Prelude: The Crime
When people awoke on the 9th of August, the story that sat front and centre of every major publication was “the biggest robbery ever.” Described by The Mirror in meticulous detail, a gang of twenty men ambushed a Diesel D326 on the Glasgow-Euston run. At 3:15 am, the Post Office train stopped when the signal light close to Scars Crossing, Buckinghamshire, flared red. Taken as a warning, the driver, 57-year-old Jack Mills, brought the train to a halt. With this, it writes,“… the biggest, boldest robbery in British History was about to begin."1
Intending to trick the train driver to stop, The Telegraph writes that the gang put a glove over the green light symbol. “Then they wired four torch batteries bound together with insulation tape to the bulb of the right light signal, lighting it up.” Previously, they had cut the phone lines in the area. When the train came to a halt, the gang struck.2
"Inquiry Ordered on Mail Security." Daily Telegraph, 9 Aug. 1963, p. . The Telegraph Historical Archive.
"I turned away and when I turned back a masked man was on the steps of the cab. He was wearing a balaclava helmet and held a long bar wrapped in white cloth. He was about to enter the cab and I thought ‘I am not giving in without a fight’. So I grappled with him. I nearly threw him off the footplate because I had the advantage being on the plate and him on the step. It was then that I was struck on the head from behind. I collapsed on to my knees and they kept hitting me. How many times they struck me I don't know. I didn't lose consciousness, but I was very groggy. One of the men said ‘Don't look up or you will get some more’." Jack Mills, The Times.3
The robbers uncoupled the front two coaches, instructing the now-injured Jack Mills to drive for a mile up the track. Here, they raided the coaches, secured the mail bags from the post office workers stationed in them, loaded them onto a lorry, and were gone. The crime took 20 minutes to pull off. The result was a “Fantastic total of £3 million” stolen."4 The New York Herald Tribune wrote that it “surpasses most big robberies in United States history."5
Conjecture and Conspiracy
Conjecture and conspiracy dominated many stories in the first few days after the robbery. The Daily Mail wrote, “Amazingly, the Yard had known for weeks that a mail train was to be robbed ‘probably somewhere in Bucks’.” It said that the train had travelled the length of England with no special security guard.6 The Mirror explained that three “super-safe” rail vans were out-of-action, saying Scotland Yard is investigating the possibility of sabotage. The Telegraph reports on a mysterious plane that took off in the early hours of the morning at an abandoned airfield, saying, “Interpol have been alerted and locals near the disused airfield are being questioned.” With no major announcements, reruns of the robbery and its impact on the stock market sat firmly at the top of every front page. The Mirror later claimed that the theft had knocked more than £4.6 million from bank shares,8 with The Telegraph further explaining, “It might be the biggest single loss for the insurance market outside something like two jet airliners colliding and crashing or a major shipwreck.”7
One interesting story from The Times, reporting on the words in the New York Herald Tribune, wrote, “Not even the most jaded view of television crime epics is likely to yawn at yesterday’s great English train robbery,” mentioning that it has a peculiarly British quality. “British criminals tend to avoid the blood-and-thunder style of the (Jesse) James boys and do their work with exceptional finesse.” The Telegraph wrote that the US criminal underworld was in awe at the crime, writing:
"How pallid our own crime syndicates are made to look, how wanting in imagination. After all. we hold the copyright on train robberies… yet now the best we can say about this updating of Jessie James is that we supplied the inspiration”. Telegraph, August 10th7
During one of the first press conferences about the robbery and the beginning investigation, one reporter asked Reginald Bevins, the Postmaster-General at the time, if he had a “sneaking admiration” for the criminals. He responded, “I do not feel any admiration for these gentlemen at all. In fact, I would not use the word ‘gentlemen’.” He asserted that a full-scale investigation had begun, with papers alluding to a possible inside job.2
While the police were yet to unveil any plans around their investigation, the insurance companies and loss adjusters were already getting to work. Having been hit by the robbery, the companies posted an astronomical £260,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the train robbery gang and the return of the stolen money.8Today, this bounty would be worth close to £6.5 million. While many debated the effectiveness of rewards, there was no doubt that it would be a crucial tool in the vast manhunt to follow.
"£260,000 Reward." Daily Mirror, 10 Aug. 1963, p. . Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
The Manhunt Begins
The first clue to grace the headlights of the British press was the discovery of an abandoned lorry. While The Mirror admits it is not substantial evidence, it reports that officers found it on Thursday morning with its headlights still on.10 The Telegraph went into greater detail, saying it was discovered 5 miles from Retford, a town close to the crime scene, and that police had possibly seen banknote wrappings. It mentions a stolen lorry of similar make owned by the Etsy and Gibbons company and that witnesses spotted a convoy of three vehicles early morning on Thursday.11
Gladstone-Smith, Peter, Sunday Telegraph Reporter. "100 Give Mail Raid ‘Tips’." Sunday Telegraph, 11 Aug. 1963, p. 3. The Telegraph Historical Archive.
With this, one of the biggest manhunts in British history was underway. Seventy-five detectives and uniformed police, along with fourteen dogs and their handlers, scoured the countryside surrounding the crime scene in search of clues. The Telegraph reported that since the crime took place, more than 100 tips had been filed.11 The Times quotes that the police stated, “We are getting a lot of crackpot theories but some of the information may be useful.” From the clues they had gathered, including witness statements from the train crew, they highlighted the following facts:
The actual number of men who took part in the raid was 12, an amalgamation of two gangs.
