The crime is still surrounded by myths on the 50th anniversary
Ronnie Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers, in police custody in 1963
It is the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, on Thursday. Even after all this time, many myths surround it. A new compilation, the Great Train Robbery 50th Anniversary, compiled by Nick Reynolds, son of the robbery’s architect, Bruce, who died earlier this year – and with contributions from the late robber and Ronnie Biggs – hopes to put the record straight. Here are 10 things you (quite possibly) didn’t know about it.
1. The Bernie Ecclestone connection
Completely unfounded rumours about the involvement of the Formula One supremo have circulated for years, prompting him to make the cheery denial that “there wasn’t enough money on that train”. There is a tiny connection in that one of the robbers, the late Roy James, who had been a professional racing driver, wrote from prison to the former champion Graham Hill, asking for help with his career when he came out. He was told he was wasting his time if he hoped to return to the track. But James was an accomplished silversmith and ended up making trophies.
2. Those 30-year sentences
Jailing the robbers in 1964, Mr Justice Edmund Davies told them that “to deal with this case leniently would be a positively evil thing” and duly sent most of them down for 30 years. Yet the previous year the same judge had reduced the sentence on appeal of one Charles Connelly, who had been involved in a robbery in which a van driver in Mitcham, Surrey, was shot dead. Cutting his term from 15 to 10 years, Davies said: “The sentence was excessive.”
3. Brighton rocked
After Biggs and Charlie Wilson escaped from prison, the author Graham Greene wrote to the Daily Telegraph saying: “Am I one of a minority in feeling admiration for the skill and courage behind the Great Train Robbery? More important, am I in a minority in being shocked by the savagery of the sentences?”
4. The Nazi connection
The robbers negotiated a substantial financial deal for co-operating with the author Piers Paul Read on his 1978 book The Train Robbers. To justify their large advance they invented a story that Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the ex-Nazi escape network Odessa, had financed the robbery, a hoax that Read only learned of when he went to Brazil to interview Biggs. In fact, it was Bruce Reynolds who put up the necessary money to finance the robbery; it worked out at just £38 per head which he jokingly asked the robbers to refund him afterwards. There was a tangential connection here in that Biggs and another robber, Buster Edwards, got plastic surgery while on the run from a doctor who had remodelled the faces of fleeing Nazis.
5. The unsung victim
While many recall the name of Jack Mills, the driver hit over the head during the robbery – who died of leukaemia, unrelated to the attack, seven years later – few remember the name of his assistant, David Whitby. He died of a heart attack eight years later at the age of just 34.
6. The Colin Firth connection
Steady on – the actor was not quite three when the robbery took place. But on the run, Bruce Reynolds needed new names and identities for himself, his wife and his son, Nick, as they fled to Mexico and Canada. They took the surname Firth and Nick became Colin Firth.
7. The getaway car
British Leyland ran an ad for their Mini in 1979 with the slogan “Nips in and out like Ronnie Biggs” and placed one of the posters near the flower stall of Edwards in Waterloo.
Members of the public complained but the Advertising Standards Authority supposedly only queried whether BL had got Biggs’s permission to use his name.
8. The video game
Bruce Reynolds and Biggs were signed up to produce a Great Train Robbery video game in 1999 but it never came to fruition. There is, however, a zombie-themed board game called The Great Brain Robbery. (The robbers played Monopoly at their post-robbery hideout, leaving incriminating fingerprints on the board.)
9. The lawsuit
One robber, Gordon Goody, now living in Spain, sued the People from prison for suggesting he had “coerced an innocent and decent young woman” into taking part in the robbery. He won the case and received £2 in damages.
10. Odd man in
While four of the robbers were never caught, one of the men convicted, Bill Boal, was not actually involved in the robbery at all. He was arrested because of his links to the robber Roger Cordrey. Boal was found with some of the stolen money which he claimed he had because Cordrey was repaying a debt. He died in prison in 1970, still protesting his innocence. Now his family are considering a posthumous appeal and preparing a file for the Criminal Cases Review Commission.