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)
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 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 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)
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.
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)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or if you would like to hire the exhibition.