They did not carry nor possess firearms.
They rejected the idea that railwaymen were involved in the raid.
A year’s research probably went into the planning of the crime.
Writing for the paper, William Rees-Mogg explained that the whole operation would have been meticulously planned and expensive, costing anywhere between £50 to £100 thousand to pull off. The loot would likely be “divided up directly with strict warnings against ostentatious spending,”12
By the 12th of August, the story of the “Big Squeal” had circled across the papers, alongside one about the firsthand experiences of the driver, Jack Mills. The Daily Mail said that “informers name five men in mail robbery” and that police kept a non-stop match on their London homes.13 Mills gives credence to the inside job theory, despite the police statement, saying, “There must have been railwaymen among them, in my opinion, to enable them to uncouple the coaches.”14 Later, an opinion piece published by The Mirror said, “At a meeting held in the Derby district some time ago, it was pointed out that a large proportion of the railway staff convicted of dishonesty had previous criminal records.”
On the 13th of August, the police believed it was highly probable the money was within a 30-mile radius of the scene. The Times report the theft had prompted parliament to discuss new security precautions. Postmaster-General Bevins ruled out the introduction of guns.
The Discovery of Leatherslade Farm
The first significant development in the investigation came when the police responded to a tip from a herdsman, John Maris. It led detectives to a sleepy farmstead close to the village of Oakley, half a mile from the airfield where the plane had allegedly taken off. Here, they found a treasure trove of abandoned vehicles, uneaten food, and empty mailbags that indicated that Leatherslade Farm was the hideout of the notorious gang.
According to The Telegraph, John Maris explained, “My suspicions were aroused by the fact that all the windows were blacked out, and a motor lorry standing in an outbuilding was covered by a tarpaulin, with only the yellow bonnet showing.” Alongside the first photos of the farm, the article claims the police delayed acting out on the hideout tip and that the police had missed the robbers by just 8 hours. The police stated that it was “one of hundreds and hundreds” and that “all had to be dealt with.”15
News of the hideout crept into the village of Oakley. The Daily Mail writes talk of money is everywhere, with “Children even burrow in the hedges in the hope that some of the proceeds of the train robbery might have been left behind.”16 Sir William Connor, under his pen name “Cassandra,” writes about the craze surrounding the robbery. “Once again, the British reading public has started to enjoy the lust and love that can never be theirs and the river of stolen gold on which they can never lay their hands.” He further writes adverts are “asking for informers, and every squealer, every criminal Judas from knee-high to the original snake to the topmost bough of the apple tree in the Garden of Eden, has been alerted.”17
"Delay in Acting on Hide-Out ‘Tip’." Daily Telegraph, 14 Aug. 1963, p. . The Telegraph Historical Archive.
After its discovery, the Farm’s current owner, Bernard Rixon, and his solicitors reported that an unknown individual contacted them and offered to pay £5,500 for the farm,18 £250 above the asking price.19 Moreover, the client felt it was “of paramount importance” that he takes possession before the contract was complete, a clause that Rixon’s solicitor, Robert Merion Williams, agreed.20 The estate agents “Got the impression that the man was going to build all sorts of alterations, including building a swimming pool.”16 The buyers never delivered the final amount, and eventually, Police gave it back to Mr Rixon after a thorough search.
As the weeks passed, Leatherslade Farm became a crucial piece of the mounting evidence against those suspected of being part of the robbery. Its fame grew around the country, with photos and diagrams commonly headlining many papers in the days after its discovery. People came to catch a glimpse of the gang’s hideout, often up to hundreds at a time.21 Becoming known by many as “Banknote Farm,” Rixon intended to set up tours for 2 shillings and 6 dimes. The New York Herald Tribune quotes Rixon saying, “You can’t blame me if I try to make every penny I can out of it,” and explains he has already accepted £150 from a newspaper for the privilege of photographing the farmhouse. By the 29th of August, around fifty people paid a total of £6 to look around.22
Of the clues found at Leatherslade Farm, the ones that would play the most significant role in the trial were seemingly simple items, including six lots of curtains,23 spilt paint,24 ten beer cans,25 a dish to feed stray cats,26 and a well-used monopoly board.27
"Hide-Out of Great Train Robbery gang." Daily Telegraph, 14 Aug. 1963, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive.
The First Arrests
By the 14th of August, the police had conducted hundreds of interviews and raided hundreds of homes in search of the gang. The Telegraph explains that five people head the list, with a few temporarily detained while police checked their movements. Recorded in the New York Herald Tribune, Scotland Yard issued a statement, saying “We know who they are. It is now a question of finding where they are.”24 Witness statements from Maris and Alan Walker, aged 9, who had been car spotting and seen several vehicles that matched the description25 had helped piece together an idea of the gang’s getaway plans. The detectives had dossiers for known criminals from as far away as Canada, with The Telegraph writing, “Seldom have so many senior detectives been drafted to the front line of a criminal organisation.”23 Interpol agents had begun advertising the train robbery to secure more witnesses.26 This vast force, coupled with the enormous bounty, made it almost inevitable for the first proper arrests to come soon.
