Curator's Corner: The First Great Train Robbery
Most people in the UK will have heard the phrase “The Great Train Robbery” and those of a certain age will remember the dramatic story of how, in the early hours of 8 August 1963, a 16-strong gang managed to stop the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail train and steal from it £2.6 million in banknotes (equivalent to £59 million today).
But this was not the first successful heist from a train in the UK. More than a century earlier, on the evening of 15 May 1855, a much smaller gang succeeded in removing some 91kg of gold bars and coins from the London-to-Folkestone mail train. The gold was one of the regular shipments destined for Paris and, in part, for Crimea to pay the wages of British troops fighting with their French and Turkish allies against the Russians. The value of the haul was around £12,000 at the time (or just over £4 million at current prices).
Apart from the obvious similarities between these two audacious robberies (the removal of valuables from a mail train and the meticulous planning that preceded the crimes), they had little in common. The 1963 robbery involved hijacking the train and a certain amount of physical violence, whilst the execution of the earlier theft was much more subtle: there was no violence and the perpetrators had safely returned to London with their spoils long before the crime was discovered when the bullion boxes were opened in Paris.
In 1975, Michael Crichton’s heavily fictionalised account of the 1855 robbery was published and this was followed by the film based on the book, which he directed in 1978. Neither of these attempted to give a true account of the planning, execution and aftermath of the actual crime. For this, we had to wait until 2011 when David Hanrahan’s book The First Great Train Robbery was published.
THE PERPETRATORS HAD SAFELY RETURNED TO LONDON WITH THEIR SPOILS LONG BEFORE THE CRIME WAS DISCOVERED WHEN THE BULLION BOXES WERE OPENED IN PARIS
Fact or Fiction?
In his book and film, Crichton’s two main perpetrators had similar names to the actual criminals. He depicted the real ‘brains’ behind the conspiracy as ‘Edward Pierce’, a career criminal who has managed to pass himself off as a successful businessman and who moves around easily in the ranks of high society. The real originator of the plot was a William Pierce, a career criminal who was employed in the ticket printing office of the South Eastern Railway Company. It was through this ‘day job’ that he learnt about the gold shipments and conceived the plan to “feloniously abstract” (as the Company’s announcement of a reward had it) the bullion from the train as it travelled from London Bridge to Folkestone.
Pierce’s chosen co-conspirator was Edward Agar, a highly skilled forger and safe-cracker, whose expertise with keys and locks would be essential to the success of the venture. This was because the wooden bullion boxes were inserted into state-of-the-art portable iron safes, which were then loaded into the guard’s van in London. The boxes were removed from the safes in Folkestone before being transferred to the Boulogne steamer. Central to the plan (both actual and fictionalised) was the need to obtain copies of the keys to these safes.
From here on, the actual and fictional crimes diverge significantly. In reality, Pierce succeeded in corrupting two employees of the Railway Company, William Tester, a clerk who ‘borrowed’ one of the safe keys, allowing Agar to make a wax impression of it, and James Burgess, who was the chief guard on the mail train. Once the duplicate keys had been made, Burgess’s role would be to allow Agar to hide in a corner of the guard’s van from which he would emerge during the journey, armed with the keys and tools, to open the safes and empty the bullion boxes.
By May 1855, all was ready, and once Pierce had established that a suitably large consignment would be shipped on the 7:30 pm train on the 15th, the plan was put into action. Everything worked perfectly. Agar replaced the gold with bags of lead shot of approximately equal weight and resealed the boxes before replacing them in the safes. The boxes were removed from the safes by company officials in Folkestone and transferred to the harbour office to await the arrival of the Boulogne steamer. Agar and Pierce (the latter travelling as a passenger) stayed on the train until its final destination of Dover, from where they caught the 2 am train to London, carrying the gold under their cloaks in specially made carpet bags.
Above: Agar under examination at the Old Bailey, during the trial of Pierce, Burgess and Tester Source: Wikipedia.
After the crime was discovered, neither the police nor the Railway Company had any success in identifying what had happened or who was responsible. The French and English authorities blamed each other for allowing the theft and the Railway Company persuaded itself that the gold must have been stolen in Folkestone rather than from the train. A year later, the members of the gang were increasingly confident that their involvement would never be established by the police. However, they had not managed to launder most of the gold, in spite of the heroic efforts of Pierce and Agar in setting up what was in effect a small foundry to convert the large bars into small bars which could more easily be disposed of or exchanged for notes or sovereigns. Most of the stolen gold was still in its original form.
However, Agar’s past had caught up with him. In the autumn of 1855, he was arrested for forgery and on conviction in October, he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation to Australia for life. But he was not suspected of any connection with the train robbery and might well have taken this secret to the grave. The reason he did not was Pierce’s mistreatment of Agar’s paramour, Fanny Kay, the mother of Agar’s illegitimate son Edward. Following his imprisonment and awaiting transportation, Agar had trusted Pierce to look after Fanny and his son financially. This, Pierce signally failed to do, leading to two consequences that would be disastrous for the gang. First of all, Fanny went to the authorities and told them that she knew who had committed the train robbery. Secondly, on hearing about Pierce’s mistreatment of Fanny, Agar decided to tell all.
Pierce, Burgess and Tester were all arrested and at their trial at the Central Criminal Court in January 1857, Agar was the star witness. Without his evidence, the other three might well have escaped conviction. But with it, Burgess and Tester were sentenced to transportation for 14 years. Their crime was Larceny as Servants, for which the law allowed such a heavy punishment. But Pierce, in spite of being the instigator of the crime, was judged to be guilty of simple Larceny (as he had left the employment of the Railway Company before the crime had been committed). As a result, the judge was, to his obvious regret, only able to impose on him a maximum sentence of two years with hard labour. He clearly considered Pierce the basest of the villains, not so much for organising the crime as for his treatment of Fanny and her child.
By contrast, the judge obviously had a sneaking admiration for Agar, describing his many talents, which had they been applied to honest, rather than criminal endeavours, would have undoubtedly led to a successful career. Many people, possibly including the judge, felt that Agar should receive some remission of his sentence or even a conditional pardon as a reward for his evidence. But this was not to be. In September 1857, he was transported to Australia.