Tag Archives: explore your archive

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.


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.


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.’


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

Favourite archive item: original poster artwork

For Explore Your Archive week, Head of Archives and Records Management Vicky Parkinson introduces her favourite item from our archive…well at least her favourite of the week!

“How do you feel about us filming a short ‘soundbite’ of you talking about ‘your favourite item’ while you are at the Conference next week?” started the email from the Head of Public Affairs at Archives and Records Association (ARA).

“Why not!” I thought, I can put my media training to use, and so I started to think about what my favourite item in the archive is. When you have around two and a half miles of shelving filled with archival material, dating back to 1636, it’s pretty hard to pick one item that’s your favourite.

POST 109/365.

POST 109/365

It’s actually quite hard to choose just one item from an archive. The very nature of archives means you tend to consider them as series, rather than individual items. How do you single out one volume from a run of volumes containing cash accounts from the 17th century or one staff handbook from a series that contains over 700 volumes?(Side note: I did seriously consider choosing a cash book; the handwriting is beautiful and they can tell you a lot, not just how much money went in and out of the post office in any given year)

So maybe I should choose a series first, perhaps something I enjoy showing people when I do a tour of the archive? No doubt as to what that is, I love showing people our posters. Most people have hazy preconceptions of what will be in our archive before they come on a tour, and it’s fun to challenge those. Regular readers of our blog will know that we love the posters and will use them wherever we can to illustrate articles. What’s not to love about a series of posters that starts at the golden age of public relations?

Each poster is stunning in its own right, together they show the development of so many things: the use of PR in the Post Office, the changing services it provided, the issues that were important to the organisation (you just have to look at how many Post Early for Christmas campaigns there have been to realise what a big issue it is for the postal service every year), the development of design and the move to computerised design in the 1980s, to name a few. Watching people’s eyes light up when I open the draws and start bringing out the bright colourful posters reminds me what an amazing job I have.

As amazing as the posters are I love the artwork for the posters even more. In this age of technology it’s easy to take design for granted, one look at poster artwork reminds you what an amazing skill the designers had. You can see every brush stroke, see the pencil lines drawn to help keep lettering straight, see where they’ve stuck additional bits on, where there were fiddly bits that would have ruined the picture if they’d tried to paint in on directly. Unfortunately they’re also rather fragile, much more fragile than the posters, which means that we can’t handle them too much and so I don’t look at them as frequently and don’t know them as well.

POST 109/364

POST 109/364

Just before the ARA conference I took an artist down to the posters to give him some ideas of what we had, so that he could start thinking about how to engage a class of children in a project we were working together on. It was whilst preparing for this visit that I came across a wonderful piece of poster artwork (POST 109/158) and had a true wow moment.

POST 109/158

POST 109/158

We don’t have the poster for this, so this was the first time I had come across it. The colours pop in real life, and the text is bold. One of these days I will find the time to look through the records relating to poster design and see what I can find out about the artwork, and the artist, but the poster artwork itself stands on its own without any accompanying information, and little information on the poster itself. It shows the story of the GPO in the mid-1930s, and using graphic designers, it challenges the old fashioned art establishment, illustrating the pioneering go-getting nature of the GPO with its deliciously sleek airmail planes.

Up close picture of artwork for a poster. Artist: Ronald Watson POST 109-158

Up close picture of artwork for a poster. Artist: Ronald Watson POST 109-158

Ask me again in a few months time and I may very well have a different favourite item in the archive, that’s the joy of having two miles and a half of shelving containing records that document 378 years of postal history!

-Vicky Parkinson, Head of Archives and Records Management


#ExploreArchive: What to expect next week

This year we’re once again taking part in the Explore Your Archive campaign. From 10-15 November organisations across the UK are taking part in the campaign to celebrate the UK’s archives and heritage. Penny McMahon, Archives and Records Assistant, tells us a little about what you can expect.