On the 16th of August, the first five arrests became known to the public. The suspects names were William Boal, Roger John Cordrey, his wife Rene, her sister Mary Florence Pilgrim, and her husband Alfred. The arrests came after Ethel Emily Clark, a retired widow living on Tweedle Road in Bournemouth, was approached by two men wishing to rent her garage. She became suspicious and phoned the police.27 The Telegraph writes there was a brief scuffle with the two men, and Ethel had gone to a secure location, with officers fearing for her safety. After searching a rented flat and two cars owned by the men, the police discovered close to £100,000.28
Tietjen, Arthur, et al. "Strangers call at 8 pm in Tweedale-road." Daily Mail.
These two men were Cordrey and Boal. Upon arriving at a court in Aylesbury, they and the three others emerged from the cars to a mob of journalists and sightseers. All were hooded, and The Telegraph explains that “Placing of blankets over accused people's heads did not mean they were afraid of being seen, nor was it […] the case that the police want to invest the whole case with some Victorian melodrama and create a villainous atmosphere. […] The police do it to protect the people from photographers and other sightseers so that any question of identity should not be prejudiced.” Undeterred, Boal is said to have thrown off his hood, claiming he had nothing to hide. All five would profess their innocence.29
During this time, Esa Hargrave and John Ahern, a couple, found a stash of around £100,000 in two holdalls and a briefcase while out walking in Redlands Wood, Dorking. As the recovered money came in such specific amounts, this prompted The Telegraph to suggest “that these are being hidden by the “minnows” of the gang, and that big sums may still be held by the more experienced members.”30
"£100,900 found in wood." Daily Telegraph, 17 Aug. 1963, p. 10. The Telegraph Historical Archive
Fearing that increased press scrutiny would jeopardise their operation, the police issued a statement the following day:
“There are no more arrests imminent, but detectives who are following up fresh leads hope that these will lead them to the capture of gang members. […] We regret that we cannot disclose to the public what we are doing or where our inquiries are taking us. or. until such time as we have satisfied ourselves that it is safe from the point of view of our investigations, make known some or any of the results of our present activities.”
On the 19th of August, Flying Squad detectives found an abandoned sports car near London Airport. Later, they confirmed the dealer sold it to someone under a false address. The Times wrote, “As soon as police broadcast the news they were looking for him, he panicked and abandoned it.”31 The next day, an ex-prisoner arrived at Scotland Yard to give a witness statement. He sketched a woman that The Daily Mail later called “Rubberface Mary” because of her natural ability to disguise her features and change accents.
While detectives searched for the elusive “Rubberface Mary,” the press had gotten whiffs of new leads. The Telegraph reports that police discovered a caravan near the stash of money found in Dorking, clarifying that the people who rented it “never went out or had anything to do with their neighbours”32. The Sunday Times mentioned, “There seemed to be a number of people in the woods around Dorking yesterday who were more concerned with what lay on the ground than with the beauty of the scenery around them.” From a tip-off from a milkman that boxes were dumped in the Thames River near Vauxhall Bridge31 to house raids that turned out to the prank calls,33 the craze of catching the culprits had well and truly seeped into the hearts of the public. “For besides the normally inquisitive police, a whole army of amateur sleuths are on the lookout for the Great Train Robbery gang and their ill gotten gains.” All were hoping to get a cut of the £260,000 reward offered by insurance companies and all sorts of clues were coming in, including men digging holes on a golf course, a horse van with a flat tire, a dumped picnic, and a man carrying cardboard boxes.34
"Train Treasure Hunt Starts a Rumpus." Sunday Mirror, 18 Aug. 1963, p. 16. Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
By the 22nd of August, the Daily Mail reported that a blonde woman had entered Scotland Yard and was cooperating with the police, alongside an update saying that detectives found £30,000 in the caravan. Her name was Mary Manson, a housewife never charged with an offence before.35 Before the court in Aylesbury, she is formally charged with receiving £835, knowing it had been stolen. Her bail would be refused.36
The Rogues Gallery and More Arrests
On the 23rd of August, the people of Britain awoke to the faces of the men with the Midas touch. Alongside more clues and suspicions, the images of two men were front and centre. They were Bruce Reynolds and James White.37 At the same time, Flying Squad detectives arrested a third man, Charles Fredrick Wilson, in the London district of Clapham. The Daily Mail explains that he is a bookmaker, quoting during his arrest, “I don’t see how you can make it stick without the poppy (money), and you won’t find that.”38
Tullett, Tom. "Giant Dragnet for Two Men." Daily Mirror, 23 Aug. 1963, pp. +. Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
The third suspect to have his picture circled in the press was Roy John James, a racing driver nicknamed “The Weasel”. The police became suspicious when they went to Goodwood racecourse to question him, but he never showed up.39 The New York Herald Tribune explains, “By trade, James is a silversmith, but he does not appear to have been practising recently. He likes gambling and hanging around dog tracks.”40 At the same time, The Illustrated London News published a collection of images of the ongoing investigation, including shorts of the recovered money, suspicious vehicles, and the arrests of six suspects, including Mary Manson.41
Tullett, Tom, and Howard Johnson. "Yard Hunt Car Racing Driver." Daily Mirror, 24 Aug. 1963, p. . Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
The day after, the police arrested a close associate of Roy John James on similar charges to Mary Manson, the Pilgrims, and Rene Boal. Robert William Pelham became the eighth person arrested. The police believed that Pelham knew James’s whereabouts, stating in a later criminal hearing that the engineer had worked on James’s vehicles and allowed him to stay at his flat for seven days.42 He is said to be a keen admirer of the racing driver. James had left Pelman money for what he assumed was a new car engine. He later realised something might be wrong after James vanished.43
"The Most Daring and Fruitful Mail Robbery in English History." Illustrated London News, 24 Aug. 1963, p. 262. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003.
