10 Things You Might Not Know About The Great Train Robbery

Thought you knew every detail about The Great Train Robbery? Then read on...

Curator Joanna, who’s been working on our new exhibition The Great Train Robbery: Crime and The Post compiled some interesting facts from this infamous crime and its investigation.

Crime Scene Photograph by John Bailey © Thames Valley Police courtesy of The Postal Museum

1. First attempt?

The Great Train Robbery of August 1963 was not the first successful mail train raid. Bandits had targeted Travelling Post Offices several times before, and consequently, security was tightened up on three high-value packet carriages. Bars were added to windows, additional bolts attached to doors and alarms installed.

2. Security out of service

Attempts to increase security were useless on the night of the Great Train Robbery, as the three carriages usually available on the route with additional security features were out of service on 8 August 1963. This odd coincidence, which had never occurred before the night of the robbery, has fed speculation of a Post Office insider for over 60 years.

Interior of the travelling post office following the robbery (POST 120/110)

3. Joining the forces

The Post Office’s own investigation team worked alongside detectives from the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad, Buckinghamshire Constabulary and members of the British Transport Police to crack the case.

4. An inside job?

The Post Office Investigation Branch (IB) took witness statements from the 77 Post Office staff on board the train, including the five workers on the high-value packet carriage. Staff who happened to live in or near the vicinity of the home of a suspected robber were also interviewed at length.

A witness statement

5. Kett vs Kett

The IB traced the genealogy of Post Office employees who shared a surname with suspected robbers. Post Office employee Thomas Walter Kett’s family tree was traced back to Victorian Norwich in attempts to identify a link between him and a suspected robber. No shared relation was found and the investigation was dropped.

6. Suspicious purchases

The expenditure of Post Office staff was tracked for months after the robbery, to flag up unusually large purchases. Thomas Penn, who was on board the high-value packet carriage on the night of the robbery, bought a car in 1964. His purchase was investigated by the IB, who decided it was not suspicious.

7. Fake news

Deliberate misinformation has fed public fascination in the case. Possible Nazi involvement was made up by the robbers to increase interest in their story while negotiating a book deal.

Wanted poster from The Great Train Robbery main investigation report (POST 120/95)

8. The power of the press

Sensational speculation about the gang’s associates led to the chief constable of Durham stating to the press at the time that “tanks, bombs and what I believe are known as limited atomic weapons” could be used to spring Gordon Goody from prison.

Headline from the Evening Standard, 5 March 1965 (POST 120/142)

9. Criminals on display

Madame Tussauds commemorated Ronnie Biggs’ and Charlie Wilson’s separate escapes from prison by displaying their waxwork figures for 19 years.

10. Cashing in on the ‘fame’

The robbery’s impact on popular culture was cemented through the association between the robbery and counter-culture movements. Ronnie Biggs famously produced music with the Sex Pistols in the 1970s while living in exile in Brazil. In 1995 gang leader Bruce Reynolds appeared in Brit-pop music video ‘Your Smile,’ dressed as a train guard.

Discover the untold story of this audacious crime, its victims and legacy in our new exhibition The Great Train Robbery: Crime and The Post from 11 October 2019.

– Joanna Espin, Curator