The Great Train Robbery: Why do we have such a peculiar romantic fondness for thieves?

Duncan Campbell, who knew many of the old-style robbers, explores why we all still love a villain.

A re-enactment of how robbers disabled the mail train at the Sears Crossing during the robbery on 8 August 1963. Photograph: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Over the police radio came the astonished comment: “You won’t believe this – but they’ve just stolen a train.” The first official notification of the theft of £2.6m from the Glasgow-to-Euston mail train came at 4.30 in the morning on 8 August 1963. Now, nearly 50 years on, we are about to experience a blizzard of anniversary television programmes, reissued books and chin-stroking commentary pieces about what was initially called “the Cheddington train robbery” but soon acquired a more grandiose title.

But why, half a century later, are we still familiar with the names of those involved in the Great Train Robbery? How has professional crime changed since then? And what, if anything, does it say about the nation’s fascination with villainy?

The previous decade, in 1952, another group of professional criminals had carried out what was, at the time, an even more impudent robbery. It took place in Eastcastle Street in the West End of London and involved the theft of £287,000 (today worth more than £6m) from a mail van and the coshing of the van crew. More than a thousand police officers were involved in the hunt for the robbers and the prime minister, Winston Churchill, asked for daily updates on the investigation.

The press could barely conceal its admiration for the theft, which was carried out “with Montgomery-like thoroughness . . . it went off as smoothly as any of our commando raids during the war”. No one was ever arrested for it although it was common knowledge that it had been organised by the London gang leader Billy Hill, who was soon boasting about getting away with it in his ghosted autobiography. It was referred to jokily in the film The Ladykillers three years later, but beyond that it barely lingered on in the national consciousness.

There have also been bigger and more complex robberies since the Great Train Robbery. In 1975, 94 security boxes at the Bank of America in Mayfair, central London, were plundered of an estimated £8m. The thieves were in such a rush that they left behind a Picasso and an Enid Blyton first edition. Who remembers the names of any of the robbers?

A more spectacular theft of safety deposit boxes was carried out in Knightsbridge in 1987 by an Italian playboy and libel lawyer’s son called Valerio Viccei. He got away with £40m and was caught only because he came back to London from his Latin American hideaway to arrange for the transportation of his Ferrari Testarossa, as one would.

Viccei, whom one detective described as having “an ego the size of the Old Bailey”, was jailed for 22 years. Allowed to serve some of his sentence in Italy, he was shot dead in a confrontation with the police in 2000 while on day release from prison.

The 1971 robbery of the Baker Street branch of Lloyds bank also enjoyed a certain cheery notoriety because of its modus operandi: the gang had a lookout with a walkie-talkie on the roof of the building opposite who alerted the robbers to the presence of the police as they painstakingly drilled their way into the bank through an adjoining property. A radio ham overheard their conversations and told the police, who initially thought he was pulling their leg. This robbery became a film, The Bank Job (2008), starring Jason Statham, and the cinema publicity suggested that the heist had involved “millions and millions of pounds . . . none of it was recovered. Nobody was ever arrested. The robbery made headlines for a few days and then disappeared – the result of a government D-Notice, gagging the press.” (All of which was nonsense: four of the gang were jailed for 44 years in total; £231,000 was recovered and no D-Notice was even requested, far less granted.)

I n 2000, an attempt was made to steal £200m worth of De Beers diamonds from the Millennium Dome, with a planned escape by speedboat down the Thames. The police were ahead of the gang and caught them red-handed. More recently, in 2006, another gang robbed the Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent, of £53m. They kidnapped the depot manager, his wife and his young son and held them all until the robbery had been carried out; the robbers were disguised as police officers and wearing latex masks. It was Britain’s biggest robbery ever but most people would struggle to name even one of the robbers involved, the best known of whom was a cage fighter called Lee Murray who fled to Morocco, his father’s home country, and is now serving a 25-year sentence there. It failed to capture the public imagination not least because it involved the kidnapping of a child and woman.