Like Bruce Reynolds, Roy John James would be one of the most talked about robbers of the gang. Since publishing their photographs, the police received hundreds of tips from eager reward seekers from as far as mainland Europe. One report came from Jersey from a hotel owner, saying he had spotted James checking into a room.44 Another said James is most likely disguised as a priest to avoid suspicion.45 Some claimed to see White with his wife Sherree, a baby, and a white poodle at Fishguard, Wales, believing they were now on their way to the Republic of Ireland.46 In one bizarre instance, two nuns were questioned by the police in Northern Ireland because police were suspicious that they were two men in disguise.47 All would prove fruitless, “but police hope the public will keep reporting anything suspicious.”48
Next in the rogue’s gallery to appear is John Daly, who, along with his wife Barbara, is being searched for in connection to the robbery. Barbara’s sister, Frances, is the wife of Bruce Reynolds. Soon after the photo was released, a hotel manager at Cliftonville, near Margate, phoned Scotland Yard to report that Daly had stayed at the hotel with his 18-month daughter and a heavily pregnant Barbara.49 The Telegraph described them as “big spenders,” having paid for everything in fivers and possibly left the hotel when his wife started showing signs of giving birth.50
One of the most notable sightings of the men came to light on the 3rd of September. The press alleges Bruce Reynolds, John Daly, and Roy James were spotted dining at the Fountain Inn, near Kidderminster, Worcestershire, on Friday. They appeared ravenous and ordered large quantities of food and alcohol, put their hands over their faces when waiting staff came, and paid for everything using £5 notes.51 The story was never officially verified but appeared on the front pages of many papers, alongside a minor story that three of the original five people arrested, Rene Boal and the Pilgrims, were granted a bail of £8,250.52
The ninth arrest came on the 5th of September. Ronald Arthur Biggs, a builder and decorator by trade, was arrested by Flying Squad detectives and brought to Aylesbury for his hearing. The Mirror writes that Biggs said, “Get on with it. You’ll have to prove it all the way. I’m admitting nothing to you people.”. After answering questions, he told the court, “It’s all lies.”53 He has a wife and two young children and owns four Siamese cats.54
More sightings and near-misses pepper the papers for the next few days. Stories surface that the wanted men and their partners had been sighted in Bruges,55 Vienna,56 and Hamburg,57 seeking shelter or plastic surgery. In Stony Castle, Surrey, a team of 50 police officers responded to a tip that the train money will exchange close to the army camp. After 2 hours, it was called off, with a spokesperson later stating, “The original information was incorrect, but they had to take action just in case.”55
Detectives would later arrest a tenth person. James Hussey, a painter, was taken to Aylesbury and charged in connection to the robbery.58 During his hearing, he claimed he had “Nothing to do with it.”59 He would be refused bail, alongside Pelman, Biggs, Boal, Cordrey, Wilson, and Mary Manson, for the latter stating, “The lady is very close to Reynolds and other persons wanted for interviews in this case. I am certain that she will abscond if it suits other persons.”60
"Train raid charge." Daily Mail, 10 Sept. 1963, p. 7. Daily Mail Historical Archive.
Oakley vs Charles Fletcher-Cooke
As the closest village to Leatherslade Farm, Oakley became a target of criticism from Charles Fletcher-Cooke, MP for Darwen, Lancashire, who retorted, “I blame the people of Oakley […] Too often, people are content merely to ring up the police, and leave the matter there. We ought to revive the old ‘hue and cry’ after felonious criminals.” The entire community was furious at his remarks and demanded the MP visit their village to apologise in person.61
Later, Oakley asked the MP to visit and settle the growing feud and “face the music.”62 Afterwards, he would withdraw his remarks about the village, quoting, “It now appears that only 25 per cent of the villagers were aware of the new occupants at the farm. I may have done them an injustice…”63
"MP Angers Fivers Farm Villagers." Daily Mirror, 10 Sept. 1963, p. . Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
Buster, the Black Rose, and Bruce and Lennie
After the courts in Aylesbury scheduled the first hearing for the 20th of September, the police announced two new people on the list of wanted suspects. While The Daily Mail did not confirm their names as of the 12th of September, the Yard says the man is the “mastermind” behind the crime. They are said to have left their semi-detached house in London three days before the robbery. Their photos have been shared with Interpol and within the Police Gazette. Another story mentions that the police charged a sixth man, Thomas Wisbey, a bookmaker, bringing the total to eleven.64
The day after, The Daily Mail publishes their names. They are Ronald “Buster” Edwards and June Rose Edwards, nicknamed “Black Rose”. The Edwards ran a club that closed 18 months before the robbery and were known as “good spenders.”65 Detectives say Edwards hosted a 22-man party at his flat in Twickenham, Middlesex, days before the robbery66, and they are now moving around Mayfair and West London.67
Daily Mail Reporter. "Police seek Black Rose." Daily Mail, 13 Sept. 1963, p. 14. Daily Mail Historical Archive.
