The Great Train Robbery of May 1855

The London Evening Standard of Tuesday 22nd May 1855 carried the following story under the headline:

The Bullion Robbery:

‘The robbery which, according to yesterday’s papers, took place on the way from London to Paris, was evidently perpetrated by persons who were acquainted with the extent and mode of the consignments. The gold in bars and American coin amounted to between £13,000 & £14,000. The valuable property had been deposited in three boxes which were separately consigned to Paris from the bullion brokers Thomas, Bult, and Spielman; and were taken in the mail train of the South-Eastern Railway which set off from London on the evening of Tuesday 15th instance, to Folkestone, whence they were taken via Boulogne and Northern Railway of France to Paris. It was found that the three boxes, which were, when delivered in London, hooped and sealed, had been re-opened and plundered, and then re-hooped and re-sealed.

It is rather remarkable that the depredators left in one of the boxes between £6,000 and £7,000’s worth of gold; but it is conjectured because that they had not materials at command to supply what might have been the deficiency in the weight. They had filled up that box with sporting lead shot Nos. 4 and 7, and the other two boxes were supplied with a quantity of shot sufficient to represent in weight the amount of gold abstracted from them. It is supposed that so well planned a scheme could not have been executed in the rapid passage by railway from London to Folkestone. However that may be, upon the arrival of the boxes at Paris, it was found that other hoops, nails and seals, had been substituted for those used by the three houses in London to which the property had been consigned. The French as well as the English police are engaged in the investigation.’

This same text is carried by the Morning Post, the Morning Chronicle and the London Daily News.

Four police forces in Britain and France made extensive inquiries for months, and arrested hundreds of suspects for questioning, but found nothing. Afterwards many of those who had handled the boxes reported small discrepancies like holes and broken seals. The main suspects were railway staff members at Folkston. Understandably the South Eastern Railway offered a sizeable reward and named its own investigator but received only false information.

The official British theory was that the robbery had taken place on the continent, while the French police claimed it had happened in England because of the discrepancy in the boxes’ weights at Boulogne!

In August 1855 Edward Agar, a professional criminal and associate of a crooked barrister named Saward, was arrested for passing a false cheque. He was sentenced for penal transportation in Australia for life and was held in Pentonville gaol to wait for the next ship. While in Pentonville he wrote to Fanny Kay, the mother of his illegitimate child. In the letter he told her that William Pierce, a former railway employee, was supposed to have paid her £7,000 – well over half a million in today’s rates. She had received none at that time.

It was not until the summer of 1856, by which time she still had not seen or heard anything from Pierce, that she visited the governor of Newgate prison. The governor heard her story and contacted a Mr Rees, the investigator for the railway company.

When Fanny told him about the money, he went to see Agar who, by this time, was in a prison hulk in Portland docks. When Agar heard Fanny’s story of what had failed to happen, he decided to tell Rees the whole story of the robbery.

Further investigation proved Agar’s story was accurate – and Fanny was taken to lodge in the house of a police inspector for safekeeping. As a result of the information Rees was able to recover gold worth around £2,000 – upwards of £200,000 now.

Arrests were also made.  Edward Pierce, Jeremy Forsyth and James Burgess were arrested in London in November 1856. William Tester, who had left the country to work as a general manager for Swedish Railways, was arrested when he visited relatives in England.

The Old Bailey trial began on 10th January 1857 with Agar and Fanny Kay as the main witnesses. On 12th January James Burgess and William Tester were sentenced to penal transportation for 14 years each while Edward Pierce received two years for larceny – with periodical solitary confinement.

One of the strongboxes and a sack of the lead shot can be seen on display at the National Railway Museum.

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