In the twilight of an early August morning, a Royal Mail train made its way on the West Coast Main Line between Glasgow and London. The driver, Jack Mills, stopped at a red signal half a mile from the Bridego Rail Bridge in Ledburn, Buckinghamshire.
Mills did not expect to see a red light at this place and at this time – around 3 a.m. on August 8, 1963. He sent a colleague to the telephone at the side of the track to ask for clarification, but the line had been cut.
Suddenly, a gang of 15 men jumped from the side of the track and attacked the train. Armed with coshes, they overpowered the train staff and attacked its high-value parcel carriage, where between £2-3million in cash was stored.
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The thieves threatened the staff on board, making them lie face down and handcuffing some of them together. One of them hit Mills with an iron bar and made him drive the train to the railway bridge, where a truck was waiting for him.
The thieves formed a human chain, taking over 100 bags of cash. They then traveled the country lanes, listening to police broadcasts on a VHF radio, heading for their hideout at Leatherslade Farm near Aylesbury, 43 kilometers away.
There the gang split the money into shares of around £150,000 each and played a game of Monopoly, but using real money – police would find the board game at the scene five days later , collecting fingerprints. The next day, the gang—including mastermind Bruce “Napoleon” Reynolds, Douglas “Gordon” Goody, and Ronald “Ronnie” Biggs—wiped the farm (missing the Monopoly set) and went their separate ways.
Buckinghamshire Police have called on Scotland Yard to help investigate the crime. Six days later they had made their first arrest: Roger Cordrey, who was hiding in a flat above a flower shop in Bournemouth. Cordrey was a florist himself and ran his own shop in Brighton. But Cordrey had become addicted to gambling and found himself deep in debt – and so the former railway worker founded the South Coast Raiders, a gang of train robbers.
Cordrey and his Raiders were recruited by Reynolds for their specialist skills and because the mastermind knew there would be at least 70 Royal Mail staff on the train to overpower or intimidate. When the morning of the raid arrived – three months into planning – it was electronics enthusiast Cordrey who rewired the trackside signal to show a red light instead of a green light.
The theft went almost without a hitch, with only a few Royal Mail staff bludgeoned into complying with the looters’ demands. After parting ways with the farm, Cordrey fled to Bournemouth with his share of the money. There he rented a flat above a flower shop on Wimborne Road, Moordown, and hid with his friend Bill Boal. Perhaps Cordrey was drawn to the hideout by the familiarity of the company below – but that would be a big mistake.
Cordrey also rented a garage near Tweedale Road, in which to hide evidence from the police. Unfortunately, his new landlady, Ethel Clark, was the widow of a policeman. By then, news of “The Great Train Robbery” was all over the airwaves. So when Cordrey offered to pay three months’ rent for the garage up front, all in used banknotes, Clark took his suspicions to the authorities.
The police went to the apartment and caught Cordrey, along with Boal, who they accused of being an accomplice. Cordrey was discovered to have over £141,000 stashed in his car and was one of 11 robbers who were eventually caught and tried in 1964. The 42-year-old was sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiracy with a view to committing theft and concealment of stolen goods. This was reduced to 14 years on appeal, and Cordrey was released in 1971.
Boal was sentenced to 24 years in prison, which was reduced to 14 on appeal. But he wouldn’t live to see even that shorter period – Boal died of cancer in prison, in 1970. It wasn’t until much later that police admitted a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Boal received a disproportionate sentence simply for not reporting his friend.
The only robber to have pleaded guilty, Cordrey was also the first to be released from prison. The police had recovered their share of the proceeds from the raid, leaving him with nothing to show for the crime. He returned to the floristry business upon his release, working in his sister’s West Country shop. He was less fortunate than other mobsters like Danny Pembroke, who fled to the United States but then returned to live in quiet comfort until his death in 2015.
Others fled to South America, Canada, Europe or Australia, but most eventually returned and served their sentences. Biggs would become the most famous, after escaping from prison and fleeing to Paris where his appearance was altered by plastic surgery.
From there he went to Australia and then to Brazil, where he had a son and enjoyed immunity from extradition. But even Biggs would face the music after returning to Britain in 2001 after suffering several beatings.
It was a bolder jaunt than the one Cordrey managed – six days above a florist’s shop in Bournemouth. But Cordrey, who has since died, is the only Great Train Robber who could claim to have done something like the right thing, confessing his crime and serving his sentence.
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