The two would be the last to go in the infamous rogue’s gallery of prime suspects, alongside Bruce Reynolds, Francis Reynolds, John Daly, Barbara Daly, James White, Sheree White, and Roy John James. To catch them, Scotland Yard announced it had printed over 50,000 posters and distributed them to every police station across the UK, with a package of 500 going to Interpol.69
By the 16th of September, Flying Squad detectives made two new arrests. While the police concealed their identities until they brought official charges against them, the press soon learnt their names were Leonard “Lennie” Dennis Field, a merchant seaman, and Brian Arthur Field, a solicitor’s managing clerk. They are not related.70
Brian and Lennie were accused of playing a crucial role in buying Leatherslade Farm, the gang’s hideout for the robbery, and have been members since the planning phase. Like the others, Brian denied having anything to do with the train robbery but acknowledged some part in the farm, saying, “I know the firm and myself were involved in the business of the farm. But that is not robbery. This is serious.”71 Leonard Field argued a similar story stating, “You said it was only about selling the farm. I didn’t do no robbery. You can believe that.”72
Smith, Arthur. "Jaguar Wife in Convoy to Jail." Daily Mirror, 18 Sept. 1963, p. 15. Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
The first official hearing held in Aylesbury would connect many of the threads of the story, including the planning, execution, and frantic getaway that led to one of Scotland Yard’s largest-ever manhunts. During this trial, prosecutors called more than 150 witnesses to the stand to testify in front of hundreds of attendees.73 Because of the scale of the hearing, the court hosted the proceedings in the council chambers of Aylesbury and spread over two to three weeks because of its need for council business.74
Daily Telegraph Reporter. "'No Fewer than 15' Took Part in Raid." Daily Telegraph, 27 Sept. 1963, p. 30. The Telegraph Historical Archive.
On the first day of the trial, the attendees heard many stories. Concerning Mary Manson, prosecutors explained that it was none other than Bruce Reynolds who drove the Austin-Healy sports car purchased under her name and claimed she had to do it because he had a bad accident record.
Just 48 hours after the robbery, Boal rented a flat and a garage in Bournemouth and bought a Ford car. He telephoned Mrs Clarke to rent another garage and purchased two more cars, a Rover and an Austin Van. After Mrs Clarke became suspicious and phoned the police, detectives discovered £56,000 in one of the cars, £5,000 in the flat, and £79,000 in the Rover. Cordrey argued that he was not one of the gang members but a frontman, saying that the money recovered was men for a named “Freddie,” whom he had earlier met at a pub in Oxford.
When the trial moved to Leatherslade Farm, witnesses revealed that Lennie Field purchased it, organising everything through a firm of solicitors where Brian Field was the managing clerk. The large sum of money discovered in Dorking had a note to a hotel titled “To Herr and Frau Field.” Brian later confirmed he had stayed there in the past. When prosecutors brought Mr Rixon to the dock, he pointed out Leonard Field from the defendants, saying he was the man he’d shown around the farm.
At the farm, police found £600 in discarded notes and plenty of equipment indicating a lengthy stay. Crucially, detectives found categorical evidence tying several accused to the hideout. Forensic teams found Charles Wilson’s fingerprints on a window, and a drum of salt, Biggs on a box used for Monopoly, Brian Field’s on one of the boxes of money, and Hussey had a handprint on a lorry.75
After the judge adjourned the hearing until October, the police announced a new arrest. Martin Harvey, 28, a driver, was accused of receiving £518, becoming the fourteenth person put on trial. While being questioned about it, he said, “You are dead right. It is from the job, but I was not in it, and that’s gospel.”75 During the adjournment, Pelham was finally granted bail of £6,000 after a 45-minute hearing.76
It wouldn’t be long until the fifteenth person appeared. Gordon Goody, already questioned three times about the robbery, “walked into the station at midday yesterday with his solicitor.”77 Detained and brought to Aylesbury, where the court charged him with being a part of the robbery. Following these arrests, Scotland Yard asked the national papers to publish updated photos of Buster Edwards and Rose Edwards, with the police believing they were still in the UK.78
The trial resumed on the 4th of October and delved deeper into the events that led to Boal and Cordrey’s arrest. After Thomas Kett, an assistant train inspector on board during the robbery, described how the gang broke into the carriage, Mrs Clarke was brought to the stand to give testimony. She calmly pointed out Boal as the first man to call at her home.79
"Train Robbery Hearing." Times, 5 Oct. 1963, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive.
Later, prosecutors brought car salesman John Furnival to the stand. He had been the one who sold the Rover to John Cordrey, saying that he was so nervous that he “picked up a half-filled cup of tea which someone else was drinking and downed it. […] He gave me £360 in £5 notes. He took a huge wad of money from his pocket.”80 Afterwards, the police explained both Boal and Cordrey reacted aggressively to the police when approached in Bournemouth. Initially, the police suspected them of breaking into other premises, and both vehemently denied knowledge of the other. When officers discovered a holdall of notes and questioned Boal about it, he said, “Fair enough, it came from the train job.” Cordrey continued to state that the money was from “Freddie”, who had asked him to buy a vehicle. Martin Harvey, charged with receiving money, said about the money during questioning, “You’re dead right. It’s from the job. Someone brought it here for me to look after.”81
"Police Tell of Big Banknote Finds in Green Holdall and Kitbag." Times, 8 Oct. 1963, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive.
