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.
Only moments 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 carriage window.
Travelling Post 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.
Within 25 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:
“We’re leaving 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).
Ronnie Biggs, 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.
Bruce Reynolds, 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).
Researching it 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.)
The secondary 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 her father.
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.
The Krays by James Morton
On 15 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 business, reasons.
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.
JAMES MORTON 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 KRAYS & THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY were published on Thursday 27 November 2008 by The National Archives in their Crime Archive series, £7.99 hardback.