Heists Making Headlines: The Great Train Robbery (1963)

Heists make headlines, and delving into our newspaper archives, we’ve found plenty of headlines covering British history’s most extensive criminal raids. Some are well-known, while others may have gone under the radar, and some, curiously, still remain unsolved.

In our new multi-post series, we’re throwing a spotlight on three extraordinary twentieth-century true crime stories and the coverage they received in the press. Hold on to your hats and double-check your possessions as we explore how newspapers reported these audacious robberies. First up is the Great Train Robbery of 1963.    

09 Aug 1963, Fri Daily Record (Glasgow, Strathclyde, Scotland) Newspapers.com

The Great Train Robbery is one of, if not the most famous heist in British history. In the early hours of Thursday, 8 August 1963, a post office train from Glasgow carrying a valuable cargo of High Value Packets of money trundled along the tracks heading for London Euston Station. The ‘Up Special’ train continued its journey peacefully, passing the Bedfordshire village of Leighton Buzzard, heading south for Cheddington in neighbouring Buckinghamshire.

Up ahead, at Sears Crossing, the driver spotted a danger signal and the locomotive and its precious contents ground to a halt. The signal was a fake. 

At this moment, a gang of armed robbers ambushed the train, assaulting the driver and incapacitating the co-driver. Their plan was underway. The engine and two carriages, complete with their contents, were uncoupled from the final carriage, carrying 70-or-so post office staff, blissfully unaware of the situation unfolding in the carriages up ahead of them.

08 Aug 1963, Thu Evening Standard (London, Greater London, England) Newspapers.com

The gang was unable to drive the diesel-operated train, and the groggy train driver was forced to move the train up the track, where other gang members were waiting to unload the loot. The 15-strong band of robbers (perhaps more) took off with a hoard worth £2.6 million, over £45 million in today’s money. 

The magnitude of the heist can’t be understated – it was huge and was front-page news across Britain, from Exeter to Glasgow. While some daily newspapers would have to wait until the day after the raid to provide their readers with the scoop, the PM-published Evening Standard recognised the heist’s significance with the headline: ‘Biggest Ever Mail Robbery!’ Maps, photographs and an eyewitness account provided by the shaken co-driver adorn the front page.

08 Aug 1963, Thu Evening Standard (London, Greater London, England) Newspapers.com

Delving deeper into the Evening Standard, we find further analysis: reports on how the gang succeeded in their mission, photos from the scene and an account detailing how two post office staff eventually raised the alarm at a local farm. In amongst the excitable reporting, the irony of an advert appealing for ‘Post Office Engineers’ is not lost on us.  

The various gang members were eventually caught over the years and received a total of 307 years imprisonment between them; three or four members are believed to have evaded capture.

The mastermind behind the robbery, Bruce Reynolds, was arrested in Torquay on 9 November 1968. The front page of the Nottinghamshire-based Guardian Journal describes the ‘dramatic dawn swoop’ that led to Reynolds’ arrest. Living under an alias in the Devon seaside town, neighbours expressed their shock at living next to one of the great train robbers, stating: “They were a very nice family, very ordinary, but very pleasant people.” 

09 Nov 1968, Sat The Guardian Journal (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England) Newspapers.com

One of the most famous gang members, Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Biggs, was caught less than a month after the raid. The Bristol Evening Post reported that when Biggs was arrested in his home and told he was being charged, he replied, “Get on with it. You will have to prove it all the way. I am admitting nothing to you people.”

By the end of the trial the following year, Biggs and other members of the raid were sentenced to 30 years in prison. The following year, he carried out a dramatic escape from Wandsworth prison and went on the run, eventually settling in Brazil. He was re-arrested in 2001 upon returning to the UK.  

Search our newspapers to discover more about the robbery and the roundup. And follow us on FacebookX (Twitter)InstagramThreads, and TikTok for more content like this!

Bank of England, Inflation calculator [as of March 2024], accessed April 2024. 
British Transport Police, The Great Train Robbery, 1963, accessed May 2024. 
The Postal Museum, The Great Train Robbery, accessed May 2024.

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