The first recorded robbery on the railways took place in Ireland between Dublin and Kingstown in August 1842. Details were printed in Freemans Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser of Friday August 19 1842 under a heading of “Extensive Railway Robbery”
“Between four and five o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, a London gentleman named Wooley, while proceeding from Dublin to Kingstown, by the railway, in one of the second class carriages, had the following abstracted from him:- A draft for £300 on the Liverpool bank, £20 in Bank of Ireland notes. £80 in gold together with some silver.”
The Standard (London, England), reported a different kind of railway robbery in its edition of Wednesday, October 12, 1842
“Last week the Aylesbury railway station was broken open and a portion of the day’s earnings, amounting to between 15/- and 16/- abstracted from the desk”
Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian (Southampton, England), Saturday, October 15, 1842 added more detail to this story,
“The railway station was broken open…..The robbery is the more surprising seeing that there is a sergeant, an inspector and six or eight policeman attached to the station upon duty”
The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, April 14, 1843 had a slightly less interesting robbery to thought but clearly thought it worthy of reporting to its readers,
“Information was given yesterday that the cloak-room of the London and Birmingham Railway Company, had been entered by thieves, who carried off number of cloaks and mackintoshes, a portmanteau, and a box.”
The Bradford Observer; and Halifax, Huddersfield, and Keighley Reporter (Bradford, England), Thursday, July 20, 1843 reported a most unusual robbery in its edition under a heading of “Railway Robbery Recovery”
“On Wednesday last information was given at the Leicester station of a robbery that had been committed upon a lady while travelling along the London and Birmingham Railway. The lady in question was returning to Leicester when she found, upon feeling for her ticket, that she had been robbed of £40. An engine was immediately despatched to Rugby, where it was ascertained that the party suspected had taken a ticket for Hampton and thence to Derby, at which station he took another ticket for Rugby again. The engine continued its course and came up with the train at Loughborough, following it to Leicester, where an examination of the passengers took place, and the lady identified one of them as her late fellow traveller, whereupon he was searched, and the whole of the missing property was found upon him. The lady conjectures the robbery was effected in Kilsby tunnel.”
The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, July 22, 1843 reported “Another Railway Robbery”
“On Tuesday as Miss Coltman of Regent Street was travelling with her servant from Rugby to Leicester, her pocket was picked of her purse containing two £5 Bank of England notes and twelve sovereigns. It is supposed that the robbery was committed by a young man who sat near Miss C and whom she afterwards recollected to have felt pushing against her; but at the time she took no notice of it.”
The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, December 05, 1845; pg. 8 reported a “Railway Robbery and attempt at Suicide.”
“On Friday night last a curious case of railway robbery was brought to light at the police office in Cheltenham. A young woman named Purnell, in the service of Miss Clark, 38 Clarence Square left Stonehouse station on the Great Western Railway for Cheltenham. She distinctly saw her father place a small box she had with her in the luggage van. On arriving at Gloucester and changing to the Birmingham line her box was missing. The box contained two shawls, two dresses and some other wearing apparel.”
She heard no more of the missing property but then saw a woman in Pitville Street wearing one of the shawls. She challenged her but the woman claimed she bought the article in London. The police were called and the woman was taken to the house of Miss Clark. She also identified the shawl, saying she had given it to her servant some months previously. The prisoner gave her name as Mary Levison and she was taken to the police office. She would not answer questions and made an attempt on her life in the night by hanging herself with her garters but her attempt was discovered and she was saved. She was committed for trial at the next Gloucester sessions. At the enquiry in the police office, J B Clark Esq of Clarence Square Cheltenham provided an insight into how the accused had come by the shawl,
“He had reason to suppose that some one of the railway porters at Gloucester was connected with the robbery, as when the young woman inquired for her box she was told by a porter to get into the Cheltenham carriage at once or she would be left behind, the party at the same time refusing to satisfy her inquiries.”
Not all railway robberies involved theft of items of clothing or money, the Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian (Southampton, England), Saturday, December 13, 1845; pg. 3 reported a case of a hungry thief by the name of John Smith. He was a labourer on a portion of the Salisbury line at North Stoneham. He returned home to his lodgings one night at six o’ clock at the house of Thomas Langley. He brought with him some bacon, a loaf, part of a load and a handkerchief. The same items had been placed in a carpet bag by George Green, another railway labourer and left under a bridge at nine in the morning. At five o’clock they were gone. The matter was reported to the police who called at the home of Thomas Langley where the goods were found.
