WeSeWriMo 2015 – Episode or Chapter 4 The First Great Train Robbery – PART 1

Hello again Readers

In my previous blog I detailed the early days of robberies on the railway. The first event on an Irish railway netted £400. This was just the beginning and soon the numbers of robberies and amounts of cash stolen grew larger and larger. In short the railways had begun to attract a particular breed of criminal way beyond the common footpads and pick-pockets. These were hardened criminals and sometimes desperate men who planned their robberies in the greatest detail. They were not interested in the contents of purse, pocket or wallet. They had eyes only for much larger sums of money and worked in groups. They had inside information about the movement of money and bullion and knew exactly where and when to strike. They also had contacts and fences so that the proceeds of their crimes could be easily dispersed. Paper money was not so easy to hide but the most valuable coins were made of gold – coins which could be melted down, turned into gold dust or spent without arousing too much suspicion as they were almost impossible to trace.  The stage was now set for the first ever great train robbery.  A venture that was breath-taking in its audacity and planned and executed with clinical efficiency. I now present the true story of the UK’s first ever great train robbery…………………..

In 1855 a former guard on the South Eastern Railway by the name of William Pierce got to hear of regular shipments of gold being sent by train to Paris in connection with the Crimea War. Large and regular shipments of gold coins and ingots were being transported by train from London to Folkestone and from there via a ferry to France and then overland by rail Paris. Pierce was heavily in debt and in need of money. A chance meeting with a forger named Edward Agar set the plan into motion. One of Agars skills was the ability to copy and make keys.  Pierce knew the gold was transported in an iron safe and he would need keys to be made. He now needed an accomplice within the railway staff to get hold of the keys and to allow them to  make impressions in wax.

Pierce and Agar travelled to Folkestone and took private apartments where Agar went by the name of Adams. They stayed there for three weeks.  They visited Folkestone station to find out where the keys were kept. They waited and watched the boat train arrive several nights and saw an iron  chest in which bullion  was carried. They noticed sometimes it was opened and sometimes it was not.  They watched to see where the keys were taken from. They were taken from the drawer of the ticket-taker and afterwards removed. A policeman had noticed the pair so Pierce returned to London to avoid any trouble. Agar stayed a further week. He had already discovered there were two keys to open the safe from conversations with two employees of the railway company. These men were called  Ledger and Chapman and  they worked at Folkestone station. Agar befriended them and invited them to play billiards with him. Agar returned to London and visited Pierce at his lodgings in Walnut Tree Walk in Lambeth. Pierce explained that he had found out that one of the keys to the safe was lost and the safe was about to be sent to repaired and new keys made. He said he knew a ticket clerk called Tester who would have possession of the keys. He explained that Tester would get an impression of the keys but Agar insisted on doing it himself. An appointment was made to meet Tester and Pierce at the beerhouse at the corner of Tooley Street. Tester brought two keys with him which were new. Agar took four impressions of each one in wax, he made the impressions in a bedroom and returned the keys to Tester.

The third man in the plot was a guard called Burgess and he was well-known  by Pierce as they had  both worked for the South Eastern Railway. Burgess still worked for the company and importantly was often the guard on the boat train to Folkestone. In   the build up to the robbery Pierce and Agar met Burgess at the house of a man called Stevens in Tooley Street, at the Green Man Inn near the station and at Dover.  Burgess was at first against the robbery but Pierce talked him into it. There was still a major problem.  They had only made successful copies of one of the keys to the safe but there was still another one without which the plan could not succeed.  Pierce and Agar discussed what they could do about this. They agreed that Agar would go down to Folkestone to stay at the Pavilion Hotel. Pierce would send a letter to the hotel for Agar stating that he would remit a box containing £700 in the name of Archer. Whilst in Folkestone Agar received the letter stating that Pierce had forwarded the box to the care of either Ledger or Chapman. Agar went to the office at Folkestone station but the box had not arrived. It was a Saturday so Agar decided to return the following day. He saw the train arrive and saw the iron safe. He went to the station office and saw Chapman and showed him  the letter from Pierce. He watched carefully as Chapman took a key from the cupboard in   the office and open the safe. The box from Pierce alias Archer was there and it was removed and taken into the office. Chapman told agar he had to fill out a receipt. Agar claimed he had a bad finger and could not sign so Chapman signed for him in the name of Archer. The box actually contained £200 in gold sovereigns to give it some weight and some papers.

