Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Big One: Ronald Biggs and the Great Train Robbery

The Other Side

Two days after the robbery, the police had assembled a special flying squad made up of the best detectives available with a mandate to find and punish the offenders.  The squad was under the direct command of Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler.   A Scotland Yard legend renowned for his dedication and thoroughness, Butler was known among the rank and file as The Grey Ghost, and was a stickler for accurate reporting and professional police work. 

When investigating major crimes, most detectives rely on information they can glean from informants and seek out known offenders who are known to have committed similar offences.  The investigation of the Great Train Robbery would follow a more direct path due, in large part, to incompetence, an act of betrayal and misguided trust on the part of the robbers.

Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard
Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard

According to his 1994 book, Slipper of the Yard, Jack Slipper, one of the detectives chosen for the task, relates how investigating police were initially overwhelmed, not only by the amount of money stolen, but by the virtual lack of any credible street buzz regarding the robbery.  The fact that no word had leaked out before, during or after the robbery was an indication, to Slipper at least, that they were dealing with top-class villains.

The first break came just eight days into the investigation when a public appeal for information resulted in a tip concerning a suspicious vehicle at a farm within thirty miles of the scene.  Initially overlooked, the call, from a farm laborer in the area, was eventually followed up and the gangs hideout was discovered. 

The police were ecstatic, telling reporters the site was one big clue.  According to Peta Fordhams The Robbers Tale, the gang members were appalled when they learned that the man they had hired, at great expense, to clean the farmhouse of any trace of incriminating evidence, had taken their money on false pretences and left behind a wealth of clues for the police to find.

Knowing that whatever was found at the farm would form the basis of the police case, Tommy Butler ordered the area sealed off and instructed the fingerprint and physical evidence crews to take all the time they needed to extract every trace of evidence from the scene. 

Within a day of the farm being processed for evidence, the first gang member, Roger Cordrey, was arrested and charged with taking part in the robbery.  His quick arrest was thought to be a result of his criminal background and his knowledge of trains, which was well known to the police.

In his biography, Odd Man Out, Ronald Biggs relates how news of Cordreys arrest was worry enough but when a suitcase containing 100,000 was recovered from woodlands just a few short miles from his own house, worry quickly turned to panic and he began to fear for his freedom.

Sacks of recovered cash
Sacks of recovered cash

His fears were well founded as a week later Charlie Wilson was arrested in London and police announced that they were anxious to contact Bruce Reynolds, Jimmy White, Roy James and Buster Edwards to assist them with their enquiries.  He knew it was only a matter of time until the police connected him to Reynolds and came calling.

Two days later the police did come.  One of the officers was Jack Slipper, a man who would become a nagging part of Biggs life for many years to come.  The first visit to the Biggs residence was informal enough.  A few brief questions, a quick look around and that was it.  The second, a month later, was anything but.  Biggs was taken into custody and transported to Scotland Yard for questioning.  Tommy Butler conducted the interview personally and it was short and sweet, according to the Biggs account.  After a few perfunctory questions that Biggs refused to answer, Butler told him that even though he had not yielded any information regarding his or anyone elses part in the robbery, he was to be charged with conspiracy to rob anyway as the evidence against him was compelling.  That said, Butler instructed his men to take Biggs to Aylesbury police station in Buckinghamshire where he was fingerprinted, photographed and formally charged with the crime.