James Hussey, one of the last surviving members of the Great Train Robbery's 17-strong gang, seemed to have finally ended a 49-year-old mystery when he broke his silence and admitted to "coshing the driver". The revelation was made on his deathbed at St Christopher's Hospice in Sydenham, south London. Upon realising that he did not have long left to live, Hussey confessed to having "bottled it up" all these years. "He always feared another prosecution," a source close to him explained. "He didn't want to take this secret to the grave."
Jack Mills, the engine driver, sustained severe head injuries when he was attacked by one of the masked gang wielding an iron bar, which left him in a coma. He died seven years later, aged 64, from cancer, but his family always maintained that the trauma never left him and that he was never the same again; they insisted the blow contributed to his early death.
But rather than drawing a line under the mystery, a new cloud of intrigue arose after Hussey's death on Monday when it was suggested that Hussey was in fact repaying a debt of so-called "criminal honour" and trying to lift suspicion from a fellow gang member, one of three still on the run from justice. This was later compounded when Mills' 72-year-old son, John, confirmed that his father had told him who did it, and the circumstances, and that "it wasn't Hussey". He added, "I'm not prepared to say who it was, but I know." The attack had previously been blamed on a mystery gang member known variously as "Mr Three" or "Alf Thomas".
Hussey, a decorator by trade, known as "Big Jim," was hired as muscle for the 1963 heist in which £2.6 million – worth about £40 million today – was stolen. Although the gang committed one of the most audacious UK robberies of all time, none of the perpetrators became rich.
Masterminded by the most erudite of the train robbers, Bruce Reynolds – a thief and antiques dealer nicknamed "Napoleon" – the robbery centred on the Glasgow-to-Euston Travelling Post Office train which left late on 7 August 1963. It consisted of a number of carriages in which staff on board sorted mail and parcels before its arrival in London.
Registered mail, much of which contained cash, was sorted in a High Value Package carriage at the front. Usually the value of these items was in the region of £300,000, but because there had been a Bank Holiday weekend in Scotland there was £2.6 million. The train passed Leighton Buzzard at about 3am, and moments later Mills stopped for a red signal, which was a fake created using a glove and a six-volt battery-powered light.
The co-driver David Whitby climbed out of the diesel engine to ring the signalman but found that the line-side phone cables had been cut. He was then attacked and thrown down the embankment. Mills was attacked in his cab, coshed and rendered unconscious. The train was stormed by force but without firearms.
With the steep embankments at Sears Crossing, the locomotive and the first two carriages, containing the high-value property, were uncoupled from the rest of the train and driven a mile further on to Bridego Bridge, Ledburn, near Mentmore, where Land Rovers were waiting. A human chain of gang members then removed 120 sacks containing 2.5 tons of cash, which was taken to their farmhouse retreat in Oakley, Buckinghamshire.
All seemed to have run smoothly, but the robbers made a mistake. Upon leaving, the gang told staff to stay aboard for 30 minutes before moving. This gave the officer in command, Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper, and detectives from Scotland Yard and Buckinghamshire Police, an important clue: they suspected the gang had hidden within a 30-minute drive of the scene.
The gang split the money at the farm house, but rather than lie low for a few weeks as agreed, Ronnie Biggs fled with his share. Police were later tipped off by a neighbour and the farm was raided. Gradually, members were rounded up, and on 20 January 1964 nine of the 17 men involved, including Hussey, went on trial; the press and public were not aware that others were still on the run. Each was given 30 years, although most did not serve out the sentence.
Reynolds took five years to track down and was jailed for 10 years. Biggs escaped from Wandsworth prison in a furniture van 15 months later. He fled to Brazil, via Spain and Australia, and did not return to the UK until May 2001, aged 71, when he was re-imprisoned for eight years. In total, the gang received 307 years' imprisonment. The bulk of the money was never recovered.
Hussey was released in November 1975 and married his girlfriend Gill, whom he had met just before the robbery. His share of the loot had been entrusted to the friend of another gang member, Frank Monroe, but had been squandered. Hussey later worked on a market stall and then opened a Soho restaurant with another of the train robbers. He later returned to crime and notched up a conviction for assault in 1981, and in 1989 he was jailed for seven years for a cocaine-smuggling conspiracy with fellow train robber Tommy Wisbey.
James Hussey, decorator, businessman and criminal: born London 1933; married 1975 Gill; died London 12 November 2012.