8 August 1963: Great Britain’s “Great Train Robbery” Nets Gang Members £2.6 million
by Florian Sohnke
(Follow Florian on Twitter @floriansohnke.)
54 years after it was committed, Great Britain’s 1963 “Great Train Robbery” remains one of the British Isles’ most notorious crimes. Meticulously planned by a 15-man-strong gang with numerous additional accomplices, on August 8, 1963, Bruce Richard Reynolds and a cabal of veteran thieves, most of who were affiliated with London’s South West Gang, nearly pulled off a train heist which evoked folklore of the American frontier.
Departing Glasgow Central Station just before 7 p.m. on August 7 and due to arrive at London’s Euston Station at approximately 4 a.m. on August 8, the nine-hour journey was intended to be without interruption. Unlike most red-eye passenger trains speeding to London, the expressed purpose of this rail voyage was the movement of mail. Known as a Travelling Post Office (TPO), this 12-carriage train pulled a special car, a High Value Packages (HVP) coach, and was known to move large amounts of untraceable cash. Routinely carrying in excess of £300,000, a bank holiday one week prior delayed the weekly transfer of British notes and required two weeks of cash for the August 7 trek to London. Reynolds and his pals would hit on a treasure of over £2.6 million in their score.
After cutting telephone lines and tampering with a rail signal on the West Coast Rail Line 35 miles outside London to bring the engine to a halt, the gang quickly overpowered rail workers and postal employees, broke into the HVP carriage, unloaded 120 of the 128 bags containing cash and made their escape. Thinking they had committed the perfect crime, the group drove 30 miles west to Leatherslade Farm to divvy their loot. Each split amounted to £150,000, or $3.5 million in contemporary American currency.
Aided by the robbers’ error, the plot quickly unraveled: Availed by a tip from a neighboring farmer, officials investigating the crime discovered the gang’s farmhouse hideout five days after the crime was committed. Originally planned to be burned, the farm’s discovery yielded a aggregation of evidence including mail bags, food, wrapping paper used to cover bank notes, and, most important, three cars used in the getaway.
Frustrated and nearing a dead end, police stumbled onto two informants provided through an intermediary whose identity remains a mystery. Through the intercessor, only known as a distinguished London barrister, two informants offered up key clues to the identities of the crooks. Shortly after, police happened upon a stroke of luck: Several bags filled with cash found in a wooded area in Surrey led police to Brian Field, who was linked to the purchase of Leatherslade Farm. A known acquaintance of ringleader Gordon Goody, Field attempted a cover story, which was soon discredited. The second in connection to the robbery, Fields’ arrest was followed by nine others between mid-August and December 10, 1963.
Tried in Buckinghamshire in early 1964, seven defendants were convicted and sentenced to 25-30 years behind bars. One was sentenced to three years in jail; another was acquitted.
Reynolds fled, lived abroad but returned to the UK in 1968 and was arrested. Charlie Wilson was captured upon his return to England and served ten years. Similarly, Ronald “Buster” Edwards returned from exile and served nine years for his role in the robbery. Three alleged accomplices were never identified or prosecuted.
Less than £400,000 of the ill-gotten money was ever recovered.