BBC World Service
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 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.'”
A miniature replica of the box used to promote a book about the escapade
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.”
Reg Spiers in London before his freight journey in 1964
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 to 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
Read more about The man who mailed himself to Australia