They played key roles in bringing the Great Train Robbers to justice – and 50 years on their memories of the crime of the century remain as vivid as ever.
John Bailey, 81, and John Woolley, 72, who still live in the Vale, were closely involved in the aftermath of the events of August 8, 1963, when a gang looted the Glasgow to London mail train near Cheddington, stealing in the process £2.6 million, (£46 million in modern estimations) the majority of which was never recovered.
Bailey, who worked in the fledgling field of forensics, was one of the first officers on the scene.
He was called out in the middle of the night to photograph the results of the heist and take fingerprints.
He said: “It’s most strange that 50 years later people go on about these crimes. It was the crime of the century but to me it was just another job.”
As Bailey was carrying out his painstaking work, Woolley was blissfully unaware of just how key a role he would come to play five days later.
Back then a relatively inexperienced 25-year-old police officer, he helped discover the bandits’ hideout at Leatherslade Farm in Brill following a tip off from a neighbouring farmer.
He said: “Within two days it had been styled the ‘crime of the century’ by Fleet Street. You couldn’t be unaware of what was going on.
“This ‘crime of the century’ occurred on our patch and at first we were just staggered that was the case. Little did we know the perpetrators and their money was now just two miles away.”
Upon his arrival in Brill it quickly became evident this was no ordinary farm house with the windows covered up with dirty sheets and two Land Rovers with identical number plates nearby.
The robbers had violently assaulted the train’s staff, including driver Jack Mills who was knocked unconscious – so Woolley was well aware he could be putting himself in danger as he prepared to enter the farmhouse.
“Knowing how they had treated the railway man and postmen on the train the week previous I knew they were not going to allow one young policeman to stand between them and a passport to luxury,” he said.
Woolley broke in through an upstairs window before letting in his sergeant Ron Blackman through the front door.
After venturing into the cellar he discovered the mail bags – but no bandits in sight.
“I just thought: ‘It’s £2.6 million staring me in the face’. But I then immediately thought having got this far, would the robbers leave it unattended? Had they even gone? Were they in those bushes waiting outside for me to be on my own?”
As it transpired the gang had fled days earlier, leaving behind an array of equipment.
Woolley added: “Once the news got out the farm was the hideout all the media descended on Brill, a little sleepy village right on the edge of Bucks.”
Both men have dined out on their stories for years but Bailey said it is still intrigues him why that the public are so fascinated by the story.
He said: “There are some weird parts to this story. People now want to go see Ronnie Biggs and pay him to talk – that seems strange to me.”
Not least, he says, because this was not a victimless crime, with traumatised Mills dying young just seven years after he was attacked.
“Jack Mills was just an unfortunate man at that time to be doing the job he did. He was in their way at that moment in time,” said Bailey.
Woolley agrees the robbers were intent on carrying out their heist no matter what.
“They went out that night tooled up and I’m sure intent to do whatever was necessary to bring about their objective.”
Despite much of the money never being recovered Bailey is quick to point out just how successful the case was for the police force in convicting many members of the gang.
He added: “Some of them you win and some of them you lose but this was the most successful on the fingerprinting side. The most successful because there had been so many all identified by the work I helped to do.”
Such success meant Bailey took to the stand to prove the accuracy of his photos and forensic work when the trial of the robbers rolled into Aylesbury. Nor was Woolley exempt as he faced questions on his role, too.
Woolley added: “Fifty years later this is probably going to be the last anniversary celebrated. How many of us are going to be about to be interviewed and about that period in 10 years’ time?
“My part in it was very modest but I’m pleased I was part of the crime of the century, something everybody knows.”