Racer by Day, Getaway Driver by Night
Roy James, the Great Train Robber
Roy “The Weasel” James was a true racing driver but to fund his habit he turned to a life of crime. In the swinging sixties, crime sometimes did pay…for motor racing. Like any other sport, motor racing can boast its share of shady individuals. Whispers and rumours are as far as it gets in many cases, but sometimes the facts are incontrovertible and occasionally sensational.
In the early nineteen sixties, Roy James was a promising young racing driver. He was also a criminal*. In 1963 he was the getaway driver for what was referred to as ‘the crime of the century’- the Great Train Robbery that took place on August 8th, 1963.
He was a good racing driver and therefore an excellent getaway driver. When he took part in the Great Train Robbery, his intention was to use his share of the loot to finance a drive for himself in Formula One.
And he did have Formula One connections. This is why for many years, it was thought that the mastermind behind today’s F1 success was also the brains behind the train robbery.
James was sentenced to 30 years for his part in The Great Train Robbery, and spent 11 years in gaol for his part in The Great Train Robbery, and then, after 18 years of freedom which included an attempted racing comeback, went inside again for the attempted murder of his father-in-law. From a promising racer in Formula Junior, then F1’s training ground, he became instead a notorious double convict.
James didn’t smoke or drink and had a promising career as a racing driver, having won a series of trophies in 1963.
Roy James, by many accounts showed great promise as a racing driver. He had begun in karts. At Brands Hatch in ’63 he was early into a 17 for 19 streak in Formula Junior. But he faced the same hurdle that most up-and-coming drivers not independently wealthy face: where will the money come from? The fact that racing demands significant capital investment can be attested to even by those who have never had to deal with Bernie Ecclestone. Niki Lauda got himself fearfully in debt before he hit the big time. Nigel Mansell once mortgaged his home to keep racing. James, apparently larcenous by nature or upbringing, seems to have decided at a tender age to obtain his funds by methods requiring neither interest payments nor restoration of principle.
Born in Fulham, London, in 1935, his profession was as a silversmith, a trade he plied at Harrods. But his was a competitive nature. He had a trial for Queens Park Rangers football team, became a champion waterskier, and then turned to karting in 1960. In 1962 he represented Britain at a European Championship meeting in France, winning four out of five races. After seeing Denny Hulme’s impressive FJ win in a Brabham at the 1962 Brands Hatch Boxing Day meet, he persuaded World Champion Jack Brabham, recently turned manufacturer as well as driver, to sell him that very car. Even in FJ this was a fairly substantial outlay; who’d have thought silversmithing would pay so well? It didn’t, as it happened – like many young and aspiring racers, James had a part-time job to boost his income. Not barwork, or labouring; he was a getaway driver, that crucial and romantic figure central to the sort of high-profile, high-speed, carefully choreographed crime which attained its own inverted glamour in the 1960s and which seems now to have vanished from our newspapers.
James was good. Reliable, fast and adept at throwing off pursuers, he was recognised by those in the business as one of the best. Consequently he became attached in the late Fifties to one of the top ‘firms’ – the South-Western gang run by Bruce Reynolds. Specialising in the bold heist and the wages snatch, Reynolds was well known in the underworld and to the police as one of the few gang-leaders with the contacts and the bravado to execute the big capers.
Inevitably this notoriety worked against him, for when something big was pulled off in the south, the police tended to start with the Reynolds gang and work outwards. The firm was quite able to arrange international operations, and in 1962 James landed a hefty payoff from a couple of robberies in the south of France. Later that year he came closer than ever to arrest, after a major wage snatch at London Airport. Although the gang got away thanks to James and fellow wheelman Mickey Ball, the police soon pulled them in to stand in an identification parade dressed in the false moustaches and bowler hats worn during the raid. Ball was identified, later being jailed for five years, but James got away with it. It was after this eventful and profitable season that he ordered his Brabham; indeed, he was later to claim that he only ever took part in criminal activities to finance his racing, though this hardly squares with the fact that the crime came well before the karting…
However, his Brabham stood him in good stead, and throughout 1963 James began to win regularly, setting several class records. His tally of some 16 wins in FJ and Libre events and 11 fastest laps even assured him of some Esso money for the following season. But this must have involved some careful organisation, because throughout that year Reynolds and his colleagues were scheming what remains the most famous theft ever in Britain – the Great Train Robbery.
The Great Train Robbery was the robbery of substantial sums of money from a Royal Mail train heading between Glasgow and London in the early hours of Thursday, 8 August, 1963, at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn, near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England.
After tampering with line signals, a 15-strong gang of robbers led by Bruce Reynolds attacked the train. Other gang members included Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Roy James, John Daly, Jimmy White, Ronnie Biggs, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch and Roger Cordrey, as well as three men known only as numbers “1”, “2” and “3”. A 16th man, an unnamed retired train driver, was also present at the time of the robbery.
