The Great Gold Robbery, 1855

In 1855, four men committed one of the most audacious crimes of the century, stealing £12,000 (close to a £1million today) from a London Bridge train bound for Paris.

Planning the robbery

In the late 1840s Agar met Pierce, then employed as a ticket printer, and they talked about the possibility of stealing the gold passing regularly between London and Paris.

Agar thought the security was too good and did not pursue the matter. It was only some years later, when he met Pierce by chance, was the gold mentioned again.

Agar thought it would be impossible unless impressions of the safe keys could be obtained. He also wanted to know how many other people would have to be in the plan. Pierce mentioned two acquaintances of his, Burgess, the train guard, and Tester, the Margate stationmaster. After thinking about is carefully, Agar agreed to attempt to steal the gold.

In May 1854, Agar and Pierce went to Folkestone for a fortnight and watched the working of the trains. Pierce returned to London, but Agar stayed on and with Tester’s help, he befriended some railway staff. He concentrated his attentions on one man, who handled the keys of the travelling safes. His presence aroused the suspicions of Inspector GD Hazell and other officers of the South Eastern Railway Police, and Agar, concerned he had attracted unwanted attention, decided to leave Folkestone for a while.
 
By this time Burgess had been introduced into the circle, and the four met regularly to discuss plans. While the conspirators were still discussing the details of their plan, fate played into their hands. Tester was promoted and transferred to London to work in the office that dealt with security of valuable goods and also the rota of guards’ duties.

Safe keys

About this time, one of the keys kept on the channel boat was lost and Tester had to arrange a replacement. He was able to smuggle it to Agar for a matter of minutes and a wax impression was made.

The next difficulty was to obtain an impression of the second safe key. The group came up with a cunning plan. Arrangements were made for a box of bullion value £200 to be sent to Agar at Folkestone addressed to ‘CE ARCHER, c/o Mr LEDGER or Mr CHAPMAN’, who were two clerks at Folkestone.
 
The box travelled in October 1854, and on arrival Agar called for the box and saw Chapman open the safe with a key he had taken from a cupboard in the office. At the end of October, Pierce and Agar returned to Folkestone and when the boat train came in, they watched until the two clerks were called from the office, and the pair had their opportunity to make an impression of the key in the brief absence of the clerks – a piece of perfect timing.

Agar next went to Boulogne and spent a week watching the handling of traffic from boat to rail. He travelled many times on the trains worked by Burgess to test the keys on the safes. He and Pierce then purchased two hundredweights of lead shot, the same weight as the £12,000 worth of gold they were planning to steal.

Some of the shot was packed in small parcels and then placed in specially-made leather courier bags, and the rest was carried in carpet bags, commonly used by travellers. Night after night Agar and Pierce, the latter heavily disguised with a wig and whiskers, carried the bags to London Bridge Station to wait for the signal from Burgess to suggest the time was right to rob the train.

Stealing the gold 

On the night of 15 May 1855, both Burgess and Tester tipped them off. Agar and Pierce booked two first class tickets to Dover and also took with them the return halves of tickets to Ostend.

They handed the carpet bags to a porter to place in the guard’s van. Pierce took a seat in a compartment and Agar slipped unobserved into Burgess’ van. He had with him a mallet, chisel and other tools for opening the boxes and also carried wax and tapers for resealing them.

Soon after the train left London, he opened the first safe with the false keys and knocked the iron clamps off one of the boxes. He took out the gold bars, substituted the parcel of lead shot, replaced the iron fastenings and nails and resealed the boxes. By the time the train reached Redhill, Agar had completed the first box. Tester was waiting there and Burgess handed him one bar of gold, with which he returned to London on the next train.
 
Pierce joined Agar in the van to help with the other boxes. They opened them successfully, but found they had not brought sufficient lead shot and this accounted for the discrepancy in the weight at Boulogne. Before they left the van the boxes were all carefully readjusted, the van was swept up and everything was left apparently normal.
 
At Folkestone, the safes were taken from the train in the usual way and Pierce and Agar travelled to Dover, where they collected the carpet bags from Burgess’ van.

Agar had an anxious moment at Dover because a persistent porter insisted on carrying the bags, but fortunately for Agar, did not suspect their unusual weight. Both men returned to London, to Agar’s house at Cambridge Villas, Shepherd’s Bush. A furnace was built and day after day Agar and Pierce melted the gold down. Some of the gold was sold and the proceeds divided between the three of them. 

Arrests 

Shortly afterwards Agar was arrested on the separate charge of forgery. After his arrest, Pierce buried some of the gold in the pantry under the front steps of his house at Kilburn Villa. After Agar told his story, Rees, the solicitor, went to this house accompanied by police officers and found bonds to the amount of £2,000 and other valuable securities. At Agar’s house in Shepherd’s Bush traces were found of the gold and corroboration of other evidence provided by Agar.
 
Many witnesses were traced to corroborate Agar’s statement detailing the Great Gold Robbery. A booking clerk at Folkestone recognised Agar, and Inspector Hazell recalled that he had seen him there on several occasions. The porter who carried Agar’s bags was traced. A guard remembered seeing Tester carrying a black leather bag at Redhill on the night of the robbery, the bag having been described in detail by Agar. The same guard also remembered having seen Pierce and Agar together at Folkestone some time before the robbery. There was also evidence that Tester had deliberately altered the guards’ duty roster so that Burgess was in charge of the mail train on the night of 15 May.
 
The men were convicted, the jury being absent only ten minutes. Burgess and Tester were sentenced to transportation for fourteen years, but Pierce, convicted of simple larceny, only received two years with “the first, 12th and 24th month to be spent in solitary confinement”.
 
It was a remarkable case and the crime had all the hallmarks of great robberies – the audacity, the link with the man with inside information, the reconnaissance, the careful planning and the patience.

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