Bridego Bridge just after the robbery
In August of 1963, 15 men pulled off “The Great Train Robbery,” at Sears Crossing in Buckinghamshire in southeast England, netting the equivalent of $68.5 million in today’s dollars. Of the £2,631,684 stolen, less than £400,000 was ever recovered.
The mastermind, known as “the Ulsterman,” would never be identified. One of the robbers, Ronnie Biggs, became an international celebrity after escaping from prison.
by Mark Pulham
The train didn’t seem to be anything special. It had a single diesel locomotive at the front, pulling a number of coaches, 12 in all, through the night, heading for its final destination, Euston Station in London. The only difference was that the coaches didn’t have windows. This was the overnight mail train from Scotland to London.
The train, known as the “Up Special” made the same journey every night, and had been doing so for 125 years. There had never been any major incidents.
But all that was about to change.
In 1963, there were many events which would be considered significant or noteworthy. In the United States, the year began with George Wallace taking over as the governor of Alabama after a landslide victory the previous November. In his inaugural speech he spoke the line for which he will always be remembered, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Later on in the year, he would stand in the doorway of the University of Alabama to stop the enrollment of black students, only stepping aside when confronted by federal marshals, the deputy attorney general, and the Alabama National Guard.
The end of the year came with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In between those two events, Alcatraz closed as a penitentiary, the first James Bond film, Dr. No, had its North American premiere, and Martin Luther King gave his 17-minute “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In Great Britain, it was the swinging sixties. Heavy snow dominated the beginning of the year, with snow remaining on the ground in many places right into April. It was the worst winter in 16 years. The end of the year would see the police in Ashton-under-Lyne begin a fruitless search for a missing 12-year-old boy named John Kilbride.
Kim Philby, a high ranking member of British Intelligence, would turn out to be a double agent spying for the Russians. He would disappear and resurface later in Moscow. It was an embarrassment for the Conservative Government. One of Philby’s fellow double agents, Guy Burgess would die later in the year.
In Gorton, Manchester, 16-year-old Pauline Reade went missing, the first victim of the Moors Murderers, Brady and Hindley.
Harold Wilson became the leader of the Labour Party after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskill; The Beatles released their first album “Please, Please Me” which went to number one and sparked Beatlemania. The album would remain at the top for 30 weeks until finally being toppled by their second album.
Following the Philby spy humiliation, the Conservative Government was hit by a second scandal, when 48-year-old John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, resigned after admitting that he had been having a “secret” affair with a 21-year-old woman named Christine Keeler, a call girl. The problem was that Profumo wasn’t the only one having an affair with Keeler. Also sharing her bed was Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior naval attaché, and spy, at the Soviet Embassy in London. When Keeler was interviewed, she used the term “nuclear payload,” a term not used by the general public at the time. It was clear that John Profumo liked to talk in bed. The Profumo Affair would eventually bring down the Government.
In other news, Pope John XXIII died, and in the Soviet Union Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
And in the middle of it all, in August, 15 men, plus a few accomplices, would commit a crime so audacious that it would go down in history as one of the greatest robberies of all time, one that all others would be compared to: The Great Train Robbery.