Farewell to the heist
British gangsters are more professional and cosmopolitan than in the past
“YOU won’t believe this, but they’ve just stolen a train.” That was the astonished message of the police officer who reported the “Great Train Robbery”, a heist that took place 50 years ago, on August 8th 1963. A gang of 15 men from across London’s underworld stopped a train by turning the signal red, brutally coshed the driver and made off with £2.6m (then $7.3m) in cash from the mail cars. They decamped to a nearby farmhouse to play Monopoly with the stolen banknotes. Despite fleeing the country, almost all the culprits were eventually captured.
For all its daring, in its cast of characters and casual violence the Great Train Robbery typified the organised crime that flourished in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. The “faces”, as the most notorious criminals were then known, hung out in smoky pubs on their self-designated patches. Groups such as the Richardsons, who were based in south London, and the Krays, in east London, mostly made their money extorting from local businesses and petty criminals. Reputation was everything: to get involved in the racket, criminals would have to beat up a few prominent people, or spend some time in prison.
That world ended in the 1970s and 1980s. Sentences got stiffer; Bertie Smalls, an armed robber turned “supergrass”, informed on dozens of London’s criminals. The spectacular Brink’s-Mat robbery of 1983, when six robbers stole £26m (then $38m) in cash, diamonds and gold from a warehouse at Heathrow airport, led to much infighting. Most disruptive was the rise of the drugs trade. Drugs were more profitable than extortion and robbery—but they also rewarded different skills. Instead of relying exclusively on hard men, criminal outfits also needed foreign connections to import the drugs, distribution networks to sell them and a way of laundering the cash.
Since then, Britain’s organised crime scene has diversified sharply. Whereas gangs were once extremely local—defined by their territory—crime is now much more globalised, says Charlie Edwards of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. One visible change is the arrival of criminals with foreign origins. Turkish gangsters import a lot of heroin. Eastern European smugglers import sex workers and export stolen cars; some Vietnamese immigrants run cannabis factories.
Yet when it comes to crime, Britain’s trade balance is probably positive. Most gangsters are still white, British and have working-class roots, according to Dick Hobbs, a criminologist at the University of Essex. They are just better connected than their forebears—and have roamed much farther. The large number of British expatriates in places such as Amsterdam and southern Spain gives cover to British criminals. Mark Lilley, a bodybuilder and drug dealer from Merseyside was arrested in Spain last month after 13 years on the run.
And today the fastest-growing scams are not connected to drugs. London has become a centre for global money-laundering, says Federico Varese, a specialist in mafias at Oxford University. Russian gangsters in particular route their cash through British banks. Home Office officials are concerned about electronic fraud and stockmarket manipulation by organised gangs, as well as corruption in government-procurement contracts.
All of which suggests that, 50 years after the Great Train Robbery, Britain’s traditional blue-collar, hands-on crime is a thing of the past. In its place is something less visible and harder to police. That is still damaging, but in some ways the change is an improvement. Britain’s murder rate is as low as it has been in decades—and murders connected to organised crime are few and far between. Gangsters have moved on. The Great Train Robbery, for all its grisly aplomb, now looks like little more than rather old-fashioned thuggery.