Friday April 16, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Great Train Robbery
On this Day:
In 1964, 9 men were sentenced 25-30 years each for partaking in Britain’s 1963 “Great Train Robbery”.
The Great Train Robbery was the robbery of £2.6 million from a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London on the West Coast Main Line in the early hours of 8 August 1963, at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn, near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England.
After tampering with the lineside signals to bring the train to a halt, a gang of 15, led by Bruce Reynolds, attacked the train. Other gang members included Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Roy James, John Daly, Jimmy White, Ronnie Biggs, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch and Roger Cordrey, as well as three men known only as numbers “1”, “2” and “3”, two of whom later turned out to be Harry Smith and Danny Pembroke. A 16th man, an unnamed retired train driver, was also present.
With careful planning based on inside information from an individual known as “The Ulsterman”, named (possibly erroneously) as Patrick McKenna in 2014, the robbers escaped with over £2.6 million (equivalent to £55 million in 2019 or $70 million USD). The bulk of the stolen money was never recovered. Though the gang did not use any firearms, Jack Mills, the train driver, was beaten over the head with a metal bar. Mills was so severely injured that he never worked again. After the robbery, the gang hid at Leatherslade Farm. After the police found this hideout, incriminating evidence led to the eventual arrest and conviction of most of the gang. The ringleaders were sentenced to thirty years in jail.
At 18:50 on Wednesday 7 August 1963, the travelling post office (TPO) “Up Special” train set off from Glasgow Central station en route to Euston Station in London. It was scheduled to arrive at Euston at 04:00 the following morning. The train was hauled by English Electric Type 4 (later Class 40) diesel-electric locomotive D326 (later 40 126). The train consisted of 12 carriages and carried 72 Post Office staff who sorted mail during the journey.
Mail was loaded onto the train at Glasgow, during additional station stops en route, and from line-side collection points where local post office staff would hang mail sacks on elevated track-side hooks that were caught by nets deployed by the on-board staff. Sorted mail on the train could be dropped off at the same time. This process of exchange allowed mail to be distributed locally without delaying the train with unnecessary stops. One of the carriages involved in the robbery is preserved at the Nene Valley Railway.
The second carriage, behind the engine, was known as the HVP (high-value packages) coach, which carried large quantities of money and registered mail for sorting. Usually the value of the shipment was in the region of £300,000, but because the previous weekend had been a UK Bank Holiday weekend, the total on the day of the robbery was to be between £2.5 and £3 million.
In 1960, the Post Office Investigation Branch (IB) recommended the fitting of alarms to all TPOs with HVP carriages. This recommendation was implemented in 1961, but HVP carriages without alarms were retained in reserve. By August 1963, three HVP carriages were equipped with alarms, bars over the windows and bolts and catches on the doors, but at the time of the robbery, these carriages were out of service, so a reserve carriage (M30204M) without those features had to be used. The fitting of radios was also considered, but they were deemed to be too expensive, and the measure was not implemented. This carriage was kept for evidence for seven years following the event and then burned at a scrapyard in Norfolk in the presence of police and post office officials to deter any souvenir hunters.
Just after 03:00 on 8 August, the driver, 58-year-old Jack Mills from Crewe, stopped the train on the West Coast Main Line at a red signal light at Sears Crossing, Ledburn, between Leighton Buzzard and Cheddington. The signal had been tampered with by the robbers: they had covered the green light and connected a battery to power the red light. The locomotive’s second crew member, known as the secondman was 26-year-old David Whitby, also from Crewe. As a signal stop was unexpected at this time and place, Whitby climbed down from the cab to call the signalman from a line-side telephone, only to find the cables had been cut. As he returned to the train he was overpowered by one of the robbers. Meanwhile, gang members entered the engine cabin from both sides, and as Mills grappled with one robber he was struck from behind by another with a cosh and rendered semi-conscious.
The robbers now had to move the train to Bridego Bridge (now known as Mentmore Bridge), approximately half a mile (800 m) further along the track, where they planned to unload the money. One of the robbers had spent months befriending railway staff and familiarising himself with the layout and operation of trains and carriages. Ultimately though, it was decided that it would be better to use an experienced train driver to move the locomotive and the first two carriages from the signals to the bridge after uncoupling the carriages containing the rest of the sorters and the ordinary mail.
