspect emerged. These individuals were interviewed as the company issued staff with rubber gloves and boots similar to evidence found at Langley sub post office. At the height of the enquiry 600 police officers were engaged full time in the investigation.
There was widespread media interest in the case, with the offender being dubbed the ‘black panther’, due to the dark clothing described by his victims. A series of rewards were offered for information leading to the apprehension of the offender. Initially a reward of £5,000 was offered after the attack in Harrogate. A further £5,000 was offered after the attack in High Baxendale, a figure which was later increased to £15,000, with £5,000 being contributed by the Federation of Sub Postmasters. Another £5,000 was offered after the attack on Langley. Finally the figure was raised to £25,000 and a poster produced showing all the three Sub Postmasters who had been killed by the offender.
By the beginning of 1975 no further attacks had been identified, and the investigation was at the point of being wound up. Then on 14 January 1975 a young heiress, Lesley Whittle, was kidnapped from her home in Highley, Shropshire. On 7 March 1975 she was found dead in a drainage shaft. On 15 January 1975 Gerald Arthur Smith, a security guard at a railway yard in Dudley was shot when confronting a trespasser. He survived the attack (although he died on 25 March 1976 as a result of injuries sustained) and was able to assist in the production of an artist’s impression of his attacker.
Forensics were able to prove that the gun used in this attack was the same one that killed Sidney James Grayland in Langley, establishing a definite link between the Post Office cases and the kidnapping. Again there were suggestions that the offender had some connection to the Post Office, this time on the telephone engineering side. These suspicions were based on the grounds that ransom instructions had been left in call offices and the offender was apparently aware of telephone tracing procedures. However further investigations into staff working in the telecommunications side of the business were unsuccessful and the offender remained at large.
As the winter of 1975 approached the Post Office issued a warning to all Sub Postmasters to be alert to suspicious behaviour (previous robberies had all occurred during the winter).
On 11 December 1975 Donald Neilson was approached by police officers in Mansfield who believed him to be acting suspiciously. He refused to provide his name and address and produced a gun. He got in their car and demanded to be taken to Blidworth. The officers eventually managed to arrest him with help from members of the public. Initially Donald Neilson was not linked with the Post Office robberies or the kidnapping and murder of Lesley Whittle. However when his bag was examined in contained a brace and bit (used to gain entry to the post offices) and a face mask matching descriptions given by his victims.
On 14 June 1976 Donald Neilson went on trial charged with the kidnap and murder of Lesley Whittle and blackmailing her family. He was found guilty of all charges. On 5 July 1976 he went on trial on the following charges:
- Stealing a shotgun from premises at Thornhill on 17 November 1970
- Stealing pistols, a rifle, a shoulder holster and shooting spectacles on 28 January 1971
- The murder of Donald Lawson Skepper at Harrogate on 15 Feb 1974
- The Murder of Derek Astin at High Baxendale on 6 September 1974
- The Murder of Sidney James Grayland at Langley on 11 November 1974
- The attempted murder of Margaret Frances Grayland on 11 November 1974
- Grievous Bodily Harm to Margaret Frances Grayland on 11 November 1974
- Attempted murder of Stuart Micheal Mckenzie (one of the apprehending police officers) on 11 December 1975
- Possession of a firearm on 11 December 1975
He was found guilty on charges 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9, but not guilty on charges 6 and 8. On sentencing him to life imprisonment the judge told Neilson:
that the enormity of his crimes put him in a class apart from all convicted murderers in recent years. He described the kidnapping and eventual murder of Lesley Whittle as the ultimate in villainy and said furthermore that whilst he was at large Neilson had struck terror into the hearts of Postmasters, Subpostmasters, and their families throughout the country.
Neilson was sentenced to life imprisonment, with life to mean ‘natural life’. He died in custody on 18 December 2011.
Records of the investigation into the attacks by the Donald Neilson, and his eventual arrest and trial, are held in The Royal Mail Archive in POST 120.
– Helen Dafter, Archivist