How the Great Train Robbery Worked

The scene of the Great Train Robbery: the largest train heist in Britain's history.
The scene of the Great Train Robbery: the largest train heist in Britain's history.
Evening Standard/Getty Images

There was nothing remarkable about the train traveling from Glasgow. The 12 cars powered by a single diesel locomotive made up a mobile post office known as the Up Special. It was carrying postal staff who sorted mail and packages en route to London as it had done every night without incident for 125 years. It was completely unremarkable -- that is, until the night of Aug. 8, 1963.

That night, the Up Special was carrying a large amount of cash in its second car, where registered mail was sorted. The amount was larger than usual because it had been a bank holiday weekend in Scotland.

At just past 3 a.m. near the Bridego Railway Bridge in Buckinghamshire, England, a gang of thieves pulled off a daring heist. They stole 120 sacks of bank notes worth £2.6 million (about $7 million at the time, or more than $50 million today) from the second car -- a heist known today as the Great Train Robbery.

Few crimes or criminals captivate our imagination like the stories of the legendary outlaws of the American West, but the Great Train Robbery was one that did. It was the biggest raid on a train in British history, and it was the largest train heist since an 1855 attack on a train carrying gold bullion between London and Paris. The story even catapulted one man into folk hero history.

Cops, robbers, prison escapes and plastic surgery -- it could be a tale lifted from a Hollywood movie. So who were the men who pulled off the Great Train Robbery? Find out next.

The Crime

A re-enactment of the signal switch that allowed the robbers to board the Up Special.
A re-enactment of the signal switch that allowed the robbers to board the Up Special.
Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

It took fifteen men to pull off the Great Train Robbery of 1963, along with a few accomplices. The cast of criminals included Bruce Reynolds, Douglas Gordon "Goody,"Ronald "Buster" Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Ronnie Biggs, Roy James, Roger Cordrey, Tom Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch, Brian Field, Leonard Field, Jimmy White, William Boal and John Daly.

Their accomplices were known as Mr. One, Mr. Two and Mr. Three; "Peter," brought to drive the train; and John Wheater, who secured the safe house.

Although no one is certain who first had the idea to rob the mail train, Bruce Reynolds, a burglar and antique dealer in London, is known as the mastermind. After ending a stint in prison in 1962, Reynolds began to assemble his crew. He started with his own men, the South West gang, and chose gang member Gordon "Goody," a London hairdresser and part-time thief, to be his No. 2.

As the details were worked out, it became clear that the South West gang wouldn't be big enough to pull off such a large-scale robbery. But as both Reynolds and Goody were good friends with former boxer-turned-club owner "Buster" Edwards, leader of the South East gang, it was decided the two gangs would work together.

Through his contacts, Reynolds obtained the train's details: its schedule, the amount of cash it would be carrying and the car it would be in, and the number of workers onboard. After learning the payload would be greater after a bank holiday -- the next being on Aug. 5, 1963 -- Reynolds tapped into an insider, known later in the media as the "Ulsterman," to find out which day the train would be carrying cash to London. The date was set.

Reynolds had his men, information about the train and a date, but he needed to figure out one last detail: how to stop the train.

It was Roger Cordrey, an associate of "Buster" Edwards, who came up with that answer. Just as we encounter stoplights when we drive cars, trains also rely on signals to know when to proceed and when to stop -- green means go, amber means slow down and red means stop. Cordrey proposed he "fix" the signals. Using black paper and leather gloves, he would cover the green signals at their chosen spot. And using batteries and wire, he would turn on a red signal.

It was time. The men lay low at Leatherslade Farm, their safe house, drinking beer and playing Monopoly while they waited for the date the train was scheduled to pass by.

Police guard Leatherslade Farm at Oakley in Buckinghamshire. The farm was used as a safe house by the Great Train Robbers. Police guard Leatherslade Farm at Oakley in Buckinghamshire. The farm was used as a safe house by the Great Train Robbers.
Police guard Leatherslade Farm at Oakley in Buckinghamshire. The farm was used as a safe house by the Great Train Robbers.
Keystone/Getty Images

Early on the morning of Aug. 8, the men struck. They cut the phone lines at the emergency call box near the tracks, and as they waited for the train to appear, a confident Reynolds lit up a Montecristo No. 2 cigar. The train approached just after 3 a.m. and stopped at the red signal Cordrey had fixed at Sears Crossing. The train's driver, Jack Mills, was hit on the head while trying to discern what was happening. His was the worst injury of the heist.

Roy James and his team uncoupled the engine and first two cars from the train. When "Peter," the gang's designated driver, was unable to move the train, he was tossed off and the injured Mills was forced to drive the train one and one half miles (2.4 km) to the designated unloading spot: Bridego Bridge. There, they removed 120 sacks containing two and one half tons of money, brought it back to their safe house and divvied it up.

It took only 15 minutes for the men to execute the operation. Would it take a game of Monopoly to undo them?

