The Baker Street Robbery has become one of the most notorious bank heists in British history. Without even one alarm sounding, nor any use of weapons, a team of burglars managed to pull off the incredible robbery and ultimately took off with nearly £3 million (which would be an estimated $33.8 million today). Included in their loot were cash, jewels, and, most interestingly, possible secrets from the Royal family. Oooohhhhh.
The crazy thing is, the robbers were unintentionally broadcasting their crime live over the airwaves! It’s really a mystery why the authorities never caught the Baker Street gang red-handed. The 1971 raid is one of the more baffling banking heists, and the rumors that its real purpose was covered up by the British Royal family still persist to this day. So what were they supposedly trying to cover up? You’re about to find out. While it reads like a movie, this all really happened…
In 1970, a 38-year-old photographer by the name of Anthony “Tony” Gavin, who was living in North London, came up with a plan. He had an idea for a type of crime that would be challenging for anyone to picture. His criminal project would be carried within one year, to be carried out on a day that happened to be notorious, but for other reasons.
On September 11, 1971, the infamous Baker Street Robbery occurred. The elaborate scheme involved an underground tunnel, an explosive break-in, and a prize from some of the most powerful and wealthiest people in Britain. Gavin’s brainchild was to transform him from a nameless photographer to one of Europe’s well-known thieves. It would also spark a conspiracy that reached its way up to the Royal Family.
It’s all who you know, right? Well, Tony Gavin held on to the connections that he gained through a career in the criminal underworld. He stayed connected to all the criminals and gang members he befriended over the years. There is a rumor that Gavin was a member of a gang. Journalists who later researched this case described him as “a forceful personality… who had the propensity to be physically threatening.”
Gavin himself later admitted that his plan for the robbery had, in fact, been taken straight out of the pages of the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Red-Headed League.” In the story, the mythical detective foils a bank robbery after the thieves tunneled their way into a vault. But Gavin’s story wasn’t fictional.
Every heist needs a target, and for Gavin, he quickly decided that his plan was to hit Lloyds Bank. He chose a branch located on Sherlock Holmes’s own Baker Street, in the Marylebone district of Westminster, London. That specific bank gained a reputation over time as being the place where many of the most powerful people in London conducted their business.
The heist caused a shockwave across the banking industry, as well as panic amongst the rich and powerful clientele who were keeping their most private, even illegal, valuables stored in the vaults. From the beginning, the robbery was no ordinary heist. It was more complex and elaborate than anything the country had seen before.
As in most cases, the mastermind can’t pull off the plan alone. So he enlisted his friends, starting with Reg Tucker, a friend who actually didn’t have any prior criminal history. Together, the two started carrying out the complicated bank heist. There were a lot of steps involved, but the first plan of action was simply to open a bank account.
In December 1970, Reg Tucker opened a bank account at Baker Street’s Lloyds Bank. His first deposit: was £500 (about $646). Two months later, Tucker returned for the second step in the mission. This time, he rented a safety deposit box. According to reports, Tucker visited that deposit box at least 13 times on separate occasions.
The protocol back in 1970 was that the bank tellers would open the vaults for the deposit box renters, but wouldn’t linger near them. Customers were able to look through their safety deposit boxes in privacy. With the bank vault clear and Tucker left to do his business quietly, he was able to carry out the next phase of the operation.
When Tucker was alone in the vault, he measured and mapped out the entire space. During each one of his 13 visits, he gathered more and more information. His maps were later drawn to scale. He managed to draw a perfect layout of the vault room using his own wingspan and an umbrella.
Tucker used the floor tiles as reference points, with each tile measuring nine inches across. Every drawer, every table, every single item in the room was measured. Finally, it came time to bring more accomplices onboard. Gavin involved more of his friends in the heist, one of whom the police would later learn was a second-hand car salesman named Thomas Stephens.
Stephens was put in charge of acquiring tools, including a 100-ton jack and a thermal lance, which is made to melt metal. Other experts were brought on, including at least one explosives expert and one alarm expert. Two others were never identified. There was also Benjamin Wolfe, who was a shop owner with gang connections.