All of the BPMA’s Explore Your Archive activity will take place via social media, so look out for #explorearchives on our Twitter and Facebook pages, and right here on our blog. Every member of the archive team has selected one of their favourite records from the collection. This includes original artwork, snippets about the Post Office using animals in its workforce and a first-hand account of the Great Train Robbery.

Here are some of the highlights:

On Monday 10 November, Director Adrian Steel will be taking over Twitter sharing what goes on behind the scenes in our archive and here at the BPMA.

On Thursday 13 November, Head of Cataloguing Gavin McGuffie will also be giving the public an opportunity to choose a box in the archive to investigate, in our ‘pick a shelf any shelf segment’. We will put up a list of shelf numbers alongside a photograph of the shelf and you can choose which box he’ll look at.

Lastly we have been hard at work in the kitchen recreating Trench Cake. Trench cake was devised as a way of sending a cake to loved ones on the Front that would travel and keep well, without using up too many precious rationed goods. I first learned of Trench Cake when a member of the Great British Bake Off production team asked us how much it would cost and how a cake would be packaged during the First World War.  We have baked several examples of the cakes, brought one in for staff at the BPMA, sent one to Scotland and one to France. Fingers crossed they arrive in one piece!  Look out for a follow up blog to see how we got on.

Do you want to have a go at trench cake? We’d love to see your attempts – tweet us your pictures and tell us how it tastes!

– Penny McMahon, Archives and Records Assistant

Royal Agricultural Hall during the First World War

This week we teamed up with Islington Local History Centre and Museum as part of the wider Explore Your Archive campaign to connect local archives with one another and the wider community. For this post, BPMA Archivist Helen Dafter and Islington Local History Manager Mark Aston discuss the importance of the Royal Agricultural Hall during the First World War: censoring POW parcels while continuing to host exhibitions, fairs and shows.

The foundation stone of the Agricultural Hall (or ‘Aggie’), Upper Street, Islington was laid on 16 November 1861 and the following year, the hall was officially opened. Originally built for the Smithfield Club as a venue for livestock and agricultural shows, the hall hosted a wide variety of displays, entertainments and sporting events. It was so well patronised by royalty that from 1885 it became the Royal Agricultural Hall (RAH).

The Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, from Liverpool Road before the First World War. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

The Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, from Liverpool Road before the First World War. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

During the First World War, it was largely ‘business as usual’ for the Aggie as it continued to stage exhibitions and present shows, despite the conflict brought to the home front. The complex, however, had not gone unnoticed by the government and Gilbey Hall was requisitioned by the War Office for official use in June 1916.

Work inspecting parcels for Prisoners of War was transferred from the Northern District Office on nearby Upper Street to the Gilbey Hall. This was due to space constraints that the Northern District Office which were made worse by the census of Prisoner of War parcels at this time. Gilbey Hall was regarded as being particularly suitable for this work because of its proximity to Mount Pleasant sorting office. It was also conveniently located for railway termini and had sufficient space to store parcels if onward routes were suspended.

By August 1916 concerns were expressed over the other demands on the RAH. Horse shows required the full use of the complex, including Gilbey Hall. The RAH were keen to know the Post Office’s intentions with regard to this building. A letter written at this time states ‘It is a pity that if the part is wanted the whole should not have been taken, as I understand this was contemplated. Instead of which the authorities chose to build a great place in Regents Park at enormous expense.’ (POST 56/245). The ‘great place’ referred to was the Home Depot.

A captured German Albatross fighter plane being paraded at Ludgate Circus. This was possible the same aircraft exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, in November 1918. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

A captured German Albatross fighter plane being paraded at Ludgate Circus. This was possible the same aircraft exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, in November 1918. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

Livestock, dairy and horse shows continued to take place at the RAH throughout the early years of the First World War. In October 1914, the British Dairy Farmers Association held its 39th annual show at the hall, at which King George V won a silver medal in the pigeon section. Two months later, the King was awarded prizes for cattle breeds at the hall’s Smithfield Club Show. December that year also witnessed a horse show and the World’s Fair, which featured a circus, a fun-fair and animal shows. The next few years followed in similar fashion: livestock and horse shows, trade and business fairs and entertainments, with the ever-popular World Fair continuing to attract huge crowds.

