Secret papers reveal today how a notorious Brummie criminal tormented authorities for more than 20 years with a series of daring mail train robberies and prison breaks.

Documents released at the National Archives in Kew, south west London, recount the despair of one official that, at the age of 40, John Foster had spent only two years out of prison since he was 21.

Records showed that, under the name Gasken, he first appeared in court at the age of 17 in Birmingham, for stealing a bike.

Four years later, in 1921, he was jailed at Warwick Assizes for housebreaking and stealing jewellery.

Over the next quarter of a century he was scarcely out of prison, jailed for a series of offences in Nottingham, Birmingham, and Leeds. Later he deserted from the Army.

After escaping from Birmingham prison in 1921 he managed to repeat the feat twice at Dartmoor, in 1931 and 1932.

Newspapers at the time of the second break-out described how he and fellow escapee Frederick Amey were caught on Dartmoor following a manhunt involving more than 200 police officers as well as cars, motorbikes, bloodhounds and aircraft.

One newspaper dubbed him "The Champion Prison-Breaker".

The prison governor described him as a "notorious prison-breaker" who was "more than proud of his reputation as such".

Foster was indeed far from shy about his proclivities. He complained in a letter to the Home Secretary of 1933 of receiving "not what could be called a square deal" when accused of tampering with locks.

He would be the "last man to kick" if found breaking the rules, he said, although he admitted he did not want the governor "to think that I should not escape if I had the opportunity".

Foster spent such a long time in prison that he was well known to many governors and jail staff.

In 1940, the governor of Parkhurst noted in a document about his discharge from prison that he had known him for

 11 years, and once "helped to hunt him with bloodhounds".  Despite this, he added: "He has the one priceless asset of character. He is sick of prison, which is not surprising, and he has sufficient character and courage to stay out of prison if he so decides."

Foster went on to carry out a string of lucrative mail train robberies.

Another official had voiced his doubts about the release in 1940.

"The fact that Gasken is ’clearly intelligent’ and has not ’the appearance of a hopeless criminal’ makes him more dangerous," he wrote.

"This man, who is now aged 40 or 41, seems to have had only about two years of liberty since the age of 21."

Foster escaped from Dartmoor twice, and later netted #5,000 in a mail train robbery for which he was jailed at the Old Bailey in 1947. Even then he confounded the law by hiding the money where they could not be found.

"Foster is a slippery character and no doubt most of his money is well hidden," wrote one official. That trenchant comment followed an attempt by insurers Lloyds to recover cash belonging to the Commercial Bank of Scotland that was stolen in 1943.

Police were only able to establish he was owed #125 from his work as a builder and decorator of bomb-damaged buildings in Brixton and Tulse Hill, south London, and a further amount by Lambeth council.

A Met chief inspector wrote that Foster appeared to be "entirely friendless".

Reports at the time of his conviction estimated that he had stolen #20,000 in a series of robberies over five years.

The files on Foster end in 1947. Archivists do not know what happened to him after that date.