Overall, participants in the world’s great robberies do not seem to have lived happily on the proceeds. There were no convictions following Melbourne’s 1976 Great Bookie Robbery, when up to $15m was stolen, but Victoria was littered with the corpses of suspects. There were convictions after the 1978 Lufthansa heist in New York – but again, the survival rate of the players was low.
Those involved in the Great Train Robbery, which took place 50 years ago this month, did not fare too well either. As well as the swingeing sentences, few hung on to their share of the proceeds. William Boal died in prison early in his sentence. Charlie Wilson was killed in Marbella over a drug deal; two others served long sentences for drug offences; another had a leg amputated. After his release, Roy James shot his father-in-law. The Glasgow hardman John James Buggy was killed in a Mayfair club trying to find out what had happened to Roy James’ share. Buster Edwards committed suicide. The escaper Ronnie Biggs spent years in reduced circumstances in Brazil and when, in ill health, he voluntarily returned, he discovered that all was not forgiven and – back to jail – he suffered a series of strokes.
Solicitor John Wheater, whose firm acted in the purchase of the gang’s hide out, was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice and lived quietly after his three-year sentence. Although a major player, Wheater’s clerk Brian Field had much of his conviction quashed and received five years. After his sentence he changed his name. He was killed, aged 44, in an accident on the M4 in 1979. At least he was driving a Porsche.
Of those who did benefit, one was almost certainly George Stanley, a managing clerk with a firm of East End solicitors. After his death in 2009, Stanley’s nephew told reporters his uncle had been given £2.6m for safekeeping. Instead, he bought and renovated houses in Southend, making substantial profits. Unfortunately, wives and loved ones who came to his office for their weekly payouts do not appear to have been allowed to share in this mini property boom. Stanley continued to work into the late eighties as a clerk with another firm of solicitors. Aged 97, he died following a car accident in 2008.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor