In conversation with Bruce Reynolds
From Idler 14, March 1996
Escape! Adventure! Limitless cash! Bruce Reynolds, the Great Train Robber, now 65, had it all. But his quest for freedom led to frequent and lengthy spells inside. Was it worth it? Maybe …
IDLER: Were you ever interested in conventional jobs?
REYNOLDS: I started off with a regular job, I was a messenger boy at Northcliffe House, where the Daily Mail was, at fourteen and a half. Then I got a job in the accounts department, and it was basically filing invoices. There must have been 100 people working in there, in long lines and all graded. You start working as a junior and get moved up. I used to look up and see the old boy who was head of the department. He was about 50 and I thought, I don’t want to be like that. I was doing a lot of cycling at that time and I thought, that’s what I want to do. So I left the job I was doing and got a job at a cycle firm. They had an independent team. I was more or less a bike bum. Me and a couple of other guys, we lived on nothing, we used to run up and down on the coast. And then I met what you might call my nemesis in the shape of a wide boy, then I got educated. I didn’t know any criminals as such. And the life of the young outlaw appealed to me tremendously. Till I got nicked.
IDLER: How long were you locked up for, the first time.
REYNOLDS: I got three years, but you could be out in nine months theoretically, if they thought you was the right material. As an outlaw, I thought, “I’ve got to escape”. We had compasses, iron rations, which was chocolate stolen from the kitchen, and three of us escaped. I was the only one that got away. I left the other two out ‘cos they wouldn’t swim the river. I was home for about three or four days before I got nicked then I went to what was familiarly known as the Hate Factory. It was very, very tough. You could only talk to other prisoners on a Saturday afternoon. You had three library books which you couldn’t change with the guy next door. And of course there was no radios then, it was 1949. The whole thing was supposedly to teach people a lesson, but what it actually did was make people harder. What do people care about society if society’s never cared about them? I mean it’s total nonsense, all it ever did was brutalise. As soon as I got back to borstal I was away again. Then they put me in a closed borstal. I escaped again. the thing was, all throughout history, all heroes have escaped at some time. Escape… it’s magic, romantic. And the only thing you can do on the run is a bit of crime. At the time that was basically smashing shop windows, nothing particularly skilful, but I didn’t know any different. I was in London, staying in various people’s places, and we got nicked on burglary charges – putting in a whole front window. I did go back into the army once and of course I ran away again and then when I got nicked, they said three years imprisonment, which was a very heavy sentence then. I went to Wandsworth. what you get of course, is you going from prep school to university. From smashing shop windows, I was talking to people who had blown safes.
IDLER: Did you get a reputation at that point?
REYNOLDS: No, not really. The way you actually get on in the criminal world is to make a reputation for yourself and basically I had more bottle than anyone else. I got nicked for shoplifting and while I was away I got a contact and he said: “I’ll have you go into safeblowing”. So when I came home I had this in mind. My closest friend at the time had moved up the criminal circle and I realised that there was a circle within the circle. I thought, that’s where I gotta get.
IDLER: Were you making money at this point?
REYNOLDS: Not really, no, but that’s when – this is 1954 – I got introduced into the country house business which is called ‘climbing’. That means you went round a house found a ladder and opened the window. I was game for anything. If someone said they had a safe to blow I said yeah, but because you were a jewel thief your self-image was a little bit different from smashing a window. I was mixing with an older crowd at that time, who dressed well, had nice cars and I had some excellent mentors in this respect. Everything was new: I got my first car, it was a Triumph TR2 and then an Aston Martin, and I was having suits made in Saville Row.
IDLER: How much money were you making at that time?
REYNOLDS: At my peak, which was just before I got nicked, I had three cars, including a Zodiac convertible, and I was paying about six quid a week for a flat in Streatham, which was quite a bit of money.
IDLER: When you were going in and out of prison, was there ever a moment when you thought, I’m going to get out of this?
REYNOLDS: No. By this time I was committed to it and knew that this was where my destiny lay. I’d met enough people to see that you could make a business out of it, and that a lot of these people didn’t have any brains at all. You put a little bit of skill and little bit of research and a little bit of expertise…
IDLER: Did you have regular hang-outs?
