This is the story of an audacious bank robbery which occurred on (or rather below) Baker Street in the autumn of 1971.
No weapons were brandished, nor were any alarms triggered. Yet the gang who committed the heist managed to make off with an absolute fortune…
It was late in the evening on 11 September 1971, and amateur radio enthusiast Robert Rowlands was scanning the airwaves from his Wimpole Street flat.
As the frequencies crackled in and out of the set he stumbled across a local broadcast. The voices belonged to two men with cockney accents who were conversing via walkie-talkies over the citizen band which, at the time, was illegal to use in the UK.
Wimpole Street, from where Robert Rowlands intercepted an unusual broadcast
Going by the words used, Robert correctly guessed the pair belonged to a criminal gang who, at that very moment, were in the middle of a bank robbery. One of the men appeared to be inside the unidentified branch whilst the other was perched on the roof acting as a lookout.
Robert promptly called the local police station but his claims were treated lightly- no doubt because it was just after 11pm on a Saturday night; a time when drunken pranks were commonplace. The officer who took the call however suggested Robert record the mysterious chatter. Although apparently said in jest, Robert thought this was a good idea and decided to act upon the advice.
You can hear a selection of the recordings Robert made by clicking the bar below.
Scotland Yard get on the case
As the night wore on, the two men continued to crop up on the air. At one point, an aggravated discussion took place in which the the fellow inside the bank complained at length about smoke and difficult working conditions, whilst the lookout man stressed the need to keep going.
Disheartened by his earlier call to the law and now armed with recordings, Robert decided to go higher up and phoned Scotland Yard directly at around 1am.
This time a senior officer regarded the matter far more seriously and, although Robert insisted the signal was very close to Wimpole Street, it was decided that all banks within an eight mile radius- 750 in total- would need to be searched. Being the weekend however, and with the need to contact individual bank managers, this proved to be a very slow process.
On Sunday afternoon police gained entry to the Baker Street branch of Lloyds, located on the junction with Marylebone Road.
Lloyds TSB, Baker Street
Upon investigation, nothing seemed untoward: the vault was secured with a time-lock and there was zero sign of intrusion. The officers moved on. Little did they realise however that on the other side of the thick, steel door, an audacious gang were busy sifting through over 250 safe deposit boxes.
On Monday morning the manager of the Baker Street Lloyds branch opened for business and was horrified by the scene that met him. Empty deposit boxes lay scattered everywhere- the missing contents of which were estimated to be around £3 million (approximately £41 million in today’s money). A small hole had been blasted through the floor and, scrawled across the wall, there was some brazen graffiti:
This was of course a cheeky reference to the famous fictional detective who, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, resided just a few doors away at 221b Baker Street.
The Baker Street robbery tunnel
The hole in the vault’s floor led to a cramped 40 ft long tunnel. The roughly hewn passage passed beneath a restaurant called Chicken Inn (now Pizza Hut) and emerged in a leather goods shop called Le Sac, the windows of which were whitewashed as the business was seemingly closed for refurbishment. Today, this building is occupied by an estate agent.
The owner of Le Sac was 66 year old Benjamin Wolfe of Dovercourt Road, East Dulwich who, using his own name, had leased the shop to the gang. This enabled police to track down Anthony Gavin of Brownlow Road, Dalston, Thomas Gray Stephens from Maygood Street, Islington and Reginald Samuel Tucker from Lee Street, Hackney.
Using Wolfe’s shop as a front, the gang had taken their time to excavate the tunnel, removing eight tonnes of rubble in the process. To break through the vault’s toughened floor, they’d used explosives followed by a thermal lance; a tool which would’ve been extremely dangerous to operate in such a claustrophobic environment. It was this process that had generated the discussion about smoke and fumes which Robert Rowlands had eavesdropped upon.
A Royal cover-up?
Naturally there was much interest in the case. Within days of the story breaking however, the British government slapped a ‘D-Notice’ on it. This was an order which discouraged any further reporting in the interests of national security.
This curious intervention has generated numerous conspiracy theories as to what the stolen contents of the boxes contained. The most popular idea is that the gang possibly obtained compromising photographs of Princess Margaret cavorting with infamous London gangster turned actor, John Bindon.
All of those apprehended- including the store owner, Benjamin Wolfe- were found guilty of the raid in January 1973 and handed sentences ranging from eight to twelve years. It’s believed other criminals- possibly including a female- were also involved but never caught. It was recently reported that one of those who evaded capture was professional crook, Brian Reader who masterminded the more recent- and strikingly similar- Hatton Garden Heist.
In 2008, The Bank Job – a film inspired by the Baker Street robbery- was released, starring Jason Statham.
As for the loot, none of it was ever recovered…