On that night, the gang’s hired train driver (an acquaintance of Ronnie Biggs, later referred to as “Stan Agate” or “Peter”) was unable to operate this newer type of locomotive; although having driven trains for many years, he was by then retired and was experienced only on shunting (switching) locomotives on the Southern Region. With no other alternative available to them, it was quickly decided that Mills would have to move the train to the stopping point near the bridge, which was indicated by a white sheet stretched between poles on the track. Biggs’s only task was to supervise Agate’s participation in the robbery, and when it became obvious that Agate was not able to drive the train, he and Biggs were sent to the waiting truck to help load the mail bags.
The train was stopped at Bridego Bridge, and the robbers’ “assault force” attacked the ‘high-value packages’ (HVP) carriage. Frank Dewhurst was in charge of the three other postal workers (Leslie Penn, Joseph Ware and John O’Connor) in the HVP carriage. Thomas Kett, assistant inspector in charge of the train from Carlisle to Euston was also in the carriage. Dewhurst and Kett were hit with coshes when they made a vain attempt to prevent the robbers’ storming of the carriage. Once the robbers had entered the carriage, the staff could put up no effective resistance and there was no police officer or security guard on board to assist them. The staff were made to lie face down on the floor in a corner of the carriage. Mills and Whitby were then brought into the carriage, handcuffed together and put down beside the staff.
The robbers removed all but eight of the 128 sacks from the HVP carriage, which they transferred in about 15–20 minutes to the waiting truck by forming a human chain. The gang departed in their Austin Loadstar truck some 30 minutes after the robbery had begun and, in an effort to mislead any potential witnesses, they used two Land Rover vehicles, both of which bore the registration plates BMG 757A.
The gang then headed along minor roads, listening for police broadcasts on a VHF radio, the journey taking somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, and arrived back at Leatherslade Farm at around 04:30, at around the same time as the first reports of the crime were being made. Leatherslade was a run-down farm 27 miles (43 km) from the crime scene, between Oakley and Brill (51°48′23″N 1°3′11″W). It had been bought two months earlier as their hideout.
At the farm they counted the proceeds and divided it into 16 full shares and several ‘drinks’ (smaller sums of money intended for associates of the gang). The precise amounts of the split differ according to the source, but the full shares came to approximately £150,000 each (equivalent to about £3 million in 2019 or 3.8 million USD).
From listening to their police-tuned radio, the gang learned that the police had calculated they had gone to ground within a 30-mile radius of the crime scene rather than dispersing with their haul. This declaration was based on information given by a witness at the crime scene who stated that a gang member had told the post office workers “not to move for half an hour”. The press interpreted this information as a 30-mile (50 km) radius—a half-hour drive in a fast car.
The gang realised the police were using a “dragnet tactic”, and with help from the public, would probably discover the farm much sooner than had been originally anticipated. As a result, the plan for leaving the farm was brought forward to Friday from Sunday (the crime was committed on Thursday). The vehicles they had driven to the farm could no longer be used because they had been seen by the train staff. Brian Field came to the farm on Thursday to pick up his share of the loot and to take Roy James to London to find an extra vehicle. Bruce Reynolds and John Daly picked up cars, one for Jimmy White and the other for Reynolds, Daly, Biggs and the replacement train driver. Field, his wife Karin and his associate “Mark” brought the vans and drove the remainder of the gang to the Field’s home to recover.
Field had arranged with “Mark” to carry out a comprehensive clean-up and set fire to the farm after the robbers had left, even though the robbers had already spent much time wiping the place down to be free of prints. According to Buster Edwards, he ‘nicked’ £10,000 in ten-shilling notes to help pay “Mark’s” drink. However, on Monday, when Charlie Wilson rang Brian Field to check whether the farm had been cleaned, he did not believe Field’s assurances. He called a meeting with Edwards, Reynolds, Daly and James and they agreed that they needed to be sure. They called Field to a meeting on Tuesday, where he was forced to admit that he had failed to “torch” the farm. In the IVS 2012 documentary film The Great Train Robbery, Nick Reynolds (son of Bruce Reynolds) said “…the guy who was paid to basically go back to the farm and burn it down did a runner.” Wilson would have killed Field there and then but was restrained by the others. By the time they were ready to go back to the farm, however, they learned that police had found the hide-out.
