Tag Archives: Travelling Post Office

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.

Venture to our Museum Store on 24th August to find out more about Mail Rail…

On Saturday 24th August we will be holding an open day at our Museum Store in Debden, just 20 minutes from the hub of Stratford, London.

Behind its unassuming façade, the Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits, each with a story to tell. As part of the Hidden Treasures 2013 event come and find out about a hidden strand of postal history – the Post Office Underground Railway.

Loading a Mail Rail locomotive at the platform, taken from the tunnel, 1969. (POST 118/CT00357)

Loading a Mail Rail locomotive at the platform, taken from the tunnel, 1969. (POST 118/CT00357)

The Post Office Underground (London) Railway, or Mail Rail as it was later called, opened on 5 December 1927 and ran under the streets of London transporting mail across the capital from sorting offices to railway stations, 22 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway. (POST 118/381)

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway. (POST 118/381)

One of many unique features of the system is that it was driverless and as such was hailed by the press as a ‘Robot Railway’. The railway played a pivotal role in the transportation of mail in London and continued, rarely interrupted, until 2003. This was due in no small part to the great skill and knowledge of the engineering and maintenance teams. The BPMA holds three rail cars in its collection, one being the only known complete example of the original car used in 1927.

1930s Mail Rail train after conservation.

1930s Mail Rail train after conservation.

Visitors will have a chance to see these and other objects relating to the railway and hear about the history of the Post Office Underground (London) Railway through our short Curator-led tours. Throughout the day you can also explore the rest of our stored collection, as well as take part in activities, enjoy some refreshments in the form of tea and biscuits, and watch film footage all connected to the fascinating Post Office underground railway (except perhaps the biscuits…).

There will also be a chance to see the BPMA’s most recent touring exhibition on The Great Train Robbery, which took place on a Travelling Post Office 50 years ago this August. The exhibition looks at the events of the robbery itself, as well as the vital role played by the Post Office Investigation Branch in the subsequent investigations, as reflected in our Archive.

Travelling Post Office bag apparatus. (POST 118/5744)

Travelling Post Office bag apparatus. (POST 118/5744)

There’s plenty for all the family and the event is free for all, so please do drop in throughout the day between 10am and 4pm. Full details of the event are available on our website.

– Emma Harper, Curator and Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is currently showing at Royal Mail Archive, Clerkenwell, London. Entry is free.

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).

Royal Mail cigarette cards

The collections we care for at BPMA are very diverse, ranging from vehicles and sorting equipment to stamps and personnel records. Our goal is to collect things that reflect the role of people in the postal service, and the innovations in technology to meet the demands of a changing world – the cigarette cards in our collection certainly do that!

Previously we have blogged on cigarette cards from the Wilkinson Collection and others produced by Wills’s focusing on the Australian Post Office but now we have added a set of 50 cards on the theme of “Royal Mail” to our Flickr site.
The Royal Mail cigarette cards were produced by W. Clarke & Son (and later reissued by Ogden’s) in the early 20th Century. They show people, equipment and events connected with the postal service up to the late 19th, or possibly early 20th, century.

'A Mail Coach in a Snow-Drift' - Ogden's Cigarette Card (2010-0469/09)

‘A Mail Coach in a Snow-Drift’ – Ogden’s Cigarette Card (2010-0469/09)

While many of the cards look at postal operations in Great Britain, such as mail coaches and the Travelling Post Office, others show postal services in what was then the British Empire. A mail coach in a snow-drift in rural England contrasts with the “Mashonaland Zebra Mail Team”, depicted crossing a river near Fort Tuli in South Africa.

'The Mashonaland Zebra Mail Team.' - Ogden's Cigarette Card (2010-0469/17)c

‘The Mashonaland Zebra Mail Team.’ – Ogden’s Cigarette Card (2010-0469/17)

Similarly, the military-style uniform of the New South Wales postman is markedly different to the dress of the African postal runner, who “in youth, perchance, owed allegiance to a Zulu chief”.

'Postman, Sydney, N.S. Wales' - Ogden's Cigarette Card (2010-0469/21)

‘Postman, Sydney, N.S. Wales’ – Ogden’s Cigarette Card (2010-0469/21)

'An African Postal Runner' - Ogden's Cigarette Card (2010-0469/22)

‘An African Postal Runner’ – Ogden’s Cigarette Card (2010-0469/22)

Also amongst the cards are several intriguing postal stories, including the much-loved Mail Coach attacked by a lioness (as previously blogged about), and the more obscure St Kilda Mail Bag, a strange and possibly unreliable method of sending mail from this remote island to the mainland.

Visit Flickr to see the Royal Mail cigarette cards.

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.