Former local reporter John Flewin recounts his experiences of covering the crime of the century:
It was to become one of the longest running news stories of the (last) century.
Fifty years ago this week the Great Train Robbery took place just down the line from Leighton Station, heading towards Cheddington.
A gang of men stopped the overnight mail train from Glasgow to London and robbed it of £2.6m in cash – the equivalent of £46m in today’s money.
I was the junior reporter on what was then the Beds and Bucks Observer, although even then it was just called the LBO [The Leighton Buzzard Observer, which is now owned by the same company as The Bucks Herald].
Eight months into a journalistic career, obituaries, marriages, parish and rural district council meetings and chasing fire engines were my daily tasks.
So when the phone rang at my home above the family’s grocery shop in Hockliffe Road early in the morning of August 8, 1963, it was unusual.
It was the editor of the LBO, the dour Scot who’d hired me and went by the name of Dougal McReath.
The message: “A train has been robbed at Cheddington and we need to get there fast,” or something like that.
So why did he call me and not a more senior member of his four-person reporting team?
I’m still not sure, but one thing is for sure – he didn’t drive or have a car. I did. And he needed to get to Cheddington fast.
Later in my working life, I teamed up with the photographer who was actually the first journalist on the scene – arriving less than an hour after the 3am robbery was reported.
His name was Ivor Leonard and although he had also started his professional life on the LBO, he was at that time working for a local evening newspaper.
He often told the story of the photo he never took: when he arrived at Cheddington Station, the only visible police presence was the local bobby, and his bike, on the bridge overlooking the station. But the photos he did take remain collectors’ items – including the only one that I know of showing bewildered Post Office sorters hanging out of the train windows.
It was two or more hours later when my editor and I, just 19 and eager to get my first scoop, rolled up at the station just after the bigwigs from the Bucks Police force had arrived.
But how did I start getting the facts? My luck was in, or so I thought. I spotted a police sergeant I knew from Linslade Police Station (then in Bucks and a place I regularly popped into in my daily search for news). In a brief conversation, the sergeant told me that a mail train had been robbed. As helpful background, he told me that in a previous robbery, at Euston Station, four mailbags had been stolen. He said they had contained £93,000 in total.
In this robbery, he said, more than 120 had been stolen and suggested I do my maths. I did my maths. More than £2.5m.
If I had believed that I would have been first with the news, but it was just too big a number to contemplate. I was earning less than £8 a week. It took more than three days for the final figure to be announced.
The robbers had clearly worked hard on getting their operation right. To stop the train, they had used a very simple scheme. At Sears Crossing, a point on the rail line near Grove Lock, they rigged the signal on the London-bound fast track, covering the glowing green bulb with a glove, and illuminating the red bulb with a six-volt battery.
Once the train stopped, the robbers, said to be up to 15 men wearing hoods and blue overalls, overpowered the crew, ordering the driver to take the train forward a few hundred yards to Bridego Bridge, where they had an old army lorry waiting below.
There they forced their way into what was called the High Value carriage where Post Office sorters were at work. They tied them up and made off down the embankment with the mailbags.
In the initial days after the robbery, the story moved away from the local area as the net spread in the hunt to find the robbers. But once arrests started happening, Linslade was the place to be.
Alongside what was then Linslade Police Station in Wing Road was Linslade Magistrates Court. That’s where all those arrested made their first few court appearances, and that’s where the Fleet Street pack of reporters and photographers camped out.
Although by this time a more senior member of the LBO reporting team was covering the court appearances, I always made sure I was around outside and in the nearby pubs to mix with the Fleet Street crowd, making contacts which were to become invaluable later in my career.