We don’t know if the two teenagers who attempted a train robbery in Scotland this week knew that it was the 60th anniversary of the most famous one in British history. Given their failure – nothing was stolen and the charges include ‘malicious mischief’ – it seems unlikely. Either way, the train robbery of August 1963 remains secure in its title of ‘Great’.
Why did it fascinate us so much in the first place? Partly it was the zeitgeist timing (that year also saw Profumo, Beatlemania and JFK’s assassination); partly the amount stolen (£2.5 million, worth more than £40 million today); and partly the narrative of ‘plucky underdogs vs the police and banks’ – the last of whom were insured, except the Midland, which disdained the idea and so lost £500,000.
But mainly the robbery received its adjective because it’s a great story. The gang brought the train to its 3 a.m. halt in the Buckinghamshire countryside simply by placing a glove over the green signal light and attaching a battery to the red one. ‘Pop’, the retired driver brought along to shift the train to Bridego Bridge, where the cash-laden mail bags would be unloaded, couldn’t work the handbrake. The gang had already had their doubts about him. Told that one of the Land Rovers they were using was stolen, he replied: ‘You can go to prison for that sort of thing.’
Back at their hideout, Leatherslade Farm, the 15 robbers counted the money – mostly £1 and £5 notes, which is why it weighed 2.5 tons. When they reached £1 million, everyone paused to savour the sight. Charlie Wilson danced around singing ‘I Like It’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Some gang members played Monopoly with the cash. But their leader, Bruce Reynolds, felt a deep ‘emptiness’.