Today marks the anniversary of the Great Gold Robbery of 1855. It appears to be every bit of the epic caper as covered in the 1979 Michael Crichton movie the Great Train Robbery.
Perhaps, in the annals of crime, no more romantic circumstances ever occurred than in the case of the great bullion robbery on the South-Eastern Railway.
The heist involved the theft of a consignment of gold bullion being conveyed between London and Paris under heavy lock and key on behalf of three companies. It was only when the strong boxes were opened in Paris that it was discovered that most of the bounty had been switched with lead shot. The French police blamed the English and the English police vice-versa in a classic French-British passing the buck episode. It eventually emerged that the deed was done on the London Bridge Station to Folkestone leg on the South Eastern Railway by four men who were at the centre of a wider network of accomplices essential to breaking security in a long and meticulously-planned operation.
They were William Pierce, an ex-railway employee, who originated the idea; George Agar, an experienced and worldly criminal who masterminded the operation, pulling together all the strands essential to mount a viable project; George Tester, the railway clerk who enabled the gang to make duplicate keys of the Chubb safe aboard the train; of course, they would need another vital man on the inside – this was the train’s guard, a man called Burgess. Burgess had to make sure all the gang’s essential accoutrements were loaded in the guard’s van and to allow the men access to do their work.
The whole operation went nicely to plan, the perpetrators returning to London from Dover the following day with their ill-gotten haul. But the whole thing unravelled the following year, only because Agar’s girlfriend (possibly ex-girlfriend) – one Fanny Kay – who was recruited to act as a receiver failed to get a payment from Pierce, and blew the whistle to the governor of Newgate Prison.
By the time of the trial, Agar had already been convicted to transportation for life from a completely separate incident, that of passing a false cheque (involving the notorious bent barrister James Saward, aka Jim the Penman). Pierce, Tester and Burgess were sentenced to 14 years transportation.
Talking of crimes on the early railways, the first murder on the trains was of one Mr Briggs, a banker, in 1864. London Historians member Kate Colquhoun has recently had a book published about this incident, Mr Briggs’ Hat. It is enjoying very good reviews, such as this one, in the Telegraph. “I found it unputdownable.”