Tag Archives: TPO

Tenth Anniversary of the Final Traveling Post Office Journeys

Image

Men stand in front of the first train coach used to sort mail on the North Eastern Railway.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the last journeys of Royal Mail’s Travelling Post Offices. First used in 1838, they revolutionised the way mail was moved across the country. From romantic images of steam engines to the brutal realities of the Great Train Robbery, TPOs were an instantly recognisable part of the national fabric until they were phased out in 2004.

To mark this anniversary, BPMA has written a guest blog for the National Railway Museum which can be found here. An online version of our Great Train Robbery exhibition, The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive, marking the most infamous episode in the history of the TPO can be viewed on Google Cultural Institute’s website.

The Great Train Robbery exhibition on tour

On the weekend of 10-11 August, the BPMA took part in the Moving the Mail weekend at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. We also mounted our new touring exhibition The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the investigations: A Story from the Archive.

The exhibition was particularly appropriate as it was nearly 50 years to the day since the robbery had occurred – on 8 August 1963; the robbery had also taken place very close to the site of Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. Many visitors engaged with the exhibition, looking through facsimiles of files held at the BPMA relating to the investigation carried out by the Post Office Investigation Branch in the wake of the robbery. Files included observation reports, mugshot images of suspects, and images of the interior of the suspects’ hideaway Leatherslade Farm.

The public looking at the exhibition.

The public looking at the exhibition.

We met many visitors who had direct memories of the night of the robbery- from the Travelling Post Office (TPO) workers who had waited in vain for the hijacked train, to policemen stationed at Aylesbury – and to the locals who lived through the search and investigation in the days that followed. There were lots of other events happening over the weekend too: Postman Pat visited and was clearly impressed with our exhibition! There were also rides on steam trains and the opportunity to see inside a TPO carriage. Our Senior Curator, Julian Stray, was amongst those giving talks; there is a chance to hear his horse-drawn mails talk again on Thursday 19 September, 7pm, at the Phoenix Centre.

Postman Pat visits the exhibition.

Postman Pat visits the exhibition.

Our thanks go to Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, particularly Cyril Parsons and Sheila Lobley.

– Emma Harper, Curator and Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

The Great Train Robbery exhibition is now on tour and can shortly be seen at various venues across the country. It is also available for free hire. Please contact Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer, for more information, on 0207 354 7287 or at dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk.

An online version of our Great Train Robbery exhibition can be seen on the Google Cultural Institute website.

The Great Train Robbery exhibitions

If you visit the Royal Mail Archive today you can see our special exhibition The Great Train Robbery, the aftermath and the Investigations: A Story from the Archive. It marks the 50th anniversary of the robbery, and is presented in conjunction with a talk to given by author Andrew Cook tonight.

Around 3am on 8th August 1963, £2.6 million (£45 million in today’s money) was stolen from a Travelling Post Office (TPO) en route from Glasgow to London. The audacity and violence of the crime, which later became known as The Great Train Robbery, stunned the general public and made international celebrities of some of the robbers.

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

Ronnie Biggs mugshot. (POST 120/100, pg1-2)

Our exhibition tells the story of the investigations that followed, particularly the key role The Post Office Investigations Department (POID) played in helping police uncover the events of the robbery. The exhibition also looks more widely at the effects the robbery had on the role of the TPO and the security changes brought in by the GPO, as well as exploring the history and work of the POID both then and now.

Travelling Post Office. (POST 118/5743)

Travelling Post Office. (POST 118/5743)

Some of the images in the exhibition come from the Thames Valley Police Museum and these show several of the crime scenes, including one of the train carriages.

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

The carriage following the robbery. © Thames Valley Police

Also on display in the Royal Mail Archive today are original objects from our collections which are directly linked to the Great Train Robbery and the POID. After today a touring version of the exhibition will be on show at venues around the country – see our website for further details.

