IN August 1963 the splash headline in my father’s copy of the Daily Express shouted: ‘It could be £2million!’ – and, like many others, I looked agog at the figure.
Two million pounds? It was an unimaginable sum. Back then, when it came to wished-for wealth, few ordinary folk thought beyond the record £152,319 that Yorkshire miner Keith Nicholson had won on Littlewood’s football pools in 1961, after which his wife Vivian famously vowed to ‘spend, spend, spend’.
Two million pounds would be like winning that pools jackpot over and over again every week. In 1963 you could buy a new car for £500 and a nice house for around £3,000, so what would £2million buy you? A working man’s pay averaged £16 a week, so £2million was the equivalent of some 2,400 years’ wages. This was truly riches beyond the dreams of avarice. The mind boggled.
But the Express story wasn’t about someone’s lucky windfall. The £2million referred to an estimate of the astonishing haul a gang of crooks got away with 60 years ago today in the heist that immediately became known as the Great Train Robbery. In fact, even more mind-bogglingly, it turned out later that they had made off with £2.6million.
The robbery was a story of precision planning and ruthless execution. At 3.03am on Thursday, August 8, 1963, the 16-strong band of London gangsters used a fake red stop signal to halt the 12-carriage Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail train on a rural embankment at Sears Crossing, near Ledburn, Buckinghamshire.
As well as carrying 72 Post Office staff who were sorting letters, the first two carriages of the train were conveying 128 bulging sacks of old banknotes to the Royal Mint for disposal by burning. After stopping the train, the robbers stormed aboard, coshing 57-year-old engine driver Jack Mills on the head with an iron bar as he tried to resist, and manhandling his 25-year-old co-driver David Whitby.
The locomotive and the two targeted carriages were detached from the rest of the train, and a train driver who had been recruited by the gang attempted to move them forward – but found he had no idea how to operate the modern diesel-electric unit.
So the robbers forced the bloodied, semi-conscious Jack Mills to shunt the detached section half a mile along the track to Bridego Bridge, where the line crossed a minor road. They then started hauling out the money sacks and, using a human chain, loaded 120 of them into cars before disappearing into the night.
When news of the robbery broke, I remember that rather than outrage or condemnation, the first reaction of most people to the slick, stunning raid was awe. No one had ever heard anything like it.
Among many of us youngsters – I was 12 – and some adults there was even a sneaking admiration. After all, we British do love a bit of dash, daring and derring-do. And from Dick Turpin to Blackbeard, from Ned Kelly to the Krays, we tend to glamorise the nefarious deeds of our favourite bad guys.
This was certainly the case with the Great Train Robbers, who seemed to be the crème de la crime. The sacks were crammed with ten-shilling notes, pound notes and fivers, all but a few untraceable. This was long before money morphed into plastic cards – cash was king and a wodge of readies would attract little attention when it came to buying anything. Surely this was the perfect crime?
The newspapers, becalmed by the summer ‘silly season’ – when there is little of substance to report – seized on the story like ravenous sharks. At first, some treated the robbery with levity and their cartoonists had a field day. One showed a passenger at a station asking a railway employee: ‘What time does the next mail train full of fivers come through?’ Another showed the robbers holed up, surrounded by huge stacks of banknotes, with one saying: ‘A life of crime – sometimes I ask myself is it all worth it?’
However, if the actual robbery was a smooth operation, the attempt at getting away with it was a shambles. At first, the gang hid out 23 miles from the scene of the crime at isolated Leatherslade Farm, near Oakley, Buckinghamshire, which they had bought months earlier. There, they divided the cash before going their separate ways. But an accomplice designated to clean up the farmhouse and burn it down failed to do so and police found fingerprints on a ketchup bottle, beer bottles and several Monopoly game pieces. The robbers had played with wads of stolen banknotes instead of Monopoly money.
Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad was called in to help local detectives. And after a tip-off from an informant and with the results of the fingerprint evidence, the arrests began – the first as early as August 14.
In January 1964, 11 of the gang were put on trial at Aylesbury Assizes and a lot of the glamour was stripped away as the story unfolded. On April 15, telling the robbers that they had committed ‘a crime of sordid violence inspired by vast greed’ the judge handed out exemplary sentences. Seven were given 30 years in jail – the second-longest prison term in modern British legal history.
But there was shock and disbelief in many quarters at the severity of the punishment. I can clearly remember the talk round our way about how the sentences were over the top. Okay, went the argument, the robbers were real baddies and deserved a long spell inside. But 30 years? Why, some killers got less. To many, the sentences somehow went against the British idea of fair play. Thus the gangsters could regard and portray themselves as martyrs, sacrificed to a vindictive justice system.
From then on and until recent times, the Great Train Robbery has been in and out of the headlines. In August 1964, one of the gang, Charlie Wilson, escaped from Winson Green Prison in Birmingham. Then in July 1965, Ronnie Biggs – who would become probably the best-known of the robbers – was broken out of Wandsworth Prison to begin a well-chronicled life on the run.
Only around £400,000 of the stolen £2.6million was ever recovered. However, some of the gang spent much of their stash on trying to stay ahead of the law, or were cheated out of it by predatory accomplices and hangers-on. Only a few benefited to any real extent.
As the years passed, the robbery became embedded in British criminal folklore. And as each gangster was eventually released – none actually served 30 years – they were treated more as legends than larcenists. Dozens of books were written about the train heist (some by the robbers themselves) and documentaries made. Then in 1988, musician Phil Collins sympathetically played gang member Ronald ‘Buster’ Edwards in the hit film Buster.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the current generation of youngsters – particularly those who watch Guy Ritchie films – see the train robbers as just lovable rogues who staged a big blag for a lark, but were unlucky to end up being nailed bang to rights by the filthy cozzers.
Even though all the major players are dead, their status in the pantheon of villainy remains a nice little earner. You can bid today on eBay for Ronnie Biggs’s autograph, and one company is offering punters ‘The Great Train Robbery Experience’ – a £33-a-head talk by an ex-Scotland Yard detective in the London pub where the heist was allegedly planned.
As the gangsters achieved celebrity status, the heroes of the Royal Mail train were almost forgotten. Jack Mills never fully recovered from his head injury and died from leukaemia in February 1970. His co-driver, David Whitby, was also deeply affected by his ordeal. He died of a heart attack in January 1972 at the age of 34.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for relatives of the two railmen to see their loved ones suffering while their attackers were effectively lauded. However, in December 2014 a small measure of redemption came when a plaque honouring Mills and Whitby for their ‘extreme bravery’ during the train robbery was unveiled at Crewe Station. At the same time, a locomotive was named in honour of Jack Mills.