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The Great Train Robbery Investigation

Scotland Yard Detective Jack Slipper played a game of cat-and-mouse with Ronnie Biggs for decades.
Scotland Yard Detective Jack Slipper played a game of cat-and-mouse with Ronnie Biggs for decades.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Just two days after the robbery, the Flying Squad was created from the best detectives of Scotland Yard and was charged with finding the criminals behind the Great Train Robbery. Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler, known around Scotland Yard for his professionalism and thoroughness, was assigned to be the squad's chief. Among the team of detectives was Jack Slipper, a tall man with a pencil moustache who would become a household name for his work on the case and his cat-and-mouse chases with Ronnie Biggs.

The Flying Squad's first break in the case came eight days after its investigation began. A suspicious vehicle was reported at an old farmhouse about 30 miles (48.28 km) from the scene of the crime. The old farmhouse -- Leatherslade Farm -- was the same one that the men used as their safe house. Food, sleeping bags and bedding were found in the house, along with bank note wrappers and post office sacks. Fingerprints were found on a bottle of ketchup and on the Monopoly game the men had played with some of the £1, £5 and £10 notes they had stolen.

Within a day of the discovery of the fingerprints, Roger Cordrey was arrested. In a week, Charlie Wilson was arrested in London and police were on to Bruce Reynolds, Jimmy White, Roy James and Buster Edwards. Biggs' fingerprint was found on a bottle of ketchup in the safe house and he was arrested on Sept. 4, 1963.

Ronnie Biggs, Charlie Wilson, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey and Bob Welch were all sent to Bedford prison to await trial. While in prison, they learned that Goody had been questioned but let go for insufficient evidence. However, several weeks later, he, too, was arrested, charged and sent to Bedford.

Three of the suspects arrested in connection with the Great Train Robbery are photographed leaving Linslade court with blankets over their heads. Three of the suspects arrested in connection with the Great Train Robbery are photographed leaving Linslade court with blankets over their heads.
Three of the suspects arrested in connection with the Great Train Robbery are photographed leaving Linslade court with blankets over their heads.
Central Press/Getty Images

Two months after arriving at Bedford, Biggs was planning his escape but would have to wait -- the group was transferred to Aylesbury prison and security was tight. During their time at Aylesbury, they learned evidence against them was strong and Biggs again began to plot escape. But he was foiled when one of his friends got cold feet.

By December of that year, John Wheater, Brian Fields, John Daly and Roy James were arrested -- James in a spectacular chase across neighborhood rooftops before his capture. Bruce Reynolds evaded arrest until 1969.

Twelve of the 15 robbers were eventually caught and brought to trial. But how were they sentenced, and did any escape? Find out in the next section.

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The Great Train Robbery Trial and Aftermath

Train driver Jack Mills rests at home after the robbery.
Train driver Jack Mills rests at home after the robbery.
Keystone/Getty Images

Because the gang had planned to escape the Aylesbury prison, they were watched closely until their trial began. On Jan. 20, 1964, they appeared before Justice Edmund Davies at Buckinghamshire Assizes. Ronnie Biggs, Tommy Wisbey, Charlie Wilson, Roy James, Bob Welch, Gordon Goody, Leonard Field, Brian Field, William Boal, and John Wheater all plead not guilty. Roger Cordrey was the only man to plead guilty and gave back his share of the money -- £80,000.

Two weeks into the trial, evidence surfaced that showed Biggs had a criminal record. Fearing this could sway the jury, the judge halted the trial and ordered Biggs to stand trial at a later date.

The trial went on for months and included testimony from bank officials and the train driver, Jack Mills, who took the stand and told the story of the robbery and the injury so severe he wasn't able to continue working. John Daly, who was implicated because his fingerprints were found on the Monopoly game, was acquitted during the defense proceedings in March 1964. His lawyer petitioned that the fingerprints could have been on the game prior to it being at the farm.

On March 25, 1964, the jury found all of the accused guilty of conspiracy to rob, and Tom Wisbey, Roy James, Charlie Wilson, Bob Welch, Jim Hussey and Gordon Goody were found guilty of robbery with violence.

Sentencing wouldn't be set down until Biggs' retrial, however, which was scheduled for April 8, 1964. His retrial only took seven days, and the jury swiftly found him guilty. On April 16, 1964, sentences were handed out by Justice Davies, who was heavy-handed due to the violence against Jack Mills. The men received 30 years apiece with few exceptions. John Wheater, who arranged the safe house, received three years; Roger Cordrey received 20 years; William Boal received 24 and Brian and Leonard Field each received 25. After appeals, Cordrey and Boal's sentences were reduced to 14 years each, and Brian and Leonard Field each had their sentences reduced to five years.