In addition, we have partnered with the Google Cultural Institute (GCI) to make the exhibition available on their website. This enables anyone, anywhere in the world, to discover the truth behind the Great Train Robbery legend through original material from our collection.

The Great Train Robbery exhibition on the Google Cultural Institute website.

The Great Train Robbery exhibition on the Google Cultural Institute website.

The Google Cultural Institute, created in May 2011, is a platform that provides access to works of art, landmarks and archive exhibits with just a few clicks of the mouse. All the content is chosen by Google’s 290 partners, which include museums as well as cultural institutions and associations. The purpose of the Cultural Institute is to preserve and highlight a variety of cultural heritage by providing free and simple access to all visitors through the use of web technology.

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

View our Great Train Robbery exhibition 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 Train Robbery – The untold story from the closed investigation files

2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Train Robbery – one of the most notorious robberies of the 20th century, which has proved to have enduring public appeal, particularly via books, films and documentaries. On this blog, we have previously published articles on this criminal coup and the number of working files detailing its investigation that are held in our Archive. Author and historian Andrew Cook has now published a new book on this event and describes the fascination this infamous crime and its background have exerted over the decades.

The bulk of the money stolen during The Great Train Robbery has never been recovered. On 15 August 1963, four bags containing £100,900 were found in woods near Dorking.

The bulk of the money stolen during The Great Train Robbery has never been recovered. On 15 August 1963, four bags containing £100,900 were found in woods near Dorking. (Thames Valley Police)

The term ‘The Great Train Robbery’ was neither born as a result of the 1963 mail train hold up, nor indeed the 1855 train robbery later immortalised by Michael Crichton in his 1975 novel ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (which was later filmed by MGM in 1978 as ‘The First Great Train Robbery’ starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland).

While Crichton’s book was a work of fiction, it drew heavily upon real life events which took place on the night of 15 May 1855 when the London Bridge to Paris mail train was robbed of 200 lbs of gold bars. Crichton took somewhat of a historical liberty by retrospectively re-christening it the Great Train Robbery. At the time, and for over a century afterwards, it was commonly known as the ‘Great Gold Robbery.’

The term ‘The Great Train Robbery’ has in fact no basis at all in any real life event; it is instead the title of a 1903 American action Western movie written, produced and directed by Edwin S Porter.  Lasting only 12 minutes it is still regarded by film historians as a milestone in movie making. When, in 1963, the British press frantically searched for a suitable iconic headline, Edwin Porter’s 60 year old movie title fitted the bill perfectly.

Bridego Bridge, half a mile down the line from where the train was ambushed. It was here the robbers unloaded the HVP (High Value Packet) coach and passed the mailbags down the embankment by human chain. (Thames Valley Police)

Bridego Bridge, half a mile down the line from where the train was ambushed. It was here the robbers unloaded the HVP (High Value Packet) coach and passed the mailbags down the embankment by human chain. (Thames Valley Police)

Mail was first carried in Britain by train in November 1830, following an agreement between the General Post Office and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. In 1838 Parliament passed the Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act which required railway companies to carry mail as and when demanded by the Postmaster General. Trains carrying mail eventually became known as TPO’s (Travelling Post Offices).

133 years later, just after 3am on Thursday 8th August 1963 a gang of professional thieves made history when they held up the Glasgow to London Travelling Post Office train and seized a record breaking haul of £2.6 million (just over £50 million in today’s money).

Much has been written over the past five decades, in books, magazines and newspapers. A host of films and television documentaries have also ensured that not one year since 1963 has passed without coverage of the story and the characters involved.

