The Great Train Robbery, 1963
One of the most infamous robberies of all time, 1963’s
Great Train Robbery involved the hijack of a
London-bound train, and the theft of millions of pounds.
Late on Thursday 8 August 1963, a
Travelling Post Office train left Glasgow for Euston. On
board, staff sorted the mail and parcels prior to its arrival
The second carriage from the front of
the train was a High Value Package carriage, where registered mail
was sorted. Much of this consisted of cash. Usually the value of
these items would have been in the region of £300,000 but, because
there had been a Bank Holiday weekend in Scotland the total on the
day of the robbery was £2.3 million (about £30 million today).
The wrong signal
The train passed Leighton Buzzard at
about 3am on 8 August 1963, and moments later the driver,
Jack Mills saw a red signal ahead at a place called Sears
The signal was false. A glove had been
stuffed onto the proper signal and the red light was activated by
attaching it to a six volt battery. When Mills stopped, his
co-driver David Whitby climbed out of the diesel engine to ring the
signalman to ascertain the problem.
He discovered that the cables from the
line-side phone had been cut and as he turned to return to his
train he was attacked and thrown down the steep railway
Meanwhile, a masked man climbed into
the train cab and coshed the driver around the head rendering him
unconscious. Meanwhile, other robbers uncoupled most of the
carriages, leaving on the engine and the first two carriages
containing the high-value property.
The steep embankments at Sears crossing were unpractical for
removing the loot from the train but the gang had planned to drive
the train a mile further to Bridego Bridge. Here, Land Rovers were
waiting to transport the cash to a nearby hideout.
Soon the well-planned heist encountered a problem. One of the
gang had spent months befriending railway staff on the pretence of
being a railway enthusiast. He had been allowed rides in the cabs
of trains and had even been permitted to drive a few trains.
His part in the robbery was to drive
the train to the rendezvous point but as he climbed into the cab of
the train he realised that this huge diesel train was far more
complicated than the local trains he had previously travelled in.
One of the gang, Ronnie Biggs, had to rouse the driver to continue
In the front two carriages, frightened Post Office staff were
pushed to one end by some of the fifteen strong gang – but, in the
remaining ten carriages left at Sears Crossing, staff did not even
realise anything had happened.
A human chain
At Bridego Bridge a human chain of
robbers removed 120 sacks containing two-and-a-half-tons of money.
The robbery was well organised and swift. Before leaving, one of
the gang ordered Post Office staff to stay still for 30 minutes
before contacting the police. This gave the investigators an
important clue, they suspected that the gang had a hideout within a
30 minute drive of the scene.
This was indeed the case. An old farmhouse in Oakley
Buckinghamshire, Letherslade Farm, had been rented and during the
next few days the jubilant gang shared out the cash. They even
played Monopoly using real money.
A huge police investigation was
launched, run by the Flying Squad at Scotland Yard and senior
detectives from the Buckinghamshire Police. The officer in overall
command was Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper.
British Transport Police had a small role to play in the
investigation, mainly conducting enquiries, obtaining lists of
staff and suspects.
Back at the farm, the gang were becoming spooked by low flying
RAF aircraft who were actually on training runs and nothing to do
with the manhunt that had now been established. They split the
money which was mainly in used £1 and £5 notes (Biggs was to
receive £147,000) and left the scene immediately rather than ‘lying
low’ for several weeks as they had planned.
A nearby resident became suspicious of the comings and goings at
the farm and advised the police. PC John Wooley responded to the
report and found large amounts of abandoned food and provisions.
Sleeping bags and bedding had been left in upstairs rooms and in
the cellar, bank note wrappers, post office sacks and registered
Fingerprints on the Monopoly board
A thorough examination found several
fingerprints including some on the Monopoly board and others on a
ketchup bottle. These fingerprints and other enquiries led to the
offenders and one by one they were arrested. BTP headquarters
at Park Royal in north London was regularly updated of the progress
of the investigation and the Chief Constable was sent supplementary
crime reports giving the names and details of those involved.
They all eventually appeared in court. The mastermind of the
operation, Bruce Reynolds took five years to track down but
received ten years imprisonment. Ronnie Biggs received 30 years but
escaped from Wandsworth prison in a furniture van only 15 months
later. His flight to Brazil (via Spain and Australia) and
subsequent return to the UK in May 2001 have been well
The gang received a total of 307 years
imprisonment. Despite the huge amount of money stolen none of the
thieves were able to live happily on their ill-gotten gains. Buster
Edwards ended up running a flower stall at Waterloo station. He
received a lot of publicity in 1988 when Phil Collins played him in
the film Buster. He took his own life in the late 1990s. James
Hussey and Thomas Wisbey were convicted in 1989 for trafficking
drugs, while Charles Wilson was shot and killed in Spain.
It must be said that the Great Train Robbery was brilliantly
planned and executed. Apart from the attack on the train driver it
was non-violent and no firearms were used. The raiders managed to
steal much more money than they had planned and perhaps it was the
greed in sharing all the money out which led to them being careless
and leaving so many fingerprints behind, sealing their own
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