Highlights from The Great Train Robbery: Crime & The Post Exhibition

Curator Joanna picks eight highlights from the new exhibition not to be missed.

The Great Train Robbery: Crime and the Post has been two years in the making and uncovers over 150 objects, recordings and films, some of which are displayed for the very first time.

The exhibition traces the history of the Post Office Investigation Branch, the oldest criminal investigation service in the world, established in 1683. The most high-profile crime investigated by the Investigation Branch is perhaps the most notorious crime in British history: The Great Train Robbery.

We tell the story of the robbery through its victims’ witness statements and trace the efforts made by the Investigation Branch to identify those involved and find the money. The exhibition asks visitors to question the enduring legacy of the crime: why is the public so fascinated by criminal activity and why have the criminals themselves been elevated to cult status?

Here are eight highlights from the exhibition which you definitely shouldn’t miss.

1. High-value packets

The £2.6 million stolen on 8 August 1963 was wrapped up in high-value packets, dozens of which are on display.

High-Value Packets © The Postal Museum

2. The gang’s hideaway kitchen

Visitors will find rarely displayed original evidence retrieved from Leatherslade Farm in a reconstruction of the farm’s kitchen. See newspapers, with the robbery as front-page news, read by the gang while hiding out. Discover the fingerprint markers later used as evidence at trial. See what the gang ate and drank while waiting for the heat to die down: a bottle of Nuits St Georges wine recovered from the crime scene displayed alongside a Pepsi bottle and a jar of Ovaltine.

A reconstructed farm’s kitchen with original evidence © The Postal Museum

3. Inside job investigation

Post Office Investigators and the Police tried and failed to identify a Post Office insider. Whether such an insider actually existed is a mystery which still fascinates the public. Investigators traced the family history, movements and expenditure of Post Office employees for months, looking for connections to known criminals and signs of new income. Post Office employee, Assistant Inspector Thomas Walter Kett, shared a surname with a suspected train robber. His genealogy was traced back to the mid-19th century in search of a possible relationship. No connection was found.

Report on the genealogy of Thomas Walter Kett, Assistant Inspector (POST 120/128)

4. Interviews with John Maris and John Bailey

We’ve created a film for the exhibition, featuring original interviews with two people whose lives were shaped by the crime: John Maris and John Bailey. John Maris tipped off Police about the gang’s hideout, Leatherslade Farm. He later received death threats from the gang’s associates and hid weapons around his land in case of attack.

Police photographer Detective Constable John Bailey took hundreds of photos in the aftermath of the robbery. Bailey photographed the battery used to change the railway signal, discovered the secret compartment intended for stowing cash in the getaway lorry, and collected considerable fingerprint evidence. Over 50 years since the crime took place, historians, documentary makers and armchair detectives still ask Bailey about the ‘Crime of the Century.’

5. ‘Dreaming of El Dorado’

The exhibition team has met and interviewed numerous people connected with the crime, including Bruce Reynolds’ son, Nick Reynolds. With his band Alabama 3, Nick has recorded music inspired by his father. He has also created sculptures of his father, one of which, ‘Dreaming of El Dorado’ is on display in the exhibition. It’s been fascinating to understand Nick’s unique perspective of the crime and his father.

Sculpture of Bruce Reynolds, taken from a life-mask, by Nick Reynolds © The Postal Museum

But it’s not only about The Great Train Robbery in our new exhibition…

6. Crime Prevention Gadgets

An original 1960s television set has been specially adapted to play British Pathe footage, including a film showing a Post Office security case in action. Should someone try to steal the case, two metal poles shoot out from either side, so the case becomes over 10 feet wide, and making a getaway practically impossible. An original security case is displayed alongside technical diagrams explaining its construction.

Film clip from British Pathé

7. A bravery award

In 1998 one Post Office Investigator was murdered and another seriously injured during a routine search of a suspected mail bag thief’s home. Rookie Neil Roberts was shot at three times, but avoided injury, grappled the weapon from the attacker and restrained him until Police arrived. Visitors will see Roberts’ bravery award on display and hear him describe his harrowing experiences in an interview commissioned for this exhibition.

Roberts’ bravery award on display © The Postal Museum

8. The last death sentence

Vivian Teed was the last man in Wales to be hanged. On 15 November 1957, Teed broke into Fforestfach sub-post office, in Swansea, killing 73-year-old postmaster William Williams during his attempted robbery. A petition opposing Teed’s death sentence was signed by 1,000 people. The public reaction to his execution shows the change in attitude to the death penalty. You can see the record of Teed’s punishment on display in the exhibition.

– Joanna Espin, Curator