Discovered five days after the robbery, Leatherslade farm was dubbed "Robbers' Roost" by BBC TV News reporters. The police referred to it as "one big clue". (Thames Valley Police)

Discovered five days after the robbery, Leatherslade farm was dubbed “Robbers’ Roost” by BBC TV News reporters. The police referred to it as “one big clue”. (Thames Valley Police)

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

To piece together an accurate picture of the crime and those surrounding it, I endeavoured to return to square one, so to speak, and some four years ago began to gather together as many primary sources as possible. These undoubtedly give a totally new ‘feel’ for the case and indeed the social attitudes of the time. The sheer volume of material also brought home just how easy it can be to overlook certain details and key links without the ability to cross reference other sources and investigations. Through Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation and other FOI routes I was able to access Director of Public Prosecuations (DPP) and Metropolitan Police records. With the assistance of the BPMA I was equally able to navigate the Post Office’s extensive records of the robbery and those suspected of involvement.

Andrew Cook's new book The Great Train Robbery - The untold story from the closed investigation files has now been published.

Andrew Cook’s new book The Great Train Robbery – The untold story from the closed investigation files has now been published.

The finished book is effectively a ‘real time’ account of the police and Post Office investigations and for the very first time allows the reader a unique fly-on-the-wall opportunity to discover for themselves the untold story from the close investigation files.

– Andrew Cook –

The book ‘The Great Train Robbery – The untold story from the closed investigation files‘  can now be purchased from the BPMA Shop for £18.99 (plus P&P).

The London Postal School

Regular readers of this blog will have seen our recent post about the digitised lantern slides of Foreign Postal Workers we recently added to Flickr. We have now added more digitised lantern slides to Flickr, this time related to the London Postal School (LPS).

'London Postal School. Postmens Retiring Room. Tea Time' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/13)

‘London Postal School. Postmens Retiring Room. Tea Time’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/13)

The London Postal School was, as the name suggests, the General Post Office’s training facility for postal workers. The School taught trainees how to perform a variety of tasks and functions, from serving on a Post Office counter to sorting and delivering the mail.

As in today’s workplace training sessions students at the London Postal School attended illustrated presentations related to their work, but this being the first half of the 20th Century the students viewed lantern slide shows rather than PowerPoint presentations. The slides from these shows are now part of our Museum Collection, and they give an interesting insight into postal operations of the period.

One lantern slide shows the Post Office branch at Charing Cross, which is described as “very old”. With its ornate exterior and cramped interior it is markedly less modern than the Post Offices at Kentish Town and Albemarle Street.

'London Postal School. Very old P.O. Charing Cross B.O. Exterior' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/17)

‘London Postal School. Very old P.O. Charing Cross B.O. Exterior’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/17)

There are also a number of slides showing airmail operations, then a new and groundbreaking mode of postal delivery, and some showing the mail bag exchange system used on the Travelling Post Offices, rail services on which mail was collected, sorted and dispatched on the move.

'London Postal School. T.P.O. Bags in Position. Net down' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049-27)

‘London Postal School. T.P.O. Bags in Position. Net down’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049-27)

Finally, there are a variety of slides showing sorting offices and the various technologies employed there such as chutes, the “Creeper” conveyor belt system (below), and the stamping machine and facing table. What the trainees made of all this we’ll never know!

'London Postal School. Mails being conveyed by ''Creeper'' from/ the Landing Stage to Customs Baggage Room' - Lantern Slide (2012-0049/40)

‘London Postal School. Mails being conveyed by ”Creeper” from/ the Landing Stage to Customs Baggage Room’ – Lantern Slide (2012-0049/40)

Visit our Flickr site to see the London Postal School lantern slides.

Mail Trains book

Now available from our shop is the book Mail Trains, telling the fascinating story of the development and history of carrying mail by rail, from the 1800s until today. The book is written by Julian Stray, one of our Assistant Curators.

Mail Trains by Julian Stray

Central to the prompt delivery of the nation’s mail is its efficient and speedy transit the length and breadth of the country. From 1830, the Post Office relied ever more heavily on the overland rail network to provide what was for decades the ideal form of transport. Railway Post Offices, Sunday Sorting Tenders and District Sorting Carriages were amongst the services introduced.

