The Baker Street Robbery is one of the most notorious and costly bank robberies in Britain’s history. Without a single alarm sounding, and without the use of any weapons, a team of robbers pulled off the astounding heist and ultimately made off with nearly £3 million (with an estimated £30m today). Their loot included cash, jewels — and possibly secrets directly from the British royal family.
The Beginnings of a Bank Heist
In 1970, Anthony “Tony” Gavin, a 38-year-old photographer living in North London, hatched a plan. Gavin had come up with an idea for a crime that would be difficult for anyone to picture. His brainchild would be carried out one year later, on September 11, 1971: the infamous Baker Street Robbery.
The incredibly elaborate scheme would involve an underground tunnel, an explosive break-in, and a bounty from some of the richest and most powerful people in Britain. Gavin’s plan would transform him from an unknown photographer to one of Europe’s most well-known thieves — and would spark one a conspiracy theory that reached all the way to the British royal family.
A Storybook Break-In
It’s all in who you know. Gavin had held on to some of his connections to a handful of career criminals and gang members that he had befriended over the years. Rumors even circulated that Gavin himself was a member of a gang. Journalists studying this case would later describe Gavin as “a forceful personality…[who] had the propensity to be physically threatening.”
Gavin would later admit that the plan for his infamous robbery had in fact been torn straight from the pages of the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Red-Headed League, where the mythical detective thwarts a bank robbery after thieves tunneled their way into a vault. But this time, it was not a fictional story. The criminals would not be caught in time — not before some of London’s wealthiest were robbed.
Hatching The Perfect Plan
For his target, Gavin quickly decided that his bank heist would hit Lloyds Bank. He chose a specific branch of the bank, located on Sherlock’s own Baker Street in the Marylebone district of Westminster, London. The bank had gained a reputation over the years as being the place where many of London’s most powerful conducted their business.
Gavin might have been the original mastermind of this plan, but he was also well aware that he could not pull off the plan alone. He enlisted the help of Reg Tucker, a friend without any prior criminal history. Together, the two began to carry out the diabolical bank heist. And it all started by opening a simple bank account.
Opening A Bank Account
In December 1970, Tucker opened a bank account at the Lloyds Bank branch on Baker Street with only £500 (roughly $646). Two months later, in February, Tucker returned to the bank, this time renting a safety deposit box. According to reports, Tucker went on to visit that deposit box at least 13 separate times — but he was not there to check in on his possessions.
The protocol in 1970 was that bank tellers would open the vaults for renters, but would not linger anywhere near as customers looked through their safety deposit boxes for privacy reasons. With the bank vault clear, and Tucker left to himself, he began to carry out the next phase of this operation.
Of Safety Precautions and Safety Deposit Boxes
As the bank tellers followed protocol by giving Tucker privacy, they were also unwittingly helping him pull off the robbing of their own workplace. Once Tucker was standing in the vault alone, he began to measure and map out the entire room. With each one of Tucker’s 13 visits, he was able to gather more and more information.
Tucker’s maps were later drawn to scale. He was able to draw a perfect layout of the room using his own wingspan, along with an umbrella. He would also use the floor tiles in the room as reference points, measuring each tile at 9 inches across. Every drawer, every table, and every thing inside of the room was measured. Finally, it was time to bring more people on board.
Bringing In Backup
With the plan beginning to come together, Gavin brought more of his friends in on the heist. Police would later learn that Gavin employed a second-hand car salesman named Thomas Stephens to be in charge of acquiring tools. That meant everything from a 100-ton jack to a thermal lance, made to melt metal.
Others were reportedly brought on to help with the bank heist, including at least one explosives expert, an alarm expert, and two others who were never identified, along with Benjamin Wolfe, a shop owner with gang connections. There was only one piece of the puzzle that was missing — and it was about to fall perfectly into place.
A Storefront For Sale
Lloyds Bank sat at 187 Baker Street, but this notorious robbery really began two doors down, at 189 Baker Street. A leather goods shop called Le Sac had gone out of business, and it was looking for someone to take over the soon-to-be empty storefront. That was precisely the opportunity that Gavin and his team were waiting for.
Benjamin Wolfe, who himself was a shop owner, quickly hopped on the offer. He leased the building for £10,000 (nearly $13,000). For that price, Wolfe got the entire building, including the basement usually used for storage. In this case, the basement of the building would be used for something else entirely.
Not To Alarm Anyone
Gavin and his group of would-be robbers had been waiting for months to land the perfect location, looking up listings for open businesses near to Lloyds Bank. Now that they finally had it, their work could really begin. And the gang would come to utilize an important inside source.
One of the group’s members had a close connection with a staff member working with Lloyds Bank’s security system. Through that contact, they were able to learn that construction happening nearby had caused false alarms within the bank. Ultimately, that meant the alarm for the vault’s floor had been turned off. The path had been cleared for the plan to go into full motion.
