WHERE was it - the incriminating evidence that would nail a thieving postman? The Post Office detective and the local bobby scoured William Collins's cottage while he was at work.

High and low they searched, apparently in a lost cause. That is until the official ventured to look inside an old American clock. And there it was, the missing money order.

Collins had finally been caught.

The Post Office had launched a special investigation following a series of complaints about missing mail.

Coachman Thomas Phipps, a member of an Oddfellows Lodge, had been one of the first victims. He had remitted his 7s club money and club book to the secretary and a friend had it changed into a postal order.

He then wrapped the two items in a sheet of paper and followed his usual practice of dropping it at a pub where it was handed over the landlady to be collected by Collins, the local letter carrier, who was often accompanied on his rounds by his young son.

Later the same day, August 1, 1855, Collins came to the inn and took possession of that and other letters. However, as jurors at Hampshire Assizes were to hear, neither the paper, nor its contents reached their destination.

More and more other items continued to disappear, Mr Pouldon for the prosecution telling the court: "Towards the end of the month, considerable complaints were made and the applications for missing letters lost in that neighbourhood became so numerous that it was evident that something was wrong."

Accordingly, the London-based official called Pearce launched a hunt for the culprit. He soon deduced the link was Williams, and with a police officer, they went to his Isle of Wight home.

He was not there and the two men conducted a rigorous search of the premises. Initially, it seemed a fruitless exercise until Pearce was curious about a clock that stood on the kitchen mantel shelf. Inside was an identical order for 7s.

Seconds later, Collins returned and taken aback did not give the most convincing explanation, Pouldon explaining: "At first he seemed confused and then asked the amount of the order and where it came from. Pearce held the letter in his hand but did not think it advisable to satisfy him about that, when the prisoner said: "Oh, is that the order my little boy picked up in the street? Mr Pearce replied: "If that is so, why did you not take it to the post office as you know what a post office order is?"

Collins's claim that he knew nothing about such orders, was damned by Poulson as "the most ridiculous assertion" as he had worked for the Post Officer for several years and hitherto had been employed as a post messenger in Hampshire. "If he had been honestly disposed, he would have taken that order to the post office."

The defence did not contest the fact the letter had been left at the pub but contended Collins had not picked it up, defence barrister Mr Cooke contending: "The letter was placed with others in the bar of the house, a public place to which all had access, and the conduct of the prisoner was consistent with his innocence throughout, for there is no evidence to prove the untruth of the statements.

"The order was perfectly useless to him as he did not know the name of the party to which it was addressed, and it is clear that if he had intended to act dishonestly, he would have burnt the order and not kept it in a public place, where it was found, for safe custody."

However, his submission did not convince jury who quickly found him guilty, which led to Pouldon withdrawing a second similar charge.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Parke stressed the need for public confidence in the Post Office.

Told Collins had once been reprimanded for a previous transgression involving a postal order, he commented: "It is of the greatest possible importance to society that letters should be safely transmitted and offences of the one which you have committed, especially when committed by people entrusted with them, must be severely punished.

"You have been guilty of an offence in a former situation which was pardoned in the hope of amendment but to no purpose, and the sentence is you now be transported for the term of 14 years."