Final secret of the last GREAT TRAIN ROBBER
With the death of Robert Welch at 94, the family of the driver brutalised by the gang will never know his attacker
SO NOW there is no one left. No survivors of the daring and violent raid on a Glasgow to London mail train in which £2.6 million in unmarked bank notes was stolen in just 46 minutes.
With the death at 94 of Robert Welch, last remaining member of the Great Train Robbery gang, a final secret goes with him to the grave.
Whose hand was on the iron bar that coshed engine driver Jack Mills so viciously about the head that he never truly recovered — and was a contributing factor to his premature death seven years later?
All Mills could recall was that one of his attackers wore a boilersuit and a green balaclava. Buster Edwards, played by the rock star Phil Collins in a romanticised drama of the 1963 heist that turned a gang of criminals and thugs into household names, was said to have been that masked man.
But he was never held accountable and later claimed it wasn’t him who struck the driver, but he knew who it was. Indeed, the coshing of Jack Mills became almost a footnote because the sheer scale of the robbery, £61 million in today’s values, was the ‘biggest ever’ haul.
Not long after the film Buster came out in 1988, Edwards took his own life.
Bob Welch would certainly have known who struck those blows. He was recruited as one of the ‘ heavies’, intended to intimidate train staff into complying with the thieves’ demands.
During his trial he was dubbed the ‘man of steel’ because of his powerful, broad- shouldered build and cold blue eyes. Years later he beat up a Sunday newspaper reporter who had called at his home to investigate a story about a betting coup at a dog track.
Yet, before his arrest, police decided he didn’t fit the profile of the hoodlums they were looking for. They considered him too intelligent, running a legitimate South London drinking club business.
Welch had been careful to ensure he couldn’t be linked to the crime, volunteering to the police that he was not involved. But he was careless: a handprint on a beer can placed him at Leatherslade Farm, the Buckinghamshire bolthole where the gang hid and shared out the cash from the 120 mail sacks.
He was jailed for 30 years and was among the first sentenced for what the judge Mr Justice Edmund Davies described as a ‘ sordid crime of violence inspired by vast greed’. Welch never spoke but bowed his head when sentenced.
His death, apparently from natural causes, although he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, comes almost three months after the 60th anniversary of the robbery. It means that all 15 of those convicted of a crime that Mr Justice Davies said should be stripped of any ‘romantic notions of dare-devilry’, are now dead.
Despite the judge’s pleadings, the saga of the robbery became elevated to the ‘crime of the century’ and many of its participants, such as Ronnie Biggs, Bruce Reyolds and Edwards, were exalted as swashbuckling, almost lovable rogues to be admired for their madcap adventure.
Bob Welch was not one of these figures. He was the other side of that villainous coin. He did not swagger with chutzpah and charm. No rock ’n’ roll stars sought friendship with him. And no celebrities beat a path to his door as they did to Ronnie Biggs’s seedy flat in the dangerous suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, where he sponged off visiting journalists and pretended to enjoy the highlife but was in fact a prisoner of his own ‘freedom’ in Brazil.
Twelve years after his sentence, Welch emerged from jail and slipped back into what he hoped would be an anonymous South London life with his two children who he barely knew, and work as a car dealer. But he could never escape the notoriety of being one of the Great Train Robbers, nor indeed the dangerous currents of the underworld.
So, who was Robert Welch and how did he become part of the infamous gang?
A gambler who spent half the week with his wife and the other half with his mistress, Welch was a member of a gang known as the South Coast Raiders, criminals who, with a knowledge of doctoring railway signals, specialised in thefts from trains.
It involved four six-volt batteries, lengths of wire, crocodile clips and a black leather glove to cover a stop-light. It was more Heath Robinson than high-tech, but it was effective.
By 1963 they had successfully stopped and robbed six trains on the south coast mainline.
It was because of this ‘ experience’ that the Raiders were recruited by Bruce Reynolds, widely regarded as the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.
Welch was part of the ‘muscle’ in the squad. He was also given an early task in the planning — to buy the handcuffs they would use to shackle engine driver Mills. At the shop he bought them, he told the sales assistant they were for ‘amateur dramatics’.
There was nothing glamorous about the assault on Jack Mills or David Whitby, the ‘fireman’ on the locomotive’s footplate. Thanks to the doctored signal, Mills brought his train to a halt at Sears Crossing, Bucks, where the waiting robbers swarmed aboard, quickly overpowering Mills and Whitby.
In the High Value Package coach were the mail sacks containing £2,631,684 — all old notes destined for the incinerator.
But for the violence inflicted on Mills, there might have been a measure of grudging recognition for the robbers’ coup and even admiration that it was based on inside information that millions of pounds in untraceable currency were there for the taking.
Like the others, Welch is thought to have received about £143,000, though hardly any of the cash was ever recovered.
As the gang split their haul and fled, Mills, a lifelong railwayman, lay in a hospital bed. It was 39 weeks before he returned to the footplate, but he was never the same man. ‘Those blows changed my Jack,’ his widow Florence later said. ‘He never lived a full life after that night. He was in pain, he suffered and finally he died.’
WELCH, meanwhile, had fled first to Cornwall and then to Devon where he and other gang members rented a remote farmhouse. But their activity, spending lavishly in local pubs, attracted the attention of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad.
Ten weeks after the robbery, Welch, then 35, was arrested as he walked to a meeting with his brother at London Bridge station. According to police he looked pale and was quiet but later was courteous under questioning. Asked about the robbery, he feigned puzzlement. ‘Do you mean that train job?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know anything about that.’
His palm print suggested otherwise and he was tried, along with many of the others, at Aylesbury Crown Court.
During his long years of incarceration, he was divorced by his first wife and could only watch as fellow robbers such as Reynolds, who evaded capture for three years, and Biggs, who escaped from prison, became mythologised in the public eye.
In prison, Welch grew increasingly bitter, a situation not helped when a botched leg operation left him virtually crippled.
He later had his troublesome leg amputated. The pain he had suffered had become so intense that at one stage he considered taking his own life and had asked another of the Great Train Robbers, Roy James, to find a gun with which he planned to shoot himself.
Nick Reynolds, Bruce’s son, said of Welch’s death: ‘It is the end of an era. Bobby was a very decent straightforward man who lived for his family.’
Sentiments that the Mills family might find hard to digest.
■ Listen to the Daily Mail’s stephen Wright talk to the intrepid reporter who tracked down Ronnie Biggs in Brazil. the podcast, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, is available on spotify.