Bruce Reynolds, mastermind of the Great Train Robbery of 1963, died in February so did not “celebrate” its 50th anniversary in August. The robbery took place near Leighton Buzzard at 3 am on August 8 when the haul was over £2.6 million (worth about £45 million at today’s prices).
When caught most received sentences of 30 years. Reynolds evaded capture for five years before being sentenced to 25 years. He had many connections with Fitzrovia.
At the age of just 15 he worked in the Middlesex Hospital, Mortimer Street. “I had an old scouting friend who worked at Middlesex Hospital as a laboratory technician,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Listening to him talk, it sounded a far more exciting choice of career [than a Daily Mail messenger which Reynolds was] and I imagined actually achieving something and ending up like Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin. When he offered to wangle me a job, I jumped at the chance.
“Work at the hospital wasn’t what I expected, and it didn’t take me long to realise that in my lowly position I wasn’t going to discover any new wonder drugs. “Part of my job was to kill 12 guinea pigs a day so that their blood could be used for culture growth. I wasn’t comfortable with it.
“When I’d lived in the country [as a war evacuee in Suffolk], I accepted things like pigs being slaughtered. Every day something died, because there was plenty of vermin. At harvest time we used to surround the last square to be cut and everyone would wade in, battering the rats and mice. In the country, death’s just another part of life – but it didn’t seem right in the city.”
As a burglar in the early 1950s (when he was in his early 20s) he worked with a fellow thief, whom he named only as Harry. “He had been involved in the Eastcastle Street mailbag job, the first major post-war theft when £287,000 was stolen from a post office van on May 21, 1952,” wrote Reynolds.
“The robbery had been executed with immaculate precision. The van was followed every night for months as it left on its journey to Oxford Street. Cars had been stolen specifically for the raid… As the van turned into Eastcastle Street, off Oxford Street, the two cars blocked the driver’s path. Six men attacked the three post office workers and then drove off in the van, leaving them on the pavement. Rewards totalling £25,000 were put up by the insurance companies but despite intense police activity for over a year there were no charges. “I was in awe of Harry. He had been into battle and emerged unscathed. No matter what else happened in his life he would always be remembered for the Eastcastle job. I too, wanted to make my mark.”
After Reynolds completed his sentence for the great train robbery in 1978, Harry arranged for him to have a night out with a young woman and booked them into the White House hotel near Great Portland Street station. Sadly he was so drunk he fell asleep and woke up with a note from the young woman saying Sorry, luv, I couldn’t wake you. “I’d been without a woman for ten years and I get pissed and fall asleep when this lovely was ready, willing and able,” he ruefully recalled.
Harry also got Reynolds a job in the textile business in Great Titchfield Street, which was a condition of his release. One of the other train robbers was “Big” Jim Hussey, who after serving 11 years of his 30-year sentence, became a car dealer in Warren Street.
Shortly before he died last November he was reported to have confessed to being the member of the gang who coshed the train driver, Jack Mills. But the driver’s son John said his father had told him it was someone else, and others speculated the confession was to prevent the real culprit from ever being punished.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Fitzrovia News FN130.