There is some uncertainty regarding the exact cash total stolen from the train. £2,631,684 is a figure quoted in the press, although the police investigation states the theft as £2,595,997 10s, in 636 packages, contained in 120 mailbags—the bulk of the haul in £1 and £5 notes (both the older white note and the newer blue note, which was half its size). There were also ten-shilling notes and Irish and Scottish money. Because a 30-minute time limit had been set by Reynolds, eight out of 128 bags were not stolen and were left behind. Statistically, this could have amounted to £131,000 or 4.7% of the total. It is alleged that the total weight of the bags removed was 2.5 tons, according to former Buckinghamshire police officer John Woolley.
Famously, the gang had used the money in a game of Monopoly while holed up at the farm house.
The robbers had cut all the telephone lines in the vicinity, but one of the rail-men left on the train at Sears Crossing caught a passing goods train to Cheddington, where he raised the alarm at around 04:20. The first reports of the robbery were broadcast on the VHF police radio within a few minutes and this is where the gang heard the line “A robbery has been committed and you’ll never believe it – they’ve stolen the train!”
The gang consisted of 17 full members who were to receive an equal share, including the men who were at the robbery and two key informants.
The gang that carried out the robbery consisted of 15 criminals predominantly from south London: Gordon Goody, Charlie Wilson, Buster Edwards, Bruce Reynolds, Roy James, John Daly, Roger Cordrey, Jimmy White, Bob Welch, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey, and Ronnie Biggs, as well as Harry Smith and Danny Pembroke, who were never charged due to the lack of evidence against them, and one still unknown, plus the train driver they nicknamed “Pop”. The best known member of the gang, Biggs, had only a minor role—to recruit the train driver (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
What was Pinocchio’s defense when he was put on trial for train robbery? Apparently, Geppetto was the one pulling the strings…
Second, a Song:
Well not a song but a skit.
Beyond the Fringe was a British comedy stage revue written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. It played in London’s West End and then in America, both on tour and on New York’s Broadway in the early 1960s. Hugely successful, it is widely regarded as seminal to the “satire boom”, the rise of satirical comedy in 1960s Britain.
The idea of bringing together the best of revues by the Cambridge Footlights and The Oxford Revue, both of which had transferred to Fringe Festival for short runs in previous years, was conceived in 1960 by an Oxford graduate, Robert Ponsonby, artistic director for the Edinburgh International Festival. John Bassett, a graduate of Wadham College, Oxford, who was Ponsonby’s assistant, recommended Dudley Moore, his jazz bandmate and a rising cabaret talent. Moore in turn recommended Alan Bennett, who had had a hit at Edinburgh a few years before. Bassett also chose Jonathan Miller, who had been a Footlights star in 1957. Miller recommended Cook.
Bennett and Miller were already pursuing careers in academia and medicine respectively, but Cook had an agent, having written a West End revue for Kenneth Williams. Cook’s agent negotiated a higher weekly fee for him, but by the time the agent’s fee was deducted Cook actually earned less than the others from the initial run.
The majority of the sketches were by Cook and were largely based on material written for other revues. Among the entirely new material were “The End of the World”, “TVPM” and “The Great Train Robbery”. Cook and Moore revived some of the sketches on their later television and stage shows, most famously the two-hander “One Leg Too Few”.
The show’s runs in Edinburgh and the provinces had a lukewarm response, but when the revue transferred to the Fortune Theatre in London, in a revised production by Donald Albery and William Donaldson, it became a sensation, thanks in some part to a favourable review by Kenneth Tynan.
In 1962 the show transferred to the John Golden Theatre in New York, with its original cast. President John F. Kennedy attended a performance on 10 February 1963. The show continued in New York, with most of the original cast, until 1964, when Paxton Whitehead replaced Miller, while the London version continued with a different cast until 1966.
The revue was widely considered to be ahead of its time, both in its unapologetic willingness to debunk figures of authority, and by virtue of its inherently surrealistic comedic vein. Humiliation of authority was something only previously delved into in The Goon Show and, arguably, Hancock’s Half Hour, with such parliamentarians as Sir Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan coming under special scrutiny—although the BBC were predisposed to frown upon it. Macmillan—according to Cook—was not particularly fond of the slurred caricature and charade of senile forgetfulness (marked by a failure to pronounce ‘Conservative Party’ coherently) handed down on him in Cook’s impersonation. Since Beyond the Fringe was not owned by the BBC, however, the quartet enjoyed relative carte blanche. The only protocol they were obliged to adhere to was that, by law, their scripts had to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain for approval prior to performance, a requirement abolished in 1968.