With careful planning based on inside information from an individual known as “The Ulsterman” (named as Patrick McKenna in 2014), the robbers got away with over £2.6 million (equivalent to £49.1 million today). The bulk of the stolen money was never recovered. Though the gang did not use any firearms, Jack Mills, the train driver, was beaten over the head with a metal bar. Mills’s injuries were severe enough to end his career.
The plan to intercept and rob the overnight Glasgow-to-London mail train was based on information from Patrick McKenna, a postal worker from Salford who had detailed knowledge of the amounts of money carried on Royal Mail trains. McKenna was introduced to two of the criminals who would carry out the raid — Gordon Goody and Buster Edwards — by London solicitor’s clerk Brian Field. His name was kept secret, and he was known to the robbers only as “The Ulsterman”.
The raid was devised over a period of months by a core team: Goody and Edwards, along with Bruce Reynolds, Charlie Wilson and Roy James, Reynolds assuming the role of “mastermind” for the robbery. This gang, although very successful in the criminal underworld, had virtually no experience in stopping and robbing trains. So it was agreed to enlist the help of another London gang called The South Coast Raiders. This group, which included Tommy Wisbey, Bob Welch and Jim Hussey, who were already accomplished train robbers also included Roger Cordrey – a man who was a specialist in this field and knew how to rig the track-side signals to stop the train. Other associates (including Ronnie Biggs, a man Reynolds had previously met in jail) were added as the organisation evolved, and the final gang who took part in the raid comprised a total of 17 men.
At 6:50 pm on Wednesday, 7 August, 1963, the travelling post office (TPO) “Up Special” train set off from Glasgow Central Station en route to Euston Station in London. It was scheduled to arrive at Euston at 3:59 the following morning. The train was hauled by English Electric Type 4 (later Class 40) diesel-electric locomotive D326 (later 40 126). The train consisted of 12 carriages and carried 72 Post Office staff who sorted mail during the journey.
Mail was loaded onto the train at Glasgow and also during station stops en route, and from line-side collection points where local post office staff would hang mail sacks on elevated track-side hooks that were caught by nets deployed by the on-board staff. Sorted mail on the train could be dropped off at the same time. This process of exchange allowed mail to be distributed locally without delaying the train with unnecessary stops. One of the carriages involved in the robbery is preserved at the Nene Valley Railway.
The second carriage behind the engine was known as the HVP (High Value Packages) coach, which carried large quantities of money and registered mail for sorting. Usually the value of the shipment was in the region of £300,000, but because there had been a Bank Holiday weekend in Scotland, the total on the day of the robbery was to be between £2.5 and £3 million.
In 1960, the Post Office Investigation Branch (IB) recommended the fitting of alarms to all Traveling Post Offices with HVP carriages. This recommendation was implemented in 1961, but HVP carriages without alarms were retained in reserve. By August 1963, three HVP carriages were equipped with alarms, bars over the windows and bolts and catches on the doors, but at the time of the robbery, these carriages were out of service, so a reserve carriage (M30204M) without those features had to be used. The fitting of radios was also considered, but they were deemed to be too expensive, and the measure was not implemented. This carriage was kept for evidence for seven years following the event and then burned at a scrapyard in Norfolk in the presence of police and post office officials to deter any souvenir hunters.
Just after 3:00 am on the 8th of August, the driver, Jack Mills from Crewe, stopped the train on the West Coast Main Line at a red signal light at Sears Crossing, Ledburn, between Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire and Cheddington in Buckinghamshire. The signal had been tampered with by the robbers: they had covered the green light and connected a six-volt Ever Ready battery to power the red light. The locomotive’s second crew member, known as the secondman or “fireman”, was 26-year-old David Whitby, also from Crewe. He climbed down from the cab to call the signalman from a railway track-side telephone, only to find the cables had been cut. As he made his return to the train, he was grabbed from behind and quickly overpowered by one of the robbers. Meanwhile, the train driver, 58-year-old Mills, waited in the cab for Whitby’s return. Gang members entered the cabin from both sides of the train, and as Mills grappled with one robber and attempted to force him off the footplate, he was struck from behind by another gang member with a cosh, rendering him semi-conscious.
At this stage, the robbers had foreseen that they would encounter a problem. They had to move the train from where it had been stopped to a suitable place to load their ex-army dropside truck with the stolen money. Bridge No.127 (Bridego Bridge, now known as Mentmore Bridge), approximately half a mile (800 m) further along the track was the chosen location.
