1963’s Great Train Robbery was the Crime of the Century

1963’s Great Train Robbery was the Crime of the Century

Patrick Lynch - February 21, 2017

The Great Train Robbery was dubbed ‘The Crime of the Century’ although, in reality, the perpetrators completely bungled the theft. There were up to 18 members of the gang that stole approximately £2.6 million from a Royal Mail Train at Bridego Railway Bridge in Buckinghamshire, England in 1963. Despite meticulous planning, every member of the group at the scene was captured, except for one unnamed man who was supposed to act as the replacement train driver. Only two informants escaped prison for their role in the robbery.

The Plan

Although there is uncertainty over who came up with the idea, most sources suggest a Salford postal worker called Patrick McKenna provided the information that piqued the interest of Buster Edwards and Gordon Goody. McKenna told the two career criminals about the large sums of money on board the Royal Mail trains and over the space of a few months, Edwards and Goody devised a plan. They were aided by Roy James, Charles Wilson, and Bruce Reynolds, with the latter, deemed the ‘mastermind’ behind the scheme.

Although the group was seasoned criminals, they had no experience in train robberies, so they sought the help of another London gang called The South Coast Raiders. This group included Richard Cordrey, a man capable of rigging track-side signals to bring a halt to the train. Other people such as Ronnie Biggs were added, and the total number of men involved in the actual robbery was 16.

1963’s Great Train Robbery was the Crime of the Century
Old and young Bruce Reynolds. The Telegraph

The Robbery

On August 7, 1963, a 12 carriage Travelling Post Office (TPO) train started its journey from Glasgow to London. It left at 6:50 p.m. and was due to arrive at Euston Station at 3:59 a.m. on Thursday, August 8. The gang’s target was the High-Value Packages (HVP) coach which was the carriage just behind the engine. It would normally carry approximately £300,000, but as the previous weekend had been a Bank Holiday weekend, the total value was over £2.5 million.

At around 3 a.m., the driver, Jack Mills, saw what proved to be a false signal at Sears Crossing just past Leighton Buzzard. Mills stopped the train and his co-driver David Whitby left the diesel engine to contact the signalman to find out the issue. Whitby saw that cables from the line-side phone were cut, but as he returned to the train, he was accosted by members of the gang and tossed down the railway embankment.

Another masked man boarded the train and knocked Mills out with a blow to the head. The thieves separated the engine and the first two carriages containing the HVP. The plan involved driving the train another mile to Bridego Bridge where the money would be loaded onto Land Rovers which would then drive to a hideout.

However, the gang made a grievous error. They used a man known as ‘Stan Agate’ (real identity unknown) to drive the train, but upon entering, he realized the diesel engine train was far more complicated than the smaller ones he was used to driving. The panicked gang roused Mills to continue the journey. While staff in the two front carriages were harassed by the thieves, the rest of the employees in the remaining 10 carriages had no idea there was a robbery.

1963’s Great Train Robbery was the Crime of the Century
7 members of the gang pictured in 1979. Daily Mail

The Getaway

Upon reaching Bridego Bridge, the gang unloaded 120 sacks by creating a human chain and ordered a member of the Post Office staff not to move for half an hour. They drove along country roads and listened to police broadcasts on the radio before reaching their hideout at a rundown location called Leatherslade Farm. Then they divided the money into 16 equal shares after discounting some cash for other gang associates.

The order given to the Post Office staff member was a crucial mistake as the police quickly ascertained that the gang would be no more than 30 miles from the scene of the crime (the farm was 27 miles away). When the group learned this news, they moved their escape plan forward to Friday from Sunday. They needed new cars as their getaway vehicles were seen by the Post Office staff, so a couple of gang members traveled to London to find new vehicles.

A resident contacted the police after viewing the comings and goings at the farm as ‘suspicious.’ Although the robbers attempted to wipe their fingerprints clean at the scene, they hired someone called ‘Mark’ to clean the farm or burn it down to destroy the evidence. He failed to comply so when the police arrived, they easily found traces of the gang’s identity. For example, they found fingerprints on a Monopoly board as the robbers played the game using real money.

Despite the breakthrough, the investigation didn’t start well. However, things changed when a Train Robbery Squad was formed and led by the renowned ‘One Day’ Tommy Butler. After receiving the names of the gang from informants, the Squad started to pick up the criminals one by one. Roger Cordrey was the first to be apprehended just six days after the theft. Eight other members were captured by the end of 1963. Edwards surrendered to the police in 1966 after living in Mexico, while Butler caught Reynolds and Wilson in 1968.

1963’s Great Train Robbery was the Crime of the Century
Ronnie Biggs in Brazil in 1992. ABC.net.au

Trials & Escapes

The majority of the gang members were tried in 1964 received extremely harsh prison sentences. Seven men were sentenced to 30 years in jail, two others received 25-year terms while Cordrey suffered a 20-year sentence and William Boal got 24 years in prison. One of the men, John Daly, was almost certainly involved in the crime but the court cleared him of wrongdoing. Some of the men escaped from prison, but only Biggs remained at large for an extended period. He escaped from jail in 1965, returned to Britain in 2001 and surrendered to the police. Biggs served the remainder of his sentence and was released in 2009.

At the time of writing, Bob Welch is the only known robber who is still alive. Investigators believe several others took part in the Great Train Robbery with names such as Bill Jennings, Alf Thomas, and Danny Pembroke mentioned. Although the police recovered less than £400,000, none of the gang fared well after the robbery. Wilson was murdered in 1990, James, Hussey, and Wisbey spent more time in prison, while Edwards committed suicide in 1994.

Keep Reading:

Mirror UK – The Great Train Robbery: How it happened?

The Guardian – Great Train Robber who got away will be named

The Guardian – Has the Great Train Robbery’s leader finally been unmasked?

Mirror UK – New bid to clear name of Great Train Robber Bill Boal 43 years after he died in prison protesting his innocence

Huff Post – The Great Train Robbery: What happened to the robbers?

The Sun – Second-last Great Train Robber Tommy Wisbey dead at 86, leaving Bobby Welch as the gang’s sole survivor