The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, January 09, 1846; pg. 3 reported a “Daring Railway Robbery” in its edition with yet more trouble at Leicester. Alfred Penavaine and Josephine Marie Huismans were charged with stealing a portmanteau, property of S Cooper, from the station of the Midland Counties Railway Company at Leicester. Mr Cooper arrived by train from Leicester on 5th January and took his portmanteau to the booking office, leaving it with a porter as he visited the town. On his return it was gone. He continued his journey to Nottingham where he reported the matter to the police. Their enquiries identified two individuals who had offered various articles of plate to different individuals. On taking them into custody the portmanteau and its contents were recovered. Further enquiries revealed the couple had been waiting at Leicester station as Mr Cooper arrived. His portmanteau had been place close to their luggage. They directed a porter to take the luggage and portmanteau to the carriage of their train and left. They were both committed to trial at the Leicester Epiphany sessions.
“Mr Macauley addressed the jury on behalf of the prisoners, and in the course of his observations, he made some very stringent reflections upon the gross negligence by the servants of the railway company, one of whom said that it was an everyday occurrence for other passengers luggage to be taken away by individuals to whom it did not belong.”
The jury handed down a sentence of twelve months with hard labour to both prisoners.
The Morning Post (London, England), Saturday, June 20, 1846; pg. 7 carried a report of a robbery in railway refreshment room at the Eastern Counties Railway station at Cambridge.
Mrs Mary Letitia Wilson travelled by train from Shoreditch to Norwich with her servant and had in her pocket a purse containing £1 15s 5d and she believed she had another sovereign. There were only two ladies and herself in the carriage to Norwich. At Cambridge the train stopped and she visited the refreshment room. It was very crowded and she only bought a bun at the counter. At the door she decided to buy a bottle of soda water. On reaching for her purse she found it and all her money gone. Her servant gave her a shilling to pay for the soda. She decided to go back into the refreshment room to report her loss when a man asked if she had lost her purse. He then handed over to her a purse which was the one lost and was now empty. She decided to report the matter and a description of the man to the station manager. He arranged to send telegraphs to stations up and down the line giving a description of the main suspect. Mr Wm Henry French, manager of the electric telegraph at Shoreditch station received the telegraph. A man matching a description of the subject arrived some hours later. He was taken by the railway police and locked up. He gave his name as William Young, said he was a gentleman and resided at Hampton Wick. At a magistrates court he was remanded again with the intention of committing him for trial.
“Several officers stated that the prisoner was well known; and number of smartly dressed persons, stated to be “swell mob men” were bout the court, manifesting much solicitude for his enlargement.”
This was the first recorded example of the use of a telegraph to help solve a railway robbery and to apprehend the culprit.
The Bradford & Wakefield Observer; and Halifax, Huddersfield, and Keighley Reporter (Bradford, England), Thursday, September 10, 1846 reported an “Extensive Railway Robbery”
“On Monday morning last the cash box at the railway station at Norwich was robbed of £800. The thieves have not been detected.”
The Standard (London, England), Monday, May 17, 1847 carried details of an extensive and organised railway robbery. John Freer, William Martin, Henry East, Samuel Freer, all labourers plus John Cheenry and Joseph Taylor, carmen and Charles Austin, dealer were all indicted in the central criminal court for being concerned in an extensive railway robbery.
“The prisoners John Freer, W Martin and Henry East are charged with stealing from the terminus of the London and North Western Railway at Camden 49 pieces of printed calico, 7 pieces of de-laine, 60 cravats, 37 pieces of ribbon, 60 shawls, 60 yards of cloth, 260 yards of jaconet, 48 parasols and numerous other articles, value £1,000.”
