Tag Archives: Metropolitan Police

Royal Mail Group Security: Keeping Your Mail Safe since 1683

You probably think of the post office in terms of stamps and rush deliveries, rather than undercover police investigations and exciting arrests—but funnily enough, both conceptions are very much a part of the modern (and ancient) post office thanks to Royal Mail Group Security, the internal crime-fighting department that remains relatively unknown. Despite its anonymity, internal security has been alive and kicking in the post office since 1683. It began in the form of the Solicitor to the General Post Office, Attorney Richard Swift, who was appointed the salary of £200 per annum.

By the end of the 18th century, the reports of the apprehension and sentencing of Post Office offenders appeared regularly in the newspaper during this time, and the sentences were often very extreme: capital punishment was a common sentence for stealing a single letter. These punishments were outlined by an act of parliament in 1765: ‘Death as a Felon’ was the sentence for theft of mail, secretion, embezzlement, or destruction of mail. In 1820 it was recorded that for obstructing a mail coach, you got off lightly with a sentence of six months imprisonment. The last postman hanged for theft of the post was in 1832, and shortly after they abolished capital punishment for these offences in an Act of 1835, replacing it with transportation sentences of between seven years and life.

However, before the repeal of capital punishment for post office offences, the investigative duties within the post office changed hands: until 1816, it had been the sole responsibility of the Solicitor, but after this date an additional Clerk was appointed, while a team who eventually became known as the Missing Letter Branch dealt with complaints and other routine enquiries. Members of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first professional police force, were often called on to assist with investigations, and within three months of the foundation of the Metropolitan Police by Robert Peel in 1829 the first police officers were seconded to the Post Office. Little did they know that this expanded team of investigators would become invaluable with the introduction of the Penny Black in 1840, which caused crime levels to greatly increase—so much so that in 1848 they created the post of Post Office Inspector General and an office whose duties were specifically focused in investigation.

Throughout the late 19th and 20th century, this department underwent much reorganization and many name-changes, eventually resulting in today’s Royal Mail Group Security with a department comprised of around 280 investigators and security managers. For more detailed accounts of some of the post-1960 changes (and some thrilling chase-and-arrest stories) within post office security, keep an eye out for a full range of oral history interviews with acting and retired members of Group Security coming to the BPMA online catalogue soon!

For a more detailed history of Royal Mail Security, feel free to check out ‘Investigations, Prosecutions and Security in the Royal Mail: A Brief History’ (PDF, 107KB).

We are indebted to Alan Baxter for his assistance with this article.

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.