Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Big One: Ronald Biggs and the Great Train Robbery

The Plan

No one knows for sure who first came up with the idea of robbing the Glasgow-to-London mail train, but one thing is certain, it led to one of the most audacious crimes in British history. 

The Great Train Robbery of 1963 was a daring crime that had more in common with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than a band of small-time London criminals.  It was a crime that not only captivated the imagination of the worlds media and the public they served, it also succeeded in transforming one of the gang, Ronald Arthur Ronnie Biggs, into a folk hero.

Nipper Read
Nipper Read

A number of sources, including Peta Fordhams 1965 book The Robbers Tale, credit an unnamed leader of Londons underworld as being the brains behind the original idea which was later rejected by his gang in the early 1960s as being too ambitious.  Leonard Nipper Read, the Scotland Yard detective who arrested the notorious Kray twins, suggests in his autobiography, Nipper - The Man Who Nicked the Krays, that the original plan was the brainchild of an unnamed Irishman who was well known for planning robberies and on-selling them to other criminals.

Bruce Reynolds
Bruce Reynolds

Regardless of the original source, the plan was put into play in 1962 when a member of the gang that had refused the original concept was serving time in prison and happened to mention it to fellow inmate Bruce Richard Reynolds.  Reynolds, a London antique dealer and prominent thief, thought the idea had merit and used the last months of his sentence to work out the details. 

Following his release, Reynolds discussed the plan with his accomplices who were known collectively as the South West gang.  As his number two, Reynolds chose Douglas Gordon Goody, a suave, well-dressed London hairdresser and part-time thief who was well known in criminal circles for his courage and coolness under pressure.

Reynolds gang, although loyal and competent, didnt have the numbers that were needed for a job of such magnitude.  Enter Buster Edwards.  Ronald Buster Edwards, a former boxer turned jovial club owner and leader of the South East gang, was a close friend and confident of both Reynolds and Goody.  After a short meeting between the three it was agreed that the two gangs would join forces for the score of a lifetime.

The other key figure in the planning and implementation was bookmaker Charles Frederick Wilson. Wilson, an affable and trustworthy associate of Reynolds, was a key member of the South West gang and an able hand on a job where clear thinking was a valuable asset.

Contrary to popular belief, no doubt fuelled by media speculation, Ronald Arthur Ronnie Biggs did not take part in the actual planning of the robbery and in fact played a fairly minor role.  Biggs, described by Fordham in The Robbers Tale, as mild-mannered and not very bright, had been a small-time crook since his teens.   After a string of criminal escapades had all gone sour resulting in varying periods of prison time, he became disillusioned with criminal life and turned his hand to construction work using the carpentry skills he had picked up in prison.  He later formed a partnership with the bricklayer husband of one of his wifes school friends and business gradually began to pick up.

Although the business grew steadily, his modest earnings were quickly eaten up on payroll and outlay on building materials.  Anxious to keep the business going and reluctant to return to crime, he contacted his friend Bruce Reynolds with a view to borrowing 500 to tide him over.

Although sympathetic to his plight, Reynolds explained that he was unable to help as most of his funds were committed to a piece of business he was involved in but, if Biggs was interested, there might be something in it for him.

Ronald Biggs as a young man
Ronald Biggs as a young man

Biggs, anxious to hear more, made arrangements for Reynolds to come to the house that he shared with his wife Charmaine and his two young sons.  The following weekend, Reynolds, accompanied by his own wife and son, arrived at the Biggs residence and laid out the plan.  Although interested, Ronnie Biggs was reluctant to commit as he was not looking forward to another, and considerably longer, stretch in prison if they were caught.  The clincher came when Reynolds told Biggs that his share would be 40,000, an almost obscene amount of money in those days and well beyond the reach of any legitimate earnings Ronnie could ever hope for. 

Biggs threw caution to the winds and made arrangements to meet the rest of the lads.  Reynolds then added a proviso, if Biggs were to be involved, he would have to find someone who was capable of driving a diesel locomotive.  As luck would have it, Ronnie knew just the man.

As he explained in detail in his 1994 autobiography Odd Man Out, Biggs had been working at the house of a man who was employed as a train driver at the local rail yards.  The man, described only as Peter, was, by his own account, well versed in the intricacies of diesel locomotives and keen to help, especially when he learned how much money was involved.  With the key members of the team picked and a seemingly fool-proof plan taking shape, Reynolds was ready for the next step.

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