Cordrey went to the stand and told the court his alibi the following day. “I had a lot of trouble with my wife and she left me and I was wandering about Brighton looking for her.” He later said he “slept on the seafront” and breakfasted in a café. Afterwards, he went to London to continue his search. He later went to Oxford to buy the car from “Freddie”. Freddie said there was a lot of money in the car and that he had to look after it. Later, the papers explained Boal had broken down in tears during questioning, saying, “I am up to my neck in trouble”. He says he did not know the money was from the railway job and did not know anything about it until he was arrested.82
Daily Telegraph Reporter. "Judges’ Rules Violated, Says Train Case Counsel." Daily Telegraph, 9 Oct. 1963, pp. 24+. The Telegraph Historical Archive.
Other defendants accused of receiving money stated they did not know it was stolen, including Mrs Boal, the Pilgrims, and Mary Manson. For the latter, she explains that she last saw Reynolds on August the 9th when he brought his baby for her to look after.83
Scotland Yard arrested two more people at the tail end of this part of the trial. They were Walter and Patricia Smith, whom the court in Aylesbury charged with receiving more than £2,000, with £470 found in Patricia’s skirt. With this, the trial adjourns until the following Friday.84
Press Freedom, More Arrests, and Recognition
Behind the trial, one of the biggest debates came when the defence lawyer, Geoffrey Leach, threatened contempt of proceedings. He argued that the high publicity of the proceedings made it almost impossible to be fair. The Daily Mail quotes another lawyer on the defence supporting Leach, saying, “It would indeed be a grave matter because it would make the trial of the defendants affected almost impossible to be a fair trial.”85 The court overruled Leach’s request, but it did not deter him from speaking his mind. In response, the papers attacked his request, complaining of “the threat to a basic Press freedom”. Meeting in York, they argue their right to publish in full evidence given in open court.86
After the court hearings finished in November, the debate continued. The defence continued to argue for a press gag on any evidence they considered inadmissible. The Press Council issued a joint statement in response, explaining it “emphasises in the strongest possible terms the established right of the press to publish evidence given in open court.”87
During the court adjournment, the press announced another arrest. The police charged the solicitor for the firm Brian Field worked, John Denby Wheater, with “conspiring with nine other men to stop a train with intent to rob” and “comfort, harbour assist and maintain Leonard Field, knowing he had robbed.”87 Wheater stated, “I am absolutely innocent of both charges”87 but is said to have gone pale when he saw Leonard in court.88
Johnson, Howard. "Train Case Lawyer 'Went Pale'." Daily Mirror, 25 Oct. 1963, p. 13. Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
When the trial resumed, The Mirror and The Telegraph wrote that Wheater had been questioned early in the investigation. “It was only much later after much more inquiry that the prosecution took a much more sinister view as to his complicity in the whole matter.”89 When the prosecution brought Leonard to the stand, The Telegraph quoted him saying, “I wish I had. I’d be worth a few quid now.” He agreed he had dealings with Wheater but denied having anything to do with the farm.”90
The following arrest came on the 27th of October. Robert Welch, a club proprietor, was arrested in East London by Flying Squad officers, becoming the nineteenth person charged.91 At Aylesbury, the court denied him bail.92 During the final days of the hearing, the prosecution gave evidence against Welch, the most prominent being ten beer cans with a fingerprint that matched Welch’s own.93 Welch would be the last arrest before the end of the initial trial.
Jack Mills, the victim of violence during the robbery, would periodically appear in the papers for the rest of the year. In recognition of his bravery, Mills was presented with 25 guineas, about £700 today, for his “courage and resource”94 He remained on sick leave for many months after the robbery. By the end of November, Mills became a figurehead of strength when he was presented with a certificate from Lord Sempilln during the “Man of the Year” ceremony. He commented, “I am very honoured to be here, but I don’t know why. I don’t think I was very courageous. I'd rather be on the footplate of that mail train than face this.”95 In the new year, Mills remarked, “I am still off duty. I do not think I can start my old job until I change a lot.”96
"They were men like." Daily Mail, 15 Nov. 1963, p. 3. Daily Mail Historical Archive.
Trial’s End and Mary Manson Freed
Throughout the last days of the trial, evidence and witness statements continued to mount against the defendants. Amongst them, Rixon confirmed that it was Wheater who had contacted them about the farm, bank and post office employees confirmed that many of the recovered notes were indeed from the train,98 and the prosecution alleged the pair of suede shoes from the farm belonged to Gordon Goody.99 During the proceedings, racing mechanic Pelham said he narrowly escaped death when his car brakes failed. Detectives believed someone had cut the hydraulic pressure to injure Pelham. His wife said, “Whoever did this must have known Bob and that our son might have been in the car.”100
After 17 days split across several weeks, the hearing officially ends on the 22nd of November. Mary Manson, a long-favoured figure in the national press, is freed and awarded the costs of her defence out of public funds. Her defence said, “False and wicked rumours have been spread from foul mouth to foul mouth about this woman. May I express the hope that these wicked tongues will now be silent.”101 The Times further wrote that Mr Sabin, the leading prosecutor, stated, “Bearing in mind that Reynolds is a man and nothing more and that the prosecution cannot show that any of the money from Mary Manson came from the robbery, I cannot submit that there is a prima facie case against her.”102
In the following weeks, Manson’s house became the target of the press. To dissuade journalists from contacting her, the police wrote, “In view of persistent attempts on the part of less reputable members of the press to gain access to Mrs Manson’s house and otherwise to pester her, we wish the following facts to be made public:103
Mrs Manson is looking after Mrs Reynold’s daughter.