Buster Edwards, Bruce Reynolds and Jimmy White were all found and jailed by 1969. Edwards fled to Mexico but turned himself in three years after the crime. After five years on the run, the mastermind Reynolds was captured and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The robbers were placed in prisons across the country, and in August 1964, Charlie Wilson, incarcerated in Winson Green maximum-security prison, was the first of the gang to escape. He was recaptured in 1968.

Biggs was sent to Wandsworth prison -- Britain's version of Alcatraz. Only 15 months after arriving at Wandsworth, Biggs escaped in a furniture van and became Britain's most notorious fugitive. He underwent plastic surgery to disguise his face and fled to Australia and eventually Brazil, where, in 1970, he settled in as "Michael Haynes."

Biggs evaded return to the U.K. for more than three decades amidst attempts to extradite him: Once in 1974 when Slipper showed up at his door, and again in 1981 with a kidnapping attempt by British ex-military.

In 2001, an ailing Biggs, the man who had almost gotten away with it, voluntarily returned to the U.K. to serve the remaining 28 years of his sentence in a Norwich jail for elderly inmates. He outlives his rival, Jack Slipper, who passed away in 2005.

The renowned Monopoly game is on display at the Thames Valley Police Museum.

To learn more about heists, safe houses and infamous criminals, steal though the links on the next page.

How the Great Train Robbery Worked: Author’s Note

Telling the tale of the great train robbery was a great assignment. What I knew going into it was that the great train robbery is the largest train heist in Britain's history, and that one of the robbers, Ronnie Biggs, underwent reconstructive surgery and adopted a new name in an effort to disguise himself from the law. What I learned researching this piece was that this gang of 15 had planned everything, down to the train, its route, the date of their intended crime, what their payload would be and how they'd stop the train, but it was a set of fingerprints found on a bottle of ketchup and a game of Monopoly that would ultimately be their downfall.

Sources

  • "August 8, 1963: Train robbers make off with millions." BBC On This Day. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/8/newsid_2714000/2714055.stm
  • "August 12, 1963: Great Train Robber escapes from Jail." BBC On This Day. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/12/newsid_2996000/2996402.stm
  • Bellamy, Patrick. "The Big One: Ronald Biggs and the Great Train Robbery." TruTV Crime Library. http://www.crimelibrary.com/gangsters_outlaws/cops_others/biggs/index.html
  • Clarke, James. "Echoes of the Great Train Robbery." BBC News. 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/4761952.stm
  • Davies, Hugh. "Death of Slipper, the man who tracked down Ronnie Biggs." Telegraph. 2005. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/08/25/nslip25.xml
  • Dennis, Joe. "Britain's biggest robberies." Guardian. 2002. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/feb/18/dome.ukcrime
  • "History - The Great Train Robbery." British Transport Police. http://www.btp.police.uk/History%20Society/Publications/History%20Society/Crime%20on%20line/
  • The%20Great%20Train%20Robbery.htm
  • "Jack Slipper - Obituary." Times Newspapers. 2005. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article558674.ece
  • Steyn, Mark. "An Old-School Copper." Atlantic Monthly. November 2005. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200511/jack-slipper
  • "Talk marks Great Train Robbery." BBC News. 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/beds/bucks/herts/3133687.stm
  • Thames Valley Police Museum. http://www.thamesvalley.police.uk/news_info/info/museum/great-train-rob2.htm
  • "The Detective Jack Slipper, 81, of Great Train Robbery Fame, Dies." The Associated Press. 2005.http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/25/international/europe/25slipper.html
  • "The Great Train Robbery." Crime & Investigation Network. A&E Television Networks. http://www.crimeandinvestigation.co.uk/famous_crime/36/the_crime/1/The_Great_Train_Robbery.htm
  • "Train Robber's Fresh Bid For Freedom." Sky News. 2007. http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30100-1278553,00.html
  • Wolf, Buck. " Monopoly Monopolizes the World, From Baltic Ave. to Boardwalk." ABC News. January 2005. http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/WolfFiles/story?id=421078

Great Train Robbery: Cheat Sheet

Stuff You Need to Know:

  • The robbery of the Up Special, on the night of Aug. 8, 1963, is the largest train heist in Britain's history. The Up Special was a 12-car, single diesel locomotive mobile post office where postal employees sorted mail and packages en route from Glasgow, Scotland to London, England.
  • It took 15 men to pull off the train heist. The list of criminals included Bruce Reynolds, Douglas Gordon "Goody," Ronald "Buster" Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Ronnie Biggs, Roy James, Roger Cordrey, Tom Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch, Brian Field, Leonard Field, Jimmy White, William Boal and John Daly.
  • In just 15 minutes, the gang stole 120 sacks of bank notes worth £2.6 million (about $7 million at the time, or more than $50 million today) from the second train car.
  • A team of detectives called the Flying Squad was dispatched from Scotland Yard to find the criminals. It took more than a week for the detective team to catch their first break, fingerprints found on a bottle of ketchup and a game of monopoly at the robbers' safe house, but within 24 hours of the find they'd made their first arrest in the case.

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