Tag Archives: Great Train Robbery

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

Mail Rail gets the green light

Last week we received some very exciting news with regard to our plans for the new museum as Islington Borough Council approved our planning application to develop a stretch of the old Post Office Underground Railway – Mail Rail – into a unique subterranean ride.

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Waiting in the Dark ©Jonathan Bradley 

The announcement resulted in a great deal of media coverage for the BPMA including pieces on the TimeOut, Daily Mail, Wired and BBC News websites.

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Staff working on Mail Rail 

The decision means that, as part of a visit to The Postal Museum, due to open in central London in 2016, visitors will be able to explore the hidden world of Mail Rail under Mount Pleasant through an interactive exhibition and a 12-15 minute subterranean ride through 1km of the original tunnels, following the same route that much of the nation’s mail took for nearly 80 years from 1927-2003.

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The BPMA’s vision for Mail Rail 

The Mail Rail ride is part of the BPMA’s project to create the Postal Museum which will reveal the extraordinary stories of British social, communications and design history through the universally iconic postal service. By opening up almost 400 years of records and objects from the reign of King Charles I to the present day, The Postal Museum will reveal unusual and exciting episodes from British history. It will showcase curious items including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial, a Victoria Cross and flintlock pistols used to defend Mail Coaches in the 19th Century.

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delivering…The Postal Museum 

We are still waiting on the outcome of an application for £4.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a decision on which is expected in May this year, which will allow us to start construction work on the Postal Museum, now including the Mail Rail ride. This is obviously a very exciting time for us here at the BPMA and we look forward to sharing our progress with you over the coming months. 

BPMA at Autumn Stampex 2013

On Wednesday, 18 September, the fantastic British National Stamp Exhibition, Stampex, will open its doors once more. Stampex is free of charge and open to the philatelic community and indeed anyone at all interested in stamps, postal history and other related items. Stampex runs from Wednesday 18 September right through to Saturday 21 September.

Stampex at the Business Design Centre, Islington.

Stampex at the Business Design Centre, Islington.

The show is located at the Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 0QH. Stampex will be open as follows:

Wednesday 18 September, 11.30am – 7.00pm
Thursday 19 and Friday 20 September, 10.00am – 6.00pm
Saturday 21 September, 10.00am – 5.00pm

The Friends of the BPMA will have an area at Stampex once more, to share news about BPMA exhibitions, events and activities and offer a great opportunity for visitors to buy a selection of products from the BPMA Shop.

Come along and find out more about our fundraising plans for the new museum and archive. Visitors will also have the opportunity to buy tickets for our forthcoming evening talk being given by BPMA Senior Curator Julian Stray- entitled Mr Poppleton’s Horse: The History of horse-drawn mails. The talk is taking place on Thursday 19 September at 7pm, at the Phoenix Centre, next door to our Archive in Clerkenwell, only a 20 minute walk from the Business Design Centre.

At the Friends’ stand you will be able to view some of our exhibition panels from our brand new exhibition on The Great Train Robbery, shortly to leave on a national tour around the UK and marking 50 years since the robbery took place. The exhibition explores and uncovers the role of the Post Office Investigation Department following the robbery, and their instrumental role alongside the Police in elucidating the events of the robbery and apprehending those involved. Exhibition highlights include images taken on the night of the robbery, suspect lists, and an early Wanted poster, plus details from the GPO files held at the archive. The robbery changed the way the GPO tackled security- on its Travelling Post Offices and more widely in UK post offices, and more information on this will be available for visitors to view.

Travelling Post Office (POST 118/5745)

Travelling Post Office (POST 118/5745)

Also available from the Friends of the BPMA will be a great selection of BPMA shop stock to purchase. Brand new items that will be available include the postcards featuring images from the new BPMA exhibition on Mail Rail– all images taken by Jonathan Bradley Photography.

Descent to the Mount - Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Descent to the Mount – Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

The Mail Rail exhibition brochure will also be available to purchase, featuring text and images from the exhibition and unique insights into the Mail Rail network by BPMA Head of Collections, Chris Taft, and Jonathan Bradley, the photographer who first conceived the idea of photographing the Mail Rail network. We are also pleased to offer for sale the paperback version of Masters of the Post by Duncan Campbell-Smith. Duncan Campbell-Smith will soon be giving a talk on our behalf entitled The Royal Mail Past and Present, at the Guildhall Library, London, on 24 October, 7pm- 8pm.

There will be lots to see at Stampex and in the area where the Friends will be- please do come and find us!

– Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

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.

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.

Great Train Robbery: opening files among the records of the Post Office Investigation Department

2013 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Train Robbery. Around 3am on Thursday 8th August 1963 just under £2.6 million was stolen from a Travelling Post Office (TPO) en route from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston. The attack on the train stunned the nation because of the enormous amount of money stolen and the highly organised style of the robbery. The event has proved to have enduring public appeal via books and films as well as continued fascination with the robbers themselves.

A Travelling Post Office, 1958 (POST 118/5269)

A Travelling Post Office, 1958 (POST 118/5269)

At the start of 2011 I discovered that some entire files related to the robbery within POST 120 (the section of records in the Royal Mail Archive for the Post Office Investigation Department) had continued closure date stickers on them (50 years post the date of the last document in the file, so from 2013 to around 2020). The precise reasons for closure proved difficult to ascertain. I felt it was important that as interest increases in the run up to the anniversary we were clear about what was and what wasn’t open.

The first thing we did is collect up all the relevant files and with my colleague Helen Dafter I started going through them noting down any personal details that might fall foul of data protection legislation. We also asked for assistance, liaising with The National Archives (TNA). TNA recommended the preferred method of closure to be redaction, so removing names and details on a surrogate of the original document rather than closing whole files. Current Royal Mail Group Security staff came in to examine the files and we consulted with Scotland Yard.

Second page of a confidential list of 28 suspects given to the Post Office Investigation Branch by the police. Note ’27’ and ‘28’ (‘Two Post Office men – not named’) and the handwritten addition of ‘Ronald Arthur Biggs’. (POST 120/95)

Second page of a confidential list of 28 suspects given to the Post Office Investigation Branch by the police. Note ’27’ and ‘28’ (‘Two Post Office men – not named’) and the handwritten addition of ‘Ronald Arthur Biggs’. (POST 120/95)

In the end we decided that very little justified continued closure since many of the people involved are now dead. Data protection, not disclosing information that would cause individuals distress if it were revealed, after all only applies to the living.

What the files reveal is the story of the Post Office Investigation Branch’s (IB) investigation and how significant this was to tracking down the culprits. They also shine light on an issue mentioned by Postmaster General Reginald Bevins immediately after the event, that there might have been an ‘insider’ at the GPO providing information to the robbers. The IB carried out observations of suspected individuals for years following the crime but no evidence of involvement was found.

First page of a report into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’ who may have assisted the criminals (from POST 120/128). None of the suspects were found to have any connection with the robbery.

First page of a report into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’ who may have assisted the criminals (from POST 120/128). None of the suspects were found to have any connection with the robbery.

Over 2011 interest in the material has continued to grow with Duncan Campbell Smith including a chapter on the robbery in his Masters of the Post and the historian Andrew Cook carrying out research for a proposed book in 2013. Researchers from BBC Radio 4’s The Peoples Post have consulted the files and Lion TV have made a documentary for Channel 4, which airs tonight.

– Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives and Records Management