Judging by press accounts, the robbers were a kind of ‘Robin Hood’ gang. The first arrest took place less than 48 after the crime was committed. By the time of the trial the defendants were being described variously as ‘florist’, ‘antique dealer’, ‘painter and decorator’, and so on. In truth, virtually every member of the gang was a hardened, violent robber. But many of public preferred seemed to hold on to the ‘Robin Hood’ version of events.
Following the dolling out of prison sentences of extreme length (up to 30 years), the robbers played a part in numerous fantastic accounts providing various and conflicting backstories. One such account asserts that the robbery was planned by Nazis! Another that it was all the brainchild of a mysterious criminal mastermind who lived as a recluse. It seems the public embraced each new backstory... until the next came along. But by far the most longstanding lie is provided in the published account of one of the robbers, Bruce Reynolds, in which he claims to have been the mastermind.
In addition, it is generally accepted that the Great Train Robbery was a one off, and that train robberies had never taken place before it. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, it was only the scale and audacity of the Great Train Robbery that made it unique.
By 1961, after several years of escalating mail robberies, it was obvious to all, including the national press, that a particular gang was enjoying outstanding success attacking trains across the south of England. They became known as ‘The South Coast Raiders’ (and also, ‘The Red Light Gang’).
The South Coast Raiders stole high-value mails from the old British Rail Southern Region (which included trains travelling from Waterloo, Charing Cross, Victoria, London Bridge, Cannon Street and Blackfriars to stations across Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall). And the gang remained undetected right up to the time they merged with other experienced and hardened criminals and committed the crime of the century.
Many might claim to be reasonably well informed about the most audacious crime of the twentieth century, but how many know about the fundamental part played by the South Coast Raiders? Or the rehearsal that went so horribly wrong? Or about the corrupt officials?
My efforts to provide a more accurate and wider picture of the robbery were aided by the active involvement of Tom Wisbey, a former Great Train Robber (and member of the South Coast Raiders), and my own extensive experience of dealing with those involved in the theft of high value mails. Great Train Robbery Confidential was published by The History Press in 2019. It is I believe the most accurate account in print, but it does not provide a description of the characters involved, or the working practices of the gangs, nor does it depict the culture they were a part of.
All the evidence-gathering I did for Great Train Robbery Confidential, including those interviews with Tom Wisbey, were intended at the time to be the foundation for a novel. This was the only way it seemed possible, both to Tom and I, that a greater truth could be told.
The Great Train Robbery and The South Coast Raiders will be released on Amazon in late August/early September 2023.
By Graham Satchwell