The Great Train Robbery

By Nick Russell-Pavier and Stewart Richards

In the early hours of August 8, 1963 an overnight mail train was stopped just outside of London and relieved of £2, 595, 997.10s in a daring and well-choreographed caper that seemed made for the headlines. Off and on, it would stay in the news for the next five decades, becoming a part of modern British folklore.

It seems every couple of years tosses up a new Crime of the Century, but in England at least one could argue that The Great Train Robbery still has one of the better claims to the title.

Things were different in those days, and in this new “definitive account” of the robbery written to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary the authors contend that “to understand fully the long saga of ‘The Great Train Robbery’, Britain in the early 1960s must be placed as a backdrop to all the events that took place.” England then was a country where the majority of adults smoked cigarettes, homes had no central heating, only a third of households had a car and less than half had a washing machine. Despite the enormous amount of money being carried on the train, security was non-existent. None of the robbers had a gun, or any need for one. Immediately after the robbery, in an attempt to bring forth witnesses or anyone with information, a police vehicle actually toured the area around where the crime occurred broadcasting an appeal for assistance over its public address system.

In addition to placing the events in their historical context, the authors go all out trying to tell the full story of a caper involving not just a vast sum of money (the equivalent of around £45 million today), but over a dozen different gang members, a massive police investigation, and the longest criminal trial in British history.

Like a lot of very long, very complex legal proceedings, the main trial of the gang was a mess. Reports later surfaced that the jury members were confused by the evidence, and had made up their minds on the guilt of the accused before the trial anyway. One of the robbers who had considered pleading guilty had the charges against him dismissed for lack of evidence. Another man who only got involved indirectly with one of the robbers as an accessory after the fact was falsely convicted of both planning and committing the robbery (he would later die in prison).

The crime’s long aftermath was another complex story, adding new layers to the tale. Instant books were written suggesting dark secrets that couldn’t be fully revealed. Several gang members were never caught or identified. Two of the convicted robbers escaped from high security prisons, with one of the escapees (Ronnie Biggs, a minor partner in the gang) going on to become a celebrity.

But the reality was less glamorous. Even the gang members who managed to evade capture (one of them by moving to Canada) grew tired of life on the lam and either willingly gave themselves up or saw their eventual apprehension as a relief. They burned through most of the money quickly, and there was nothing they were much suited for in normal life. More planning went into the heist itself than for what they were going to do after.

Looking back, it seems more like a bit of performance art or publicity stunt than an actual robbery. But even after fifty years it’s a story that continues to fascinate, even after a careful sifting of the facts from the legend. Some mystery still remains, which only helps to feed a myth that at least some of the robbers took a certain pride in. In the long run, the legend of the robbery was their great success, far more than the job itself.

Review first published April 20, 2013.

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