The Great Gold Robbery took place on the night of 15 May 1855, when three London firms sent a box of gold bars and coins each from London Bridge station for Paris via the South Eastern Railway. The gold bars alone were worth £12,000 at the time (about £782 thousand in present day terms). A total of 200 lb (91 kg) weight of gold (worth around £12,000) was stolen en route to Folkestone, where the gold was shipped across the English Channel to Boulogne.
On the night of 15 May 1855, three boxes containing gold belonging to Abell and Co., Spielmann, and Bult were delivered by a firm of carriers to the South Eastern Railway at London Bridge station where they were put aboard the guard's van.
The boxes were sealed and bound with iron bars and were placed in safes secured by Chubb locks. The duplicate keys to the safes were held by confidential servants of the railway company in London and Folkestone, and also by the captains of the South Eastern railway's boats.
When the boxes were taken out of the safes at Boulogne and weighed, it was discovered that one weighed 40 lb (18 kg) less than it should have, while the other two each weighed a little more. Despite this discrepancy, the boxes were transferred to a train for Paris. Upon arrival in Paris they were weighed again and when they were opened, it was discovered that lead shot had been substituted for the gold. It was clear that the robbery had not taken place between Paris and Boulogne due to the weights corresponding.
Inquiries were made as soon as the news of the robbery came from Paris to discover where the robbery had been carried out. After an investigation it was concluded that it could not have taken place at Folkestone or aboard the cross-Channel boat, or prior to the arrival of the boxes at London Bridge station, and it must therefore have taken place aboard the train.
Four police forces in Britain and France made extensive inquiries for months and arrested hundreds of suspects for questioning but found nothing. Afterwards many of those who had handled the boxes reported small discrepancies like holes and broken seals. The main suspects were railway staff members at Folkestone. The South Eastern Railway offered a sizable reward and named its own investigator but received only false information. The official British theory was that the robbery had taken place on the continent, while the French police claimed it had happened in England because of the discrepancy in the boxes' weights at Boulogne.
One hundred years on from 1855, Michael Robbins wrote a detailed feature about this incident called The Great South-Eastern Bullion Robbery in The Railway Magazine May 1955 issue.
In August 1855 Edward Agar, a professional criminal and associate of crooked barrister James Townsend Saward, was arrested for passing a false cheque; in fact, he had been set up by a rival. Agar was sentenced for penal transportation to Australia for life, and meanwhile sent to Pentonville prison. From prison Agar wrote to Fanny Kay, mother of his illegitimate child, and mentioned that William Pierce, a former railway employee, was supposed to have paid her £7,000 (equal to £456,386 today). Pierce, in fact, had given her no money.
Kay grew suspicious and in the summer of 1856 visited the governor of Newgate prison. The governor contacted Mr Rees, the investigator for the railway company, and took her to see him. When Kay told Rees about the money, he went to see Agar who, at the time, was in a prison hulk at Portland. When Agar heard what had happened, he decided to tell Rees what had happened and eventually described the robbery at length.
Agar had met Pierce years earlier when Pierce had worked as a ticket printer for the railway company. When Agar returned to England after some time in Australia and America, he met Pierce again and they discussed the possibility of stealing some of the gold frequently shipped between London and Paris on the South Eastern railway. Pierce appears to have been the originator of the plan, and suggested that he could get hold of impressions of the keys to the safes which protected the gold. He was assisted by his associate, railway guard James Burgess.
Pierce and Agar travelled to Folkestone to watch the delivery of the luggage, and make their plans, and attracted the suspicion of the police and the railway authorities with their observation of the booking clerks and the luggage porters. They separated, Pierce returning to London, and Agar remaining behind, where he managed to discover where the key to the bullion safe was kept, though he despaired of ever managing to get hold of it.
Pierce decided to recruit one William George Tester, who was a clerk in the railway superintendent's office. In July or August Pierce discovered that the safe locks were to be returned to Chubb for alterations and Agar was informed that Tester would briefly have the new keys in his possession after this was done. The new safe had two locks, with two different keys, Chubb at first sending only one key to each safe. Tester took these keys to Agar, who made an impression of them in wax.
The difficulty now was to get an impression of the safe's second key. In October 1851 Agar arranged to have a box of bullion worth £200 (equal to £16,823 today) sent on the train to Folkestone, where he would collect it under an assumed name. Agar watched as the safe was opened by a clerk using a key taken from a cupboard. He and Pierce then met in Folkestone where Pierce took advantage of the absence of the booking clerks from the office to simply walk in, and take the safe key from the cupboard - which had been left with its key in the lock - to Agar, who made a wax impression, then returned it to where he had found it.
Having made duplicate keys from the impressions, Agar travelled down to Folkestone several times in the guard's van with Burgess, to test the keys and adjust them until they fitted the safe's locks.
The conspirators decided not to steal any bullion until a good haul could be made. In the meantime they prepared for their robbery by obtaining lead shot equal in weight to the gold which was to be stolen, so as to delay discovery of the theft, preparing 200 lb (91 kg) of shot equal to what £12,000 of gold would weigh. They divided the shot for easier handling, placing some in carpet bags and some in courier bags, which could be carried on their person and hidden by a cloak.
Finally, on 15 May 1855, Tester met Agar at the station, and told him it was "all right" and Agar and Pierce drove to the station dressed as gentlemen, and bought first-class tickets for Folkestone. They gave their carpet bags of lead shot to a porter, who in turn gave them to the guard, Burgess, who put them in his van. Agar boarded the guard's van with Burgess, while Pierce got into a first-class carriage.
As soon as the train began to move, Agar opened the safe and found the three bullion boxes. He removed the iron bands from one of the boxes using a mallet and chisel, took out the gold bars and subsituted lead shot, then replaced the bands and replaced the box's wax seal with a wax taper and an ordinary seal.
It had been arranged beforehand that when the train halted at Redhill Tester should relieve Agar and Pierce of a share of the gold and at that station a bar of gold was placed in a black bag which Tester had brought. In the confusion of the train stopping and starting off again, Pierce got into the van with Agar and Burgess, and when it had set off again they opened up a second box. The third and final box contained small bars of Californian gold. Pierce and Agar could not take all of this, but took a large portion of it, substituting lead shot as before.
When the train arrived at Folkestone the boxes of "gold" were unloaded, and Burgess, Pierce, and Tester carried on to Dover on the train. At Dover they took their carpet bags from the guard's van and proceeded to the Dover Castle Inn, where they ordered refreshments before returning to London by train.
In the following weeks, Agar and Pierce melted down the gold and sold some of it. Burgess received £700 (equal to £45,393 today) and others £600 (equal to £38,909 today). When Agar was arrested, Pierce buried some of the gold in the pantry under the front steps of his house.
Fanny Kay was taken to lodge in the house of police inspector Thorton for safekeeping. Further investigation corroborated Agar's story. Rees recovered gold worth £2,000 (equal to £129,696 today). Some railway employees Agar had dealt with recognised him.
William Pierce, Jeremy Forsyth and James Burgess were arrested in London in November 1856. William Tester, who had left to work as a general manager for Swedish Railways, was arrested when he visited relatives in England.
The trial at the Old Bailey began on 10 January 1857. The main witnesses were Agar and Kay. On 12 January Burgess and Tester were sentenced to penal transportation for 14 years. Pierce received two years for larceny with periodical solitary confinement.
Michael Crichton's novel The Great Train Robbery and subsequent feature film presents a cinematic version of the event, portraying Pierce (played by Sean Connery), as a gentleman master criminal who eventually escapes.