Work Begins On The Tunnel
In August 1971, eight long months after Tucker first opened his bank account at Lloyds, the men officially began their break-in. The method was to dig a hole from the basement of their former Le Sac store, passing the Chicken Inn restaurant between, and over to the basement of Lloyds Bank.
The space between the bank and the gang’s new storefront was all of 40 feet, but carving through all of that earth would take a huge amount of planning, digging, and time. It all started with a 18-inch wide entry hole in Le Sac’s basement, through 6 inches of thick concrete.
The 40-Foot Journey
Once the gang broke through the concrete floor of Le Sac’s basement, they still had another five feet to dig before they began inching their way towards the basement vault of Lloyds Bank. The efforts, spearheaded by Gavin, took place only on weekends, so that local shopkeepers would not hear what was going on below.
The group dug for months. At one point they reached the basement of the Chicken Inn next door, dug slightly deeper, and used the building’s foundation as a roof for their tunnel. Excess dirt was disposed of either in the rear of Le Sac, or in the basement of the store. In total, creating the tunnel generated 17,920 pounds of waste. And that wasn’t even the most difficult part of the plan.
Reaching The Vault
Investigators would later estimate that digging the tunnel from Le Sac to Lloyds Bank took a total of three months to create. Gavin would later tell police that he lost 28 pounds during the entire process. Once the group had constructed a tunnel long enough to reach the bank, they began to dig 15 feet back upwards, towards the foundation of the bank’s vault.
By the evening of September 10, 1971, the tunnel had been completed. Gavin and his gang were just a few feet away from pulling off their bank heist — three feet, to be exact. To reach the inside of the vault, the group would have to break through 3 feet of thick, solid concrete. And this is when the plan, which had gone smoothly so far, hit its first snag.
On The Lookout
With most of the group burrowed below feet of dirt and concrete, one man was placed on the roof above the bank as a lookout. The man began using a walkie-talkie to communicate with Gavin and the others. And almost directly below the lookout, the rest of the group had run into a problem.
Initially, Gavin had hoped to use a thermal lance to break through the thick vault floor, but that was not working. Worse still, heat and fumes were building up within the tunnel. Instead, the team used an explosive to finally break through. Over the walkie-talkies, the team updated their lookout about their progress. But there was someone else also listening in.
Overhearing A Bank Heist
On Saturday, September 11, 1971, Robert Rowlands was sitting in his flat just about a half mile away from Lloyds Bank. Like many ordinary evenings, Rowlands, a radio enthusiast, was scanning through channels when he happened to overhear something out of the ordinary. He could not be sure, but it definitely sounded like he was listening in on something criminal.
Unknowingly, Rowlands had picked up the radio waves of the walkie-talkies used by Gavin and his gang. Worried, Rowlands phoned the police about 30 minutes later. But the officer who took his call did not seem to be as worried, and failed to take Rowlands seriously. Instead, he suggested that Rowlands record the conversations that he was hearing. So Rowlands did just that.
Listening In On The Crime
According to reports, Rowlands took a cassette tape that he had been using to learn how to speak Spanish, and proceeded to record over it. With his cassette player and his radio going, Rowlands was recording one of Britain’s largest bank heists as it was in progress.
As he listened in, Rowlands began to see a fuller picture of the crime he was witnessing from afar. Over the radio waves, Rowlands heard those inside of the bank arguing with the man perched at his lookout. The vault had filled with fumes from the break-in, the robbers were tired, and they wanted to go home. But the lookout had another plan in mind.
Rowlands To Scotland Yard
While the lookout wanted to continue the bank robbery through the night, those inside the bank decided that they would continue their work in the early hours of the morning. “If security comes in and smells the fumes, we are all going to [escape] and none of us have got nothing,” one said. “Whereas this way, we have all got 300 grand to cut up when we come back in the morning.”
From this conversation, it became absolutely clear to Rowlands that he was listening to a bank robbery in progress. He quickly called Scotland Yard. Alarmed, the officers checked 750 banks within 10 miles of Rowland’s home throughout the evening and into early morning. Then, they made their way over to Lloyds Bank on Baker Street. Would they make it in time?
Too Little, Too Late
By early Sunday morning, Gavin and the rest of the group were back through the tunnel and inside the vault once again. Little did they realize that right there on the other side of the vault door, police were already on the scene. However, their inspection turned up nothing suspicious. The vault was closed tightly, with a time-sensitive locking system that had not been tampered with. Eventually, the police moved on.
But on the other side of the vault’s door, robbers were scrambling to work. One by one, they were prying open safety deposit boxes with crowbars, discarding the empty cartridges and leaving them scattered across the bank’s floor. In total, the team managed to break into nearly 270 deposit boxes before making their way safely out of the bank. Then the Monday morning bank staffers arrived — and made a horrifying discovery.
A Monday Morning Surprise
It was the manager of Lloyds Bank who would ultimately discover one of Britain’s largest and most sweeping bank heists. Early indications of just how vast the robbery had been were evidenced by the stacks of safety deposit boxes laying on the floor. In total, it was estimated that the robbers got away with £1.5 million in cash (about $2 million).
