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The man who posted himself to Australia

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The man who posted himself to Australia

Post by Kitkat on 6th March 2015, 12:33

In the mid-1960s, Australian athlete Reg Spiers found himself stranded in London with no money to buy a plane ticket home. Desperate to get back to Australia in time for his daughter's birthday, he decided to post himself in a wooden crate.


"I just got in the thing and went. What was there to be frightened of? I'm not frightened of the dark so I just sat there.

"It's like when I travel now if I go overseas. There's the seat. Sit in it, and go."

Reg Spiers in London before his freight journey in 1964

Reg Spiers makes it sound very straightforward more than half a century later, but it caused a media storm in Australia at the time.

He explains his attitude like this: "I've come up with this mad scheme to get back to Australia in a box. Who can say it won't work? Let's give it a shot."

Spiers had come to the UK to try to recover from an injury that had interrupted his athletics career. A promising javelin thrower, he had been on course to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

But when it became clear he would not make the games, Spiers set his mind to raising enough money to fly back to Australia, and took an airport job to earn some cash.

But his plans changed when his wallet, containing all his savings, was stolen. With a wife and daughter back home, Spiers wanted to get back to Adelaide, but "there was one catch," he explains. "I didn't have any money."

And with his daughter's birthday looming, he was in a hurry.

"I worked in the export cargo section, so I knew about cash-on-delivery with freight. I'd seen animals come through all the time and I thought, 'If they can do it I can do it.'"

Spiers also knew the maximum size of crate that could be sent by air freight. He had been staying with a friend, John McSorley, in London, and persuaded him to build a box in which he could send himself home.

"He told me it had to be 5ft x 3ft x 2.5ft, (1.5m x 0.9m x 0.75m)," says McSorley. "I knew Reg and I thought, 'He's going to do it regardless, so if he's going to do it I'd better make him a box that at least is going to get him there.'"

Built to Spiers's specifications, the crate allowed him to sit up straight-legged, or lie on his back with his knees bent. The two ends of the crate were held in place by wooden spigots operated from the inside, so Spiers could let himself out of either end. It was fitted with straps to hold him in place as the crate was loaded and unloaded.

To avoid any suspicion that a person was inside, the crate was labelled as a load of paint and addressed to a fictitious Australian shoe company.

The replica shows how straps were fixed inside the box

Although the cost of sending such a large and heavy cargo would have been more than a passenger seat, Spiers knew he could send himself cash-on-delivery - and worry about how to pay the fees once he arrived in Australia.

Packed into the box with some tinned food, a torch, a blanket and a pillow, plus two plastic bottles - one for water, one for urine - Spiers was loaded on to an Air India plane bound for Perth, Western Australia. Although Spiers wanted ultimately to get to Adelaide, Perth was chosen because it was a smaller airport.

He endured a 24-hour delay at the airport in London due to fog, and let himself out of the crate once the plane was in the air.

"I got out of the box between London and Paris, dying for a leak," says Spiers. "I peed in a can and put it on top of the box. I was stretching my legs and all of a sudden, because it's a short distance, the plane began to descend. A little panicky I jumped back in the box, and the can full of pee was still sitting on top."

The French baggage handlers in Paris thought the can's unsavoury contents had been left for them as an unkind joke by their counterparts in London.

"They were saying some terrible things about the English," says Spiers. "But they didn't even think of the box. So I kept on going."

The next stop on the long journey back to Australia was in Bombay, where baggage handlers parked Spiers - upside down - in the sun's glare for four hours.

"It was hot as hell in Bombay so I took off all my clothes," he says. "Wouldn't it have been funny if I'd got pinched then?"

"They had the thing on its end. I was on the tarmac while they were changing me from one plane to another. I'm strapped in but my feet are up in the air. I'm sweating like a pig but not to give up - wait, be patient - and eventually they came and got me and put me on another plane."

When the plane finally touched down in Perth, the cargo hold was opened and Spiers heard the Australian baggage handlers swearing about the size of the crate he was in. He knew immediately he was home.

"The accents - how could you miss?" says Spiers. "I'm on the soil. Amazing. Wonderful. I made it.

"I was grinning from ear to ear, but I wasn't going to let them know I'm there now - I've almost pulled the whole thing off.

"I knew they would take the box to a bond shed. When they put me in the shed I got out straight away. There were cartons of beer in there. I don't drink but I whipped a beer out and had a drink of that."

Spiers had survived three days travelling in the wooden crate. But he still faced the challenge of getting out of the airport. Fortunately, his luck continued.

"There were some tools in there so I just cut a hole in the wall and got out.

"There was no security. I put on a suit out of my bag so I looked cool, jumped through the window, walked out on to the street and thumbed a ride into town. Simple as that."

But back in England, John McSorley, who had built the crate and delivered Spiers to the airport, was desperately worried about his friend. Spiers hitchhiked his way back to his family in Adelaide, but neglected to tell McSorley he had come through his journey intact.