The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, May 19, 1847 carried further details. Samuel Freer, Jon Cherry, Joseph Taylor, Joel Taylor and Charles Austin were indicted for feloniously receiving the property knowing it to be stolen. The robbery was committed in a very daring manner. On Easter Sunday Messrs Crowley sent a van loaded with goods to the North Western Railway station at Camden. The van was placed in the station yard overnight and the following morning it covering was seen to have been removed and a great deal of property stolen. Conviction of those responsible rested on the testimony of Joseph Page, a lad of 19 who had helped to remove the goods after being approached by East and John Freer,
“About three o’clock in the morning, Martin, Jon Freer, East and himself went to the railway station at Camden. The van was standing outside and Freer wished to know if it contained “up” or “down” goods and he explained that the “down” goods were generally the most valuable as they consisted of silks, drapery and valuable articles; whereas the “up” goods were mostly hardware and other “Brumaggem” and Sheffield manufactures.”
After hearing all the evidence the jury acquitted Joel Taylor but found all the other prisoners guilty. John Freer, Martin, East, Cherry, Joseph Taylor and Austin were sentenced to be transported for seven years. This was the most extensive ever robbery yet seen on the railways and the sentences had to match the scale of the crime.
The Bradford & Wakefield Observer; and Halifax, Huddersfield, and Keighley Reporter (Bradford, England), Thursday, November 18, 1847 carried a quite sensational account. Almost six months after the Camden robbery an even greater one took place, this time at the Paddington station of the Great Western Railway. Headlined as an “Extraordinary Railway Robbery”, the account began by setting the scene,
“An extensive robbery was perpetrated on Sunday Evening last, at the London terminus of the Great Western Railway. The thieves selected their time of arrival of the last train on Sunday evening (half past 10) for their operations. They appear to have gained admittance to the second class booking office, to have gone behind the counter, and forcing, in succession. All the tills (six in number) open, to have cleared them of their contents. This done, they passed into the first class office, where they did precisely the same thing.”
However the tills were not the only prize. There was a small closet at the right hand side of the first class office and it contained an iron safe, where money taken during the day was taken and placed when it was not convenient to take it to the bank. As the banks did not open on a Sunday the safe was full. The thieves took the safe away with them. It contained not less than £1200 in notes, gold and silver. The safe also contained securities, the property of the chief booking clerk. Those responsible made a clean getaway and the article concluded,
“Forresters are in pursuit of the robbers, but no clue has yet been obtained.”
It could have been worse. The closet contained two boxes of bullion, each insured for a large amount. These were left behind untouched!
The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, England), Saturday, January 15, 1848; pg. 6 carried an almost unbelievable account, with news off a yet “Another Extensive and Mysterious Railway Robbery” between the Paddington and Bristol stations of the Great Western Railway. The total value of the loss was given as between £1500 and £2000 and so quite likely a greater sum than the Paddington station robbery.
“It appears that the property, consisting of gold and silver coin, was inclosed in an inch thick iron bound box nailed down, and the address upon the box was “Messrs Badcock and Co, bankers Taunton. The weight of it was about 120lbs.”
The account detailed how the box was sent off by the quarter-past ten o’clock mail train, it was placed at the bottom of a seat, behind which was another seat in another compartment in which four or five well-dressed men were sitting. They alighted at different stations on the journey. When the train reached Bristol a man named Cotterrell was responsible for checking the box found it had been forced open and the valuable contents removed. On checking the compartment, he discovered a panel under the seat occupied by the gentleman had been removed, giving access to the box.
“Neither chisel,knife, crow-bar nor any other implement by which the daring and most artful act of plunder might have been effected, could be found.”
This was the first time highly valuable amounts of money had been stolen from a moving train and the first example of a new type of robbery – a train robbery. It has been carefully planned and executed and those responsible must have had inside information. The description of well-dressed gentlemen seems to have indicated a job carried out by members of the “swell-mob”. These were a London based crime syndicate. They were very well dressed so as to not to arouse suspicion in public but were hardened criminals. Many began their careers as pick-pockets.
As passenger numbers increased and increased so did the number and types of railway robberies. Passengers were obvious targets, goods and property were easily taken and the trains and stations themselves provided the most lucrative opportunities to steal very large amounts of money…………..
NEXT TIME…. THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY!
Copyright@Mike Sheridan 2015 All Rights Reserved.
Please do NOT copy or use any text herein, it is my own original research and writing and will be included as part of my third book, tentatively titled Murder, Mayhem and Tragedy on the Railways 1830-1899