Robbery that stunned the nation
Dave Starbuck remembers his last telephone conversation with Ronnie Biggs, just before his return to Britain in 2001.
"I told him not to come back, I knew something bad would happen to him," says the retired journalist from Walsall, who struck up a long-distance friendship with the Great Train Robber during his time on the run.
Biggs did not take his advice. Denying that he was returning from his Brazilian bolthole for urgently needed medical treatment, he said he was coming home because he wanted to once more to 'walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter'. It was an ambition he would never fulfil. Biggs was arrested on his return to Britain, spent eight years in prison, and spent the four years after his release in a nursing home before his death in December 2013.
It is 55 years today since the Great Train Robbers were jailed for a combined total of 307 years, one of the longest sentences in British history. Seven of the defendants – Biggs, Charlie Wilson, Douglas Goody, Thomas Wisbey, Robert Welch, Jim Hussey and Roy James – were each sentenced to 30 years in custody. Four others were sent to prison for terms of between 20 and 25 years, while solicitor John Wheater, who organised the robbers hide-out in Bedfordshire, was sentenced to three years.
Dave, now 82, is something of an authority on the robberies, having spent decades researching the stories behind them. He remembers his shock at the severity of the sentences handed down.
"I couldn't believe it when they got 30 years each," he said. "Normally, you would have expected them to have got 10 or 12 years.
"They were punished for making fools of the establishment, because it took so long for them to be caught. They were meant to have been caught immediately."
Dave says the decision to circulate photographs of the men wanted for the robbery – against the advice of Supt Tommy Butler, who was leading the inquiry – led to a delay in the arrests, tipping the men off. The police suffered a further setback in February, 1964, when charges against John Daly were dropped due to a lack of evidence.
The nation was stunned by the audacity of the robbery, on August 8, 1963. At a time when most people’s knowledge of the criminal underworld was confined to episodes of Z-Cars, a gang of small-time villains from London had committed a crime beyond the imagination of the wildest television plot.
Initial estimates predicted the stash from the Great Train Robbery at £1 million. Later, the figure was confirmed as £2.6 million, the equivalent of about £55 million today.
And it was the first time in 125 years anybody had managed to rob a mail train on Britain’s railways.
“I think everybody in the police was quite shocked, it was so much money,” recalls Mike Collins, who was an officer in Wolverhampton at the time.
"There had been nothing like that ever before, and I think most people thought the mail trains were pretty safe.”
The raid, on August 8, 1963, was nothing if not audacious. The reason they were able to pull it off was almost entirely down to the sheer effrontery of the robbers.
The mail train, carrying a consignment of old bank notes ready for incineration, was heading from Glasgow to London when driver Jack Mills stopped at a red signal in Ledburn, between Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire and Cheddington in Buckinghamshire.
Unbeknown to him and his assistant David Whitby, the signal had been crudely tampered with by Roger Cordrey, who covered the signal’s green light with a glove and connected the red light up to a six-volt battery. Whitby got out of the cab to telephone the signalman, but the wires had been cut. On his return, he noticed a man acting suspiciously next to the train, and was overpowered when he approached him.
Yet for all the romantic imagery about the ‘perfect crime’, they had made one incredible oversight.
The gang had recruited its own train driver, who has only ever been identified as ‘Stan Agate’ or 'Old Pete', to move the train half a mile along the track to the point where their lorry was waiting.
However, during the robbery it emerged that 'Stan' had only ever driven shunters, and did not know how to move the high-powered English Electric Class 40 pulling the mail train. The gang ordered Mills to drive the train but he refused, and in the argument which followed he was coshed over the head with an iron bar.
Mills’ son John said: “They couldn’t get the train to go and dad said, ‘I’m not moving it’, but there was only so much he could take.”
Jack Mills never recovered from the ordeal, and died in 1970 from leukaemia, although a coroner ruled there was no link to his injuries.
Mills never drove a train again, and received just £250 for his injuries, compared to a reported £65,000 which Ronnie Briggs’ wife Charmian received from a Sunday newspaper. Whitby, who was just 25 at the time was traumatised for the rest of his life, and died from a heart attack in January, 1972.
The robbers were in the main a group of small-time career criminals who mingled around the periphery of the London gang scene. The masterminds behind the plan, Gordon Goody and Bruce Reynolds, were introduced to each other by gangland boss Charlie Richardson, and it was at one of Richardson’s nightclubs that Reynolds met Ronald ‘Buster’ Edwards.
They were introduced to a mysterious informant with links to the GPO by crooked solicitor's clerk Brian Field. The informant, for more than half a century known only as 'The Ulsterman', was unmasked by Goody in 2014 as postal worker Patrick McKenna. Goody revealed that he only found out his name when McKenna dropped the case for his glasses in a park, and Goody picked it up, noticing his name written inside.
Biggs, whose escape from jail after just 15 months made him the most notorious member of the gang, was a relatively minor player, responsible for the ill-fated recruitment and supervision of the train driver.
Goody was scathing about Biggs's role in the crime.
"His one job was to bring a train driver and he brought a guy who couldn't do the job," he said.
"They had to go and sit in the car. Even the ones who pulled him out of prison had brains way out of Biggsy's league."
The other notorious escapee, Charlie Wilson, who was sprung from Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison after just 12 months, had been tasked with sharing out the loot after the robbery.
The capture of the robbers was ultimately down to the honesty of two members of the public, who discovered a briefcase filled with money while taking an early morning stroll through Dorking Woods.
Another briefcase filled with money was later discovered, and in total £100,900 was recovered. A receipt linking Brian Field to the stash was also discovered, and 13 men went on trial the following year.
Brian Field and Lennie Field - the two were unrelated – got 25 years each, reduced to five on appeal. Cordrey was initially sentenced to 20 years, but his sentence was also reduced after his conspiracy conviction was overturned.
Three of the gang escaped overseas, but were all eventually caught. Buster Edwards and Bruce Reynolds fled to Mexico, but Edwards returned to give himself up. Charlie Williams was tracked down to France, and Reynolds was arrested when he returned to London to plot another robbery.
Biggs was unrepentant about his role in the robbery, boasting about his role in 'the crime fo the century'.
But if this was the crime of the century, there were very few happy endings. Buster Edwards, who ran a flower stall after his release, was found hanged in his garage in 1994, thought to have been fearful of a return to prison following a fraud investigation. Charlie Wilson was murdered in a gangland shooting in Marbella in 1990, and Brian Field was killed in a car crash in 1979. Bill Boal, a friend of Cordrey’s, protested his innocence right up until his death in prison in 1970.