Railway Post Offices, carriages dedicated to sorting mail in transit, became known as Travelling Post Offices (TPOs). TPOs received mail at the start of their journey and at stations or bag exchange points en route. Mail bags were opened by travelling postal staff and the contents sorted and included in new mail bags made up en route and despatched at the appropriate station. One of the most remarkable aspects of TPOS was the bag exchange apparatus. This enabled mail trains to pass stations of minor importance yet still exchange mail bags without halting.

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

Travelling Post Office - Irish Mail. Mail bag exchange apparatus picking up mail at 60 mph, 1934. (POST 118/0021)

During the Second World War mail volumes carried by rail increased. Letters were essential for maintaining morale and connecting families separated by wartime. The rail network carried immense quantities of mail; in 1943 British railways carried 25 million mail bags and over 90 million parcels.

The final TPO service ran in 2004 and although the volume of mail carried is considerably diminished, mail trains continue to form an important part of the United Kingdom’s postal service to this day.

Mail Trains is available from our online shop. Order before 10 April 2012 and obtain a 10% discount by entering the code BPMAW3BS1TE when you make your payment.

Visit our website to find out what life was like on the TPO in our Travelling Post Office online exhibition.

Hear Julian Stray’s recent talk on Mail Trains by downloading our free podcast. Download the podcast on our website or subscribe to the podcast via Tunes.

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

Britain’s Postal Heritage

Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer at Bruce Castle Museum, will speak at the BPMA on 8th April. The focus of her talk will be Bruce Castle’s postal history collection, some of which has been highlighted on this blog in recent months.

An embroidered Valentines Day card from Bruce Castle's postal history collection

An embroidered Valentines Day card from Bruce Castle's postal history collection

The BPMA is currently working with Bruce Castle and the Communications Worker’s Union (CWU) to widen access to the Morten Collection, collected by former postal worker W.V. Morten. When Morten died in the 1920’s the Union of Communication Workers (now the CWU) recognised the importance of the collection and purchased it. Since then it has been housed at Bruce Castle, expanding from 8,000 items to more than 30,000.

Highlights of the Bruce Castle Museum Postal History Collection include material related to the TPO (Travelling Post Office), mail coaches, trade union history, stamps, Valentines cards, and Sir Rowland Hill, who at one point lived at Bruce Castle where he was headmaster of a school. The oldest object in the collection is a letter from Normandy sent in 1397.

Bettina Trabant’s talk is free and booking details can be found on our website.

Morten Collection Object of the Month: January 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

This month’s object: Travelling Post Office Mail Bag Apparatus

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

The Travelling Post Office (TPO) was first introduced in January 1838, travelling on the Grand Junction between Birmingham and Liverpool. The TPO is closely linked with Rowland Hill’s penny postage, which led to an increase in letter writing and the need to transport more mail at speed. The TPO ceased operation in 2004 as more and more people used emails rather than letter writing to communicate.

Travelling Post Offices functioned as mobile sorting offices, allowing post officers to sort up to 2000 mails an hour while on the move. In its heyday there were some 77 services from London to Plymouth, Bristol, Newcastle and others.

In 1936 the GPO Film unit produced a film about the TPO entitled Night Mail that contained a poem by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten.

The picture featured here shows a wooden and metal model of a mail bag exchange apparatus and forms part of a set consisting of track, carriages, a hut and smaller items relating to the Travelling Post Office.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses like this were used between 1852–1971 on Travelling Post Offices to pick up and put down mails without the need for trains to stop. The concept of exchanging mail whilst in transit is nothing new to railways and was used before where mail bags were often thrown onto and off coaches while in motion.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses operated in the following way: Mail was simply put into leather pouches weighing between 20lb and 60lb that were attached to an arm which would suspend it 5ft above the ground and 3ft away from the carriage side. The carriage was equipped with an extendable net, fitted to the body side, with an opening into the carriage behind it to catch incoming pouches.

It is alleged that the duty of putting the bags on poles was so unpopular that some postmen paid others to do the duty for them.

For more on TPO’s see the BPMA’s online exhibition The Travelling Post Office.