Archivist Helen uncovers documents about one of the most infamous serial killers in British history.

The winter of 1975 was a time of fear for many working in sub post offices across the country. Sub postmasters and mistresses usually ran their own business alongside operating the post office and lived on the premises, making them particularly vulnerable if the premises were robbed.

Between 15 February 1974 and 11 November 1974 there had been three armed raids on sub post offices resulting in fatalities. The first robbery took place on 15 February 1974, New Park Telegraph Sub Office, Harrogate. The Sub Postmaster, Donald Skepper, was shot and killed in the raid. Seven months later on 6 September 1974, Derek Astin the Sub Postmaster of High Baxendale Telegraph Sub Office was shot and killed in similar circumstances.

Artist’s impression of the attacker

On 11 November 1974, Langley Telegraph Sub Office was targeted. The Sub Postmistress, Margaret Frances Grayland was severely beaten and suffered several skull fractures. Her husband, Sidney James Grayland, was shot and killed. It was suspected that these attacks were linked and Lancashire Police, together with the Post Office Investigations Department, began a detailed investigation.

The suspect was quickly dubbed the ‘Black Panther’ by the press due to his quiet movements and dark clothing.

Exterior of Langley Sub Post Office, Nov 1974 (POST 120/467)

The investigation began by examining other Post Office related crimes that had similarities to the ones in Harrogate, Baxendale, and Langley. In total 180 attacks on post offices between 1964 and 23 October 1974 were identified for reinvestigation. Of these 167 were determined to be definitely unconnected, while the remaining 13 were regarded as possibly related. Yet despite the offer of a £25 000 reward, there were no solid leads.

Reward Notice issued after the death of Sidney Grayland, Nov 1974 (POST 120/470)

However, in early 1975 other events resulted in new leads. On 15 January 1975 Gerald Arthur Smith, a security guard at a railway yard in Dudley was shot when confronting a trespasser. He survived the attack (although he died on 25 March 1976 as a result of injuries sustained). Forensics were able to prove that the gun used in this attack was the same one that killed Sidney James Grayland in Langley, establishing a definite link between the Post Office cases and the latest crime. Still, the crimes remained unsolved.

Artist’s impression based on Gerald Smith’s description of his attacker, Jan 1975 (POST 120/471)

In the early part of 1975 West Mercia police were involved in the high profile investigation into the kidnapping of the heiress Lesley Whittle. Lesley had been kidnapped from her home in Highley, Shropshire on 14 January 1975. After two months of abortive ransom notes and dead ends in the police investigation, the body of Lesley Whittle was found in a drainage shaft in Bathpool Park, Kidsgrove, Staffordshire. As with the raids on the sub post offices the investigation into the kidnap and death of Lesley Whittle was initially unproductive.

Wanted notice for the murder of Lesley Whittle, c. Mar 1975 (POST 120/473)

It was not until a chance encounter on 11 December 1975 that Donald Neilson was arrested. He was seen by police in Mansfield acting in a suspicious manner. When the police stopped Neilson he refused to give his name or address and showed them a gun. Nielson got in the police car and demanded they drive him to Blidworth. Through a combination of distraction and assistance from the public, the police officers were able to restrain and arrest Nielson.

It was only after his arrest that his connection to the raids on post offices and the kidnap of Lesley Whittle became apparent. An examination of his bag revealed a brace and bit (used to gain entry to post offices) and a face mask matching the descriptions given by his victims. Fingerprint evidence linked him to the drainage shaft where Lesley Whittle was found.

Neilson stood trial on 14 June 1976 for the kidnap and murder of Lesley Whittle. He was found guilty of these crimes. He was tried on 5 July 1976 for a number of crimes including: the murder of Donald Lawson Skepper at Harrogate on 15 Feb 1974; the murder of Derek Astin at High Baxendale on 6 September 1974; the murder of Sidney James Grayland at Langley on 11 November 1974; the attempted murder of Margaret Frances Grayland on 11 November 1974; and grievous bodily harm to Margaret Frances Grayland on 11 November 1974. He was found not guilty of the attempted murder of Mrs Grayland but guilty on the other charges. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The judge stated

‘that the enormity of his crimes put him in a class apart from all convicted murderers in recent years.’

Extract from Donald Neilson’s prosecution report Jun 1976 (POST 120/477)

To learn more about the motive’s of Donald Neilson, visit our new exhibition The Great Train Robbery: Crime & The Post.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist