Tag Archives: Travelling Post Ofice

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

Yesterday Justice Secretary Jack Straw granted the release from prison of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. Biggs is severely ill with pneumonia and is not expected to recover.

The Great Train Robbery was one of the most notorious robberies of the 20th Century. It took place on the morning of 8th August 1963 against a Travelling Post Office (TPO), a railway carriage especially adapted for Post Office workers to sort mail on the move. The target of the gang of robbers was the second carriage from the front of the TPO, which was a High Value Packet (HVP), where registered mail, including cash, was sorted.

The BPMA holds a large number of working files detailing the investigation of the robbery, which come from the Post Office Investigations Unit of Royal Mail (POIU). The POIU was formed in 1793 and is recognised as the oldest investigating authority in the world. It is still in existence today and works with the police to investigate crimes which take place on Post Office property.

Contained within the POIU files on the Great Train Robbery is a confidential report dated 12th May1964 which details the facts as they were known at the time. The report states that shortly after 3am on 8th August 1963 the train driver, Jack Mills, noticed an amber light at Sears Crossing. This was unusual, but as per regulations he applied the breaks and moved the train forward slowly to the “home” signal, which was showing a red light indicating he must stop. Once the train had stopped the fireman, Mr Whitby, walked along the track to find a railway telephone with which to call the signal box and ask whether the train could proceed. However, Whitby discovered that the telephone wires had been cut, and so returned to the engine to tell Mills.

At this point both Mills and Whitby were attacked, with Mills sustaining severe head injuries. Despite this, Mills was forced to drive the train half a mile down the tracks to Bridego Railway Bridge (located in Ledburn near Mentmore, Buckinghamshire). As Mills realised during the journey, the gang had uncoupled the rear of the train, leaving only the HVP and the first carriage attached.

When Mills stopped the train the rest of the gang, about 15 in total, boarded the train and offloaded the moneybags in the HVP into vehicles waiting under the bridge. They then drove off with £2.6 million in used £1, £2, £5 and £10 notes. Amazingly, the passengers and most of the crew in the carriages behind the HVP didn’t realise what was happening.

Because of the large amount of money stolen – equivalent to more than £40 million in today’s money – a great many articles about the robbery appeared in the press, which resulted in police being bombarded with information and tip-offs, many of which turned out to be false leads. These are detailed within the POIU files, along with observation reports, lists of suspects (including the dates of their arrest, charges and length of sentence [if found guilty]), letters sent giving information on suspects, statements taken from staff and police personnel involved, a copy of the Metropolitan Police report, accounts of the investigation and trial, reports into suspected Post Office ‘insiders’, photographs and diagrams of the interior of the carriage and layout of the track, original items from the robbery such as labels, wrapping and advice slips, items used as evidence in the trials, press cuttings where the robbers and their accomplices relate their story, plans of the train and railway track, Police photographs of some of the suspects and a ‘Wanted’ poster.

The Great Train Robbery: Wanted Poster. Some of those pictured in this poster would later turn out to have no connection to the robbery.

The Great Train Robbery: Wanted Poster. Some of those pictured in this poster would later turn out to have no connection to the robbery.

Investigations into the Robbery continued throughout the rest of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, with POIU reports including information on the recovery of some of the money, the escape of Ronnie Biggs from Wandsworth Prison, and Bigg’s subsequent move to Australia. Other, less pertinent, information was also included, such as how Bigg’s wife Charmian had sold her life story for £30,000, prompting the establishment of a relief fund to aid train driver Jack Mills, who never recovered from the injuries he received during the robbery. The public donated more than £34,000 to the relief fund, although Mills died of pneumonia in 1970. An inquest concluded that there was nothing to connect Mill’s death with his existing injuries.

The files make for fascinating reading, charting the progress and thoroughness of the investigation into one of the great crimes of the 20th Century.