One of the robbers (masquerading as a school teacher) had spent months befriending railway staff and familiarising himself with the layout and operation of trains and carriages. Ultimately though, it was decided that it would be better to use an experienced train driver to move the locomotive and the first two carriages from the signals to the bridge after uncoupling the carriages containing the rest of the sorters and the ordinary mail.
On the night, the gang’s hired train driver (an acquaintance of Ronnie Biggs, later referred to as “Stan Agate” or “Peter”) was unable to operate this newer type of locomotive; although having driven trains for many years (by then retired), he was experienced only on shunting (switching) locomotives on the Southern Region. With no other alternative available to them, it was quickly decided that Mills would have to move the train to the stopping point near the bridge, which was indicated by a white sheet stretched between poles on the track. Ronnie Biggs’s only task was to supervise Stan Agate’s participation in the robbery, and when it became obvious that Agate was not able to drive the train, he and Biggs were sent to the waiting truck to help load the mail bags.
The train was stopped at Bridego Bridge, and the robbers’ “assault force” attacked the High Value Packages (HVP) carriage. Frank Dewhurst was in charge of the three other postal workers (Leslie Penn, Joseph Ware and John O’Connor) in the HVP carriage. Thomas Kett, assistant inspector in charge of the train from Carlisle to Euston was also in the carriage. Dewhurst and Kett were hit with coshes when they made a vain attempt to prevent the robbers’ storming of the carriage. Once the robbers had entered the carriage, the staff could put up no effective resistance and there was no police officer or security guard on board to assist them. The staff were made to lie face down on the floor in a corner of the carriage. Mills and Whitby were then brought into the carriage, handcuffed together and put down beside the staff.
The robbers removed all but eight of the 128 sacks from the HVP carriage, which they transferred in about 15–20 minutes to the waiting truck by forming a human chain. The gang departed some 30 minutes after the robbery had begun in their Austin Loadstar truck and, in an effort to mislead any potential witnesses, they used two Land Rover vehicles, both of which had the registration plates BMG 757A.
The gang then headed along minor roads listening for police broadcasts on a VHF radio, the journey taking somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, and arrived back at Leatherslade Farm at around 4:30 am, at around the same time as the first reports of the crime were being made. Leatherslade was a run-down farm 27 miles (43 km) from the crime scene, between Oakley and Brill in Buckinghamshire (51°48′23″N 1°3′11″W). It had been bought two months earlier as their hideout.
At the farm they counted the proceeds and divided it into 16 full shares and several ‘drinks’ (smaller sums of money intended for associates of the gang). The precise amounts of the split differ according to the source, but the full shares came to approximately £150,000 each (about £2.65 million today).
From listening to their police-tuned radio, the gang learned that the police had calculated they had gone to ground within a 30-mile radius of the crime scene rather than dispersing with their haul. This declaration was based on information given by a witness at the crime scene who stated that a gang member had told the post office workers “not to move for half an hour”. The press interpreted this information as a 30-mile (48 km) radius—a half-hour drive in a fast car.
The gang realised the police were using a “dragnet tactic”, and with help from the public, would probably discover the farm much sooner than had been originally anticipated. As a result, the plan for leaving the farm was brought forward to Friday from Sunday (the crime was committed on Thursday). The vehicles they had driven to the farm could no longer be used because they had been seen by the train staff. Brian Field came to the farm on Thursday to pick up his share of the loot and to take Roy James to London to find an extra vehicle. Bruce Reynolds and John Daly picked up cars, one for Jimmy White and the other for Reynolds, Daly, Biggs and the replacement train driver. Field, his wife Karin and his associate “Mark” brought the vans and drove the remainder of the gang to the Fields’s home to recover.
Everything was beautifully dove-tailed. Only the vicious coshing of the driver kept the public’s mood the next morning from being anything other than admiring.
But although the South-Western gang were once again in the frame, James felt cocky enough to enter the FJ support to the TT at Goodwood only weeks after the robbery. He made a respectable practice time on the Thursday, but the next day his picture was on the front pages under the headline “Racing Driver Wanted”. Motoring News commented: ‘A notable non-starter was Roy James, who did not appear on Saturday. Scotland Yard, it seems, wished to interview him, and James was not to be found.”
Hiding out with contacts in London, James evaded the police for some weeks. But finally the Yard tracked him to an address in St John’s Wood, and after a cinematic chase over the rooftops with a bag of money in his hand, he was collared. He was convicted by one unfortunate slip – a single fingerprint on a saucer at the farm the gang had occupied as event HQ. Ironically the thoughtful James had used it to give some milk to the farm cat. He got 30 years.
Racing still gripped him, however, and when with good behaviour he was released from gaol 11 years later, in 1975, he went straight back to the circuits. After some ‘warming up’ in Formula Ford, David Mills, later Derek Bell’s manager, gave him a test at Silverstone in a Formula Atlantic.
