Meeting : Tuesday 20th March 2018
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY
Superintendent Terry Johnson (rtd)
Terry suggested that most people would assume the idea for such a heist would be hatched in the dark recesses of a shady back street pub or the smoky gloom of a secret hideaway. In fact, he revealed, it was in the office of solicitor John Wheater!
Unknown to Wheater his clerk, Brian Field, set up a meeting between two members of the criminal world, Gordon Goody and Buster Edwards and postal worker Patrick McKenna from Salford who had detailed information about the amounts of cash carried on the railway in the Royal Mail carriages. The identity of McKenna was initially kept secret and he was known only as ‘The Ulsterman”.
As the plan developed over the passing months more members of the criminal fraternity joined in bringing the total number to seventeen, all with their own particular skills. It was decided it would be best to carry out the robbery after the Bank Holiday weekend, when there would be an extra large amount of cash to be sent to London. Usually the train carried around £300,000 but after the holiday it was expected to be over £2.5 million – in fact the gang collected £2.6 million, equivalent to over £50 million today!
After researching the route it was decided the best place to stop the train would be in Buckinghamshire. One of the gang, Roger Cordrey, had knowledge of the signal system and made arrangements for ensuring that the relevant signals would be set to red, using a pair of gloves and wiring up an ordinary electric battery. At the same time Ronnie Biggs was ‘going straight’ as a builder but had cash flow problems. He was easily persuaded by the offer of £40,000 to join the gang and was tasked with finding someone who could drive the engine from the stop position at Sears Crossing to Bridego Bridge, a further half a mile down the track where the money bags would be unloaded into waiting transport.
At 18:50 on Wednesday 7 August 1963, the travelling post office train set off from Glasgow Central station en route to Euston Station in London. It was scheduled to arrive at Euston at 03:59 the following morning. The train consisted of 12 carriages and carried 72 Post Office staff who sorted mail during the journey. Of all the notes in the bags of money on board only the serial numbers of 1000 of them had been recorded; of the remainder there was no way to trace them. There were no security officers or radios on board.
As the train approached Sears Crossing the signals were set to stop. The driver, Jack Mills, stopped the train but was puzzled because he could see green signals further down the line so sent his fireman to the nearby phone to seek advice. Immediately the driving cab was invaded by the robbers and Jack Mills was struck by a cosh and injured.
The ex-train driver working for the gang was then told to drive the engine to the unloading site at Bridego Bridge, only to discover he had no idea how to drive that particular locomotive, having experience only of shunting engines! So Jack Mills was revived and made to do the job after the rear ten carriages had been disconnected and left behind.
At the pick up point fifteen members of the gang unloaded 120 sacks [8 sacks were left on the train] weighing an estimated two and a half tons, into the waiting transport and moved them 27 miles to Leatherslade Farm, which had been previously purchased and fitted out for a two week period of lying low. This plan, however, was abandoned after listening in to police broadcasts, which revealed that a close search was taking place within a thirty mile radius which would lead to an early discovery. A reward of £10,000 was offered (equivalent in today’s money to £200,000!).
So the gang, including Ronnie Biggs, split the money into shares each receiving £150,000 (over £2.5 million today) and went their own ways. They had made arrangements for the farm to be cleaned of finger prints and other evidence and then burned down. Unfortunately for the gang the team they had hired decided at the time that there was much too great a danger of being arrested, so they kept the money and left the farm intact, from which the police subsequently were able to gather important incriminating evidence.
To solve the crime the case was referred from the Buckingham police force to the Metropolitan Flying Squad, lead by the tireless Detective Chief Superintendents Tommy Butler and later Jack Slipper both of whom lived and breathed for their jobs. Although within six months of the robbery ten of the robbers had been locked up awaiting trial and three others were wanted criminals on the run, very little of the money had actually been recovered. In fact only £400,000 was ever recovered – a lot of it is assumed to have gone to predatory criminals, greedy associates – and lawyers!
