The Great Train Robbery, Ronnie Biggs and the Surrey connection
- Credit: Various
Did you know that the Great Train Robbery had a number of significant Surrey connections? Fifty years on from one of the most audacious crimes in British history, Nick Wallis pieces it all together...
On August 8, 1963, at 3.03am, a gang of 15 men stopped the mail train from Glasgow to London, using a false railway signal, at a remote location near Ledburn in Buckinghamshire, a few miles outside Aylesbury. On boarding the engine, a member of the gang smashed driver Jack Mills on the back of the head with a wooden or metal cosh. When Mills came to, he was forced – terrified, and with blood dripping down his face – to move the train to a predetermined location further down the track.
There, the train’s second carriage, which was carrying bags of cash belonging to the banks, was boarded. Despite the vast sums of money being carried to London, there were no policemen or security guards present. Using little more than threats, the raiders quickly took control of the coach and unloaded mailbags containing £2.6m (£46m in today’s money) into three waiting vehicles. Most of the money was never recovered. The legend of the Great Train Robbery was born.
Ronnie Biggs & the Redhill link
One member of the gang, who later became the most famous due to his subsequent escape from prison, only had a minor part to play in the raid. His name was Ronnie Biggs, and he lived at 37 Alpine Road, in Redhill, where he worked as a builder.
Biggs got in on the job through Bruce Reynolds, a notorious criminal who had been planning a train heist for months. One day, Biggs called Reynolds asking to borrow some money. The men got chatting and Biggs mentioned he was working in Redhill on the house of a train driver who was about to retire. Reynolds saw an opportunity.
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Biggs was tasked with recruiting the driver, who would be required to move the train during the robbery once the gang had taken it over. The Redhill railwayman would take the front part of the train from the false ‘stop signal’ half a mile down the track to a bridge where the railway lines went over a road. Here the mailbags would be passed down the embankment into a lorry and two auxiliary vehicles.
What happened on the night is still a matter of conjecture. According to some accounts, Biggs’ driver had only been trained on the shunting locomotives that plied the routes across the south of England. He did not have the necessary skills to operate the English Electric Class 40 diesel locomotive and once inside the cab (perhaps paralysed by adrenalin or fear) didn’t want to try.
Ronnie Biggs disputes this in his autobiography Odd Man Out: The Last Straw. Chris Pickard, who co-wrote the book, lives in Woking and counts Biggs as a friend. Pickard believes Biggs’ assertion that the Surrey driver was more than capable: “Ronnie took the driver up to Euston station to check on the trains before the robbery. He was an experienced man. Ronnie says on the night of the robbery his driver didn’t move the train when he was told to because he was waiting for the pressure to build up so he could release the brakes. The gang might have panicked and shifted him out of the driving seat because it looked as if nothing was happening. In the time it took to get the original driver back in the seat, the pressure had built up to the right level allowing the train to move off.”
Either way, the innocent Mills was forced, in his distressed state, to do the job. Mills’ family say he never fully recovered from the ordeal, and he died of leukemia, seven years later. Biggs’ Redhill recruit has never been identified.
Money reaches Reigate
Shortly after the robbery took place, two big tranches of cash were found in Surrey. In his book, Andrew Cook describes an excellent piece of detective work by a member of the public, just five days after the raid: “On Tuesday August 13, 1963, Mary O’Rourke, a sales assistant at Coronel, a lady’s dress shop in Church Street, Reigate, became suspicious of a woman customer who bought a quantity of clothing and paid with 26 dirty £1 notes. When Miss O’Rourke asked the customer for her address, she refused to give it and left the shop.”
The redoubtable Miss O’Rourke took it upon herself to give chase, without being spotted. She followed her customer and watched her get into a sports car. Noting down the registration number, Miss O’Rourke returned to her shop and contacted the police.
The car was immediately put under watch, and when a man was seen using it, two police officers decided to ask him a few questions. Unbeknownst to them, they were chatting with Jimmy White, a Great Train Robber.
White was a key member of Reynolds’ gang, but gave his name as James Edward Patten, and was allowed to go on his way. Later enquiries revealed that White had bought a caravan at Clovelly Caravan Site in Box Hill within three days of the robbery. When police removed the panelling inside the caravan, they found £30,440. Jimmy White went on the run for three years before being caught and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The second big money find in Surrey was eight days after the robbery at Redlands Wood, near Coldharbour. A man from Horsham was taking a lady friend for a spin on his motorbike. As they were riding along the country lanes near Coldharbour, the bike’s engine began to overheat. The couple left it by the side of the road and wandered down a track into the woods. They hadn’t gone far before they spotted two briefcases and a holdall, which had been placed side-by-side, in plain sight. They were stuffed with money.
