Tag Archives: Reginald Bevins

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

Letters to Santa

For many years children writing to Santa were disappointed when he appeared to return their letters without a word. Until 1963, letters addressed to him care of a fictional address were returned to sender because of the legal requirement to treat them as undeliverable. But in 1963, Royal Mail’s scheme to reply to letters sent to Santa began. Mail addressed to Father Christmas c/o Snowland, Toyland, Reindeerland or any other fictional address would be dealt with separately. The Post Office would send a card from Father Christmas inside an envelope with a ‘Reindeerland Postage Paid’ cancellation stamp.

Letter to Santa Claus, 1963

Letter to Santa Claus, 1963

Not all letters to Santa would be dealt with by the Post Office. There were already some commercial and charitable organisations providing this service, and the Postmaster General did not want to divert mail away from them. So letters marked ‘Father Christmas, c/o Gamages’ for example, would still be delivered to that address. Similarly, the Post Office was obliged under international regulations to continue to forward the 80,000 letters address to Santa in other countries, most commonly Greenland and Denmark, to be dealt with by their respective postal services.

Reply from Santa Claus which appeared in a specially designed greetings card, 1963

Reply from Santa Claus which appeared in a specially designed greetings card, 1963

Other countries had different schemes in place, and the Post Office considered the advantages and disadvantages of their methods before adopting one. In Denmark, for example, the postal service asked children to enclose a postal order for one kroner, in return for which children received a gift and profits were donated to charity. However, this idea was considered too controversial and legally complex, and in the end the Post Office opted for the free and simpler scheme similar to the one already in place in France.

Thank you letter to Santa Claus

Thank you letter to Santa Claus

At the start of the scheme it was difficult to predict how many letters would actually need answering. Only those letters with return addresses could be responded to of course, which was about a quarter of the total sent. At Post Office Headquarters in 1963 five clerical assistants carried out the work of opening, sorting and addressing the envelopes. That year 8000 cards were sent.

Specially designed reply card from Santa, 1964

Specially designed reply card from Santa, 1964

The scheme was very well received by the press, and the Postmaster General Reginald Bevins was labelled Santa ‘Bevins’. Since then, Santa has continued to work hard sending out cards each year, and he even has his own postcode: SAN TA1! This year, children hoping to receive a response from Father Christmas have until 15 December to post their letters to him.

Sources: POST 122/6325POST 122/6339, Royal Mail Archive