REYNOLDS: We had one pub, the Star in Belgravia, which at that time was a bit of a hangout but all sorts of people came there. Once your reputation started then you start getting invites to things and people think oh, good worker, and also the great thing was, everyone wants to be with someone who’s lucky, who is successful and if they see you’re successful they think it’s going to rub off on them.
IDLER: If you were running away from the police and you got caught, would the police beat you up?
REYNOLDS: Oh yeah, badly. You bash a policeman up, they’re going to bash you up. I mean that will always be the case. I had a very hard time during that three and a half years locked up. The girl I was with had an alliance with a friend of mine, who subsequently killed himself as a result of what was gong on. She disappeared to America or Canada and I haven’t seen her since. And this is when I had this plot to try and get some time back and had a gun brought into the prison.
IDLER: What do you mean “try to get some time back?”
REYNOLDS: Well, the old king of the underworld, Billy Hill, whilst he was serving his sentence, he got a pal of his to attack a screw and then Bill rescued the screw from his pal and he got six months off. So I knew that had been done a couple of times, I thought they won’t wear that, but if I have a gun brought in, and make out I was disclosing an escape plot… anyway, it went wrong, because the weekend I did it, the governor was off-duty, so when he came back Monday, the deputy governor had got all the kudos for discovering this plot. He didn’t like that, the governor, so he suggested it could be a plot. To prove it wasn’t a plot, I had to get someone to stab me. They moved me to Durham prison, which made me tougher, a lot more bitter. So I thought when I get home, there’d be no more messing about. Of course in that period, things had changed, the criminal climate had changed and I realised that the old ways was out.
IDLER: What’s it like, the contrast going from expensive cars and champagne to being in prison?
REYNOLDS: You never get used to it. When you’re first nicked, you literally want to cry. Because it’s all gone, you’ve lost everything, the women generally, and just a bare cell.
IDLER: Can you get over confident? If you have a string of successes…
REYNOLDS: You think “I can’t go wrong” and that was bullshit, you get drawn into it don’t you? You think I can do that, I can do anything”. And that’s how you get nicked. So that’s what really started the confrontational aspect and then I realised that we had to organise; in other words we had to have other people with us. Initially we weren’t too successful, I think we were waiting about for something and we waited too long.
IDLER: So you’re out in 1960?
REYNOLDS: I’m out in 1960 and I’m fully active. I had money. I went straight over to the south of France.
IDLER: What about the money? Did people keep it for you.
REYNOLDS: I had bank accounts. They never used to look in the bank accounts like they do now. When I got out in 1960 I had ��20,000. When I came home, I went round to see a friend, and he’d just found a piece of work that was as easy as anything. Someone was selling a house, they had an au pair girl in the house. They were away, she was there but the house was also up for sale so it’s just a case of ringing up as someone who wants to look at the house. She opened the door, showed us around. I opened a cupboard and said “What’s in there?” She said, “nothing.” I said, “Well there is now,” and pushed her in and shut the door. There was a safe upstairs. We got ��20,000. It was so easy.
IDLER: In between doing jobs, what was your lifestyle?
REYNOLDS: Basically, living as expensively as I could. All the restaurants at the time. You’ve always got The Caprice, not so much The Ivy; all the big hotels. We all used to like to go to the south of France, you’d have two or three months in the south of France.
IDLER: A holiday?
REYNOLDS: Yeah but we always used to justify it as research or planning. And of course I loved that. Cary Grant, it’s just like To Catch a Thief
IDLER: Did you feel the Great Train Robbery was really going to be the big one?
REYNOLDS: Yeah I did. To the extent that it was my Sistine Chapel. And really everything went right. The only problem was the fact that Mills got whacked, Mills the driver. Everyone was under orders that he mustn’t be touched because we needed him to drive the train even though we did have our own driver with us.
IDLER: How did he get whacked.
REYNOLDS: Well, I wasn’t there. I was further up the track, identifying the train. The train stopped. The signalman stepped down to phone the signal box, leaving the driver in the cab. So all it needed was someone to say “What’s going on mate?” and get up on the cab and just get hold of him. But this guy anticipated a move and instead of him getting hold of him physically, he whacked the guy. People are nervous. He reacted. No-one could really blame him and at the time Mills was perfectly all right. He drove the train so it wasn’t that bad and there was no other gratuitous violence. The whole operation went well and we had approximately 30 minutes to unload. We had a trouble-free drive back to the farmhouse. I went to bed and Buster woke me up a couple of hours later and he said, “It’s two and a half million mate”. I said, “How do you feel about that?” He said, “Oh I think that’ll do nicely”. I said, “Yeah, that’ll do me”.
