If you think of great heists you’re probably thinking of the high-octane thrillers that hit the box office every year. But what about the real-life heists that inspire the Hollywood blockbusters? Well, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that they’re not quite as fast-paced and sexy. Here are three Great British heists that you might not have heard of.
1855 Great Gold Robbery
Items stolen: Gold bullion and coins
Contemporary value: £1.13 million
On the 15th May 1855, three boxes of gold bullion and coins were being transported from London to Paris. In London, the bullion was secured in a locked safe and the keys entrusted first to the railway staff, and then to the captain of the steamer that would take it across the channel. Upon its arrival in France, the safes were opened, and boxes appeared undisturbed. The boxes remained unopened, but when being weighed they found that one box appeared to be 40lbs lighter than expected.
When the bullion was delivered to its final destination in Paris the boxes were opened to reveal not gold, but lead shot. The equivalent to £12,000 in bullion, along with gold coins and American 10 dollar pieces, were gone. Despite multiple investigations on both sides of the channel, and fingers pointed in all directions, the trail went cold. It appeared that the robbery had been a successful crime and all involved had gotten away scot-free. It was, however, only a matter of time until the perfect crime began to fall apart.
Edward Agar, one of the four men involved in the robbery that night, had been charged and sentenced to exportation for an unrelated crime. Before he was shipped off to Australia to carry out his sentence, he gave £7,000 to William Pierce, one of his accomplices of the robbery, to pass on to his girlfriend, Fanny, and their daughter.
It didn’t take long for Fanny to realise that Pierce had pocketed the money intended for her and her child. Slighted, and desperate in the face of destitution, Fanny visited the governor of Wandsworth prison where she quickly spilled the truth about the robbery, Pierce, and the two other men involved; James Burgess and William Tester. With Agar confessing to his involvement in return for offering up details and witness testimony against Pierce, Burgess, and Tester, all three were arrested 18 months after the robbery. They were tried and all found guilty of robbery.
1913 Hatton Garden Pearl Robbery
Items stolen: Pearls
Contemporary value: £15 million
Hatton Gardens isn’t a stranger to heists, however perhaps its most infamous of robberies is the one that shook London in 1913. Dubbed ‘the Mona Lisa of Pearls’, the 61 string pearl necklace was infamous around Europe. All 61 blush pink pearls were perfectly colour matched and had taken the owner over ten years to source, match, and assemble. Finding such pearls was a rarity, so to have so many perfectly matched made the necklace both precious, and highly coveted. It’s no surprise then that the necklace's owner, Hatton Garden diamond jeweller Max Mayer, had a large insurance policy of over £150,000 (£17 million today) on the necklace.
Mayer was looking to sell the necklace to a dealer in Paris. When the deal fell through, the potential buyer returned the necklace via registered mail that had three monogrammed seals to ensure that the package remained tamper-proof. However, when Mayer opened the un-tampered sealed package back in London, he found that it had been replaced with 11 lumps of sugar.
A special committee was set up between Scotland Yard and the insurers, Lloyds, that retraced the package's steps after it left the buyer in Paris. It wasn’t long until they started to focus their investigations on notorious jewel thief, Joseph Grizzard.
Grizzard and his team had managed to bribe the postman carrying the jewels £200 to allow them access to his satchel. They replaced the package with the sealed sugar lumps using a forged seal to maintain the appearance of an undisturbed delivery. Having watched the comings and goings in both Paris and London, Grizzard and his crew knew exactly when to strike and steal the pearls. Police recovered the necklace, however, it was still three pearls short.
The final pearls were located a couple of weeks later when a bystander witnessed someone dropping a mystery package into the gutter in London. After failing to catch up to the package's owner to return it, he opened it to find it contained what he believed to be three beads. He passed one to a local child on the street to use as a marble and handed the other two in to the Police. The good samaritan was rewarded with the equivalent of £1,000,000 today for the return of the pearls.
1990 City bonds robbery contemporary value 668.3 million
Items stolen: Bearer Bonds
Contemporary value: £668.3 million
In the early 1990s, a report on the news covered the story of a courier that had lost the equivalent of £4,000,000 in bearer bonds in central London after they had fallen out of a briefcase. A 23-year-old surveyor had returned the bond unharmed, however, the news report had already caught the attention of a British crime syndicate.
Before electronic transfer became the standard in banking, money was couriered in the form of bearer bonds around the City of London to keep the liquidity in the British financial system. As bearer bonds entitled the holder to the amount denoted on the certificate without the need of proof of ownership, it meant that getting access to a large amount of the bonds would be a considerable score for the syndicate. There was just one kink in the plan. If the heist had appeared to be undertaken by a syndicate, the bonds would all be voided and rendered useless. They needed to find a way of getting their hands on the bonds without alerting the authorities that it was part of a larger conspiracy.
On the morning of the 2nd of May 1990 John Goddard, a bonds courier was ambushed and mugged by a man in his twenties. The briefcase that he was carrying contained 301 bearer bonds that amounted to the sum of £121.9 million. By passing the heist off as a mugging, the syndicate had hoped that the bonds wouldn’t be cancelled - allowing them to launder them in Switzerland and receive a huge payout.
The news later that day would report that the mugger’s efforts had been in vain as the contents of the briefcase were useless. The bank was feeding the news false information. Although they had supplied banks globally with the serial numbers of the bonds in the hopes of recovery, the bonds could still be cashed to the holder. By declaring them valueless, the banks and police had hoped that the bonds would be discarded by the mugger, and later recovered and returned. However when the bonds didn’t reappear the police began to expect a much larger criminal organisation might be involved.
When the London syndicate’s Swiss connection fell through, they had to turn to other options to launder the bonds. Keith Cheeseman, a UK criminal, was the connection between the syndicate and other interested criminal organisations across the globe - namely the Mafia in New York. It wasn’t long before things started falling apart on both sides of the pond, however. With informants and undercover agents on both sides of the Atlantic working together, all but two of the 301 bonds were safely recovered.