A busy Post Office plunged into darkness. Minutes later 6 million pounds worth of precious stones and jewellery were gone.

In November 1881, the Hatton Garden Branch Post Office, situated in the busy district of Holborn, was the scene of a bold robbery.

Master criminal Adam Worth © Alamy

The time of the robbery was highly unusual, at 17.00 when the branch was busy serving the public, selling stamps or doing other business in preparation for the night-mail despatch.

A murky fog hung over the capital that day, street lamps emitted a dull light and the shops and offices along Hatton Garden were lit up for the evening’s business. The work in the Post Office was at its height when suddenly, the lights went out, and the place was plunged in almost total darkness. Female clerks behind the counter started to panic, noise from the young clerks and boys in the warehouses and offices added to the confusion and chaos both sides of the counter.

It wasn’t long before they discovered that the tap of the gas meter, that supplied the office gas lamps, had been turned off by someone. The tap was turned back on, the lamps were relit and everything went back to business as usual.

Shortly after the clerks in the office noticed that a mail bag had gone missing. Before the lights went out it had been hanging on a peg, ready for despatch. They realised that the bag containing registered letters that vanished, had in fact, been stolen.

The value of the forty registered letters was £80,000 which is more than 6 million of today’s money. The scene of the robbery lay in the midst of diamond merchants and jewellers, so it is not surprising that precious stones and jewellery were the contents of these letters. They included:

  • Watches, bracelets set with pearls and diamonds, earrings and rings
  • Eight parcels of rough diamonds
  • 147 turquoises
  • A quantity of small emeralds
  • 6000 drilled sapphires
  • 2000 pairs of garnet bores
  • 240 pairs of sapphire bores
  • A number of sapphires weighing 695 carats
  • Several rubies
  • Sapphires weighing 546 carats.

The whole robbery was clearly very carefully planned and efficiently executed. It was believed that two or more suspects were engaged in the robbery, assuming that one person managed to access the basement without attracting attention and turned off the gas, while the accomplice took the bag from the peg in the midst of the chaos.

A reward of £200 was offered by the Postmaster General and a further reward of £1000 by the companies who had insured the valuable letters in the hope of finding information leading to the arrest of the criminals.

Reward notice for the Hatton Garden Post Office robbery (POST 30-651A)

The case baffled the skilled Metropolitan police and the officers of the Post Office Investigation Branch as a number of leads didn’t quite add up.

In 1893, 12 years after the crime, a prisoner in a Belgian jail confessed to the crime. The suspect was Adam Worth, a master criminal and real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor James Moriarty.

– The Postal Museum’s Collections Team