Tag Archives: HVP

The great unsolved crime

This month sees the 60th anniversary of a daring robbery from the Post Office mail van. This attack occurred in the early hours of the morning of 21st May 1952, when a mail van carrying High Value Packets (HVPs) was ambushed in Eastcastle Street, London.

The mail van had collected its consignment from the Travelling Post Office at Paddington Station and was returning to the Eastern Central Delivery Office when the attack took place. The usual route travelled along Oxford Street, but due to traffic works a diversion was in place taking traffic along Berners Street and Eastcastle Street. At this point a car pulled in front of the van preventing its progress, while another vehicle pulled up behind it. The staff (a driver, guard and a sorter) were forcibly pulled from the van and attacked. The van was then driven away by the gang and later abandoned in Augustus Street, about one mile away. A total of £236,748 10s had been stolen.

The scale of the robbery and precision with which it was executed led to suspicion that a Post Office employee had acted as a contact for the gang;

There must inevitably be grave suspicion that a Post Office servant is implicated in the theft. It is considered doubtful whether an operation so well planned could (or would) have been executed without an up to date knowledge of the internal arrangements.

(POST 120/88)

Those staff on board the mail van came under particular suspicion. There were several anomalies which gave cause for concern; firstly the siren which the van was fitted with and which should be used in case of attack was not deployed and was found to be deactivated when the van was recovered, secondly the driver had not handed the keys to the guard as was protocol but instead left them on the seat, and thirdly one of the doors was not secured properly. The driver was responsible for these omissions, and was also largely uninjured in the attack caused suspicion. However the police decided that none of the staff on the mail van at the time of the attack were involved in its organisation.

The number of Post Office staff who had some knowledge of the operation of the HVP mail vans was significant. There were 800 Postmen Higher Grade, and 2300 Postmen working in the Eastern Central Delivery Office at the time. A further 680 Postmen Higher Grade, and 375 Postmen worked in the Foreign Section, located in the same building. Several hundred more staff were involved with administrative, supervising and clerical duties and many motor mail van drivers also had access to the site. This combined with the high turnover of temporary staff meant that a large number of people could potentially have leaked information. Therefore the police and the Post Office Investigations Department focussed their attentions on those staff with direct involvement with the mail vans at the time of the attack, and those with criminal records.

William (Billy) Hill, a notorious gangster was suspected of orchestrating the attack. It was believed that the robbery was planned weeks beforehand. Once the mail van was seized and taken to Augustus Street, the mail bags were transferred to a ‘railer’ (a lorry with railed sides) and concealed with apple boxes.

Billy Hill photo

Billy Hill photo

In July 1952 Robert Kingshott and Edward Noble were arrested in connection with receiving stolen money in relation to the Eastcastle Street robbery. Noble had previously been dismissed from the Post Office for larceny. However after much deliberation the jury found them both not guilty. No one else was ever charged or convicted in connection with this robbery.

Edward Noble’s police record (POST 120/90)

Edward Noble’s police record (POST 120/90)

In the aftermath of the attack the Post Office worked closely with the police to review their security procedures. There was some discussion of the possibility of the police providing additional protection for HVP vans operating to and from London stations. Due to the limited resources of the police this was not felt to be feasible. However the Assistant Commissioner did advise;

He saw no objection, and in fact he advocated the provision of a common weapon i.e. (truncheons) to the Post Office staff travelling on these vans. He further indicated that the staff so provided should be instructed to have no hesitation in using them if they were attacked.

(POST 120/93)

In spite of all investigations into Post Office employees, and the review of security procedures an Inspector in the Investigations Department summed the situation up when he pointed out;

whatever protective or preventative measures are suggested in the matter of HVP Mail Vans, none will be of the slightest use unless supervising officers ensure that they are carried out

(POST 120/93)

This remains a valid consideration for any organisation considering security measures today.

Information from this blog was drawn from the records of the Post Office Investigations Department, available in POST 120.

Helen Dafter – Archivist

The Great Train Robbery

Yesterday Justice Secretary Jack Straw granted the release from prison of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. Biggs is severely ill with pneumonia and is not expected to recover.

The Great Train Robbery was one of the most notorious robberies of the 20th Century. It took place on the morning of 8th August 1963 against a Travelling Post Office (TPO), a railway carriage especially adapted for Post Office workers to sort mail on the move. The target of the gang of robbers was the second carriage from the front of the TPO, which was a High Value Packet (HVP), where registered mail, including cash, was sorted.

The BPMA holds a large number of working files detailing the investigation of the robbery, which come from the Post Office Investigations Unit of Royal Mail (POIU). The POIU was formed in 1793 and is recognised as the oldest investigating authority in the world. It is still in existence today and works with the police to investigate crimes which take place on Post Office property.

Contained within the POIU files on the Great Train Robbery is a confidential report dated 12th May1964 which details the facts as they were known at the time. The report states that shortly after 3am on 8th August 1963 the train driver, Jack Mills, noticed an amber light at Sears Crossing. This was unusual, but as per regulations he applied the breaks and moved the train forward slowly to the “home” signal, which was showing a red light indicating he must stop. Once the train had stopped the fireman, Mr Whitby, walked along the track to find a railway telephone with which to call the signal box and ask whether the train could proceed. However, Whitby discovered that the telephone wires had been cut, and so returned to the engine to tell Mills.

At this point both Mills and Whitby were attacked, with Mills sustaining severe head injuries. Despite this, Mills was forced to drive the train half a mile down the tracks to Bridego Railway Bridge (located in Ledburn near Mentmore, Buckinghamshire). As Mills realised during the journey, the gang had uncoupled the rear of the train, leaving only the HVP and the first carriage attached.

When Mills stopped the train the rest of the gang, about 15 in total, boarded the train and offloaded the moneybags in the HVP into vehicles waiting under the bridge. They then drove off with £2.6 million in used £1, £2, £5 and £10 notes. Amazingly, the passengers and most of the crew in the carriages behind the HVP didn’t realise what was happening.

Because of the large amount of money stolen – equivalent to more than £40 million in today’s money – a great many articles about the robbery appeared in the press, which resulted in police being bombarded with information and tip-offs, many of which turned out to be false leads. These are detailed within the POIU files, along with observation reports, lists of suspects (including the dates of their arrest, charges and length of sentence [if found guilty]), letters sent giving information on suspects, statements taken from staff and police personnel involved, a copy of the Metropolitan Police report, accounts of the investigation and trial, reports into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’, photographs and diagrams of the interior of the carriage and layout of the track, original items from the robbery such as labels, wrapping and advice slips, items used as evidence in the trials, press cuttings where the robbers and their accomplices relate their story, plans of the train and railway track, Police photographs of some of the suspects and a ‘Wanted’ poster.

The Great Train Robbery: Wanted Poster. Some of those pictured in this poster would later turn out to have no connection to the robbery.

The Great Train Robbery: Wanted Poster. Some of those pictured in this poster would later turn out to have no connection to the robbery.

Investigations into the Robbery continued throughout the rest of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, with POIU reports including information on the recovery of some of the money, the escape of Ronnie Biggs from Wandsworth Prison, and Bigg’s subsequent move to Australia. Other, less pertinent, information was also included, such as how Bigg’s wife Charmian had sold her life story for £30,000, prompting the establishment of a relief fund to aid train driver Jack Mills, who never recovered from the injuries he received during the robbery. The public donated more than £34,000 to the relief fund, although Mills died of pneumonia in 1970. An inquest concluded that there was nothing to connect Mill’s death with his existing injuries.

The files make for fascinating reading, charting the progress and thoroughness of the investigation into one of the great crimes of the 20th Century.