Mrs Daly is under the care of Mrs Manson, who is heavily pregnant and ill.
It is known John Daly worked for Mrs Manson’s husband.
The Arrests of John Daly and Roy John James
For months, police had been scouring the UK and Europe for even the faintest trace of the nine wanted people, including the illusive John Daly and Roy John James. There had been countless sightings of the two for months, many proving false leads or near misses. The New York Herald Tribune acknowledged that by December 4th, “Indications were that those arrested did not include the ringleaders of the daring hold-up.”
That day would prove to be a turning point in this search. In the lavish district of Belgravia, London, six carloads of police swooped on a flat in Eaton Square and discovered a thin, bearded man wearing pyjamas having his morning tea.104 This man was John Daly, one of the most sought men in the country and had been living there under the name “Grant” since September, paying £30 (£800 today) a week for an apartment with “a large entrance hall, large lounge, one bedroom and a luxurious bathroom. There is also a well-equipped kitchen. It is lavishly furnished with decorations in tangerine, red, gold and cream.”
Tindall, David. "Big Train Swoop." Daily Mail, 4 Dec. 1963, p. . Daily Mail Historical Archive.
The caretaker and neighbour of Daly commented, “These people kept rather unusual hours and sometimes I heard a bath being run either very late at night or in the early hours of the morning.” He later stated that they and their few visitors drank a considerable amount of vodka, saying, “Each time the rubbish bin was emptied there were empty vodka bottles in it”. Amongst his other neighbours were the Canadian steel magnate Philip Dunn and the Conservative MP Greville Howard, whom the building management forced to install a fitted carpet in his apartment due to complaints from Daly about the noise.”105
The police took Daly to court in Linslade while his pregnant wife and one-year-old daughter were left in the car of the police, later picked up by a friend and her younger brother.106 She would eventually go to stay at Mary Manson’s house. When captured, he said, “You are wasting your time. I have never been to that bloody farm. I am not being awkward. That is the truth.”107 During the hearing, an officer gave testimony. “I expected you sooner or later…” Daly muttered, “But you aren’t taking her, are you?” indicating his wife. He put up little resistance, saying, “Yes, you have got me.”108
Tullett, Tom, et al. "'Quiet Man' Held in Train Raid Swoop." Daily Mirror, 4 Dec. 1963, p. . Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
Daly’s case would garner controversy when the prosecution attempted to push a bill of indictment that would have forced him to go to trial without a preliminary hearing, something the other accused had completed only days before. The defence made a statement on the push, quoting in The Times “The prosecution is proposing that Daly should go for trial without a preliminary hearing: without the right to hear or challenge a single word of the evidence which is to be given at his trial: without the right to see and have tested exhibits if any which are produced by the prosecution”103 and that the magistrates should proceed with the matter in “the proper, regular, and established manner.”109 Eventually, the bill would be dropped.110
After being on the run for months, Barbara Daly gave birth to a baby boy on the 27th of December,111 with Daly first seeing him on the 7th of January.112
One week after Daly’s arrest, the Flying Squad responded to a tip-off about a secret hideout in St John’s Wood, London. A neighbour explained that it was September when a “tall, dark, handsome man” called to see the flat, eventually signing up for a nine-month lease. He then moved in with a “friend.” Police surrounded the area of Ryders Terrace, and four plainclothes officers approached the door.113 In The Times, one neighbour explained, “We heard banging on the door of the other flat and saw a lot of men in plain clothes smashing the windows. […] I dialled 999 but then my husband told me that the men were police. We saw a policeman climb on the flat’s balcony and break in. At the same time, a man came out of the skylight in his shirt sleeves and ran along the roof…”114 The Telegraph expanded on this, saying people near said they saw the man run across a roof and shin down a pipe into a back garden. He climbed over a garden wall and was running when detained by Flying Squad officers.115
Gregor, Gordon. "CID Grab 'The Weasel' in Rooftop Chase." Daily Mirror, 11 Dec. 1963, p. . Mirror Historical Archive, 1903-2000.
This man, sporting a heavy beard like Daly, was “the Weasel”, Roy John James. After being arrested, James admitted his identity, saying, “Open the door. I should think so. Just to get myself nicked.” £12,000 was found on him when he was caught, mostly in new notes116. Detective Butler, heading the investigation, commented, “… we heard a cracking of a fanlight and a figure was seen to run along the parapet and roofs of houses and then drop into a garden further along. He was carrying a case. He claims he was never at the farm.”
Owen, John. "'The Weasel' is Found in London." Daily Telegraph, 11 Dec. 1963, p. . The Telegraph Historical Archive
Like Daly, the prosecution drafted a bill of indictment to bring James to trial before a preliminary hearing, but the judge rejected it. However, the police remanded them in custody until their hearing on December 27th at a Magistrates Court in Linsdale.117
When brought before the court, the prosecution presented them with evidence that tied them to the robbery. For James, a dish used to feed stray cats had a set of his fingerprints. For Daly, prints were found on seven dummy banknotes and other parts from the Monopoly game, with the prosecution saying, “There is very strong evidence that some of the raiders whiled away the time at Leatherslade Farm by playing Monopoly,” and commenting “What is this man doing hiding himself away and making himself scarce.”118
Both Daly and James are added to the official trial scheduled to start on the 20th of January and remanded in custody.
