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. They opened and made up new mail bags en route in often cramped conditions, and, until 1971, transferred mail on the move via a bag exchange apparatus.
The Great Train Robbery
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.
Despite the high value carried on many TPOs, attempted robberies prior to the Great Train Robbery were rare and recommendations for increased security were generally not approved. In 1960, however, the Post Office Investigation Branch (later the PO Investigation Department) recommended that all TPOs carrying High Value Package (HVP) carriages were fitted with alarms. This was finally implemented the year before the robbery in 1962 but the HVP carriages without alarms were still kept in reserve.
At the time of the robbery the three HVP carriages newly equipped for maximum security (with bars over the windows, additional bolts and catches on the doors and an alarm system) were all out of use and being repaired. It was the reserve HVP carriage that was used in the Up Special TPO travelling to London Euston from Glasgow on the 8th August. This had no alarm.
It’s a raid!
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.
Having travelled through the night, the Up Special TPO was nearing the end of its journey when it was brought to a halt by an amber light at Sears Crossing in Cheddington, near Leighton Buzzard, then stopped by a red light.
It later transpired that the gang had placed a glove over the green light and attached a battery to power the red light.
On seeing the red light, the TPO fireman dismounted the train and alerted the driver, Jack Mills, to the fact that the telephone wires had been cut. Some members of the gang then attacked the fireman. Another assailant viciously attacked the driver before forcing him to drive on another half a mile to their meeting point, Bridego Railway Bridge.
Only two carriages were driven to the hijackers’ prearranged meeting point with the HVP (High Value Packet) carriage the target. Many staff did not initially realise that a raid was taking place until the window of the centre door was smashed with an axe. Assistant Inspector Kett, the second most senior Post Office worker on the train, then called out ‘It’s a raid’.
Resistance was bravely attempted but futile. The bags were quickly thrown out of the carriage and passed to members of the gang who had formed a human chain to the waiting vehicles below. Around two tons of HVP bags were taken in under an hour.
For detective purposes and also with a view to curtailing the speculative reports that were circulating, it was imperative that the amount of the loss and the numbers of stolen notes be established as soon as possible.
The robbery was carefully timed to follow a bank holiday in Scotland. The hijacked TPO coach was carrying far more High Value Packet mail than usual, containing a huge amount of money in banknotes.
The Post Office Investigation Branch (IB) had to immediately ascertain how much money had been stolen and to identify the notes taken, notifying the banks of their loss. This procedure and many other key elements of the IB’s investigation 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 British Postal Museum & Archive (POST120/95). The BPMA also holds many other files concerning the Robbery including several detailing bank losses and property eventually recovered (POST120/112-9).
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.
Speculation is rife...
Press reports were highly speculative and the IB shouldered immense pressure in the aftermath of the robbery. Staff questioned witnesses, interviewed informants and followed suspects (observation reports can be found in POST120/130-3). They checked information given by the public, kept parliament and press informed, and according to the official files held at the BPMA, managed a lot of ‘bogus information given’.
An incorrect theory abounded that prior to the robbery there had been a ‘tip off’ which could have prevented it. Subsequent warnings about planned attacks on other mail trains, TPOs and post offices all required precautionary measures to be taken. In the event no other immediate attacks materialised.
A claim at the reward
Assistant Controller Yates’ Report indicates police quickly suspected the criminals were London-based but that their hideout was local to the robbery, to avoid them risking the journey back to London once the alarm was raised.
Police followed up an early report made by a John Maris of Leatherslade, who suspected a neighbouring property, Leatherslade Farm, of being a hideout for the gang.
On arrival at the farmhouse on the 13th August, police found empty mail bags scattered inside and outside the property.
A pile of wrappings marked National Provincial Bank (one of the banks which had money stolen in the robbery) was also found in the cellar.
Meals lay half-finished on the table and, crucially, finger prints were found.
Less than one percent of the notes stolen in the robbery were identifiable. Despite this nearly one sixth of the money stolen was recovered. The rest has never been found.
Comments made by the Postmaster General on returning early from holiday fuelled press speculation that there had been one or more Post Office ‘insiders’ involved with the robbery.
It was further alleged that an insider on board the TPO had informed the robbers of the amount of bags on board and the number of staff in the High Value Packet carriage.
Others were suspected because they had the same surname as one of the robbers, or because they were Irish: it was claimed that an Irishman was the insider on the train.
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 (POST120/106-8) and files devoted to those PO employees suspected of potential ‘leakage of information’ (POST120/128-9).
Despite intense speculation and the enquiries by the PO Investigation Branch no proof has ever been found of a PO insider.
The fact that the HVP carriage on the TPO on the day of the robbery was the reserve carriage devoid of security measures may simply have been a lucky coincidence for the robbers.
Apprehensions, arrests and escapes
Two of the first suspects to be arrested, six days after the Robbery, were Roger Cordrey and William Boal (although Boal was later cleared of being part of the gang that robbed the train). Three of their associates were also arrested and charged and £141,000 recovered. Cordrey was well known to the Post Office as a mail bag thief and had previously been a suspect in other train attacks.
Leonard Field (responsible for buying Leatherslade Farm as the hide-out) was arrested in September just before attempting to board a ship to take him out of the country. Brian Field (no relation of Leonard) was arrested and charged the next day after holdalls containing £100,000 (and with his fingerprints on one of them) were found in a wood near Dorking.
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 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.
Three significant suspects remained on the run with Bruce Reynolds the last to be arrested in 1968. Ronnie Biggs famously escaped from prison in 1965, spending time in Europe and Australia before settling in Brazil in 1970. He eventually returned in 2001 to serve his sentence in the UK.
A year after the robbery had taken place Buckinghamshire Chief Constable Brigadier Cheney was unequivocal in his praise of the IB in speaking to the Controller of the Postal Services Department: “Without your help, we should have got nowhere”.
And Beyond: TPOs and Postal Security
The investigation and prosecution of crime against the postal service in Britain dates back to the 17th century. It is almost as old as the establishment of the Royal Mail itself and predates the institution of the Metropolitan Police.
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 the people who helped apprehend the most notorious train robbers in history.
On the 9th August 1963, the day after the robbery took place, Post Office officials met with the Investigation Branch to address outstanding security issues on the TPOs. Immediate action was taken. One of the out of service secure HVP carriages was returned to service immediately, and enquiries were instituted as to why all three had been out of action at the same time. An additional secure carriage was created and bolts and security fittings on all TPOs were improved and inspected. The installation of radios, previously rejected as too expensive, was immediately identified as a priority.
The Great Train Robbery had a huge impact on how the Post Office operated: it had been a wakeup call that the organisation was not beyond the reach of such a serious crime. The security changes introduced took place across the organisation.
The final TPO service ran in 2004.
Although the volume of mail carried today is considerably diminished, mail trains with no postal staff on board continue to form part of the UK’s postal service to this day.
Exhibition Content — Dominique Gardner
Curatorial Advisor & Additional Content — Emma Harper
Archival Advisor & Additional Content — Gavin McGuffie
Digital Production — Alison Bean
Additional Images — Thames Valley Police Museum