The investigating officer, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Judge, said that the robbers’ plans had been “very clever in parts and very naive in others. There was some very sophisticated preparation and also some very silly mistakes that they had not thought through at all.” And Roger Coe-Salazar, the then chief Crown prosecutor for Kent, said at the end of the trial in June 2008, “It is quite easy for it to end up being seen in a romantic, even an Ocean’s 12, way. There is nothing romantic or victimless about a child being held at gunpoint by a masked man.”

The Securitas robbery exemplified how the execution of such crimes had changed over the years since 1963. At the end of the Securitas trial, Bruce Reynolds, the ringleader of the train robbers, wrote a piece for the Guardian in effect a review of the later crime. He suggested that perhaps the robbers would have carried out the heist even if they had known that they were going to get caught, as “Nipper” Read, one of the detectives who pursued the train robbers, had suggested about them.

“We all have our benchmarks,” he wrote, “and for us the benchmark was the Brinks robbery in Boston in 1950, which was the largest robbery in the United States at that time. We wanted to do something as spectacular as that . . . It’s insanity, of course, and we knew we would be in the frame as soon as the robbery happened but it’s the same madness, I suppose, that drives people to bivouac on the north face of the Eiger.”

He pointed out how such crimes had altered in the intervening years.

The Securitas robbers faced the same problems that we had because we both had a large group of people but it was different for us because we all came from a common background; we shared the same mores and we trusted each other. With Securitas, they had two Albanians and seemed to have half> of the team from Kent and half from south London. Their other problem was that their robbery, like ours, was too big. You throw down the gauntlet to society and obviously society has to respond.

Reynolds concluded: “If you really want to make money nowadays, you should go into hedge funds.” He gave his fee for the article to Amnesty International, as he did the advance on the last edition of his memoirs. Under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, ex-criminals are not allowed to profit from writing about their crimes. The law was attacked by Baroness (Ruth) Rendell as it made its way through the Lords; she cited Jean Genet as just one writer who would have been affected by it.

The nature of professional crime, as Reynolds suggested, has changed in the same way as industry has. The old family firms and local enterprises have been replaced by multinationals. Criminals prefer now to be as faceless as a chief executive, rather than knock out their memoirs and feature in the press. By the end of the 1960s, drugs were already beginning to replace robbery as a simpler way of getting money and many professional criminals moved into that field. I bumped into one old thief a few years ago who had sent his sons to public school with the proceeds of his crimes and now saw them working in the City and earning more than he could ever have dreamed of.

Reynolds died in February at the age of 81. The death of an old villain these days follows a pattern: recollection of past crimes, a quote or two from their memoirs and some grainy old photos from outside the Old Bailey. This is generally followed a couple of days later by a few articles from the vicarish end of the commentariat on how shameful it is that criminals are portrayed as lovable rogues or diamond geezers when they are nothing but lowlife crooks.

Usually these articles make reference to Robin Hood and Dick Turpin and then despair at the national affection for some criminals. The Independent ran a classic of the genre in which Reynolds was dismissed as a “lowlife loser” who was little different from Raoul Moat, who in 2010 shot his ex-girlfriend, killed her boyfriend and blinded a policeman who later committed suicide – a comparison about as fatuous as likening Chris Huhne to the Yorkshire Ripper because motor vehicles were involved in the commission of both men’s crimes.

So why do we still run through the details of the crime and remember the train robbers’ names? One reason was the length of sentences – 30 years each for seven of the defendants – handed out by Mr Justice Edmund Davies. “Let us clear out of the way any romantic notions of daredevilry,” he said. “This is nothing less than a sordid crime of violence inspired by vast greed.” Jack Mills, the driver of the train, was hit over the head during the robbery and never worked again. “As to violence,” the judge said, “anyone who has seen that nerve-shattered engine-driver can have no doubt of the terrifying effect on law-abiding citizens of a concerted assault by masked and armed robbers in lonely darkness. To deal with this case leniently would be a positively evil thing.” Mills died seven years later of leukaemia that the coroner said was not related to his injuries.

