It’s the largest gold heist in British history, the stuff of legend that has earned it the epithet of the ‘robbery of the century’. However, the 1983 Brink’s-Mat Robbery left in its wake a long bloody trail of reprisal killings that spanned decades. Seemingly anyone who was connected to the £26 million heist met an untimely and violent end. The backstabbings, murders and double-dealings gave rise to a legend about a supposed curse that persists to this day.
Wensley Clarkson is the leading expert on the robbery and his 2012 book The Curse of Brink’s-Mat: 25 Years of Murder and Mayhem is considered the definitive account of the legendary heist. We dive into the story and discover the truth behind this infamous crime.
At 6:30am, six armed robbers from a south London gang entered the premises of the Brink’s-Mat warehouse at Heathrow. Masterminded by Brian ‘The Colonel’ Robinson and Mickey McAvoy, the gang hoped to make off with £3 million in cash, a sum that’s now equivalent to just over £9 million.
An inside man by the name of Anthony Black, a Brink’s-Mat security guard who was living with Robinson’s sister, not only provided the gang entry but also information about bypassing the warehouse's sophisticated security systems. Two guards, Robin Riseley and Michael Scouse, were quickly overpowered. Hoods were thrown over their heads before they were doused in petrol.
The armed robbers threatened to light them on fire unless they provided the combinations to the safe. When the gang finally gained access, what lay in front of them was vastly more valuable than any of them had expected – 6,800 gold bars worth £26 million as well as a bountiful hoard of diamonds. In today's monetary terms, you're looking at well over £81 million in total.
Change of plans
Whilst the gang had planned for a quick getaway, the hefty gold bars presented new challenges.
Nearly two hours later, a bigger van had been acquired and the gang utilised a warehouse forklift truck to lift the bullion into it. They sped away at around 8:15am before the alarm was raised by one of the guards fifteen minutes later.
It soon became clear to the gang they'd bitten off more than they could chew and such a vast hoard of bullion was not going to be easy to shift. With no one in the gang's immediate circle having experience with gold and its conversion into cash, the men had to widen the net of those 'in the know'.
McAvoy knew a shadowy underworld character known only as ‘The Fox’, who at the time was a senior member within British organised crime. He brought in the help of a notorious London crime syndicate called the Adams Family. Some of the gold was then smelted and sold through a Hatton Garden jeweller called Solly Nahome.
The investigation unfolds
The nature of the heist and the ease at which the robbers gained access to the warehouse led police to immediately believe it was an inside job. The investigation quickly zoned in on Anthony Black, since he’d been late to work on the day of the robbery. After questioning, he crumbled and gave up both Robinson and McAvoy. The two men were already well-known to police and high on their list of suspects given the complexity of the operation.
Neither man had been secretive about their plans in the build-up to the heist, putting the word out far and wide they needed a couple ‘sensible lads’ to assist them on an inside job. Nor did either man lie low after the robbery, choosing instead to elevate their surroundings quite dramatically.
Within weeks of the robbery, both Robinson and McAvoy had left their London council houses and relocated to mansions in Kent. McAvoy was even said to have brought two Rottweiler guard dogs and named them ‘Brinks’ and ‘Mat’.
Arrests are made
After Black’s confession, the two men were quickly arrested, at which point McAvoy entrusted his share of the takings to a man called Brian Perry. Of course, there’s no honour among thieves and Perry soon attempted to pocket the money for himself.
When McAvoy tried to hand over his share to authorities to cut a lighter sentence, the money was nowhere to be seen. In December 1984, Robinson and McAvoy were each sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The smelting continues
Brian Perry, who ran a minicab agency in east London, enlisted the help of petty criminal Kenneth Noye who in turn brought in John Palmer, the owner of a Bristol-based gold dealership. Noye knew about smelting gold and came up with the idea of introducing copper into the process, altering the gold’s carat rating and effectively making it untraceable. Within months the trio had pocketed in the region of £10 million.
By 1985, all three men were in the sights of investigators and time was running out. This is when the so-called curse moved into full swing. Here’s how life unfolded for all the key players.
Kenneth Noye: During a 1985 undercover operation, Noye discovered DC John Fordham in his garden at his Kent home and, in the row that ensued, the officer was stabbed to death. Although Noye was acquitted by a jury after claiming self-defence, the discovery of eleven gold bars from the Brink’s-Mat heist in his home led to a fourteen-year prison sentence.
Released in 1990, he then found himself back behind bars a decade later after a road-rage killing on the M25. A life sentence ensued before Noye was released on parole in 2019.
Several known associates of Noye have been killed in the years since the heist, with many believing the robbery was the driving motive.
Brian Perry: Arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison in 1992. He was gunned down in November 2001 shortly after his release.
John Palmer: Although he was acquitted of handling stolen bullion, Palmer was jailed in 2001 for eight years after running a timeshare scam in Tenerife. He was shot and killed in June 2015 near his gated home in Essex.
Solly Nahome: In 1998, the Hatton Garden jeweller was also shot and killed outside his home in London.
George Francis: According to Wensley Clarkson, George Francis, one of the Brink’s-Mat gang members, ushered these prophetic words a short while before being shot and killed: ‘It's a curse because everyone connected to Brink's-Mat stands to get topped sooner or later.'
Charlie Wilson: Wilson, a member of the infamous Great Train Robbery gang, lost investors £3 million in Brink’s-Mat takings during a failed drug deal. He was subsequently shot and killed in 1990 at his Marbella home.
Brian Robinson: One of the heist’s masterminds served his time in prison before dying penniless in a London nursing home in 2021.
Nearly three decades later and upwards of £20 million in bullion remains unrecovered. Clarkson claims that most people in possession of gold jewellery made in the UK after 1983 are wearing Brink's-Mat. A remarkable thought to ponder.