In an effort find out what had happened, McSorley alerted the media, and Spiers quickly became a sensation in his home country.

"I got a telegram from a renowned Australian politician," he says, which read, "'A gallant effort by a real Aussie - and here's five quid.' I'm winning big time. It was great."

In the end the airline didn't make him pay the shipping fees. But Spiers admits he was taken aback by the media coverage of his adventure.

"I'd never seen anything like it. It scared the hell out of my mother with the whole street blocked with media. And it would go on for weeks. It was pretty wild."

Spiers succeeded in making it back in time for his daughter's birthday but he still had a job convincing his wife his story was true.

"She didn't believe me," he says. "But then she thought about it and thought 'He must have done it, how else did he get here?' So eventually she rode with it."

Air industry insiders say something like this would never be able to happen now. The hold is usually pressurised and the temperature will usually be above freezing but all cargo loaded on to planes is screened for security reasons and a hidden person would be found.

What happened next

  • Reg Spiers disappeared from Adelaide in 1981 after he was charged with conspiracy to import cocaine
  • He was arrested in Sri Lanka in 1984 and sentenced to death for drugs offences
  • He successfully appealed against the sentence and spent five years in jail in Australia
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Re: The man who posted himself to Australia

Post by Stardust on 9th March 2015, 11:34

A true adventure for the best boys' albums.

Pity about the "What happened next". Not such a hero after all.

Be grateful for even the smallest thing, blessings come in many disguises.
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Re: The man who posted himself to Australia

Post by Kitkat on 9th March 2015, 18:55

@Stardust wrote:Pity about the "What happened next". Not such a hero after all.

Well, a lot can happen in 20 years - changes for the better or worse.  I'm sure we could also read many stories of people who back in their early lifetimes did many dumb and stupid things, but with changing experiences over the years perhaps ended up being the perfect citizen or fine heroic role model for their children to emanate.  Life, eh?  It's a funny ol' game, as yer man use to say ........
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Re: The man who posted himself to Australia

Post by Stardust on 10th March 2015, 12:24

Very true, Kitkat, and most of us are neither all good nor all bad. Very Happy

Be grateful for even the smallest thing, blessings come in many disguises.
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Re: The man who posted himself to Australia

Post by Kitkat on 9th April 2015, 11:51

The copycat who nearly died air-mailing himself home

Reg Spiers's adventure inspired another stowaway, Welshman Brian Robson, whose journey in the opposite direction was less successful - he was lucky to survive.

"Australia was a complete shock to my system," says Brian Robson. "I found it very difficult, and thought from the moment I got there I wanted to get out as quickly as possible."

But he couldn't just buy a ticket home - he had arrived in Australia in late 1964 on an assisted immigration programme which committed him to spending two years in the country. His travel costs had been paid for by the Australian government, and he wouldn't be able to get a passport to legally leave the country until he had done his time.

He took a "boring and lonely" job as a railway ticket clerk, which left him feeling isolated. And despite having some relatives in Australia, he was homesick and desperate to return home.

So when a relative who was sailing to the UK suggested Robson stow away on his ship, he decided to try his luck.

He used a visitor's pass to get on board, and stayed on the boat until it sailed. But the plan unravelled just hours into the voyage when Robson became violently seasick, and he was taken to the vessel's medical bay by one of the crew. His subterfuge was soon discovered, and he was put off the ship in New Zealand.

With little choice but to accept financial help from another relative in Australia, Robson flew back to Sydney, where he read about the exploits of Reg Spiers. Inspired by Spiers's trip from London to Perth in a wooden crate, Robson decided he would send himself in the opposite direction using the same method.

"From the moment I read it in the newspaper I convinced myself I had no choice," says Robson. "That's what I had to do."

He made his way to Melbourne where he persuaded two friends to help him realise his plan. "At first they said I was completely mad. I spent maybe a week persuading them and they agreed to do it."

The next step was to approach the airline, Qantas. Robson needed to check what size of crate he could air-freight back to the UK, and if, like Spiers, he could send himself cash-on-delivery. Then he went to a builders' merchant and bought the crate he would travel in - a wooden box measuring 30 x 26 x 38 inches (76 x 66 x 96cm).

"I had the crate delivered to the back of the building where I was living, and left it there for a couple of days while we planned the next stage."

Robson wanted to convince Qantas the crate was carrying a computer being shipped back to the UK for maintenance and servicing.

"One of my mates produced an invoice at work on company documents. I took it to Qantas personally, and checked I could send the crate directly by the quickest route, which was about 36 hours," he says.

"I told them we had to make arrangements for it to be collected in London, so wanted the precise flight number."

Confident that his plan would work, Robson decided on a departure date and set about preparing for the journey. The crate was strengthened and fitted with a rope harness to hold him in place. One side of the box was nailed shut by Robson himself from the inside.

