Tag Archives: train

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.

Mail Rail Archive Open Day

On Saturday 14th September the Royal Mail Archive will be holding a themed open day to celebrate the Post Office Underground Railway (Mail Rail). Activities will run from 10.00am until 4.00pm, however the Archive search room will be open to visitors until 5.00pm as usual. The Post Office Underground Railway initially opened in 1927 and was the world’s first driverless electric railway. It ran from Paddington to Whitechapel, serving eight sorting offices along its six-and-a-half mile route.

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Artwork for a poster advertising the Post Office (London) Railway (AKA Mail Rail) by Edward Bawden. (POST 109/515)

Jonathon Bradley, the photographer responsible for the Mail Rail Photographic Exhibition (currently on display in the search room), will be on hand to talk about his photographs and give informal workshops. Jonathon will also bring along his interactive Mail Rail game Mail Rush, and members of the public will be encouraged to take part.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

The Mail Rush game at our recent Museum Store Open Day.

We will also have Mail Rail-themed craft activities available for children to take part in, while for older visitors there will also be original archive material on Mail Rail, including photographs, diagrams and leaflets, all dating between the 1910s to the 1970s, available to view. Archive and Curatorial staff will be on hand to discuss this material with members of the public.

Throughout the day there will be tours of the Archive repository, covering a selection of Royal Mail’s history. There is no need to book for these tours as they will be arranged on a demand basis.

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

Laying scissors crossing, Mail Rail. (POST 20-355/27)

This is a free, drop in event and there is no need to register, but please note that the Search Room will also be open for general research on this day. If you wish to carry out research you will need to sign up for a User Card (please see our website for information on signing-up for a User Card).

Hope to see you all there and if you can’t make it we should be live tweeting throughout the day!

– Penny McMahon, Archives Assistant

Find out more about our Mail Rail Archive Open Day on our website.

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.

Oh, Doctor Beeching!

2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dr Richard Beeching’s The Reshaping of British Railways which led to a major reduction and restructuring of the country’s railway route network (these measures became popularly known as the Beeching Axe). Two long-term effects of Beeching on mail transport were increases in transport by road and routing via London.

Controversial both at the time and subsequently, Beeching’s first report (he followed up two years later with a second, The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes) identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway line for closure, representing 55% of all stations and 30% of route miles; the intention being to address increased competition by road transport through cutting less profitable rail services. Beeching had been tasked to write the report by a former Postmaster General, Ernest Marples (who had moved to the Ministry of Transport).

There are a number of files in The Royal Mail Archive which reflect the impact of the report on the General Post Office, some of which have recently gone on our online catalogue among the last batch of files from the decentralised registry POST class, POST 122. 18 April 1963 saw a special Postal Controllers’ Conference held at GPO HQ to discuss the effects of Beeching’s report (POST 73/183). A Steering Group within the Post Office had also been set up meeting regularly throughout 1963. At a wider level, the Post Office was represented on an inter-departmental Working Party.

 POST 73/183, Postal Controllers’ Conference with copy of the Beeching report (from POST 18/208)

POST 73/183, Postal Controllers’ Conference with copy of the Beeching report (from POST 18/208)

Despite these arrangements, Director of Postal Services Brigadier K S Holmes made this assessment at the April Conference:

…it did not seem that Dr Beeching’s proposals would be likely to cause us grave difficulties from a service angle.

For those interested in matters concerning the transport of mail by rail these files should give an insight into a period of great change in the British railway network.

Gavin McGuffie – Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Mail Rail Trains Conservation Project

Our project to conserve two of the Mail Rail trains in our collection is now almost complete; the photographs accompanying this blog give some idea of the work done. Today we present an interview with one of the volunteers, Don Bell, who has helped complete this work and who has been trained up by George Monger, the conservator employed to do this work.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

Why did you get involved with the BPMA as a volunteer?

I used to work for Royal Mail as a Delivery Office Manager (DOM) and originally became aware of the Museum when working as a DOM in Tottenham where the old Museum store used to be. I was asked to get some Posties together to pose with pillar boxes from the collection to promote the 2002 Pillar Box stamps issue.

As DOM at Winchmore Hill I also became involved in volunteering and charity work further, including the setting up of a local fundraising charity.

I have also always been interested in the museum and vehicles in particular.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

What does your role as a volunteer involve?

Cleaning and preparing the Mail Rail vehicles and applying a layer of wax to the trains to act as a protective barrier. I also help care for few of the other vehicles in the collection supporting the work of the BPMA curators at the Museum Store.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

Have you learnt anything particularly surprising or interesting?

It was surprising to see the different colours of paint underneath the top coat on the Mail Rail trains, these coming from different eras, including paintwork for the film Hudson Hawk on one of the trains. [Mail Rail trains were re-painted as underground Vatican mail trains for the film]

When you volunteer you go in different directions, I am interested in the vehicles and would rather get my hands dirty than volunteer in admin – with this project, anything I can learn about conservation is a plus.

George [The Conservator employed by BPMA on this project] opened my eyes – he explained that the covers over the electric units would have got very hot in the vehicles working life and the paint bubbled. My original instinct was to clean it all off but George explained that you should preserve what’s left – not everything has to be pristine but rather should reflect the vehicles as they were.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

What is your involvement in the Mail Rail story?

