Tag Archives: stolen

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

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.