Great Gold Robbery of 1855

Great Gold Robbery of 1855

On the night of May 15, 1855, three London firms sent a box of gold bars and coins each from London Bridge station for Paris via the South Eastern Railway. The gold bars alone were worth £12,000 at the time (more than £8,900,000 in 2006 figures, calculating for per capita GDP). The boxes were placed in traveling safes with double locks and were guarded all through the journey over the English Channel. When the boxes were weighed in Boulogne, one weighed 40lb troy (15kg) less than it should have but was transferred to a train on its way to Paris regardless. When the Paris officials opened them, they noticed that the robbers had replaced the gold with bags of lead shot.

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 Folkestone. South Eastern Railway offered a sizable reward and named its own investigator but received only false information. The official British theory was that the robbery had been made in the continent, while the French police claimed it had happened in England because the boxes had been lighter at Boulogne.

One hundred years on from 1855 and Michael Robbins wrote a detailed feature about this incident called "The Great South-Eastern Bullion Robbery" in The Railway Magazine May 1955 issue.

uspect arrested

In August 1855 Edward Agar, professional criminal and associate of crooked barrister James Townsend Saward, was arrested for passing a false cheque; in fact, he had been set up by a rival. Agar was sentenced for penal transportation to Australia for life and meanwhile sent to Pentonville prison. From prison Agar wrote to Fanny Kay, mother of his illegitimate child, and mentioned that William Pierce, former railway employee, was supposed to have paid her £7,000. Pierce, in fact, had given her no money. Kay grew suspicious and in the summer of 1856 visited the governor of Newgate prison. The governor contacted Mr Rees, the investigator for the railway company, and took her to see him.

When Kay told Rees about the money, he went to see Agar who, at the time, was in a prison hulk at Portland. When Agar heard what had happened, he decided to tell Rees what had happened and eventually described the robbery in length.

Agar's testimony

Agar had met Pierce years earlier when Pierce had worked as a ticket printer and discussed the possible theft of gold shipments between London and Paris. When Agar had returned to England after a brief stay in the USA, Pierce had described his plan and his associates, train car guard James Burgess and station master William Tester.

Agar and Pierce spent two weeks in Folkestone watching the train traffic and aroused suspicions of the South Eastern Railway Police. When Agar stayed to try to befriend a man who was responsible for the keys of the travelling safes, railway police warned the man of a suspected pickpocket and Agar had to leave.

Conspirators met in pubs near London Bridge. When they developed their plans, Tester was promoted, transferred from Folkestone to London and placed in position where he was responsible for the security of valuables. When one of the keys was lost, Tester took its replacement to Agar who made a wax impression of it.

In order to make a copy of another key, Agar sent bullion worth £200 to two clerks in Folkestone and saw what key they used to open the safe. Pierce and Agar later made an impression of the key when the clerks were briefly absent. Agar travelled many times in trains Burgess guarded to test the keys.

The conspirators decided to wait for a large shipment of gold to Boulogne and bought two hundredweights (224lb avoirdupois or 102kg) of lead shot and carried them in small portions to the London Bridge Station.

Their opportunity came May 15, 1855 when both Tester and Burgess informed them of large shipment of gold. Tester had altered the guards' rota to place Burgess in a suitable train. Agar and Pierce bought two first-class tickets to Dover and gave the carpet bags full of lead to a porter in the guard's van. Agar slipped into the van Burgess guarded. As soon as the train was moving, Agar opened the safes and boxes, replaced the gold with lead, resealed the boxes and locked the safes again. At Redhill, Burgess gave waiting Tester a gold bar and Pierce joined Agar. The robbers had not brought enough lead shot to cover all the gold but took all of it. Then they cleaned up the van to look as if nothing had happened. On reaching Dover, they recovered the carpet bags from Burgess, Agar threw away the tools he had used and the men returned to London.

In the following weeks, Agar and Pierce melted the gold and sold some of it. Burgess received £700 and others £600. When Agar was arrested, Pierce buried some of the gold in the pantry under the front steps of his house.

Arrest and sentencing

Fanny Kay was taken to lodge in the house of police inspector Thorton for safekeeping. Further investigation corroborated Agar's story. Rees recovered gold worth £2,000. Some railway employees Agar had dealt with recognised him.

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

The trial in the Old Bailey began January 10, 1857. The main witnesses were Agar and Kay. On January 12 Burgess and Tester were sentenced to penal transportation for 14 years. Pierce received two years for larceny with periodical solitary confinement.


Michael Crichton's novel "The Great Train Robbery" and subsequent film presents a mildly accurate version of these events, portraying Pierce as a gentleman master criminal who eventually escapes.

External links

* [ British Transport Police web page about the robbery]

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