The Great Train Robbery of 1867

by Nick Fleetwood

Faced with the thankless task of investigating the railway crime wave by members of the public and railway employees which was occurring during recent years, Friday 11th October 1867 seemed like a better than average day for Superintendent Charles Hawker of the North Eastern Railway police as he sat in his office at York as he had just learnt that the Company had increased his salary from £120 to £150 per annum. Fate was soon to disabuse him of that good feeling.

Every alternate Friday the 7.00 pm train from York to Scarborough carried the wages for Company staff at Malton, Pickering and Whitby stations. These were in leather pouches left in the custody of the train guard to be delivered to the Station Masters at these stations. This train stopped at the junction outside York station (this was the old York station and reversal was necessary to access the Scarborough line), the next stop was Haxby at 4 miles from York, followed by Strensall station at 7 miles from York.

On this occasion the Guard of the train was John Livesey who was resident in Scarborough and who had been in the employment of the Company since 1853, originally as a Porter at Scarborough. It was the practice at the time to allocate Guards to specific lines and duties, so it is likely that he had worked this train on many previous occasions.

The events that unfolded, and were reported, were that when the train arrived at Strensall the Driver noted that the guards van at the end of the train had become detached and that on looking back along the line he saw the Guard signalling by means of his hand lamp for him to reverse back to the van. This was a distance described variously between 200 yards and 400 yards. With the van re-attached to the train it proceeded back to Strensall where the Guard announced that the pay parcels were missing. He was unable to explain how the guards van had become detached from the train or how the money came to be missing. Of necessity, the train continued on its journey to Scarborough with Guard Livesey and the circumstances of the robbery were reported back by the last Up train to York which would have arrived there at about 8.30 pm and a runner sent to Superintendent Hawker’s home where he had his day ruined. Being dark and late there was little point in trying to get to Strensall that night but such enquiries that could be made were commenced.

On Saturday morning Superintendent Hawker continued his investigation and as a result he visited Scarborough where felt justified in placing Livesey into custody and taking him back to York where he put him before J.R. Walker, a North Riding magistrate based in York. Asked to explain his actions, Livesey said that he had become aware that his van was stopping and on looking out of the window he saw that the train was going away from him. As the van came to a stand he dismounted and gave a hand lamp signal to the train to return. When he noticed that the train was returning to him he returned to his van, which he says he was only away from for 2 or 3 minutes and saw that the off side door of the van was open. He said that he was suspicious and at once discovered that the pay parcels were missing. Not being convinced, Mr Walker granted Superintendent Hawker’s request that Guard Livesey be remanded in custody until Wednesday 16th October 1867.

On Guard Livesey’s appearance before magistrates on the Wednesday 16th, Superintendent Hawker advised that, after a thorough search by his officers, the money bags had been found hidden under a bramble bush a quarter of a mile from where the robbery was supposed to have been committed. This was on a lane from the York Road leading to the common at Strensall. The straps on the pouches had been cut and the papers wrapping the money had been placed back in the pouches. The money, of course, was missing and this amounted to £235/0/6d. Livesey again protested his innocence but Superintendent Hawker again asked for a remand in custody which was granted until the following Wednesday when he hoped to be able to bring further evidence to implicate Livesey in the robbery.

There are no further reports to suggest that the case came to the Assizes and it seems that it collapsed for lack of evidence against Livesey. The next reference to the case is on 8th November 1867 when Livesey, who had been dismissed from the Company’s service, applied to be reinstated by making a personal appearance before the Traffic Committee. This request for reinstatement was refused and on the 22nd November 1867 the same committee decided to write off the amount of the wages stolen. What the repercussions were for Superintendent Hawker we do not know. The sheer volume of incidents in the late 1850s & 1860s seem to have led to a re-organisation of the NER Police Department in October 1869. He remained at York until his retirement in 1870 on health grounds and he was replaced by James Campbell, who was then designated Chief Superintendent of Police. After retirement in 1870 Mr Hawker worked as a tobacconist in York and was living at 68 Micklegate in York.

It is difficult at this distance in time to appreciate the handicap that Superintendent Hawker was working under. There were no fingerprint facilities and no telegraph communication between Strensall, Haxby and York. In addition, travel, if not by the rather sparse train service, would have been by horse or on foot; so speedy investigation would be out of the question. His only source of evidence would be witnesses and the passengers on the train who would have all dispersed and I suspect that the train crew would be very reluctant to implicate themselves or one of their own.

The suspicions of Superintendent Hawker would seem to be well founded. If we look at the robbery with modern eyes then clearly more than one person was involved. The carriages of the period would be of the four wheeled variety each fitted with axle box bearings lubricated by grease. These are not the most free running bearings and it is unlikely that an uncoupled carriage would run far on a level line under its’ own momentum. Trains at this period were not fitted with continuous brake and relied on the hand brakes of the guard, or guards, and that of the locomotive to stop. The approach to a station would therefore be cautious and one would expect the driver of fireman to keep a look out back along the train to ensure that the guard was applying his brake. The line between Haxby and Strensall is very nearly level so there would be no gradient of any note to help the van free wheel to a stand. The make-up of the train is unknown but is unlikely to be of much more than 5 carriages and many trains of this period had a leading guard at the front of the train who provided additional hand braking power in response to whistles from the engine.

