The Great Train Robbery PART ONE : PREPARATIONS : May - October, 1854 Chapter 6

Chapter 06 The Problem and the Solution

By the middle of July, 1854, Edward Pierce knew the location of three of the four keys he needed to rob the safes. Two keys were in the green cupboard of the traffic supervisor's office of the South Eastern Railway. A third hung around the neck of Henry Fowler. To Pierce, these three keys presented no major problem.

There was, of course, the question of opportune timing in making a clandestine break to obtain a wax impression. There was also the problem of finding a good snakesman to aid in the break at the railway offices. But these were all easily surmountable obstacles.

The real difficulty centered around the fourth key. Pierce knew that the fourth key was in the possession of the bank's president, Mr. Trent, but he did not know where- and this lack of knowledge represented a formidable challenge indeed, and one that occupied his attention for the next four months.

A few words of explanation may be useful here. In 1854, Alfred Nobel was just beginning his career; the Swedish chemist would not discover dynamite for another decade, and the availability of nitroglycerin "soup" lay still further in the future. Thus, in the mid-nineteenth century, any decently constructed metal safe represented a genuine barrier to theft.

This truth was so widely acknowledged that safe manufacturers devoted most of their energies to the problem of making safes fireproof, since loss of money and documents through incineration was a much more serious hazard than loss through theft. During this period, a variety of patents were issued for ferromanganese, clay, marble dust, and plaster of Paris as fireproof linings for safes.

A thief confronted with a safe had three options. The first was to steal the whole safe outright, carrying it off to break open at his leisure. This was impossible if the safe was of any size or weight, and manufacturers were careful to employ the heaviest and most unwieldy construction materials to discourage this maneuver.

Alternatively, a thief could employ a "petter-cutter," a drill that clamped to the keyhole of the safe and permitted a hole to be bored over the lock. Through this hole, the lock mechanism could be manipulated and the lock opened. But the petter-cutter was a specialist's tool; it was noisy, slow, and uncertain; and it was expensive to purchase and bulky to carry on a job.

The third choice was to look at the safe and give up. This was the most common outcome of events. In another twenty years, the safe would be transformed from an impregnable obstacle to a mere irritant in the minds of burglars, but for the moment it was virtually unbeatable.

Unless, that is, one had a key to the safe. Combination locks had not yet been invented; all locks were operated by key, and the most reliable way to break a safe was to come prepared with a previously obtained key. This truth lies behind the nineteenth-century criminal's preoccupation with keys. Victorian crime literature, official and popular, often seems obsessed with keys, as if nothing else mattered. But in those days, as the master safe-cracker Neddy Sykes said in his trial in 1848, "The key is everything in the lay, the problem and the solution."

Thus it was Edward Pierce's unquestioned assumption in planning the train robbery that he must first obtain copies of all the necessary keys. And he must do this by gaining access to the keys themselves, for although there was a new method of using wax "blanks" and inserting them into the locks of the actual safes, this technique was undependable. Safes of the period were usually left unguarded for this reason.

The true criminal focus was upon the keys to the safe, wherever they might be. The copying process presented no difficulty: wax impressions of the key could be made in a few moments. And any premises containing a key could be cracked with relative ease.

But, if one stops to think of it, a key is really rather small. It can be concealed in the most unlikely places; it can be hidden almost anywhere on a person's body, or in a room. Particularly a Victorian room, where even so ordinary an item of furniture as a wastebasket was likely to be covered in cloth, layers of fringes, and decorative rings of tassels.

We forget how extraordinarily cluttered Victorian rooms were. Innumerable hiding places were provided by the prevailing decor of the period. Furthermore, the Victorians themselves adored secret compartments and concealed spaces; a mid-century writing desk was advertised as "containing 110 compartments, including many most artfully concealed from detection." Even the ornate hearths, found in every room of a house, offered dozens of places to hide an object as small as a key.

Thus, in the mid-Victorian period, information about the location of a key was almost as useful as an actual copy of the key itself. A thief seeking a wax impression might break into a house if he knew exactly where the key was hidden, or even if he knew in which room it was hidden. But if he did not know where in the house it was, the difficulty of making a thorough search--- silently, in a house full of residents and servants, using a single shaded lantern that threw only a "bull's-eye" spot of light--- was so great as to be not worth the attempt in the first instance.