The couple were spooked, reasonably supposing the person who left the bags was a) potentially dangerous and b) still in the vicinity. They went back to the road, flagged down a car, and got the driver to contact the authorities. The police searched the area and discovered another suitcase, also stuffed with banknotes.
The money was taken to Dorking police station and counted. That day, £100,900 was recovered, as was a receipt tucked inside the bag made out to a Mr and Mrs Field. The receipt led the police to a man called Brian Field, a bent solicitor’s clerk who didn’t take part in the robbery, but helped Bruce Reynolds mastermind it. Yet, the mystery remained for many years. Field lived in London, so why were his spoils waiting to be found in a wood in Surrey?
The archives seen by Andrew Cook fill in the blanks. Apparently, Brian Field’s German wife Karin refused to countenance keeping his share of the robbery money in their house, so Field hid most of it in his father’s garage in Whitton, West London. Field Snr found it, quickly surmised where the money had come from and (according to a statement he made to police in 1965) drove it to “Leaf [sic] Hill, Dorking” in the middle of the night and dumped it.
Great Weybridge Robbery
Perhaps the most startling revelation about the Great Train Robbery was that it very nearly happened in Surrey. According to Biggs’ autobiography, in January 1963 Bruce Reynolds was tipped off about a train which came up during the night from Dorset through Basingstoke and Woking on the way to London.
Like the Glasgow to Euston special, the Bournemouth to Waterloo “money train” had a secure coach loaded with cash. Around 30 of these bags were taken off at Weybridge station around midnight and taken to the local Post Office. Once Bruce Reynolds saw the possibilities, he and his accomplices spent many nights sitting in the dark on the Weybridge embankment, watching the mail staff go about their business on the platforms below.
In February 1963, Buster Edwards, Jimmy White and Charlie Wilson, all of whom later took part in the Great Train Robbery, were primed by Reynolds to strike the money train at Weybridge, but the raid was called off at the eleventh hour when the getaway cars that Jimmy White was keeping in a lock-up nearby were stolen!
The realisation that so much cash was being transported around the country by train would no doubt focus Reynolds’ mind and whet his appetite for doing something on a grand scale. It led to ‘the Aylesbury job’, which the papers soon popularised as the Great Train Robbery. But no one who planned or took part in the raid had the faintest inkling it would turn into one of Britain’s most talked about crimes, even 50 years later.
Find out more...
Odd Man Out: The Last Straw by Ronnie Biggs and Chris Pickard is published by MPress (calmproductions.com), priced at £19.99 but currently available on Amazon for £12.79
The Great Train Robbery: The Untold Story from the Closed Investigation Files is published by History Press and available in all good bookshops priced at £18.99
Did you know?
• The Great Train Robbery was given its name by newspaper journalists who lifted it from a groundbreaking American western made in 1903 which has no basis in any real event.
• To stop the Glasgow to London special, a glove containing a piece of black paper was put over the green light on the signal gantry at Sears Crossing and four six-volt batteries were connected to the red light.
• Bruce Reynolds, the gang leader, insisted the operation should take no longer than half an hour. As a result the gang left mailbags containing more than £100,000 on the train. The weight of the bags they removed totalled approximately 2.5 tons
• Ronnie Biggs’ fame as a train robber is largely due to his escape from Wandsworth prison in 1965 and subsequent life as a fugitive from justice in Rio. Biggs voluntarily returned to Britain in 2001 and was returned to prison until 2009. He has had three strokes and can no longer speak.
• John Wheater, a solicitor from Ashtead in Surrey who worked with some members of the gang, but didn’t go on the raid, was convicted of obstructing the course of justice at the robbers’ trial in November 1964. His former commanding officer and Howden MP Paul Bryan acted as character witness, telling jurors Wheater’s “honour and integrity could not be questioned.” Wheater was given three years in prison. Biggs and most of the others were given 30 years.
• The Dorking Advertiser got in something of a lather about the two big money finds in its patch shortly after the robbery in 1963, concluding: “Dorking must have been the centre of operations for some members of the gang.” It wasn’t.
• James “Big Jim” Hussey, hired as muscle for the robbery, apparently confessed, on his deathbed last year, to being the man who coshed the driver Jack Mills. At the time, and after his subsequent escape, many believed Biggs to be responsible. He has always denied this.