“I was asked to help him by all sorts of people in the business,” says Mills. “I think the racing fraternity felt that it had been a terribly long sentence. 30 years- that’s life, after all. He was a nice enough chap, outgoing, many people liked him and felt he had served more than enough time. I had a Lola which Ted Wentz had been driving in Atlantic and then F2, and at the end of the season we put the Ford BDA Atlantic engine back in it for James to test, and I issued a press release saying ‘Roy James returns to racing!”
The 5ft 4in James had difficulty fitting the Lola chassis set up for the six-foot American Wentz, but Mills recalls that wasn’t the only problem. “It was really too powerful for him. Like all racing drivers he thought he would be even better in a faster car, but after all those years in prison…
Word of this reached Bernie Ecclestone. As well as being a racing driver and a train robber, James was also a silversmith. Bernie Ecclestone employed him to create Formula One trophies, in particular that given annually to the promoters – an award for the best organised Grand Prix of the year.
This, says Ecclestone, was his only connection with the Great Train Robbers.
He tried to get back into motor racing but was unsuccessful. In 1983 he was charged with the illegal importation of gold but was acquitted.
In 1982 he had married Anthea Wadlow, who was a full 30 years younger than him. Within a few years the marriage broke up, and while James was granted custody of their two children, he was also expected to make a £150,000 settlement to Anthea. This settlement, never paid, became a bone of contention between James and his Father-in-law, David Wadlow, and in 1993 the dispute erupted. James pulled out a gun and shot Wadlow three times, leaving him permanently scarred and partly disabled. This time there was no advance planning or rapid getaway: it was James himself who called the police. He was sentenced to six years for attempted murder, but his heart began to fail and in 1996, still in prison, he had a triple by-pass operation. Released early in 1997, he died in August that same year of heart failure, remembered more for that rapid departure from the Goodwood paddock in 1963 than for any achievements on the track.
In 2014, Douglas Gordon Goody revealed to journalists the name of The Ulsterman as Patrick McKenna, a 43-year-old postal worker living in Salford, Greater Manchester, at the time of the robbery. McKenna, who was from Belfast, met Goody four times in 1963. Goody alleges he only found out McKenna’s name when he saw it written inside his spectacles case.
It is not known what became of the share McKenna received but his children were ‘flabbergasted’ upon hearing of their father’s involvement. It was surmised that McKenna either donated his share to the Catholic church over the years or had had the money stolen from him.
Bernie Ecclestone put an end to outlandish rumours linking him to the Great Train Robbery by coming clean about his association with the get-a-way driver Roy James. Ecclestone had long been linked to the hold-up and the appearance of Ronnie Biggs at a number of Brazilian Grands Prix did nothing to dampen the rumours. However, when asked about the incident in an interview in The Independent Ecclestone said: “There wasn’t enough money on that train; I could have done something better than that. No, I’ll tell you where that [rumour] came from. Roy James, the guy who drove the getaway car, had been a racing driver. That’s why they wanted him in the getaway car. Anyway, Roy was very friendly with Graham Hill, and when he came out of prison, he asked me for a job. I owned Brabham at the time, but I wasn’t going to let him drive for me. Instead, I gave him a trophy to make; he’d also been a silversmith and goldsmith. That’s still the trophy we give to the promoters every year. He made it. The recipients don’t realise that.”
The gang consisted of 17 full members who were to receive an equal share, including the men who were at the robbery and two key informants.
The gang that carried out the robbery consisted of 15 criminals predominantly from south London: Gordon Goody, Charlie Wilson, Buster Edwards, Bruce Reynolds, Roy James, John Daly, Roger Cordrey, Jimmy White, Bob Welch, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Ronnie Biggs, as well as Harry Smith and Danny Pembroke, who were never charged due to the lack of evidence against them, and one still unknown, plus the train driver they nicknamed ‘Pop’. The best known member of the gang, Biggs, had only a minor role—to recruit the train driver.
While there has been a lot of mystery surrounding several of the gang who were not imprisoned, in reality the police knew almost the entire gang almost instantly. By 29 August 1963 Commander Hatherill had 14 names already, and told police that Brian Field had tried to enlist another gang to rob the train, who turned him down, before Hatherill’s list was unerringly accurate — all the major gang members were later jailed were identified, except Ronnie Biggs. With the exception of the minor accomplices Lennie Field, Bill Boal and the train driver, the list was complete, although of course the Ulsterman was not identified. In terms of the ones who got away, there were four others identified — Henry Smith, Dennis Pembroke, a fair haired man (25 years old — well spoken, not named) and a Nondescript man (not named but may be Jimmy Collins).
Both Piers Paul Read, and later Bruce Reynolds refer to three robbers who got away as Bill Jennings, Alf Thomas and Frank Monroe.