Why you should care
Because they changed how Britain saw and dealt with crime.
Hands Up: A look at history’s greatest heists and most intriguing robberies. Read more.
As they enjoyed a riotous game of Monopoly, one filled with both laughter and shouting, the men were one day away from becoming the faces of Britain’s most wanted outlaws. In the process, they would ruin hardworking men’s careers, impact London crime rates and collect a helluva lot more than $200 before going to jail.
When the on-call policeman in Buckinghamshire got a call to report in the early hours of Aug. 8, 1963, he asked what was stolen. The response: “A train.” It was part of the Royal Mail’s fleet, en route from Glasgow, Scotland, to London, carrying money sacks destined for city bank vaults after a lucrative Scottish bank holiday. Newspapers reported later that 200,000 English pounds had been taken (subsequent editions upped it to 1 million before settling on 2.5 million) in what Royal Transport Police referred to as “the most spectacular train robbery we have known.”
Reynolds would later compare himself to the “head of a commando unit” who’d been aiming for military precision.
Dubbed the Crime of the Century, it had gone off without a hitch. South London merchant Bruce Reynolds and his gang of thieves — including notables Gordon Goody, Charlie Wilson, Ronnie Biggs, John Daly and Tommy Wisbey — banded together for an audacious attack on the Crown. Over a few months, with Reynolds reportedly getting inside tips from a railway worker, the men planned how they would rob the moving post office.
Under cover of darkness, the team hot-wired a train signal at Cheddington Station, covering the green light with a glove to force the driver to stop. When the train screeched to a halt, they jumped aboard, overpowered driver Jack Mills and then — realizing the driver they’d brought along couldn’t manage the train — forced Mills to drive the carriages toward a bridge where their getaway trucks waited. Then they smashed into the High Value Packet (HVP) carriage and unloaded 120 mail sacks, weighing 2.5 tons — all within 30 minutes.
The robbery itself was “very precise,” says Tony Keep, a retired chief inspector who volunteers at the Thames Valley Police Museum. Reynolds would later compare himself to the “head of a commando unit” who’d been aiming for military precision. But what amazed most folks was discovering that such huge amounts of money traveled throughout the country in so careless a fashion. Earlier train robberies had prompted calls for increased security, according to Gavin McGuffie, an archivist at the British Postal Museum & Archive. “The post office’s own investigation branch were very keen to see things improved,” he says, adding that iron bars on windows and alarms were slowly adopted. By 1963, there were more modern and secure HVP carriages in use, but they were out of service that fateful night, says Keep, noting that questions of sabotage were raised but never answered.
The unarmed robbers, meanwhile, left without a trace. “When [investigators] examined the train … no fingerprints were found which could link the offenders to the actual robbery,” Keep says. The gang retreated to a farmhouse 26 miles away to wait out the police sweeps, and that seems to be where their Chance cards ran out, with the men hearing via radio that police “planned to search farmhouses within a 30-mile radius,” says Keep. Their Monopoly games — allegedly played with real money — came to a halt as the men seized on a quick exit plan. They vacated within a couple of days, leaving behind fingerprints on food containers and the Monopoly board, as well as empty Royal Mail sacks, giving police all the evidence they needed to connect them to the crime.
Most of the money was never recovered, but trials began within six months, culminating in 12 convictions totaling 307 years in prison, with seven of the core group getting 30 years each. Murderers back then received substantially lighter sentences, a consequence, McGuffie says, of the “high-profile nature” of the crime, not to mention Britain’s embarrassment that a national institution could be brought to its knees by working-class thugs.
Having summoned three different county police forces, the robbery led to the establishment of regional crime squads and contributed, as one officer involved in the case surmised, to the consolidation of British police forces. Train security was bolstered immediately, but rumors that an insider had helped the gang threw a web of suspicion over train employees, which needlessly ruined many careers, says Keep.
But the Great Train Robbery did have a silver lining: It led to a drop in crime. With police banging on doors and rounding up suspects in a bid to find the perpetrators, “serious crime in London virtually stopped,” says Keep, who jokingly ponders whether a major train robbery “every now and again” could reduce crime elsewhere.
Two of the robbers used their Get Out of Jail Free cards, escaping from prison in the mid-’60s. Charlie Wilson was recaptured, but Ronnie Biggs remained on the lam for more than three decades. He eventually surrendered and served eight years before being released due to ill health. Looking back, Biggs, since deceased, said the gang knew they were committing a “crime against the Crown.” But if he had it to do all over again, he was adamant that he would’ve dealt himself the same cards … and played the same game.