Vertical Markets

Security at Kew: BR confidential

by Mark Rowe

The British Railways Board which ran the then nationalised railways in a letter in January 1974 asked various head office staff ‘to do their utmost to see that confidential information is safeguarded at all times’. The occasion for this warning was that Richard Hope of the trade publication Railway Gazette had interviewed the deputy chairman, for an article on investment in the railways. Hope sent the article for checking, and admitted that since the meeting, he had had unofficial sight of the Board’s investment proposals.

Earlier, in October 1972, according to the file AN 192/358 at the National Archives, the Board’s confidential memo complained that the chairman ‘did feel there was far too much opportunity for gossip and additionally that press representatives had far too easy access to practically everybody in the building,’ head office at 222 Marylebone Road in London.

An instruction that staff should inform the press office of any contact with journalists had lapsed. A further indication that security was a perennial issue in terms of keeping information out of the press was a memo of February 1970, on ‘security of information’. It felt the word ‘confidential’ was overworked; and defined confidential as personnel affairs, or material if published that would cause ‘acute embarrassment’ to the Board. That could mean a government department was undermined – or that the info helped unions in negotiations. The memo asked for rooms to be locked when not in use, such as at lunchtime; and that files not in use should be locked away, or kept in the ‘new works register’ which was locked at lunchtime, and after the working day.

Comments from managers showed how much could be considered as embarrassing, or confidential: the costs of a royal train; or the fact that a property was for sale. A research manager commented wisely that ‘the value of a security system lies in the ability to enforce it’. The chief internal auditor in his comments suggested reminding staff that conversations in public must also be watched; ‘it is surprising how much can be gleaned freely on the journey between St Pancras and Derby’.

An April 1970 draft memo on security of correspondence and documents gave a telephone extension for the shredding of paper, adding that ‘waste paper baskets are a notorious source of leakage’. The memo admitted documents should only be graded ‘confidential’ or ‘security’ if it was essential in the interests of the business. “If such gradings are accorded to documents too freely, the inevitable tendency is for security gradings to fall into disrepute and in consequence be disregarded’.

In 1950 the Board had a meeting and an issue of notes on security of information, previously issued in April 1961. As for government info covering national security, classifications went from top secret, to secret, to confidential to restricted. While security might be natural before a public announcement, the notes admitted that only a few files should be treated as special; ‘inevitably if the burden becomes too great, staff of all grades tend to overlook important security precautions’. Security also might cover something internal such as a staff appraisal, although it was of no interest outside of the staff. The re-issuing of the notes arose after a Board meeting of November 1969 about confidential information that found its way into publications. The Board wanted, as its secretary JR Hammond put it, ‘a much stricter discipline both in conversation and in the custody of papers’.

Also in November 1969, the railways’ public relations controller Eric Merrill reported to Hammond at least 33 cases of leakage of important information. The Board was most concerned about an article in Modern Railways by Freeman Allen, on British Rail wagonloads. Merrill deduced that Allen had been sent a copy of British Rail’s freight plan, marked ‘confidential’. Merrill admitted to a recent talk with Allen (‘he did not get from me any details’). Merrill said Allen had ‘very many contacts in the railway world’ and Merrill urged that the security system was ‘not soundly based’. For example, the staff department regularly marked as ‘confidential’ matters of very minor importance relating to individuals; ‘this tends to debase the security classification’. Merrill recommended the ‘double envelope system’ so that personnel and confidential information was not opened by secretaries and clerks, but by the person ‘for his eyes only’.

The 1961 instructions about security were themselves treated as ‘confidential’. Merrill complained that in April 1968 a memo on the Board’s library at headquarters came to him in an envelope marked ‘confidential’; to Merrill, this debased the whole value of security classification. On the same subject, a memo of March 1968 warned that the Board was ‘particularly vulnerable to any intruder by reason not only of the matters with which we deal but also of our location in the building’. It had filing cabinets, keys for drawers and safes. The head cleaner held the floor master keys and issued them daily to the cleaner of each floor, who returned it after use. Four fire patrol men each had a set of grand master keys and street door keys; and the house superintendent and his assistant each had a set of grand master keys. And the maintenance inspector kept all other keys in a small locked room; the keys were not the normal Yale size, so could not be readily copied.

Merrill in February 1968 had sent a memo asking for ‘proper security of confidential information’ by staff, for example that important papers should be locked away and ‘in and out trays’ cleared of confidential documents as the office closed. This arose because of a story about the railways in the Times that month, about investment; which Merrill described as ‘only the latest leakage’; he was evidently keeping a record.

Industrial espionage fascinated that era; the file held an April 1970 business magazine article about it, that admitted no-one really knew how much went on (which added to the fascination?). But ‘careless talk in the saloon bar’ of a pub was probably a greater menace of security ‘than bugging in the board room’. The article quoted Peter Hamilton, president of the British Security Association; so much technical information was available. It was valuable to learn the intention of a rival, such as when or if a rival would make a new range of car; rather than what the actual war was. Also quoted was the private investigator Ian Withers (who published a memoir privately after a long, successful and profitable career in 2021).

“If we were going to spy on someone, we would charge between £100 and £125 a week. This would include putting someone inside the firm to spy. An alternative would be to for us to charge what we call a target fee. If we were successful we would get between £250 and £750. If we weren’t then our expenses could be as low as £25.” Withers was described as an ex-policeman and his firm booked a stand at a 1968 ‘business efficiency’ exhibition but was barred by the organisers after a television interview; a sign both of the media’s fascination with private investigators and how business both shied away from and paid for investigators’ services. Withers’ company also supplied equipment, and in 1969 had sales of £50,000 (add one or two noughts for the 21st century equivalent).

A telephone tapping device for example cost £35, that could be fitted in a minute. Withers advocated a government register of private investigators with a code of conduct; and if an investigator broke the code, they would lose their licence to practice.

The article also quoted RB Matthews, another private investigator, who suggested more screening of staff. There should not be a telephone in any board room, he said: ”That’s the place where the most secret discussions are likely to take place and by having a telephone there the company is going nine-tenths of the way to having the place bugged.”

The article made the shrewd point that ‘professional spies’ made less use of gadgets or breaking into properties, and made approaches through people – draughtsmen, computer programmers, receptionists, telephonists, store-keepers and chauffeurs; and asked charladies to check waste-paper baskets.

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