Therefore, Pierce directed his attention to discovering where Mr. Edgar Trent, president of the firm of Huddleston & Bradford, kept his key.

The first question was whether Mr. Trent kept his key in the bank. Junior clerks of Huddleston & Bradford took their dinner at one o'clock at a pub called the Horse and Rider, across the street from the firm. This was a smallish establishment, crowded and warm at the noon dinner hour. Pierce struck up an acquaintance with one of the clerks, a young man named Rivers.

Normally, the servants and junior clerks of the bank were wary of casual acquaintances, for one never knew when one was talking to a criminal out of twig; but Rivers was relaxed, in the knowledge that the bank was impregnable to burglary--- and recognizing, perhaps, that he had a deal of resentment toward the source of his employment.

In this regard, one may profitably record the revised "Rules for Office Staff" posted by Mr. Trent in early 1854. These were as follows:

1. Godliness, cleanliness and punctuality are the necessities of a good business.

2. The firm has reduced the working day to the hours from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

3. Daily prayers will be held each morning in the main office. The clerical staff will be present.

4. Clothing will be of a sober nature. The clerical staff will not disport themselves in raiment of bright color.

5. A stove is provided for the benefit of the clerical staff. It is recommended that each member of the clerical staff bring 4 lbs. of coal each day during cold weather.

6. No member of the clerical staff may leave the room without permission from Mr. Roberts. The calls of nature are permitted and clerical staff may use the garden beyond the second gate. This area must be kept clean in good order.

7. No talking is allowed during business hours.

8. The craving of tobacco, wines or spirits is a human weakness, and as such is forbidden to the clerical staff.

9. Members of the clerical staff will provide their own pens.

10. The managers of the firm will expect a great rise in the output of work to compensate for these near Utopian conditions.

However Utopian, the working conditions of Huddleston & Bradford led the clerk Rivers to speak freely about Mr. Trent. And with less enthusiasm than one might expect for a Utopian employer.

"Bit of a stiff, he is," Rivers said. "Snapping his watch at eight thirty sharp, and checking all to see they are at their places, no excuses. God help the man whose omnibus is late in the traffic of the rush."

"Demands his routine, does he?"

"With a vengeance, he does. He's a stiff one--- the job must be done, and that's all he cares for. He's getting on in years," Rivers said. "And vain, too: grew whiskers longer than yours, he did, on account of the fact he's losing the hair up top."

During this period, there was considerable debate about the propriety of whiskers on gentlemen. It was a new fashion, and opinion was divided on its benefits. Similarly, there was a new fashion in smoking, called cigarettes, just introduced, but the most conservative men did not smoke--- certainly not in public, or even at home. And the most conservative men were clean-shaven.

"He has this brush, I hear," Rivers went on. "Dr. Scott's electric hairbrush, comes from Paris. You know how dear it is? Twelve shillings sixpence, that's what it is."

Rivers would find this expensive: he was paid twelve shillings a week.

"What's it do?" Pierce inquired.

"Cures headaches, dandruff, and baldness, too," Rivers said, "or so it's claimed. Queer little brush. He locks himself into his office and brushes once an hour, punctual." Here Rivers laughed at the foibles of his employer.

"He must have a large office."

"Aye, large and comfortable, too. He's an important man, Mr. Trent is."

"Keeps it tidy?"

"Aye, the sweeper's in every night, dusting and arranging just so, and every night as he leaves, Mr. Trent says to the sweeper, 'A place for everything, and everything in its place,' and then he leaves, seven o'clock punctual."

Pierce did not recall the rest of the conversation, for it was of no interest to him. He already knew what he wanted--- that Trent did not keep the key in his office. If he did, he would never leave the place to be cleaned in his absence, for sweepers were notoriously easy to bribe, and to the casual eye there was little difference between a thorough cleaning and a thorough search.

But even if the key was not in the office, it might still be kept in the bank. Mr. Trent might choose to lock it in one of the vaults. To determine if this was so, Pierce could strike up a conversation with a different clerk, but he was anxious to avoid this. Instead, he chose another method

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