Tag Archives: theft

Great Train Robbery podcast

Recently we welcomed the author Andrew Cook to the BPMA to speak about The Great Train Robbery, one of the most infamous crimes in British history. On 8th August 1963, £2.6 million (equivalent to over £45 million today) was stolen from a Royal Mail Travelling Post Office. The bulk of the money has never been recovered, and there has not been a single year since 1963 when one aspect of the crime or its participants has not been featured in the media.

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

But despite the wealth and extent of this coverage, a host of questions have remained unanswered: Who was behind the robbery? Was it an inside job? And who got away with the crime of the century? Fifty years of selective falsehood and fantasy has obscured the reality of the story behind the robbery. The fact that a considerable number of the original investigation and prosecution files on those involved and alleged to have been involved were closed, in many cases until 2045, has only served to muddy the waters still further.

When researching his book, The Great Train Robbery – the untold story of the closed investigation files, Andrew Cook spent a lot of time at the Royal Mail Archive, which holds extensive material about the robbery. In his talk at the BPMA Andrew explained how he did the research and what he found. A recording of this talk is now available as a podcast, which is free to listen to or download from our website, iTunes and SoundCloud.

Our exhibition The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive is currently on a national tour, or viewable online at the Google Cultural Institute.

The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive

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)

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 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 Investigation

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)

Wanted poster of the robbers and their associates. This was produced not long after the robbery and was widely distributed. (POST 120/95)

Arrests

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.

Aftermath

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)

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 dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk for more information or if you would like to hire the exhibition.

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.