In 1963 the usual sentence for a robbery was about 12 years and the death penalty for murder was still two years from abolition. As Reynolds observed later, the message sent by the sentences was that if you were now going to get a 30-year term for robbery you might as well carry a gun. And in 1966, three robbers shot dead three unarmed policemen in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, rather than be arrested. One of them, Harry Roberts, remains in jail to this day. From the 1970s onwards, it became standard practice for robbers to carry firearms.

Another reason why the story (and myths) around the train robbery took off was the period. It was 1963, the year of the Profumo scandal and the Beatles’ first LP. The BBC’s That Was the Week That Was poked fun at an establishment already reeling from the Profumo disclosures. Private Eyehad just arrived on the scene. It was the end of the age of deference, when judges and politicians became figures of fun. There are echoes of that mood and lack of respect today, because of the behaviour of politicians, the City, the Catholic Church. One of the first of more than 20 books about the robbery, The Robbers’ Tale, by Peta Fordham, published in 1965, likened the gang to “Henry V’s men at Agincourt . . . what feats they did that day”. The robbery seemed audacious, in tune with the times. That some of the perpetrators escaped or were never captured kept the story alive and turned it into a long-running soap opera.

There was Ronnie Biggs, who escaped over the wall of Wandsworth Prison in 1965, fleeing to Brazil and avoiding extradition from there by fathering a child by an exotic dancer. He was later kidnapped by a bunch of exarmy chancers and finally came home to tussle with the then justice secretary, Jack Straw, over whether he should ever be allowed out of jail. There was Charlie Wilson, who was tracked down to Canada and then, having served a sentence, was shot dead as he prepared a barbecue on the Costa del Crime. There was Buster Edwards, who after his early release in 1975 sold flowers outside Waterloo Station and became the subject of a film starring Phil Collins and Julie Walters. Edwards hanged himself in 1994 (he’d said how “dreary” he found law-abiding life).

The 1960s also saw the rise and fall of the Krays, lionised by some in the media and treated gently by parts of the establishment, notably Lord Boothby and Tom Driberg. The Krays were looked down on by the robbers, who saw them as bullies who didn’t earn their own money but took it off weaker people. They mocked them as “Gert and Daisy”.

So what of our fascination with criminals, real or fictional, artful dodgers or diamond geezers, Raffleses or Corleones? The words we still use for lawbreakers offer a clue. Outlaws, bandits, desperadoes – all have a romantic feel in a way the nicknames for the police – plods, peelers, busies, the filth – do not. Perhaps some lawbreakers – particularly those who do not cause physical harm – fascinate the law-abiding because they represent forbidden fruit, disobedience, a frustrated transgressor within. “Know ye not me?” asks Satan in Paradise Lost. “Not to know me argues yourselves unknown.” Some of the high-profile robberies, too, won grudging admiration because of what was stolen and the belief that if you have salted something away in a safety deposit vault or acquired lots of diamonds you must be up to no good.

Reynolds did not portray himself as a victim, from a deprived background, driven to crime. He knew he could have made an honest living. He had fancied a career in journalism and, as a teenager, he had walked into Northcliffe House, the first newspaper office he found on Fleet Street, saying he wanted to be a reporter. He worked for a while as a messenger at the Daily Mail; who can tell whether the Almighty, on the dreadful day of judgement, might not conclude that the Mail had caused greater pain and damage to society than the train robbers? And he was smart enough to have turned his hand to any number of jobs, had he not sought the adrenalin rush of criminality.

A week or so before Reynolds died, eight masked and armed men stole diamonds worth an estimated £30m that were being loaded on to a Swiss-bound plane at Brussels Airport. Once again, some of the coverage was breathless. All this may merely serve to remind us of the words of another ex-con of a different era who pondered on our fascination with badness. “Wherever God erects a house of prayer,” wrote Daniel Defoe, “The Devil always builds a chapel there;/And ’twill be found, upon examination,/The latter has the largest congregation.”

Duncan Campbell is the Guardian’s former crime correspondent