There is a further mystery of just how did the van become uncoupled from its train? Carriages at this period were, by and large, fitted with safety chains fitted each side of the main coupling which were connected and came only into play if the main coupling failed. If these were connected when the train left Haxby, there would have been three items which needed to be disconnected on a moving train before the van would be separated from its train. Livesey said that he became aware that his van was slowing and spotted that it was uncoupled. There is no mention of him applying his handbrake yet it just happens to come to a stand adjacent to an occupation crossing (The present day Strensall No.1 Crossing) where, fortuitously, robbers are waiting for him to get out of his van before opening the off side door and climbing in to seek out the pay parcels and abscond with them, all in the 2-3 minutes that Livesey says he was out of his van!

Looking at this question from a railway operating point of view. If the train was properly marshalled when it left York, then the two safety chains between the carriages would have had to be connected and it is the Guard’s responsibility to see that this was the case. Even at this early date carriages were coupled by screw couplings which held the vehicles together buffer to buffer (Safety chains were fitted either side of the main coupling hook and usually consisted of chains of about 7 links and a hook on the end of the right hand chain which would be placed in the link of the left hand chain of the next vehicle). Whilst it might be possible to slip the main coupling whilst the train was on the move if the buffers were completely compressed, or the screw coupling was not tightened, it would be very difficult. If the latter option is considered then it is highly likely that the van could have become detached when the train was reversed at the York Junction. In either case the loco crew would likely to have noticed had the train been partially loose coupled by virtue of a “snatch” on starting or stopping. The chance of uncoupling the safety chains whilst on the move are virtually nil as they would require both ends of the chains to be lifted. So, disconnecting both side chains and the main coupling on the move would be nearly impossible.

There are no reports of the Station Masters at Haxby and Strensall being interviewed but both would have been required to be in attendance for the train. The man at Haxby would have noticed if an attempt was being made to uncouple there as the action would have taken possibly two or three minutes. Similarly, the separation of the train, supposedly first noticed on arrival at Strensall, would have attracted the attention of that Station Master and the likelihood of either of these Station Masters being complicit in the robbery seems slight, as although they were not always noted for their honesty, they had a lot to lose by defrauding the company.

One other factor is the timing of the train. It was scheduled to take about 7 minutes start to stop for the three miles between Haxby and Strensall, which would require an average speed of just under 30 miles per hour. Any stoppage en-route would incur a noticeable delay which in the normal course of  events would have to be reported back to York in case of complaint by the passengers.

If this was not a contrived robbery involving not only the guard (or guards) and the driver and fireman; then it was most extraordinary. Somebody had to uncouple a moving train, which would have meant them riding on the buffers or the off-side footboards. There would be no guarantee that the van would stop where the accomplices were waiting or that the guard would not signal from the door of his van and not leave it unoccupied. In addition, the robbers would need to know where in the van the parcels were likely to be placed as it is highly likely that there were other parcels in the van. The distances and timings recorded for the various events seem at odds with each other and the need to reverse the train from Strensall to pick up the van, plus the ability to recognise an oil hand lamp signal at up to 400 yards suggest that a considerable time lapse would have occurred, the guard having to be out of his van to recouple the train being an example.

Thus, it is reasonable to assume that, if the van was detached, then the train came to a stand at the crossing for it to be uncoupled, before proceeding to Strensall and then returning. The alternative and most likely event, however, is that it either came to a stand with the van at the crossing where the packages were passed out of the train before proceeding to Strensall Station or that they were thrown out of the train at the pre-arranged spot.

It is thus hard not to draw the conclusion that the footplate crew were complicit in this robbery and that the train was stopped short of Strensall with the excuse for the delay being that the van had become detached and it had been necessary to set back to reattach it. If this had been the case then the delay in reaching Strensall would have been at least 20 minutes, so a stop, or slowing to a crawl, to allow the parcels to be ejected from the van seem a more probable explanation as this would incur a delay of 5 or so minutes and not be noticed by the passengers. One must assume therefore that Superintendent Hawker was well justified in his suspicions, but all this is circumstantial evidence, and insufficient to sustain the prosecution against Livesey or any other party.

Coincidentally, some 94 years later, events which occurred at Bridego railway bridge, Ledburn, Buckinghamshire on the 8th August 1963 bear some similarity.


Since drafting this article my attention has been drawn to a feature in the Friends of the National Railway Museum’s Journal for August 2009. This was well researched and written by Colin Sheppard a former detective and Chief Constable of Norfolk. This is written from an investigating officer’s point of view and by and large I agree with his conclusions.

He suggests that Guard Livesey was under the influence of aggrieved former footplate staff who had been dismissed and prosecuted for organising a large scale strike. One of the strike organisers appears to have acquired unexpected wealth following the robbery.

Recent research reveals a different history for Superintendent Hawker. He joined the Metropolitan Police in 1832 serving with them until late 1848 when he resigned. By 1851 he was employed as Superintendent of the York & North Midland Railway Police and features regularly in newspaper reports as prosecuting officer. He is also recorded as being Superintendent of the Hull & Selby Railway Police during the 1850s but from 1846 the Hull & Selby, was under operational control of the York & North Midland. Following the amalgamation of these railways, along with others, to form the North Eastern Railway in 1854 he became the Superintendent of Police for the North Eastern Railway, a post which he retained until retirement in 1870.

NER Traffic Committee Minutes Nos: 7210, 7224, 7236, 7253
NER Board Minutes Nos: 5232, 5270, 5305, 5350
Yorkshire Gazette: 19/10/1867
The York Herald: 19/10/1867
The Shields Daily News: 15/10/1867
Various other newspapers: 1851 to 1870

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY OF 1867   © N Fleetwood 11/10/2020


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Nick Fleetwood is a member of the North Eastern Railway Association