The Great Train Robberies: Almost a hundredweight of gold taken out of the railcar without firing a shot

The London-Paris train robbery in 1855 became the quietest and most arrogant in history. For a long time, the British South-East and French North railway companies could not find out on whose territory the crime took place. The railway and national police racked their brains over how the robbers managed to open the ultra-modern locking system of the railway safe without damaging it, and why the loss was not found at the border.

The Great Train Robberies
Southeast Railway Headquarters

In the 1880s, London and Paris were connected by a transport corridor served by the Southeast Railway, and owned both a ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne-sur-Mer and the Northern Railway. Traffic in this direction was quite intense – four trains daily. The last train, which departed from London at 20.30, has the most precious cargo.

Business partners of both countries regularly used the line as a tool for settlements – they transported gold bars. By order of the railway, the reputable British firm Chubbs has developed three safes. The walls of the enclosing structures were 2.5 cm thick. The safe was opened by two keys, which were never kept in one place: one was with the guard, the other with the head of the station, where the weight control was carried out. Along the way, the boxes with ingots were sealed, they were weighed three times.

The Great Train Robberies
One of the safes and a bag of shot can be seen at the UK National Railroad Museum

The idea to rob an international train came to mind of professional robber Edward Agara. He was helped by a former Southeast Railroad employee, William Pierce, who was fired for his love of gambling. He spent a lot of time in taverns, where the railway workers rested, and collected complete information about the transportation of gold.

The Great Train Robberies
William Tester, James Burgess and Edward Agar in court

Pierce was able to persuade people who had worked on the railroad for more than 14 years to commit the crime – James Burgess, a professional custodian of valuable goods, and William Tester, who had access to transportation information and could influence the schedule of escort changes. The latter helped to get the key casts. It was he who knew when the “golden cargo” would go and put Burgess to guard it.

On May 15, 1855 disguised as passengers Pierce and Agar boarded the desired train taking with them a suitcase weighing more than 90 kg. They asked the conductor to place him in a guarded carriage, explaining this by the value of the cargo. At one of the stops, thieves entered the mail car. The guard gave the robbers all the tools they needed. The safe was opened quickly. But they had to tinker with the boxes inside. They had to be disassembled, then reassembled and sealed with wax. This was done so skillfully that no one noticed a fake during the weight control. By weight, the gold bars were replaced with lead shot that was in the criminals’ suitcase.

The Great Train Robberies
Sean Connery as Pierce

At the stop in front of the ferry crossing, the accomplices calmly got off the train with a suitcase full of gold. And no one would have known how they managed to pull off this crime, if it were not for Agar’s dark past. He was sent to prison for fraudulent transactions with bills and spoke about a major train robbery, not to be behind bars for life. Having exposed all the accomplices, Agar was freed. Pierce  received a sentence of two years’ hard labour in England; Tester and Burgess were sentenced to penal transportation for 14 years.

In 1978, the British filmed this story. Pierce was played by Sean Connery, and Agar was played by Donald Sutherland.

Railway magazine “Railway Supply”

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The Great Train Robberies: How the Armored Car of the US’s Largest Railroad Company Was Blown Up