Most specifically, its lampooning of the British war effort in a sketch titled “The Aftermyth of the War” was scorned by some war veterans for its supposed insensitivity. One British visitor to the Broadway performance was said to have stood up and shouted ‘rotters!’ at a sketch he found distasteful, before apparently sitting down again and enjoying the remainder of the show, while another, at the first performance in Edinburgh allegedly stood up and declared that the ‘young bounders don’t know the first thing about it!’ and promptly left the auditorium. In response to these negative audience reactions, the Beyond the Fringe team said that they were not ridiculing the efforts of those involved in the war, but were challenging the subsequent media portrayal of them.
Beyond the Fringe was a forerunner to British television programmes That Was the Week That Was, At Last the 1948 Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
As with the established comedy revue, it was a series of satirical sketches and musical pieces using a minimal set, looking at events of the day. It effectively represented the views and disappointments of the first generation of British people to grow up after World War II, and gave voice to a sense of the loss of national purpose with the end of the British Empire. Although all of the cast contributed material, the most often quoted pieces were those by Cook, many of which had appeared before in his Cambridge Footlights revues. The show broke new ground with Peter Cook’s impression of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan; on one occasion, this was performed with Macmillan in the audience, and Cook added an ad lib ridiculing Macmillan for turning up to watch. In 2006, Jonathan Miller recounted that the breach of decorum this represented was a source of embarrassment to both audience and performers.
The show is credited with giving many other performers the courage to be satirical and more improvisational in their manner, and broke the conventions of not lampooning the Royal Family or the government of the day. Shakespearean drama was another target of their comedy. There were also a number of musical items in the show, using Dudley Moore’s music, most famously an arrangement of the Colonel Bogey March which resists Moore’s repeated attempts to bring it to an end.
The show prefigured the Satire Boom of the 1960s. Without it, there might not have been either That Was the Week That Was or Private Eye, the satirical magazine which originated at the same time, that partially survived due to financial support from Peter Cook, and that served as the model for the later American Spy Magazine. Cook and Moore formed a comedy team and appeared in the popular television show Not Only… But Also, and the 1967 film Bedazzled. Cook also launched his club, The Establishment, around this time. Many of the members of Monty Python recall being inspired by Beyond the Fringe.
The retrospective show Before the Fringe, broadcast during the early years of BBC 2, took its title from this production. It consisted of performances of material that was popular in theatrical revue before the advent of Beyond the Fringe.
The show’s success was not limited to the UK. In 1962, it also opened in South Africa. Next it arrived in the US. First the Broadway Company opened on 27 October 1962, then it was performed by the National Company in 1963. Subsequently, opening on 8 October 1964, the National Touring Company took it on a nationwide tour for six months as Beyond the Fringe ’65 under the auspices of Alexander H. Cohen, with the cast consisting of Bob Cessna, Donald Cullen, Joel Fabiani, and James Valentine. Slight changes were made to adapt the show for American audiences, for instance the opening number (discussing America) was retitled “Home Thoughts from Abroad”.
All four original members of Beyond the Fringe feature prominently in the play Pete and Dud: Come Again, by Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde, although performed by other actors. Appropriately, the comedy drama had a sellout run at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe before transferring to London’s West End at The Venue, in 2006, in a version starring Kevin Bishop as Moore, Tom Goodman-Hill as Cook, Fergus Craig as Alan Bennett and Colin Hoult as Jonathan Miller. It subsequently embarked on a nationwide tour. Most recently, Beyond the Fringe was recreated for an episode of the Netflix TV series The Crown in which Prime Minister Macmillan is in attendance, and singled out for abuse by Peter Cook (performed by Patrick Warner.) The creation, performance and aftermath of the show is covered in the 2004 film Not Only But Always (per Wikipedia).
Here is Beyond the Fringe in their skit “The Great Train Robbery”. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“There’s a difference between criminals and crooks. Crooks steal. Criminals blow some guy’s brains out. I’m a crook.” – Ronald Biggs
Further to the Ivory Soap Smile:
Frank Fowlie of Richmond, BC, Canada writes:
“An easy way for bachelors to clean microwaves”
Bill MacLeod of Vancouver, BC, Canada writes:
“Thanks for the mention David.
Soap in the microwave was a small pleasure. Not up to the classic “Will it blend?” though. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qg1ckCkm8YI
Carol Burman of Victoria, BC, Canada writes:
“Cool soap video – who knew?”
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky
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