The latest titles in the CRIME ARCHIVE series published
by The National Archives continues its fascinating journey looking back on
criminals and their sometimes gruesome crimes. Each author was allowed access to
the vast collection of records held in Kew, and each brings their own unique
style into re-telling the stories. SHOTS is lucky enough to have both Peter
Guttridge and James Morton write about their books, and I am sure you will agree
that their articles will be enough to tempt you to go and buy the books, and
perhaps even the backlist which includes BURKE & HARE by Allana Knight, DR
CRIPPEN by Katherine Watson, JOHN CHRISTIE by Edward Marston, JACK THE RIPPER by
van Horsler, MRS MAYBRICK by Victoria Blake, RUTH ELLIS by Victoria Blake.
The Great Train Robbery
By Peter Guttridge
When the glass noisily shattered - ugly,
jagged shards crashing to the floor – and the hulking masked man with the
broad-bladed axe in his hands pitched through the window, the five postal
workers knew it was over. The heavy mailbags they had been desperately piling
against the door were tumbling down as more men, armed with pickaxe handles and
coshes, in boiler suits and woollen masks, pushed into the carriage.
before the postmen had heard one of the men shout from the track: “They’re
bolting the door - get the guns.”
It was around 3.15am on a clear
warm night at Sears Crossing in Buckinghamshire. The postal workers were all in
the High Value Package (HVP) carriage of the night mail train, which had left
Glasgow at 6.05pm. When the train stopped the postal workers didn’t really pay
much attention. Such temporary stops were a common occurrence on the long
nightly journey as there had been electrification work going on for months. A
few minutes later it had shunted forward. Stopped again. None of them had
thought anything of it - until, that is, the big man had crashed through the
Offices had operated in Britain for 125 years and none had ever been robbed.
The GPO’s night sorting train had been made famous in Night Mail, a short
promotional film from the 1930s that featured a poem by WH Auden.
At the start of
its journey in Glasgow, this train took on board the surplus money from all
Scottish banks in HVPs, loaded into one carriage. More HVPs were added at seven
scheduled stops en route to London. The train was stuffed with money – but it
did not have a single policeman, transport policeman or security guard on board.
As the postmen
lay on the floor, more men crowded into the carriage. Two started stacking the
mail bags stuffed with money and three others handed them down onto the railway
line. There were 128 bags. The largest note was the fiver – both the big,
older white version and the new blue one, half its size. The bags were also
stuffed with pound notes and thousands of pounds worth of ten shilling notes.
minutes the robbers had stripped the carriage bare of all but seven of the
bags. Then the driver and the fireman of the train were dragged into the
carriage, handcuffed together, and dropped to the floor to lie beside the
sorters. One of the robbers warned them all:
someone behind – don’t move for thirty minutes or it will be the worse for you.”
And then the
robbers were gone – with some £2.6 million in mostly untraceable bills.
In 1963 I was
just into my teens and the Great Train Robbery, as it was quickly dubbed, seemed
like a big adventure, on a par with the adventures in the James Bond movies that
were just coming out. Sure the driver, Jack Mills, had been hit over the head
to subdue him but it was the daring of the robbery that caught the imagination.
Had I known then
that the robbers had stopped the train at the signals not by some space age,
high tech wizardry but by putting an old glove over the green light and plugging
a red light bulb in to a battery it might not have seemed so glamorous.
More of the
glitter might have come off had I known that the gang were not a sophisticated
team of super-crooks but a bunch of South London chancers and small-timers, one
of whom had just done time for stealing custard powder (a lot of it, mind).
probably the most famous robber because of his years spent beyond the law in
Brazil, was primarily a painter and decorator who did a bit of thieving on the
side and had joined the gang at the last minute just to lug the money bags.
sometimes regarded as the mastermind of the robbery, liked to be known for his
sophisticated tastes in cars, fine food and fine wines. Shame, then, that he
was eventually identified solely from fingerprints he’d left on a tomato ketchup
bottle in the thieves’ hide-out.
I knew none of
this back in 1963, when the Cold War had led to the boom in spy stories, the
Beatles were taking over from Cliff Richard at the top of the charts and – oh
yes – my home team of Burnley was a football club to be reckoned with.
Now I do, thanks
to a commission from the National Archive to write a short account of the Great
Train Robbery from the court, police and railway authority files they hold. I
was actually invited to choose between a book about The Krays or about the
Robbery. I chose the robbery because I figured there wasn’t much new to say
about the sociopathic twins (and besides there was someone better qualified than
I to write that book waiting in the wings).
was, to be honest, frustrating because nowhere in the vast pile of official
documents was there any real insight into who had done what in the planning or
execution of the robbery. The robbers mostly pleaded Not Guilty so they weren’t
saying. Those who pleaded guilty didn’t have to say. And the police didn’t
really have a clue.