On 15 November 1918, just four days after the armistice, the aftermath of the war came to the RAH with an exhibition of German military aircraft. For a one shilling (5p) entrance fee, the public could view what the newspapers described as ‘samples’ of enemy aircraft, not ‘trophies’.  Upon its opening by Lord Weir, Secretary of State for the Air, six airships and an entire squadron of Handley Page bombers flew in formation over the RAH, while all day an observation balloon hovered above the exhibition.

Among the ‘samples’ on show was a twin-engine Gotha that was “brought down” recently during a raid on London.  In fact, the aeroplane was created from parts from a number of shot down aircraft. Other planes included a AEG reconnaissance aircraft, a Friedrichshafen bomber, the latter accompanied by three metre long bomb weighing over half a ton, and a red, single seat Fokker bi-plane, once belonging to the ‘Richthofen’ circus. One of the main attractions was an Albatross fighter plane in which Prince Charles of Prussia was forced down and captured in March 1917.

Horn family of Islington at a fair at the Royal Agricultural Hall in 1916. Frederick (father) with children, Eva, Alice and Harry. Frederick was on leave from the front. He survived the war. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

Horn family of Islington at a fair at the Royal Agricultural Hall in 1916. Frederick (father) with children, Eva, Alice and Harry. Frederick was on leave from the front. He survived the war. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

A military presence continued at the hall in 1919 with a series of auctions of government service motor vehicles and accessories. And, in true RAH style, the event was hailed as the “largest auction sale of motor accessories ever held!”

Islington Local History Centre holds the archive of the Royal Agricultural Hall Company Limited, which contains deeds and maintenance records, correspondence, ledgers, cash books, letting agreements and exhibition programmes and posters (c1861-1999).

Explore the Post Office in Conflict

The Post Office has always played a key role in keeping people in touch with their loved ones. During times of conflict this role is especially apparent. Alongside the personal correspondence carried by the mail service there is also a wealth of official correspondence enabling the smooth operation of government in times of crisis.

20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard during an 'Invasion' exercise on 29th June 1941.

20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard during an ‘Invasion’ exercise on 29th June 1941.

The Post Office has kept communications going during World War One, World War Two, the Falklands war, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also played a key role during civilian disturbances such as the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

On Thursday 14 November 2013 the British Postal Museum & Archive will be exploring the role of the Post Office in conflict through a series of activities.

Throughout the day there will be a display of archive and museum items relating to the Post Office in conflict. Members of staff will be on hand to discuss these items and can also direct visitors to further relevant material in the collections.

At 4.30pm there will be an opportunity to explore Behind the Scenes. This Archivist led tour will take in some of the highlights of the archive collection.

Artwork for poster by R. Coombs

Artwork for poster by R. Coombs (POST 109/334)

A highlight of the day will be the opportunity to bring along your own correspondence to be scanned by a member of staff. Between 4.00pm and 6.30pm we will be scanning correspondence relating to all aspects of conflict (war and civil disturbance). The original items will remain your property and will be handled with the utmost care by our trained staff. You will also receive a copy of the scanned image for your records. This is a fantastic opportunity to make use our high quality equipment and receive digital images to share with your family. The scanned images we collect will also be considered for use in future exhibitions in our New Centre.

To round the day off there is an evening lecture by Sian Price entitled ‘If you’re reading this: last letters from the front line’ at 7pm.

The day forms part of the Explore Your Archive campaign. It offers an easy introduction to some of the diverse resources available in our archive. We hope this will inspire you to further explore archives and to discover more about subjects of interest to you.

Daytime activities (including the scanning event) are free, drop in events.
There will be a limited number of places available on the archive tour, you will be able to sign up for these on the day.

Tickets for the evening lecture are priced at £3.00 per person (£2.50 for concessions), complimentary tickets will be provided to those bringing along items to be scanned. Tickets can be booked in advance here.

Full details of the day’s activities can be found at our website.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist