From robberies to letter thefts and murders. Read the dark stories of crimes against post.

The Post Office Investigation Branch has its origins in the mid-17th Century. For over 300 years it has investigated postal crimes like letter thefts. Until the early 18th Century there was no official police force in Britain. Private citizens were responsible for enforcing the law and prosecuting crimes.

The first Royal Mail solicitor, Richard Swift, was appointed in 1683, 50 years after King Charles I opened the service for public use. Swift went on to work for the Post Office for over thirty years.

Treasury letter from 1713 (POST 1/5)

In 1829 Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police – a full-time, professional police force for the Greater London area under the control of the Home Secretary. An officer was seconded to the Post Office to assist with investigations just three months after the force was established.

The volume of mail sky-rocketed after the 1840 penny post was introduced, and so did postal crimes. Here are just a few examples of historic crimes against the post.

London to Bristol Highwaymen

In the 18th Century, the Post Office’s Solicitor hired deputies called ‘Enquirers’ to detect and capture criminals. In 1722, two enquirers caught notorious mail robber John Hawkins and his associate George Simpson who had held up a post-boy called Thomas Green on the London to Bristol post route.

Green and a man called James Ladbrook, a fellow traveller, were riding on horseback through Berkshire when they were approached by three men. Covering their mouths with handkerchiefs and with their wigs and hats pulled forward over their faces, the men brandished a pistol and ordered Green and Ladbrook down a nearby lane. They were then ordered to dismount from their horses, before being tied back to back and fastened to a tree in a wet ditch.

Hawkins and Simpson robbing the mail near Colnbrook in Berkshire © British Library

The robbers rifled through the Bath and Bristol post bags, taking packets of money as they went, before hiding the rest in a hedge. They travelled into London, stopping at an inn in Bermondsey Street to divide up the bank notes from the post bags and dispose of the letters in a fire.

Hawkins and Simpson were both found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on 21 May 1722.

The Cato Street Conspiracy

In 1771, Anthony Parkin was appointed Deputy Solicitor and wrote an account of “What Duties the Solicitor of the Post Office performs For his Salary of £200 Per Annum.” Parkin described the duties of Solicitor in a letter written on 26 January 1793:

“The most Instantaneous Exertions of the Solicitor, both by Night and by Day, are frequently unavoidably called for, and he of Necessity must cease every other Business or Engagement to give absolute way to this Important Duty.”


Anthony Parkin’s criminal investigations and prosecutions were assisted by clerks and officers from Bow Street, nicknamed the Bow Street Runners, considered to be the first professional Police force in Britain. They assisted with the arrest of the Cato Street conspirators.

Arrest of the Cato Street conspirators by Bow Street Runners © Alamy

The conspirators called the Spencean Philanthropists, a group taking their name from the British radical speaker Thomas Spence, attempted to murder all the British cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool in 1820.

The name ‘Cato Street’ comes from the meeting place near Edgware Road in London. The police had an informer and the plotters fell into a police trap and 13 were arrested, while one policeman was killed. Five conspirators were executed, and five others were transported to Australia.

Letter Thief

The penalties for crimes against the Post Office were laid down by an Act of Parliament in 1765: stealing or destroying the mail was punished by “death as a felon.”

One person held to this sentence was Arthur Bailey, sentenced to death and hanged after stealing a letter containing bills of exchange and forging an endorsement. In 1811, The Newgate Calendar published an account of his execution. At the gallows, Bailey held up a Bible and cautioned the gathered crowd:

“I hope you will all take warning… I beg you to look often into this book, and you will not come to shame. Be sure to be honest, and not covet money, cursed money!”

The Last Postman Sentenced to Death

John Barrett was hanged at Newgate prison in 1832 and was the last postman sentenced to death for stealing from the post. The death penalty for postal offences was abolished five years later in the Post Office Act of 1837, which replaced it with transportation to other countries for periods from seven years to life.

Hanging outside Newgate Prison © Alamy

Fforestfach Post Office Robbery

On 15 November 1957, Vivian Teed broke into Fforestfach sub-post office, in Swansea. During the attempted robbery, Teed killed 73-year-old postmaster, William Williams.

Teed was hanged for his crime, the last man in Wales to receive this punishment. A petition opposing his death sentence was signed by 1,000 people, showing a change in public attitude to the death sentence.

Newspaper article © Wales Online

The Post Office Investigation Branch still operates today, using modern technology including invisible ink and surveillance cameras to detect crimes.

Explore one of the most audacious crimes of the 20th Century, The Great Train Robbery, and the subsequent investigation, alongside other stories of crime through the post in our temporary exhibition until 19 April 2020.

– The Postal Museum’s Collections Team