In April 1954 a registered mailbag was found on the Mitchell Highway at Blaxland, in the Blue Mountains. Its contents were intact, which was a relief, but authorities were worried.

On May 25 a police officer came across another registered mailbag in Hickson Street, Miller’s Point, near Sydney’s Circular Quay. There were two smaller bags inside. One contained general parcels, but the other was empty. Investigations revealed that the empty bag had contained £30,000 in £5 and £1 notes. They were old notes sent from the Katoomba branch of the Commonwealth Bank to their head office in Sydney. The serial numbers had not been recorded, making them difficult to trace. It was the largest mailbag theft in the history of New South Wales.

Arrangements had been made to place the bag on the mail train, which left Katoomba at 3.47 p.m. on Tuesday and reached Central Station at 6.01 p.m.

Katoomba railway station, where the stolen mailbag was meant to be loaded onto a train to Sydney.
KATOMBA RAILWAY STATION

In the photo below a detective demonstrates how the smaller, sealed bags were placed in the larger one.

At first detectives had no idea at what point along the 70 mile journey the money was stolen. Something similar had occurred on the line in 1946. Two men had boarded a guards wagon when the train slowed at Valley Heights. A lot of packages were thrown out the doors to be collected later.

However, inquiries at Katoomba railway station changed their line of inquiry completely. Despite the discarded mailbag being found in Sydney, they discovered it had never been on the train.

Six bags of mail were received and signed for at the station’s parcel office, but the train guard only received five. Instead of reporting the discrepancy he simply ‘fixed the problem’ by altering the number on the receipt. So what had happened to the missing one?

Attention shifted to the parcels office. Perhaps the bag had been snatched while the porter was briefly absent? One theory was that an accomplice telephoned the station and had the porter called away for a vital few minutes.

A THIRD LINE OF INQUIRY

A large contingent of police descended on Katoomba and interviewed everyone involved in the movement of the mail bags. One man who caught Detective-Sergeant Tupper’s attention was the driver of the truck that delivered mail from the post office to the railway station. He was Gordon Ottey, aged 32, from Mount Victoria. Ottey’s financial position was dire. His bank balance was £1 and he had no income apart from his wages. He owed £700 on a house, and £500 on a car. It was enough to raise suspicion.

Katoomba Pst Office, where the stolen mailbag was collected by Gordon Ottey.
KATOOMBA POST OFFICE

When Ottey resigned from his job at Katoomba in July and moved to Wollongong, detectives followed. He was found to have 17 £5 pound notes on him, and had given a woman acquaintance £900. He tried to say that he earned the money doing building jobs and that he was starting a business in Wollongong. Not surprisingly, this did not ‘wash’ with police. Ottey was arrested and taken back to Katoomba. On the way he admitted involvement, and named two accomplices. One was William (Bill) Pearce, a Katoomba local who was working at the post office when the robbery took place.

It turned out that Pearce had come up with the whole plan. When he too was arrested, he said, ‘Just after Christmas, when I saw Ottey putting the mailbags in his car, I told him to watch the one with the Commonwealth Bank remittance on it. We talked about it and I told Ottey that the bank remittance went down every Tuesday. I wrote to Brandson (a Sydney acquaintance) and asked him would he be in it?‘ (Daily Telegraph, September 2 1954)

There were two aborted attempts before the May 25 robbery. The first was in March, but had to be abandoned because there were too many school children milling about the truck. On April 20 all went as planned, but to their disappointment the targeted mailbag had no money in it. This was the one discarded at Blaxland. However, all the frustration must have melted away when that £30,000 bonanza met their eyes.

Ottey immediately passed the loot on to Bill Pearce, who then contacted a Sydney friend, Neville Bransdon. Bransdon drove up to Katoomba, and returned to the city with the mailbag. It was he who removed the cash bag, and discarded the rest. He transferred the notes to a suitcase labelled ‘Books’ and left it with an unsuspecting acquaintance at a flat in Darling Point. It was Bransdon’s job to distribute the spoils. He said he sent Pearce £2,500 in £5 notes secreted within the pages of a book of nursery rhymes. According to Ottey, ‘Neville only sent the money up as we wanted it. We were to split the money three ways, getting £10,000 each.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, September 2, 1954)

When the men faced trial, defense barrister Mr Munro tried to argue that his clients had been tempted beyond endurance due to the carelessness of the postal authorities. ‘The authorities should not have handed £30,000 to a truck driver earning £15 a week, for delivery to the station.’ (Courier Mail, November 11 1954)

In the end, £28,315 of the money was recovered, which no doubt contributed to the relatively light sentences the men received….three years each.

IN 1930 THERE HAD BEEN A MAJOR ROBBERY IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS THAT REALLY DID TAKE PLACE ON A TRAIN. CLICK HERE.

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