The Great Gold Robbery

The Great Gold Robbery Heist

When thinking about 19th century Victorian London, especially considering the context of this class, one might conjure up imagery of the impoverished lining the streets as factories belch tar-black smoke into the air. I’m sure the last thing that comes to mind when the words “Victorian London” are uttered is an elaborately planned heist which resulted in the loss of €12,000 ($1.5 million US dollars today) in solid gold. Well, that’s exactly what took place on May 15, 1855 when four men decided to rob a trainload of gold headed to France. 

As in every half-decent heist movie, before we get to the heist itself we must first assemble the crew:

William Pierce a.k.a The Mastermind - Formulated the plan after getting fired from the South Eastern Railway (SER) because of his gambling habits at the age of 37. He was described as a clumsy man who was “imperfectly educated”, hardly presenting himself as a criminal mastermind at a glance.

Edward Agar a.k.a The Safe Cracker - Self-explanatory. He cracked the safe. Jokes aside, Agar was 40 at the time of the heist and was a professional thief and safe cracker from the ripe young age of 18. His confidence apparently inspired the other men to go through with the heist. He was seemingly the only member of the group with real criminal experience, which is surprising to say the least.

James Burgess a.k.a The Inside Man - Burgess was a guard at the SER and thus became the obligatory inside man of this operation. Burgess was described as a respectable man, but his wages were recently lowered by the SER, giving him an ample, but simple, motive for this heist.

William Tester a.k.a The Thief - The train heist called for two unique keys which Tester was in charge of supplying. Tester worked as a General Manager for an unrelated Swedish railroad company and he also happened to work as the assistant for the superintendent of the London Bridge traffic department which allowed him access to guard shift rotations, train schedules, and most importantly: the keys. However, Tester was a bit of a nervous wreck, which will come into play later during the heist.

Now that the crew had been assembled, it was time to start the prep:

The initial hurdle this band of merry boys must overcome to successfully steal their weight in gold was acquiring the two unique keys necessary to unlock the safe. William Tester smuggled the keys out of the SER office in order for the rest of the boys to make key molds. However, Tester’s nerves got the best of him during his thievery and he accidentally took two copies of the SAME key. The group panicked initially, thinking the heist was over before it even began. They hurriedly made copies of the sole key they had acquired and Tester returned the originals to the office, without anybody noticing they were gone in the first place. Eventually, Pierce and Agar formulated a plan to receive a copy of the second key. Agar purchased €200 of gold sovereigns (a British coin) under a false name in hopes he would be able to discover the location of the remaining key. Agar pulled this maneuver off successfully, identifying that the key was kept in a back cupboard, and he and Pierce later broke into the SEC and made molds of the key. 

After completing the prep work, our four boys decided it was time to move on to the best part of any heist movie: the heist

They took their places on the train: Burgess in the guard’s van, Agar hiding near him, and both Pierce and Tester bought first class tickets. Now, the time frame Agar had to crack both safes and empty the gold was 35 minutes. Even for a safecracker as skilled as Agar, this was a daunting task. However, the man successfully cracked both safes (the lock was not secured on one of the safes, much to Agar’s delight) by removing the iron bands around the safe, using wedges to remove the lid without any damage, and replacing the sweet gold inside with an equal weight in lead. Honestly, I really do not understand how Agar was able to pull all of this off in under 35 minutes and still successfully fool the guards until the safe was opened later. The man was truly a legendary criminal. He even went so far as to replace the seal on the safe with his own similar seal, in order to trick the guards into thinking the safes were untouched.

The crew then calmly departed the train, carrying €12,000 in pure gold bars, and went on to establish alibis to avoid drawing suspicion.

Oh, also, I lied earlier. The best part of a heist movie isn’t the heist. It’s the twist.

After the heist, Pierce and Agar melted down the gold and sold it slowly through a fence (illicit goods dealer) until they received almost the whole value of their hard-stolen work. The money was split equally between the four men and they each went their separate ways, spending the money in whichever way they saw fit. However, eventually Agar was arrested for fraud (completely unrelated to the heist) and taken into custody. Apparently Agar had heard rumors that Pierce was blabbing about the train heist, so Agar decided to get in front of the rumors and admit the crime to the police. The crew was subsequently arrested and brought to trial. It took the jury all of 10 minutes to decide the men were guilty of this robbery. 

(I hope you're not tired of the word "heist" after reading this. I know I am)