Throughout history there have been thousands of audacious robberies. The biggest have tended to be well recorded, thanks to a combination of perceived against the odds success, sheer scale of undertaking, sometimes shocking violence and often massive contemporary media interest. Like it or not, the world’s most daring heists do tend to fascinate the law abiding world.
Here are a few examples…
The Theft of the Crown Jewels
In 1671, one of the most infamous thieves in history, Thomas Blood, disguised himself as a parson and went to see the Crown Jewels in London, making sure he became friendly with the man who guarded them. Later, Blood returned with his wife to show her the Jewels, introducing her to his new friend, Edwards the guard. Careful planning by Blood meant that he became good friends with the whole Edwards family.
On 9th May 1671, ‘Parson Blood’ arrived at the Edwards home with a man he claimed to be his nephew, and two other men. While the nephew was getting to know Edwards’ daughter, the others in the party expressed a desire to see the Crown Jewels. Edwards led the way downstairs and unlocked the door to the room where they were kept. At that moment Blood knocked him unconscious with a mallet and stabbed him with a sword.
The golden crown was flattened with the mallet and put into a bag, and the orb stuffed down Blood’s breeches. The sceptre was too long to go into the bag so the robbers tried to saw it in half. At that point Edwards regained consciousness and began to shout for help. Blood and his accomplices dropped the sceptre and attempted to get away but Blood was arrested.
In custody, Blood refused to talk to anyone but the King. Blood knew that the King, Charles II, had a reputation for liking bold scoundrels, and believed that his Irish charm would save his neck. As Blood had guessed, King Charles was amused at Blood’s audacity when he claimed the Crown Jewels were only worth £6000, and not the £100,000 they were valued at. Astonishingly, in the end not only was Thomas Blood pardoned, but he was also given Irish lands worth £500 a year.
Theft of the Mona Lisa
On 21st August 1911, Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia stole Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, the Mona Lisa, from the Louvre art gallery and museum in Paris. The police conducted a two-year long hunt for the painting, and it wasn’t until December 1913 that Peruggia was finally caught, and the Mona Lisa recovered (front page news, above).
Great Train Robbery
On 8th August 1963, Bruce Reynolds and his gang boarded a Royal Mail Train heading from Glasgow to London, at Bridego Railway Bridge in Buckinghamshire.
The robbery had been possible due to the careful planning of a man on the inside of the Royal Mail train, Patrick McKenna. Although the gang did not use guns, the train driver was beaten over the head with a metal bar, severely injuring him and ending his career. They made off with £2.6 million, the equivalent of £40 million today. The bulk of the stolen money was never recovered.
After the robbery, the gang made Leatherslade Farm their hideout. It was incriminating evidence found at the farm which led to the arrest of the ringleaders, who were sentenced to 30 years in jail. Reynolds, a thief and antiques dealer who had planned the robbery, fled to Mexico on a false passport before moving to Canada. In1968, five years after the crime, Reynolds returned to England, was captured in Torquay and jailed for 25 years. He was released in 1978 and lived in London, until he was jailed again in the 1980’s for drug dealing.
Possibly the most well known of all the robbers, Ronnie Biggs, was jailed in 1964 for his part in the robbery, but he escaped from prison, spending the next 36 years on the run after having plastic surgery to disguise his face. Eventually, in 2001, when he was very ill, Biggs decided to return to Britain to face arrest.
The World Cup Robbery
On the 20th March 1966, the football World Cup (known as the Jules Rimet Trophy) was stolen while on exhibition at Central Hall in Westminster, London. The £30,000 solid gold trophy disappeared while a church service was taking place in another part of the building. The trophy was eventually found on 27th March by Pickles, a dog, out for a walk with his owner in south London. The Jules Rimet trophy was stolen again in 1983, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Unfortunately, this time it was never been recovered, and a replacement has been used ever since.
The Brink’s-MAT Robbery
On the 26th November 1983, six robbers broke into the Brink’s-MAT warehouse at Heathrow Airport, London. The gang gained entry to the warehouse with the help of security guard, Anthony Black. The robbers thought they were going to steal £3 million in cash. However, when they arrived, they found three tons of gold bullion and stole £26 million worth of gold, diamonds and cash. In order to get away, they threatened staff and forced them to reveal the combination numbers of the vault. Most of the stolen gold has never been recovered and four of the six thieves were never convicted.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.