Another nearly £1.5 million in valuables were also stolen from the bank, but what exactly was taken was never reported. Many of the powerful clients who had rented the security deposit boxes had done so for the level of secrecy. But a mysterious note left on the wall was the first hope police had as they tried to track down everything that had been stolen. And that included even the secrets that the powerful hoped would never be found.
Breaking Open The Case
The police found their first clue scribbled on the wall of the bank’s vault. “Let’s see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one,” the robbers wrote, clearly taunting the police. Unfortunately for those who committed the robbery, this was not the only clue they left behind.
In 1971, a bank heist like this was practically unheard of, especially when it affected some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in London. As police worked, they knew that there would be a huge amount of attention drawn to the case. But once the media began to cover the story, theories began to circulate — theories running all the way up to the royal family.
Taking Notice of a D-Notice
On September 13, Radio 4 began to report on the astounding bank heist, and word quickly caught on. Before long, news of the Baker Street Robbery, known at the time as the Walkie Talkie Robbery, was on every television and radio station in the UK. But then, four days later, all of the coverage abruptly stopped.
Without much of an explanation, the British Government issued what was known as a “D-Notice,” which asked every news outlet to end their coverage on the robbery. At the time, the government stated that there were concerns over national security. But behind the scenes, those following the story felt the reasons were much more sinister.
The Odd Involvement Of The British Government
As the search for the bank robbers continued and as news coverage of the event ceased, rumors were wildly circulating about what exactly led to the already infamous heist. With their D-Notice, the British government had hoped to keep the story off the radar. Instead, their notice did the opposite.
People were already beginning to come up with their own conspiracy theories surrounding the robbery. And, for them, the British government’s intervention was proof that the government itself could have been involved in the heist. Quickly speculation turned to the British royal family, eventually centering the focus on Queen Elizabeth II‘s sister, Princess Margaret herself.
The Conspiracy Theories Begin
Among the royals, as well as for anyone following the intrigues and characters of the British royal family, Princess Margaret had been known for flirting with controversy. The Countess of Snowden was a regular topic of keen interest for British gossip columnists. After marrying the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, the princess was rumored to have had extramarital affairs.
Some of these were later proven through love notes — while others, such as a supposed tryst with Mick Jagger, were and remain to be rumors. Regardless of their veracity, Princess Margaret’s extravagant lifestyle created a fair amount of attention, especially her various trips to the Caribbean island of Mustique in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. So what did this all have to do with a bank robbery?
A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words
Princess Margaret and her friends were said to have brought cameras with them to their legendary Mustique vacations. Years after the bank heist, one of those photos would surface and prove that the princess was once dating a landscaper 17 years her junior. There were also rumors that some of the more sensational photos of the Princess’s secret life had been leaked.
According to theory, they had landed in the hands of a “Trinidadian radical” named Michael X. That same Michael X had rented a safety deposit box at Lloyds Bank, and, what’s more, he had also been among the victims of the Baker Street Robbery. The theory goes that the missing photos of Princess Margaret were in Michael X’s safe at Lloyds Bank. With conspiracy theorists following any developments in the case, an arrest would only add to speculation.
Police Make The Arrests
Behind the scenes, the police were able to crack the case of the Baker Street Robbery relatively easily. Police ultimately found the tunnel, tracing it up the block to the Le Sac store. And despite all of the planning that went into this heist, there was one rookie mistake that led police directly to the robbers.
It turned out that when Wolfe leased the Le Sac store property, he did so under his own name. He was caught red-handed. Once police were able to track down Wolfe, the rest of the arrests were relatively simple. They brought Gavin, Wolfe, Tucker, and Stephens in for questioning. But the theories kept buzzing.
Further Fueling Speculation
Word of the arrests quickly spread, but rather than closing the case, they only added more fodder for conspiracy theorists. All four of the men captured had connections to gang members, yet none had criminal backgrounds. So how exactly did these novices pull off such a sweeping heist?
And why did police strangely check 750 banks in a 10-mile radius when Rowlands’ radio could only pick up broadcasts in a mile radius? Skeptics began to wonder if the robbers had in fact received help from UK security service MI5. They thought the heist could have all been a cover-up for a covert mission to recover the private photos of Princess Margaret. Could this all really be the work of a couple of rookies?
The Mystery Lingers
In the end, Gavin, Tucker, and Stephens ultimately plead guilty to the robbery. They spent 12 years in prison. Wolfe, on the other hand, pleaded not guilty and served 8 years. While police suspected that others were behind the robbery, including a woman, no one else was ever found responsible for the massive bank heist.
Unlike many crimes that become media spectacles, none of the men arrested ever spoke out about the robbery on the record. The police never fully recovered everything that was taken that night, leaving the full bounty a mystery. In 2008, a British gossip magazine reported that it had spoken with a member of Gavin’s gang. “When we got out, we realized that we had a lot more than we’d bargained for,” the source said. What could that indicate?
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