Terry concluded his talk with a summary of the outcomes to the robbers as follows:-
Bruce Reynolds: The mastermind behind the robbery initially fled to Mexico and was joined by his wife and son, before moving to Canada. When the cash ran out, he returned to England and was captured in Torquay in 1968 and sentenced to 25 years in jail. His son said he died in his sleep on February 28 2013.
Ronnie Biggs only played a minor role in the robbery, but his life on the run after escaping prison made him the most well known. He fled over the walls of London's Wandsworth prison in April 1965, 15 months into a 30-year sentence. He had plastic surgery and lived as a fugitive in Australia and Brazil, only returning to the UK 36 years later when his health deteriorated. He was sent back to prison in 2001 and was finally freed in 2009.
Buster Edwards fled to Mexico after the heist but gave himself up in 1966.
The ex-boxer and club owner was jailed for nine years. After he was released, he turned his life around with a flower stall outside Waterloo Station in London. He was found hanged in a garage in 1994 and his funeral cortege was accompanied by two wreaths in the shape of trains.
Charlie Wilson was the gang's treasurer, who gave each of the robbers their cut of the cash, was captured quickly. He refused to say anything during his trial at Aylesbury Crown Court in 1964 and was sentenced to 30 years behind bars but escaped after four months. He was recaptured in Canada after four years on the run and served another ten years in jail.
He was shot dead by a hitman in Marbella, Spain, in 1990.
Roy James was the getaway driver who dreamed of investing his share of the haul in new car technology. He was caught after a rooftop chase across London. Police had tracked him down from a tell-tale fingerprint at the gang's farm hideout. He died at the age of 62.
Bill Boal was an engineer who was arrested in possession of £141,000. Gang leader Reynolds denied knowing Boal who he described as 'an innocent man' who wasn't involved. He was jailed for 24 years, which was reduced to 14. He died in 1970.
Brian Field the crooked solicitor, the gang used when they bought the farm hideout after the heist, was sentenced to 25 years, which was later reduced to five years on appeal. He died in 1964.
Tommy Wisbey was the self-confessed 'heavy' who the gang used to frighten the train staff. He was sentenced to 30 years and released in 1976.
Bobby Welch was sentenced to 30 years behind bars and released in 1976. The former nightclub owner then became a car dealer and gambler in London.
Gordon Goody was a hairdresser who was jailed for 30 years and released in 1975. He moved to Spain to run a bar. He was told that Patrick McKenna, who had started the whole thing, had given his share of the money to the Catholic Church
James Hussey a former decorator was sentenced to 30 years and released in 1975. He was known as 'Big Jim' and later worked on a market stall and opened a restaurant in Soho, London. He died from cancer in November 2012 at the age of 79.
Jimmy White, a former Paratrooper, was on the run for three years after the heist. He was caught in Kent and jailed for 18 years and has now died.
Roger Cordrey, a florist, was arrested in Bournemouth after renting a lock-up from a policeman's widow. He spent 14 years in jail and on release went back to the flower business.
John Wheater: A solicitor was sentenced to three years for conspiring to pervert the course of justice. He lived in Surrey after he was released in 1966.
Leonard Field was sentenced to 25 years which was later reduced to five. The former merchant seaman lived in North London after his released in 1967.
To finish his talk Terry quoted the leader of the gang, Bruce Reynolds
‘It was a curse on us all”.
At question time Pam Frazer asked whether it was current police practice to give money to informants. Terry replied that this was still done but under close supervision from a dedicated fund. To John Demont he replied that when money was in transit there was now very good security and money was in fact flown down from the North. To June Demont he replied that while the prison term for aggravated robbery was 30 years most were now released on parole after 12 years. Local colour and interest was provided by David Field as his wife, working as a PPS at Putney Police Station had seen many of the train robbers brought in.
David Richardson warmly thanked Terry for having given a well-researched, well- presented and interesting talk.
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