Nor did the
judge at the trial of the first dozen robbers, which is why they all got the
same lengthy sentence of 30 years. (At least one of those thus convicted – Bill
Boal – was nowhere near the railway line at the time of the robbery.)
sources – police and robbers’ memoirs alike – were economical with the truth or,
indeed, plain fabrications. So tantalising mysteries remain.
The main one is:
what happened to all the money (the equivalent of around £50 million today).
The police recovered only around one seventh of it and most of that was found in
odd circumstances. Who left £47,000 in potato sacks in a telephone box in
Southwark and who dumped £100,000 in woods near Dorking?
However, there was enough in
the files about the larger than life robbers to make the project worthwhile.
(And the fact that there was not one but two successful prison breaks by robbers
brought back some of that original glamour.)
Most of the robbers came
croppers in some way or another later in life. One of the ringleaders, Charlie
Wilson, was murdered decades later in Spain in a professional hit; Buster
Edwards had a film made about him (Phil Collins doing the eponymous honours) but
later hung himself; the unfortunate Bill Boal died in prison; another robber
also died in prison where he’d been incarcerated after shooting his ex-wife and
Which is not to
say the crime didn’t pay. Two - possibly three – men got clean away. They’ve
never been identified, never been called to account. However, there are at
least two police files in the National Archive that remain tantalisingly
closed. Will they one day reveal the identities of the ones that got away?
We’ll find out in 2030.
PETER GUTTRIDGE is a highly successful crime writer and
critic, and the creator of maverick detective Nick Madrid. He has been The
Observer’s crime fiction reviewer for ten years and is currently a judge for
Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie International Dagger.
Krays and the National Archives
by James Morton
March 2009 it will be forty years since Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, when
sentencing Ronnie Kray to life imprisonment, uttered his immortal words, ‘In my
view society has earned a long rest from your activities and I recommend that
you be detained for thirty years. Put him down’. Minutes later he said much the
same to his twin brother Reggie. Reggie had been convicted of killing Jack ‘The
Hat’ McVitie and Ronnie of killing both McVitie and the South London hardman
George Cornell. Their elder brother Charlie received ten years for cleaning up
after the death of McVitie.
With the exception of a short period in the 1970s the public never had a rest
from the Krays. Apart from anything else it didn’t want one. Their prison
careers were documented in the press. Their fights with warders, hunger strikes,
threats to sue the BBC and later marriages and, in Ronnie’s case, a divorce to
keep the readers almost as captive as the twins themselves.
After John Pearson’s seminal The Profession of Violence there was a steady
stream of books, some ghosted on their behalf, some by their friends and former
foes, some by police officers in the case recounting their exploits with various
degrees of accuracy and embellishment. There were T-shirts badges, postcards,
mugs and other memorabilia, and visits, arranged through the now released
Charlie, for a fee so that supplicants could press the flesh of their heroes and
exchange a few words. By the mid-1980s they were probably making more money a
week than they had in their criminal careers. And then there was the film.
Over the years we have learned their tastes in drink, boys, clothes, music, of
their heroes (Ronnie thought highly of Al Capone and to an extent Hitler), their
pastimes (Reggie liked riding but seemingly could not drive to save his life).
They did not attend the funeral of their father but when their cherished mother
died they returned in triumph to the East End. Cheering crowds lined the street
as they did decades earlier for a Royal visit. Boys ran beside the limos to
catch a glimpse along the cream of a past generation of underworld figures.
Local florists never had it so good and may never again.. Traffic came to a
halt. And these scenes were repeated for the funerals of Ronnie and to a lesser
extent Reggie themselves. They were, after all, East End’s own royalty.
Just how did they achieve the status when as Cal McCrystal, a former Sunday
Times journalist, who attended Reggie’s wedding put it ‘The legend became more
interesting than the actualities’?
In truth the twins were not really successful as career criminals. The truly
great ones are those of whom the public has never heard. They were never in the
class of Reggie’s hero Billy Hill, the post war Boss of Britain’s Underworld as
the title of his autobiography immodestly put it. In 1948 Hill organised a
robbery which netted an estimated £250, 000 and no one was caught. He repeated
the trick in 1952 which pulled in a further £40, 000; fantastic sums by today’s
money. They were not even as successful as the pre-war Sabinis, the half-Italian
brothers from Clerkenwell who ruled the racecourses and dog tracks as well as
Soho. They were certainly never the businessmen of the calibre of their supposed
rivals Charlie and Eddie Richardson.
