50 Years on from the draconian sentencing of the Great Train Robbers


On 16 April 1964, following on from the guilty verdict against Ronnine Biggs the previous day, the court reconvened at 10.30 a.m. The members of the Great Train Robbery gang in custody were not taken back to the court where the trial had been held, but instead were taken instead to the Assizes where they could all be held and locked in the cells before being brought in to court one by one for sentencing.

It takes Mr Justice Edmund Davies just 28 minutes to sentence 12 of the men. Most of the sentences are for two concurrent sentences, the crimes being: ‘robbery – being armed with an offensive weapon’ (30 years / 10,957 days) and ‘conspire / robbery with violence’ (25 years / 9,130 days).

Seven of gang get 30-year sentences, two get 25 years, one gets 24 years, one gets 20 years and one gets three years. The order of sentencing is Roger Cordrey (20 years) / William Boal (24 years) / Charlie Wilson (30 years) / Ronald Biggs (30 years) / Thomas Wisbey (30 years) / Robert Welch (30 years) / James Hussey (30 years) / Roy James (30 years) / Gordon Goody (30 years) / Brian Field (25 years) / Leonard Field (25 years) / John Wheater (3 years).

Twelve men are jailed for a total of 307 years, although the total sentences are for 573 years as some sentences run concurrently. On appeal they will be reduced from 307 years to 251 years.

The Great Train Robbery trial had lasted for 51 workings days over a period of 10 weeks. Evidence had been heard from 264 witnesses, and an estimated 2.5 million words had been spoken. There were 2,350 witness statements and 1,700 exhibits. The words filled over 30,000 foolscap pages. The cost of the trial was estimated at £38,733 (about £650,000 by 2013 values). The 12 jurors, all men, were paid 50 shillings a day (about £40 in 2013 values).

At no point in the trial was any evidence presented to prove that any of the accused had been at the scene of the robbery on the morning of 8 August 1963.

The trial over, the gang were split up amongst some of Britain’s most secure prisons. Bruce Reynolds watched the news of the sentencing on the 6 p.m. BBC TV News. His comment is: “They have created a monster that will haunt them forever.”

It is worth noting that on 30 September 1963, six months prior to sentencing the Great Train Robbers to 30 years,  Mr Justice Edmund Davies, had declared that a sentence of 15 years was “excessive” for a man involved in a robbery where a person was shot and killed. He reduced the sentence on appeal to 10 years. The robbers involved had expected to find £6,000 on the premises but only stole £517.

In 1968, when Reynolds was finally captured, it is noted in the press that a night porter who set fire to a Brighton Hotel to get rid of some late customers, and who caused the death of seven people, is sentenced to just five years. A man, who kills a barmaid by putting cyanide in her Guinness because she did not serve him a sandwich, also gets five years.

50 years since the opening of the Great Train Robbery trial

The Great Train Robbery trial opened on 20 January 1964 at the Buckingham Winter Assizes at the District Council Chamber in Aylesbury. Charges were mainly ‘conspiracy to stop a mail with intent to rob said mail’. The accused were placed in a specially constructed dock. There were seats for sixty people in the public gallery.

Forty counsel, including 12 QCs were involved. Arthur James QC lead the prosecution. The 12-man jury was made up entirely of men. The judge was Mr Justice Edmund Davies.

Every morning, afternoon and evening of the working week for the following three months the accused would be locked into small individual compartments in a police bus, commonly known as a Black Maria. Then with an escort of at least four police cars and a dozen or so motorcycle police, they made the ten- minute journey to-and-from the prison and council chamber.

Caught “bang to rights”, Cordrey (photo) pleaded guilty at 10.27 am on the first day of the trial to conspiracy to stop the mail and receiving large sums of money from the robbery. He pleaded not guilty to robbery with aggravation. The court accepted his plea and he was returned to prison to await sentencing.