This years marks the 50th anniversary of a very long-running news story.
A link between Ronald Biggs and Frankie Howerd might seem ludicrous until one remembers ‘The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery’ and realises how deeply the ‘Crime of the Century’ engraved itself into the national psyche. Everyone involved in the £2.6 million haul feels like a character from a British film, from Bruce Reynolds, in his handmade suit and Harry Palmer glasses, through embittered military men and ex-racing getaway drivers to a (sadly discredited) German mastermind with a duelling scar.
The raid on the Glasgow to London Royal Mail night train appeared to replace the traditional image of smash-and-grab cosh-boys with highly skilled criminal technicians, and despite plenty of predictably outraged newspaper headlines the public couldn’t get enough of the details. One of the sixteen-strong gang was a bank robber and ladies hairdresser, another was a former boxer, and five were never caught. Every element, from the sacks of old banknotes to the lonely bridge where the signals were covered with black leather gloves, entered the nation’s criminal iconography.
For the next fifty years, the theft, the trial (the longest in British criminal history) and subsequent high-security prison escapes were endlessly picked over and mythologised. Virtually everyone involved transcribed their version of events, blurring the lines between fact and film. Images from ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and ‘The Italian Job’ were evoked until the robbery generated its own fictionalised accounts, with freshly minted versions of the leads played by everyone from Stanley Baker to Phil Collins.
In a country still paralysed by the postwar period of regulation and austerity, the robbers were covertly admired for their military precision and planning, their refusal to use firearms, their sheer bravado, and the Royal Mail was presented as complacent and outdated for using the same carriage on regular dates to transport huge amounts of cash through darkened, deserted countryside.
The truth is inevitably more complex; the plan was flawed, the decision to unpack the money at a farmhouse proved fatal and the police investigation failed to provide forensic evidence. Few crimes have ever provoked such prolonged scrutiny. When the author Piers Paul Read met with seven of the robbers before writing his account, the man he described as the most sinister of the gang turned out to be their literary agent.
All of this would have amounted to little more than a Sid James caper were it not for the problem of public perception. Romantic notions about the robbery were counterbalanced by increasing disenchantment with the Establishment. Incredibly, one of the banks involved had no insurance against theft. Prosecutions were slow and the case dragged. If crooks could make off with a fortune in forty six minutes, why couldn’t a case be built against them in such a clean-cut fashion? State prevarication occurred just as it seemed the forces of anarchy were marshalling.
Is it any wonder that we can visualise the events of a single August night more clearly than the protracted tangle of prosecutions that followed? ‘The Great Train Robbery’ by Nick Russell-Pavier & Stewart Edwards marks the anniversary of Britain’s most famous crime, and the book reveals a strangely seductive lost world…