The Krays were both fortunate and unfortunate. Part of their appeal was that
they were twins. From the time of Greek and Roman mythology twins have always
held a special interest —often separated, or one good and one bad twin—in
folklore, history and romantic literature. In academic circles there has long
been discussion of hereditary influences. With the exception of female twins who
committed arson, in British criminal history the Krays are unique.
Then there has always been the fascination with the East End. There may have
been more bodies or slashings per capita in the Elephant and Castle or
Paddington but neither of these areas have had the criminal cachet that the East
End has garnered. Perhaps because the very word East carries with it the spice
of the Orient. Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood opens in an opium den and
Conan Doyle set a Sherlock Holmes story in another of the dens in Limehouse; Sax
Rohmer’s Fu Manchu used the East End as his base for his plans to corrupt the
occidental world. In real life there was Jack the Ripper about whom, by 2000,
over 500 books had been written.
Then there was the rejuvenation of the East End after the bombing in World War
Two. The Theatre Royal, Stratford re-opened. An interest in working class
culture developed. For the first time members of the working class could be seen
on the cinema and in print as hero or anti-hero. It was the same in America with
Afro-Americans. Prior to the war and immediately after, there had been working
class heroes but they had been of the comic variety —George Formby, Tommy
Trinder and Norman Wisdom, even Gracie Fields, are good examples. They might
still get the man or the girl at the end of the film but they were never in
competition with David Niven. Now with Joe Lampton, John Braine’s character from
Room at the Top and Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and
so-called kitchen-sink dramas such as The L Shaped Room, the working classes,
unmarried mothers, gays and black men were treated as having souls and not
simply ciphers or figures of fun.
The Krays also put themselves out to create an image, even if it was a very
different one from reality. And this doubtless contributed both to their fall
and subsequent phoenix-like rise. They were keen to portray themselves as
charity workers, presenting prizes at amateur boxing events, raffling useless
racehorses for charity. Before Hill and his one time partner, later rival, Jack
Spot, traditional criminals did not try to rise above their primordial station
and mix with their betters. Spot and Hill were good copy for rival newspapers.
And later Spot would attribute his downfall to his craving for publicity. The
same could be said for the twins. Never having heard the word hubris they simply
got above themselves.
Now almost fifty years after they began their rule of the East End, there are
two very different lines of thought about them. There is the legend of the twins
who made the streets safe for women and children and of whose murders it is said
‘They only killed their own’. And there is the contrary belief they were nothing
more than thieves’ ponces and killers who killed for personal, as opposed to
Is there anything more to be learned about Krayology, the word coined by
Ronnie’s barrister John Platts-Mills to the fury of the irascible judge Melford
Stevenson who said he hoped he would never hear the word again? A trawl through
the East London papers of the time produces some fascinating stuff. Who knew
that Reggie promoted all-in wrestling at the York Hall? He billed the former
British Champion Bert Assirati to appear without telling him. The great man
declined and Reggie backed down. Instead one of his henchman, the by-now
paunching Bobby Ramsey was pressed into service. The papers are full of similar
snippets. The National Archives at Kew itself has some even more fascinating
material. For a start there are complete transcripts of the trials which any
young lawyer would do well to study. They show how when clients get control of a
case and it goes downhill thereafter. Ronnie contributed a great deal to his
conviction. Who in their right minds would have called ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser then
serving fifteen years and certified insane on three occasions to give evidence
to say that a mild mannered fraudster rather than Reggie had shot George Cornell
in the Blind Beggar? Ronnie’s personal attacks on the portly prosecuting counsel
make entertaining reading but are classic examples of how defendants who hope to
be acquitted should not behave. The long windedness of Platts-Mills contrasts
sharply with Stevenson’s succinct put downs. Perhaps most interesting is that it
took only seven hours for the jury to return their verdicts on two murder
charges and multiple defendants, acquitting one. Now they would take seven days.
But there are other treats in the archives and these are the files of the
investigations into the killings, and the blackmailing (Not Guilty) of the night
club owner Huw McCowen. The East End certainly knew who were the killers and the
files contain anonymous notes suggesting the police should lean on the
Lambrianous who might crack. They didn’t. There are also lists taken from Ronnie
in the McCowen inquiries containing names of the great and the good,
journalists, politicians and mafiosi alike along with letters from Lord
Boothby’s secretary assuring him his Lordship was doing what he could for him.
And after their convictions who was to be allowed to see or write to them, the
Home Office fears of an escape attempt and the sad letters over Reggie’s adamant
refusal to co-operate in the reburial of his wife. All in all it’s a treasure
trove of social history.
is a highly successful
author on gangland crime. His work includes writing books with personalities
from the Krays’ era. He was previously a defence solicitor and editor of the
New Law Journal and Criminal Lawyer.
& THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY were published on Thursday 27 November 2008 by
The National Archives in their Crime Archive
series, £7.99 hardback.