Around 3.00am on Thursday 8 August 1963 just under £2.6 million was stolen from the Travelling Post Office (TPO) on route from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston Station. Up until this time Britain had a proud record of operating a vast rail network without a single major robbery. The robbery stunned the nation because of the enormous amount of money stolen. It also captured their imagination as the highly organised style of the robbery sounded more like a Hollywood script. Tales of a criminal gang co-ordinated by a single mastermind were soon spreading through the press.
The mail train was stopped after someone from the gang of criminals tampered with the railway signal at Cheddington near Leighton Buzzard. On reaching the tampered signal light the train stopped and the train fireman jumped from the train to the nearest railway telephone. Shortly afterwards he returned and told the driver, Mr Mills, that the telephone wires had been cut. At this stage both the fireman and Mr Mills were brutally attacked by a member of the gang, Mr Mills sustained a severe head injury (which some have contributed to his untimely death, a few years later). After attacking Mr Mills, the gang realised that they were not able to drive the particular model of train. The injured Mr Mills was then forced to drive the train on to a pre-arranged meeting point; where the rest of the gang would unload the High Value Packets containing the money.
Before the train sped away, some members of the gang uncoupled the third carriage. So now only the engine and first and second carriage would be pulled forward by the engine. As the engine pulled away, the five officers working in the High Value Packet coach heard steam escaping, saw that the third coach was detached and assumed that the connecting coupling had accidentally broken. They attempted to attract attention by pulling the communication cord and then by opening the window and shouting, but these were unsuccessful.
None of the officers were aware that an attack was being made on the High Value Packet’s coach until one of the windows was completely smashed. One of the officers then called out “It’s a raid”. Whilst an attempt was made to fasten the corridor door and to pile bags against it, one assailant brandishing a heavy metal crow bar entered the coach through the off-side centre window. Other assailants then entered through the corridor door, threatened the five officers and made them lie down at the far end of the van. One robber stood guard over them. A number of robbers threw out the sacks of High Value Packet Mail, presumably into a waiting vehicle.
After unloading the High Value Packet sacks of mail, the attackers bundled the driver and fireman into the High Value Packet coach. All seven men were then ordered not to leave the coach for half an hour. However as soon as things appeared to be quiet, two of the officers left the coach and raised the alarm.
The press was rife with rumours. The Postmaster General returned early from his holiday in Spain. On his arrival he was met with a barrage of questions from the press. He also announced that the three top-security trains which should have been on the mail run that night were all out of action. This fuelled speculation that the security trains had been tampered with; possibly by someone that worked for the Post Office.
With speculation on the prospect of the robbery being an inside job, the Post Office’s own policing department, the Investigation Branch, was called into action. Every available member of staff was put on the case, and they looked into every single one of the 70 plus Post Office employees who were working on the train that night.
The most immediate job for the Investigation Branch was to find out the exact amount of money stolen. This had several purposes, firstly to help track down the culprits, secondly to help curtail the speculative reports which were circulating, and thirdly the banks needed to know how much money they had lost. The task was a mammoth one covering no fewer than 663 High Value Packets posted by different banks in different towns and cities throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Delivery of 27 of the 663 High Value Packets was proved. These 27 High Vale Packets were enclosed in seven sacks left behind in the High Value Packet coach and in one further sack recovered from the railway embankment. There was, however, 636 High Value Packets enclosed in the 120 sacks which were stolen by the robbers. The total amount stolen was £2,595,997.10s.0d.
In the aftermath of the robbery a total reward of £260,000 was offered for the detection of the thieves, £10,000 of which was offered by the Post Office. The high reward and confirmed high figure of the theft added to press and public interest. The police and the Investigation Branch received many tip-offs in the following days, one of which was from a farm worker in Leatherslade, named John Maris.
Mr Maris first became suspicious of a neighbouring property when he heard that the new occupants had offered a hundred pounds over the asking price, they also did not seem to do any work and particularly suspiciously had blacked out all the windows. After the robbery several vehicles appeared in the yard of the house including a lorry. Mr Maris phoned the police to report this information but it was not until the next day, after a further phone call from Mr Maris that the police sent a car to Leatherslade.
Upon arrival at the house it became increasingly obvious that this had been the hideout for at least some members of the criminal gang. Behind a hedge there was a grave-like pit, with a spade sticking in the clay amid empty mail bags. More bags were scattered inside the house, while in the cellar lay pile of wrapping marked “National Provincial Bank” (one of the banks that was transporting money at the time of the robbery). Mr Maris then made a claim for the £10,000 reward money, offered by the Post Office.
At this time it appeared that the police were hot on the heals of the train robbers as half-finished meals were found on the kitchen table. However, it was not until 2001 when the last of the known suspect was sent to jail. In the period in between the plot continued along the lines of a Hollywood movie with two of the men being arrested and then escaping from prison separately, arrests being made in Germany, Canada and Brazil, and an assassination of one of the perpetrators.
Sources: postalheritage.org.uk/ – The Great Train Robbery
J. Gosling and D. Craig, The Great Train Robbery, W.H. Allen London, 1964