Agar returned to London on the Monday and immediately went to see Pierce and explain what he observed at Folkestone. They decided they had to return to Folkestone and get their hands on the key they needed. Three weeks later they took a train to Dover and booked rooms at a house called the Rose. They did not wish to be seen arriving by train in Folkestone. By their observations they knew that the clerks left their office when the boat train arrived. The plan was for Agar to wait for an opportunity to get into the office and get a wax impression of the key they needed. At their boarding house  they had tea and supper then left quietly and walked over the heights between Dover and  Folkestone. They went to the station in the port, sometimes called the Lower Station and both watched as Ledger and Chapman came out of the office. They went into the passenger baggage room. Pierce went inside to the cupboard and Agar watched the door. Pierce unlocked the cupboard door, the key of which was in the lock and he took the key  to the bullion chest to Agar. He quickly took an impression in wax and the key was replaced and cupboard locked again. The following day both men returned to London. Over the following weeks the two keys were made from blanks. Agar filed down the blanks to make them match the impressions.  Some work was done at Pierce’s house in Walnut Walk and some in new lodgings taken by Agar in Shepherds Bush.

Burgess lived at New Cross and the three would meet at the Marquis of Granby. It was now time for Burgess to step into the plot. Having made the keys was one thing but they had to be sure they could open the safe. At one meeting a plan was formed for Agar to travel down by train with Burgess and if he had the safe the keys could be tried. A few weeks later Agar stepped into the van and train guarded by Burgess. He tried the keys in the safe. They would go in but not turn. He made another seven journeys, slowly filing the keys down until they made a better fit. Finally both keys turned and Agar passed on the good news to Burgess and Pierce.

Next another problem had to be dealt with.  The boxes containing the bullion were filled with precious metals and were very heavy. The safe was checked at Folkestone and if anyone lifted up a box from which all gold had been removed, the robbery would be discovered and they could be apprehended. They need to fill the boxes with something heavy to replace the gold. They were expecting to find about £12,000 in gold in the boxes and calculated that amount of gold would weigh two hundredweights. They decided to buy this exact amount of lead shot and carry it in bags to the train. Pierce and Agar bought the shot at the Shot Tower adjacent to Hungerford Bridge and placed in into carpet bags. They then proceeded to Charing Cross where they got into an Omnibus and went to Agar’s house at Shepherds Bush. The shot was then taken to Pierce’s house as it was nearer the railway. More shot was purchased and four strong leather courier bags were ordered and made at the corner of Drury Lane and Great Queen Street. Pierce also bought another very large carpet bag. The plan was to fill the carpet bags with hay and put the lead shot into the middle.

After months of preparation it was time to put their plan into action. This was where their fourth man came in. Tester the clerk knew when the bullion was being carried on the train, but only a few hours before the train left. Pierce and Agar had to strike on the night when Burgess was the guard on the train and when the bullion was on board. It was arranged to meet Tester between the outer gate of St Thomas Hospital and Gracechurch Street station. Pierce and Agar waited for evening to fall then got ready. They both strapped the shot-filled courier bags around their shoulders and covered themselves with capes. They left Pierces house carrying carpet bags too and walked to a coffee shop. Pierce had both keys safely stored in an inside pocket. They got a cab from the stand and rode down to St Thomas’s street. Agar got down from the cab and set off into the dark to meet up with Tester. Pierce could only wait and wonder. Would the bullion be on the boat train tonight? Or would they have to try again tomorrow?


Copyright@Mike Sheridan  2015 All Rights Reserved

NOTE no text may be copied, stored or shared. This is my writing and the product of extensive research from primary sources. It is free to read and will form the basis of my third true crime book to be published on Amazon soon

About bakersfieldlad

July 2015...... I published my first book on Amazon - "Savilles Spinnney". On April 1st 2015 I published my second book - "Arsenic Sally". Christmas Day 2015 I published my third book " Murder Mystery and Mayhem on the Railways 1830-1899. That's 3 books in roughly 18 months. I enjoy researching and see no reason to stop writing. There will be many many more books and while I would love to be taken in by a publisher I am content to make my books available via Amazon. Keep checking my blogs for updates about my upcoming projects......
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