IDLER: Did you feel at that point that you could do anything you wanted?
REYNOLDS: Oh yeah. What we’d done was a challenge really. The highest authority was the country, and we’d challenged the country. But none of us envisaged the wrath that was going to fall down upon us.
IDLER: Was it because the establishment had been humiliated?
REYNOLDS: Yeah, there’s all of that plus you’ve got to remember the government then was suffering under the Profumo scandal and they was really in a fucking state of fucking disarray. But it’s 1963, it’s the first televised crime. By this time television had just about become universal in most homes and of course they could follow it day by day: “Oh, another one’s been nicked.” Then there was money found in bills, which created a great treasure hunt.
IDLER: So what did you do with the money?
REYNOLDS: This was a big problem because it was a vast amount of money. Everybody you knew was liable to be searched. Eventually I got a friend of mine to buy the lease of a mews house down in South Kensington and I moved and stayed in there until the passport came through safely, about six months.
IDLER: What was it like to have pulled off this amazing thing, to have all that cash somewhere, but not be able to go out?
REYNOLDS: I had some freedom as I had two guys helping me. I used to give them my shopping list at Harrods. I had a weekly order at Christophers – used to be in Jermyn St – and I’d have a dozen bottles of champagne and a dozen bottles of what he’d recommended, plus a little barrel of bitter. I blew up to about sixteen stone. A friend had the rest of the money, he was putting it through to Switzerland. Which was a standard procedure, you pay 10% I think. So I was imprisoned in luxury in this mews place. My friend had flown from Elstree to Ostend to test out an escape route. There was no customs, no passport control. I’d had an introduction to someone who supposedly knew the president of Mexico. Mexico was the place to go.
IDLER: You were planning to get out and stay out?
REYNOLDS: Oh yeah, we had the money. So Mexico. We landed at Ostend and he said “You go through that gateway there.” I walked through the gateway. There’s no officialdom whatsoever and another one of my guys stepped out from behind this Mercedes that he’d hired and he had a white trench mac on. The Man From Interpol – that’s who he was playing that day. We drove into Brussels, spent the night there, flew to Toronto, spent the night there and the next day, Mexico. I’d already worked out I was going to stay in The Hilton because that was central. I walked in there and had a couple of days looking around, just familiarising myself with the place. I liked it. Soon I just walked into this tailor’s and the guy said “Yes I speak English, I am English.” He’d been born in Manchester of Syrian Jew parentage, he was multi-lingual so we got talking and I made a friend. He introduced me to all the right people – all the politicos, because they used to use his store and as such I was virtually above the law even if things had gone wrong. I had a lovely name – Keith Clement Miller. I had six Cadillacs in Mexico City.
IDLER: How did you get the money to Mexico?
REYNOLDS: It was in Switzerland so all you needed to do was telephone through and get it in a bank in Mexico. And when you’re abroad you’re more accepted because culturally they accept people who speak like I speak. When you’re traveling abroad, they don’t know the class thing. If you’re staying in the Metropole Hotel, same as them, you must be the same as them. We left Canada and I thought there’s only one thing left to do – go back to the South of France. A good excuse. And we get a place there and work out what the next move is going to be.
IDLER: Didn’t you still have enough money to retire?
REYNOLDS: Not then. If I’d decided to retire when I got to Mexico, yeah, for sure. I suppose I thought to myself that the money would always be there. I was just living for the moment as much as I could and I’d always had a supreme confidence that something would turn up. I came back to this country and I didn’t have very much money. We had unlimited champagne before, now we were eking out a bottle of vodka.
IDLER: Where was the money?
REYNOLDS: We’d spent it in about three years. Then I did have a bit of luck. We had another big score and got fifty grand. My plan was to go to New Zealand. I knew Ronnie Biggs was in Australia and there was another group of fellas that was on the run and they was in Australia so I didn’t want to go there. But I was out on something, came home, got nicked the next morning. ’68. When I was nicked in Torquay I had about three grand – that’s what I was down to.