"I had a pair of pliers which I could use to pull the nails out on arrival in London."

With less generous proportions than the box Reg Spiers had built for himself, Robson had far less room for manoeuvre, and it was all the more cramped because he put a large suitcase into the crate as well.

"I could fit in there OK as long as I sat down with my knees pressed up in my chest. My back was to the suitcase. It was quite large, which obviously reduced my movements inside even more.

"I couldn't stretch my legs and I couldn't turn around," he says. "I was more or less stuck in that position, which at first was quite comfy but later proved not so sensible."

Brian Robson (left) arrived back in London in May 1965

Robson packed two pillows into the crate, as well as a torch and two bottles - one for water and one for urine. The first leg of his journey, from Melbourne to Sydney, went smoothly. But from there his plan started to go badly wrong.

"They left me on the tarmac, but I was dumped upside down. I was strapped in standing on my head. I tried to turn around but there wasn't enough space, it was impossible.

"It becomes painful very quickly, throbbing in your neck and the top of your head. Your neck is taking all the weight so it becomes excruciatingly painful. The blood is rushing to your head. You get blackouts. I was in serious pain."

Robson spent 22 punishing hours upside down in his crate, but was never tempted to reveal himself. "It was London or die - that's how serious I felt about it."

Eventually, much to his relief, the crate was turned upright again and loaded on to another aircraft. Airborne once more, Robson thought nothing would now stop him from getting back home.

But what he didn't know was that the Qantas flight he thought he would travel on was full, so the airline instead loaded him onto a Pan American aircraft which would take a much slower route back to the UK. Robson was travelling in a hold that wasn't heated, and as the journey continued his situation became increasingly serious.

"I had difficulty breathing," he says, "and I started to get pain in my elbows and knees. Slowly, just about every joint in my body started aching. They were swelling - my ankles were swelling really badly."

Robson's "thinking went haywire". He slipped in and out of consciousness, tormented by a nightmare in which he was thrown out of the aircraft mid-flight. "It sounds crazy when you think about it now. But I spent some really terrifying hours."

His aircraft finally touched down and he was taken, still in his crate, out of the hold to a freight shed. Thinking he must be back in the UK, he tried to check the time and date on his watch. But still in extreme pain, and barely able to move, he first needed his torch, clipped to the inside of the crate only 20cm in front of him.

"I got hold of that torch and turned it on, but then I dropped it. There was no way I could pick it up," says Robson, "I just couldn't do any more. The torch was at the bottom of the crate, turned on."

A freight handler, Gary Hatch, spotted the light shining out through a gap between the crate's wooden boards. He decided to investigate and managed to work open a hole in the box.

Robson's rescuer, Gary Hatch poses inside the crate with his suitcase

When he peered inside, he was shocked to see what he thought was a dead body inside. Robson couldn't speak or move and was unable to signal that he was alive. Hatch promptly disappeared, returning a short while later with a large cohort of customs officers, doctors and police.

After a heated debate about the crate's legal status, they decided to break it open. Robson's ordeal was over. After eight months he had escaped Australia - but he wasn't in London. The startled officials spoke with American accents. Robson was in Los Angeles.

"It took three or four of them to take me out of the crate, and as they laid me on my back my legs stayed in the same position as when I was sitting in the crate. They forced my legs down, and my body came up.

"Of course, between them they held me down and straightened my legs. And then they took me to hospital."

Media interest in Robson's story was huge, and he even did some television interviews while he was recovering in hospital, telling reporters it felt "terrible" to be shipped by crate. As he recovered his voice he was able to explain to the FBI that he had not been kidnapped, and was not a spy, but simply a homesick Welshman trying to get back to the UK.

The question remained what to do with Robson. Although he was in the US illegally, the American authorities decided not to press charges. But responsibility for stowaways lies with the company that carries them - in this case the unwitting Pan American. The airline could have sent Robson back to Australia, but, perhaps keen to ride the wave of positive publicity around his escapade, it decided instead to send him to London - first class.

All told, Robson had spent four days folded inside his crate. He had been lucky to survive, and he fears he could easily have frozen to death had he been loaded on to the final leg from Los Angeles to London, which would have flown over the northern ice cap.

"I am 70 years old now," he says. "On reflection, kids don't think straight. I think most teenagers, youth of those days and certainly of these, make their mind up to do something and don't think of the consequences.

"It was a pretty dangerous thing, but did I ever think of giving up? Absolutely not, that was the last thing that went through my mind."

For a while Robson enjoyed his new-found celebrity, before leaving his home city of Cardiff to set up a string of retail businesses. He's written a film script of his adventure, which he hopes might yet be picked up by a production company, and he's even been back to Australia for a holiday.

Story by  By Jason Caffrey
BBC World Service

    Current date/time is 20th July 2018, 15:41