The True Cost of Crime
When the official trial began on the 20th of January in Aylesbury, Charles Greville wrote about the hype around the trial. “In the pubs of Aylesbury, they call it ‘The Nuremberg Dock.’ […] It is the biggest thing to hit the gossipy market town since the time when 18 publicans were accused of fiddling their empty beer bottle returns.” “It’ll cost the earth,” says Fred Small. Yet, the people of Aylesbury expect money to come in as 40 lawyers will be arriving for an extended stay. The pub next to the police station, the Millwright Arms, has stocked up with £1 notes, with the landlord saying, “Nobody wants to be seen with a fiver.”119
This final line, although a joke given the context, rings true for so many people caught up in the drama of the Great Train Robbery. Aside from the 20 people on trial, dozens of people had their lives affected, even upended, by the crime and its investigation, from the grievous injuries sustained by Jack Mills to the wife of Brian Field, who is said to have suffered a late miscarriage of her baby because of the extreme stress of the manhunt.120 Even in Hungary, people were mistakenly questioned or arrested, including a Danish student undergoing psychiatric treatment.121
The number of false leads reported by the press show that the immense reward was both a blessing and a curse. Like the discovery of Leatherslade Farm, some were either acted on too slowly, thus allowing possible suspects to escape or had next to no connection to the robbery. While the police acknowledge that the reward helped in the recovery of money and capture of suspects, the New York Herald Tribune commented that “For besides the normally inquisitive police, a whole army of amateur sleuths are on the lookout for the Great Train Robbery gang and their ill-gotten gains” and lists several dead-end clues, including men digging holes on a golf course, a horse van with a flat tire, a dumped picnic, and a man carrying cardboard boxes.122 Even The Times had a little story of people searching the Stretchford area, even going as far as digging up roads and dismantling houses.123
On the 8th of September, The Mirror considered who must pay for this robbery. It says that the amount stolen compares to a fair-sized City takeover bid, paying for all the beer drunk in Britain between now and closing tomorrow night and building a block of flats for 850 families. Overall, the major losers of the theft are the insurance companies to the banks, who have footed £1.8 million, of whom the National Provincial Bank had the largest claim of £1 million. The loss is on par with two airliners crashing in mid-air. The robbery also means dearer premiums for every business, not just banks. One bank was uninsured and lost over £500k.
By this early point in the investigation, officers believed the cost would add up to £300,000. There is the worry that the notes smuggled aboard could be exchanged for other currencies, causing a possible £2 million fall in reserves. Overall, the total cost of the robbery for Britain sits at £5.5 million, with only security companies profiting from the theft.124
Much of the stolen money would never be recovered. By the beginning of the trial, the total amount found sat around £300,000, just over a tenth of the amount stolen. The police and banks acknowledged that vast sums of money had either been put into circulation by innocent people after being sold to bookmakers at a discount125 or smuggled aboard.
As one of the biggest stories of the year, people using the hysteria of the Great Train Robbery for their gain was a given. The musician Joe Brady released a disc named after the theft, with the press joking it would be a great giggle if it made more than what was stolen.126 The BBC would later ban the disc, with Brady responding, “This is incredible. The record, made by Pye, does not mention anyone who may be alleged to have been connected with the robbery. […] It is a good record and ends with a moral ... 'If you do wrong you'll end in jail.' […] It is ridiculous to even think that this song could affect the trial of anybody in connection with the actual robbery.”126 Many considered the robbery the reason a low-budget Brazilian film about a train robbery became a surprise success, with a reviewer in The Times writing, “It is difficult to imagine why this totally undistinguished Brazilian film should have been imported when so many far better films never arrive here at all-except, possibly, a fugitive hope that the ‘great train robbery’ may have lent it a little adventitious topicality.”127 Even a film producer registered for the film titled The Great Train Robbery, hoping to capitalise on the obsession.
Daily Mail Reporter. "BBC bans 'Great train raid' record." Daily Mail, 10 Oct. 1963, p. 3. Daily Mail Historical Archive.
Ultimately, one of the greatest costs of the robbery was on the robbers themselves. Much like the Brazilian film, The Mirror writes, “The gang mistrust each other. They are afraid to spend their money. Some break down and splash out foolishly. The police watch, wives and mistresses make their demands. Fear and tension mount. […] this film brilliantly spotlights the problems that must be nagging at the minds of our own railroad bandits.”128 Many suspects, including Bruce Reynolds, James White, and “Buster” Edwards, must have experienced incredible stress seeing their faces plastered on every newspaper and police station from Carlisle to Plymouth. They were wanted men, hunted for a crime that would rocket them from obscurity and into the spotlight once reserved for Jesse James and his ilk.
The story of the Great Train Robbery does not end here. The trial of the 21 people would come to dominate the headlines and ultimately result in long – in the case of Boal, harsh – sentences. To conclude, the people on trial for the biggest robbery at its time are:
Charged with being armed with offensive weapons or being with other persons, robbed the Postmaster-General of 120 mailbags.
Roger John Cordrey
Charles Fredrick Wilson
Ronald Arthur Biggs
Leonard Dennis Field
Brian Arthur Field
Roy John James
Charged with receiving money, knowing it had been stolen.
Wanted in connection with the robbery.
Acquitted of all charges.