IDLER: Literally three grand in the bank, that was it?
REYNOLDS: Hardly even that. So, Butler, who was in charge of the case, he said we’ll do you and I said, “Well, it was all those years ago, you can’t”. He said: “Bruce, we got your fingerprints on all the labels, all the equipment, that was down at the farm.” I did buy all the equipment. Naturally I burnt all the receipts. How they got duplicates, I don’t know. Not only that, he also said, “Your wife’s nicked, your dad’s nicked, your stepmother’s nicked” – and a great woman friend of mine who had been looking after my son Nick – “she’s nicked. And Terry your best pal. They’re all nicked for aiding and abetting and passport offences”. that’s the deal he presented me with: plead not guilty and they’d all be nicked. I gave him the look; he gave me the look. I got 25 years.
IDLER: That must have been the longest stretch you’d had. Were you able to adjust to it?
REYNOLDS: Of course. I went straight into maximum security. who’s in there? Charlie Richardson doing 25 years, four or five others doing life. So you’re all in it together, I didn’t feel that much different. In a way we’re fucking different from other prisoners. We’re doing in effect, longer than life sentences. Really and truly, I don’t think anybody thought they were going to do that sort of time. It was outrageous, it’d never been done before. It was a crime with a minimum of violence. OK it was a lot of money but murderers were doing ten years for really violent murders so it was definitely a political thing handed down to teach them a lesson.
IDLER: So what year did you come out?
REYNOLDS: In 1978 and you are totally institutionalised after 10 years in prison. Your whole life’s been laid out for you. You don’t have to worry about food and things like that. It’s all done for you – you’re pampered really. If you’ve got a position, which I had in the nick hierarchy, you get things done for you. I never wanted for anything really. I wasn’t into drugs. I started smoking cigarettes while I was away. That’s one bad habit. I wasn’t interested in booze. I finished off at Maidstone, which is a good prison. I had a year in the library there and a year as a gym orderly when I used to run 10 miles a day, play badminton and then swim. Fucking marvellous life. All my aggro with my wife had gone so I didn’t have any women worries. As we used to say, we had the best looking girls in the world. I’d swap my Mayfair with his Fiesta and that was it. Everyone had photoboards and put up pictures of their wives or girlfriends. Frank my mate used to say “She’s nice isn’t she?” and “Do you want to see my photographs of my wife?” and we’d swap them for the night. It’s what we called wife swapping – only a joke. I got into smoking dope there which was a revelation. It was an absolutely marvellous time. Those two years were the happiest years of my life.
REYNOLDS: Because I had no contact really with the world. I used to have visits. A pal of mine used to fetch me up a girl so I’d be groped on visits just to make sure you were still alive. Other times, my son Nick used to come and see me, that was a different type of visit, but in the main I couldn’t wait for the visit to be over to get back to my pals when we’d sit down and smoke a bit of dope in the evening. The governor of the prison used to come round and push the doors: “Oh it’s a bit smokey in here.” He was very liberal. When I came out I was alienated from the people that had been my friends before because I had ten years living with different buddies to the buddies they lived with. with my oldest and best friend – at one particular time I would have died cheerfully for him and he for me – it was totally different. I had nothing in common with him. I felt really lonely. I used to walk the street at night. I used to think, “How can I get back in prison without making it look as if I’ve volunteered myself to go back?”
IDLER: So you felt freer in prison?
REYNOLDS: Ostensibly. One of my friends was in the textile business and another one was partners with him. That was it: I was going to go straight into the business but within two months of my coming home, whether or not I was the grit in the oyster I don’t know, but they started to row very badly and the partnership split up. So that lost me my safe position in the textile business. Then I didn’t know what to do. I was 46 at the time, what can I do? Drive a car. I never saw myself as a mini-cab driver. Some people that I’d been away with came up and said “We’ve got a bit of work. Are you interested?” It involved a major train shipment of money to London Airport and it was half a million each. So I said yeah. Looking back on it there was no hesitation. I thought “That’s it, cause half a million could set me up and if I get nicked I don’t give a fuck anyway.”