Case File #0140
The Baker Street Robbery
"Let's see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one"
During the evening of 11 September 1971, four men entered the London branch of Lloyds Bank located on Baker Street after tunnelling their way over a distance of 50 feet underground. They used explosives to break into the vault and began to plunder the numerous safety deposit boxes. Unbeknown to the burglars, a ham radio operator had intercepted their conversations with a rooftop lookout and notified the police, who initially refused to believe his story. Because the security door was still locked, the police failed to act on the information and by the time they identified which bank was being robbed, the thieves escaped with 1.5 million in cash and many valuables stored within the vault. But the story would gather more interest because of the aftermath, which saw the story suppressed due to an order concerning national security and rumours began circulating that the thieves had found something in the bank which would lead to potentially scandalous revelations.
Robert Rowlands, an amateur ham radio operator, lived in a fifth floor flat on Wimpole Street in central London. On the evening of 11 September 1971, shortly before 11:15pm he got into bed with an Ian Fleming novel and a cup of tea, twisted the dial on his radio and attempted to tune into Radio Luxembourg, but instead overheard a bizarre conversation between two unidentified men, who seemed to arguing about whether cutting work should stop or go on all through the night. Perplexed, Rowlands continued to listen and soon began to suspect the men were secretly working on a tunnel and discussing their plans for something. What he was actually overhearing was the robbers conversation with their rooftop lookout.

Robert Rowlands

He immediately called the local police station in Marylebone, and notified an officer about what he had overheard, explaining the robbery must be within a mile radius of his flat because of the range of the transmissions and suggested they search all local banks for any burglaries in progress. But the officer failed to believe Rowlands, and instead suggested he record the conversation if he "heard any more funny voices". Acting on this, Rowlands grabbed a cassette recorder he was using to teach himself Spanish and recorded the gang discussing their plans, listening intently as the burglary was underway.

Man #1 - "We've got about 400,000. We'll let you know when we're coming out. Can you hear me?"
Lookout - "I can hear you, how long do you think you're going to be in there, then?"
Shortly after midnight a man who identified himself as Steve contacted the lookout again, who soon became worried he might be caught.

Steve - "We want you to mind it for one hour from now, and then stop there, and go off air, and then come back on the air with both radios at six o'clock in the morning, over."
Lookout - "Look, the place is filled with fumes and if security come in and smell them we are all going to take stoppo (make a quick getaway) and none of us have got nothing, whereas this way we've all got 300 grand to cut up."
Unidentified Man - "You can't go now, we're almost there."
Lookout - "Money may be your god, but it's not mine, and I'm fucking off."
The Lookout soon relented and agreed to stay on the rooftop until the early morning hours. Rowlands contacted the police again, who sent a Sergeant around to his flat, but 30 minutes later the officer was called away. Believing the local police would not take the matter seriously, he decided to contact Scotland Yard who immediately sent plain clothed officers to his flat in Wimpole Street at 1am. By 2am, a senior officer requested the use of radio detector vans to track the gangs precise location. But instead of the one mile radius suggested by Rowlands, the police decided to extend this to a ten mile radius, which involved checking 170 banks, which also included the one on Baker Street.
At the moment police arrived at the Baker Street Lloyds branch, the thieves were still inside the vault behind the 15 inch thick reinforced steel doors, and they not suspect anything because the security door was still sealed and there was no sign of forced entry. The officers at Rowlands flat continued to listen to the gang throughout the night and the early morning hours and by 9am overheard the gang member known as "Steve" talking to the lookout.

Steve - "We're going to finish off in here and we shall be coming out early this afternoon and you'll just have to bluff, bluff your way straight down off the roof."

Lloyds Safety Deposit Boxes

The thieves managed to escape with 1.5 million in cash and valuables from over 260 safety deposit boxes. Before leaving, the robbers left a humorous message for police. Arriving at the scene, detectives found "Let's see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one" scrawled on the wall, which was a reference to Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story the Red-Headed League, in which the famous detective foils a similar bank robbery. They found the tunnel used by the robbers to access the vault.
The men had rented Le Sac, the leather goods shop located two buildings north of Lloyds Bank, and detectives discovered the tunnel passed underneath the Chicken Inn Restaurant situated inbetween. To ensure their work would not be overheard, the thieves only dug during the weekend and eventually tunnelled a distance of 5 feet deep and 50 feet across. When reaching the vault they attempted to use a thermal lance to penetrate the doors, but when this failed they resorted to using explosives. It was estimated they got away with a combined haul of almost 3 million.

Police image of the Robbery

At 9am on 13 September, Radio 4 broke news of the robbery. From the very start of the investigation, the press began extensive coverage of the heist, but after four days, the British Government issued a D-Notice which requested all reporting on the crime be discontinued for reasons of national security. Although the story disappeared from the most national newspapers, The Times continued coverage of the case for a further two months. Rowlands was warned by detectives not to collude with reporters, and was threatened with prosecution for listening to an unlicensed radio station. Despite this, he received a £2,500 reward from Lloyds.
It was believed the thieves were professionals, who executed a complex and well planned heist, utilising radio communication equipment, digging machinery, explosives and a thermal lance to enter the vault. Although they were not mere amateurs, they did make amateurish mistakes by allowing their conversations to be overheard which almost led to their immediate capture. But another blunder proved the gangs undoing. The leather goods shop Le Sac had been rented by one of the gang, who used his own name on the lease. He was soon identified as Benjamin Wolfe, a leather goods dealer from Dovercourt Road in East Dulwich. Upon his arrest, his connection to the others involved was revealed and they too were apprehended.
The robbery was Britain's biggest and most ambitious raid, and shocked both the banking industry and panicked the hundreds of rich a powerful clientele who used the safety deposit boxes at Lloyds Bank. Indeed many rumours would circulate afterwards about why the Government had issued a D-Notice, and what exactly was contained within the safety deposit boxes, with one theory involving a member of the royal family. It was widely suspected the thieves had come into possession of compromising sexual photographs of Princess Margaret, who was the sister of Queen Elizabeth II.
Margaret had come close to societal scandal during the 1960's and was well known for her lascivious lifestyle and association with known criminals. The photographs in question, were believed to have been taken on the Caribbean Island of Mustique and were being used as leverage by Black activist and criminal Michael de Freitas, who used the Black Power name Michael X. It was rumoured MI5 moved to have the D-Notice issued so they could prevent the photographs falling into other hands and being used to damage the reputation of the Royal Family.

Princess Margaret

Michael de Freitas

The Times reported in January 1973 that four men had been convicted of the crime and were sentenced at the Old Bailey. 37-year-old Reginald Tucker, a company director from Lee Street in Hackney, 38-year-old Anthony Gavin, a photographer from Brownlow Road in Dalston and 35-year-old Thomas Gray Stephens, a car dealer from Maygood Street in Islington all pleaded guilty and received twelve years imprisonment. The fourth man involved, 66-year-old Benjamin Wolfe, a leather goods dealer from Dovercourt Road in East Dulwich pleaded not guilty and received 8 years imprisonment.
Two other men who were accused of handling some of the stolen banknotes were acquitted, whilst the sentences of Tucker and Stephens were later reduced to eight years upon appeal. It was suspected the alleged mastermind behind the robbery was a London car dealer, but he was never identified and none of those sentenced ever talked to police. Consequently none of the jewels or money taken from the robbery has ever been traced and many of Lloyds rich clientele refused to come forward to report what they had lost.

Written by Nucleus