Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Bank Robbers from the London School

On Sunday 9 March 1828, the Greenock bank in Glasgow was robbed. The method was very sophisticated, and the gang must have spent many months familiarising themselves with the bank and its routine. This was quite unusual for a robbery so far north, and since it was similar in method to those further south, people soon attributed it to the "London School."

And the whole plan, for all its complexity, relied on the fact that only one person guarded the bank on Sunday, and he regularly left the bank unattended for the whole of that day. The robbery itself was conducted with such care that no one realised it had been robbed until nine o'clock Monday morning.

They got away with £30,000 pounds which is worth £2m today (using the retail price index. Or an impressive £21m using the average earnings index) and the methods they used wouldn't be out of place in a modern day heist movie. They rented a flat in Glasgow and began their operations in November of the previous year. It was later surmised that, having made copies of keys for the outer doors, they must have spent many months breaking in every Sunday and gaining wax impressions of the locks inside the building.

Having spent many weeks observing from a nearby coffee shop that looked onto the bank, on the Sunday morning one member of the gang (who had never been to the shop) rushed in and asked in some agitation for recent copies of the Times. He claimed he'd heard a friend had died recently, and while the owner of the coffee shop was distracted, the rest of the gang entered the bank.

They even went so far as to block the keyhole of a safe with a ring, so it couldn't be opened and they could be sure of more time to escape before the crime had been discovered.

Once the robbery had been discovered, the bank sent out people to try and trace the gang's movements. They followed the trail as far Doncaster where it went cold. Later investigations uncovered their movements as far as Matlock, but that's as far as they could ascertain. It is assumed they went back to London, to "burrow themselves in the mass of human beings forming the population of the metropolis"

News of the robbery spread and the nature of the notes stolen (issued directly by the Greenock Bank) were communicated. This is probably why the first place the gangs went to after leaving Glasgow on Sunday afternoon was to Edinburgh and Leith, to exchange some of the notes on Monday before the alarm had been raised. In fact, even as late as August, people were being arrested for trying to exchange those Greenock notes that had been stolen.

Taken for britishnotes.co.uk

One suspect, Henry Saunders, was arrested then freed on lack of evidence and then arrested again. In September 1828 he faced trial, but despite all the witnesses placing him in Glasgow and then leaving Glasgow by a variety of coaches, the verdict came back as Not Proven.

Only one man, William Vyse, seemed to be directly implicated in the robbery, as the man who exchanged £5,000 in Greenock notes at Edinburgh. But in the meantime, he had been tried and convicted of receiving stolen notes from another robbery and given a sentence of 14 years deportation. As far as I can tell, he was never tried for the Greenock robbery.

It's certainly not the biggest bank robbery ever, and maybe not the most sophisticated, but I say hats off to anyone who can repeatedly break into the same bank and then when they finally do rob it, no one notices for twenty four hours.

"Robbery of Greenock Bank," The Times, Saturday 15 March 1828
"Further Particulars," The Hull Packet, Tuesday 25 March 1828
"The Greenock Bank Robbery," Royal Cornwall Gazette, Thursday 30 August 1828
"The Greenock Bank Robbery," The Times, Monday 22 September 1828
Relative value of heist calculated using the Measuring Worth website
Bank note image taken from the British Notes website

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