I can remember helping out from time to time as overtime at the W1 Delivery Office, sometimes you got called down to help out and then would get roped into helping load the trains.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

What is your favourite object?

All of the Post Office vehicles, having worked in deliveries for all of my working life starting as a Telegram Messenger and continuing for 40 years.

I think there is so much potential if you could take the vehicles out on the road! The Mobile Post Office would be great for fundraising and advertising the Museum.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA's Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

Interview by Claire English

The BPMA would like to thank The PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, administered by Arts Council England, and the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant Scheme for kindly donating towards the Mail Rail conservation project.

If you are interested in volunteering for BPMA please visit the Volunteers page on our website for further information.

Disaster at Sea!

We have recently uploaded a new podcast, a recording of our Curator Julian Stray’s recent talk Disaster at Sea! In his talk Julian Strays looks at the handful of mail ships (and one mail train) which never reached their destination.

Amongst the famous maritime disasters discussed are:

HMS Lutine, a naval ship lost in a storm which had a large quantity of gold bullion on board

The Antelope, a packet ship operating in the West Indies which surrendered to the French and had to sink the mail it was carrying

RMS Leinster, a mail boat torpedoed in the Irish Sea by the Germans at the end of World War I

RMS Titanic, the famous passenger liner whose mailroom staff all died when she sank in the Atlantic on her maiden voyage

Also discussed is the Tay Bridge Disaster, in which a railway bridge collapsed during a storm while a train carrying mail was crossing it.

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty's Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

A print representing the Perilous situation of the Crew of his Majesty’s Packet Lady Hobart (2009-0014)

You can listen to Disaster at Sea! on the BPMA podcast webpage, or subscribe to the BPMA podcast with iTunes. BPMA podcasts are available free of charge.

Mail Rail Conservation Project Update

Some of you may remember from previous blogs, beginning with coverage of the retrieval of two of the trains from the Post Office Underground Railway tunnels below Mount Pleasant, that the BPMA are currently working on an exciting project to restore our three ‘Mail Rail’ train carriages.

We are pleased to report that conservation work on the first of the Mail Rail trains held by the BPMA is now almost complete. The whole train has been be closely inspected, cleaned where relevant and treated with a special wax to prevent any further deterioration.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A similar programme will now be commenced on the 1980s train. Like the 1930 train this will be worked on from one end to the other with much of the surface grime and grease being removed to allow the vehicle to be displayed safely. The surfaces however will not be restored to an as new condition and the trains will continue to reflect their working history.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The next challenge is to consider how we tackle the final train in the Store, the original 1927 rail car. This rail car is much smaller than the others and raises some interesting questions. Up until now we have very much been conserving, rather than restoring the trains. However with this train it has been heavily restored in the past with some original features removed. There is also a question as to the correct colour this train should be painted. Presently it is green but in early use it was probably a grey colour. In order to decide what level of work to do on the train we must first undertake some further research.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

This is where the benefit of the BPMA holding the Royal Mail Archive alongside the museum collection becomes invaluable. Over the coming weeks we will be using documents in the Archive to try and gather as much information about these trains as possible. Once we have been through the research we can consider what approach to take, whether to restore the trains to something like it was in the past, or to simply conserve what we now have, much as we have done with the other two trains.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

Once this research phase is complete we shall have a much clearer ideas of the best approach to take and will understand better the time-scales.

We would like to thank supporters of this project, Arts Council England through the PRISM Fund, the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme, and a number of individuals who help to make this work possible.

Chris Taft – Senior Curator

Join the Mail Rail Mailing List and be the first to know what’s going on underground! Contact our Fundraising & Development Officer, Claire English: claire.english@postalheritage.org.uk.

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

Mail Rail open day

Final preparations are now being made for the special open day taking place on Saturday 21st April 2012 at the BPMA’s Museum Store at Debden. The open day, which will start at 10am and run throughout the day till 4pm is themed around the Post Office underground railway, or Mail Rail as it became known. During the day while the rest of the Store will be available to visit special focus will be made on the story of the narrow gauge, driverless, electric railway that moved mail under London from 1927 to 2003.

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

The BPMA now holds three rail cars in its collection, one being the only known complete example of the original 1927 car. Two of the rail cars are being actively conserved and there are plans for the third. During the event on Saturday there will be chance for visitors to witness conservation first hand and to speak to the conservator undertaking the work. BPMA curators will also be on site to answer questions about the railway and there will be some formal talks and tours about the network and also the pneumatic rail system that preceded Mail Rail. The only known survivors of the 19th century underground system will also be on display.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

Throughout the day there will also be film showings and also activities for visitors of all ages. Others with an association with the railway will also be on site including one of the engineers who works on the railway maintaining it today.

There will also be a display of smaller artefacts from the BPMA’s extensive collection and many images from the Archive. Some more modern images of the network today will also be on display as part of an art photography project currently being undertaken by Jonathan Bradley Photography.

The event is free for all and is drop in throughout the day. Full details of the event are on our website.

Chris Taft – Curator

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.