The robbery they would pull off required a never-before-seen level of patience and expertise from these thieves, who were by no means veteran robbers. They were small-time crooks, petty thieves, and con men. Everything was falling into place perfectly. There was just one piece of the puzzle that was still missing.
Lloyds Bank was located at 187 Baker Street, but the robbery really began two doors down, at 189 Baker Street. There was a leather goods shop called Le Sac that had gone out of business. The owner was looking for someone to take charge of the soon-to-be empty storefront. It was the perfect opportunity and precisely what Gavin and his team were waiting for. Benjamin Wolfe, a shop owner himself, quickly took the offer.
Wolfe rented the place for £10,000 (about $13,000), and that included the entire building, plus the basement which was used for storage. But the Baker Street gang weren’t going to use it for storage, per se. Gavin and his team had been waiting for months to find the perfect location.
Now, their work could really begin. One of the members had a close tie to a staff member at Lloyds Bank’s security system. Through this contact, the team was able to learn that due to construction occurring nearby, false alarms were going off in the bank. That meant that the alarm on the vault’s floor had been turned off. By August 1971, eight months after Tucker first opened his account at Lloyds, the men officially began their robbery.
Their method was to dig a hole from the basement of Le Sac’s, passing through the Chicken Inn restaurant to get to the basement of Lloyds Bank. The distance was just 40 feet, but carving through all that earth took a large amount of planning, digging, time, and, of course, effort. They started with an 18-inch wide hole in Le Sac’s basement that cut through six inches of concrete.
The efforts, led by Gavin, only took place on weekends for local shopkeepers to not hear what was going on below them. The team dug for months. When they reached the basement of the Chicken Inn, they dug slightly deeper, using the building’s foundation as the roof for their tunnel. In total, the tunnel created 17,920 pounds of waste.
Once the tunnel was long enough to reach the bank, they dug 15 feet upwards, towards the foundation of the bank’s vault. Investigators later estimated that the digging from Le Sac to Lloyds Bank took the team a total of three months. Gavin later told police that he lost 28 pounds during the process.
By September 10, 1971, the tunnel was completed. When the tunnel was done, the gang was still a few feet away, three feet, to be exact. To get inside the vault, the gang would have to break through the solid concrete. This is when the plan that up until then was proceeding smoothly hit its first snag.
Most of the group were burrowed below dirt and concrete, but one of the men was placed on the roof above the bank as a lookout. He used a walkie-talkie to communicate with Gavin and the others. But if you were to pan down to below the lookout point, you would see that the gang ran into a problem. Gavin had hoped to use the thermal lance to break through the vault floor, but it wasn’t working.
Meanwhile, heat and fumes were building up in the tunnel. They had to think and act quickly. So they decided to use an explosive to finally breakthrough. Via walkie-talkies, the team updated their lookout guy regarding their progress. But here’s the thing; someone else was also listening in.
On Saturday, September 11, 1971, a man named Robert Rowlands was sitting in his apartment about a half-mile from Lloyds Bank on Wimple Street. Like any ordinary evening, the radio enthusiast was scanning through his radio channels when he suddenly heard something out of the ordinary. He wasn’t sure what he was listening to, but it definitely sounded like he was hearing something criminal going on.
Unknowingly, Rowlands picked up the same radio waves that Gavin and his gang’s walkie-talkies were using. Rowlands kept listening at first and then phoned the police about 30 minutes later. However, the officer who took his call didn’t seem all too worried and didn’t really take the call seriously at all.
Instead, he told Rowlands that he could record the conversations that he was hearing. So he did what the officer suggested. Rowlands then took a cassette tape that he was using to learn Spanish and recorded over it. The radio hobbyist didn’t know it at the time, but with his cassette player and radio going, Rowlands was recording one of Britain’s largest bank heists in progress.
As he listened in, he started to get a sense of the bigger picture of the crime. Over the radio waves, Rowlands was hearing the men inside the bank arguing with the man perched on the roof. He understood that the vault filled with fumes, that the robbers were tired, and that they wanted to go home.
But going home after months of hard work wasn’t an option. The man on the lookout wanted to continue the robbery through the night, but those inside decided they would continue early the following morning. “If security comes in and smells the fumes, we are all going to [escape], and none of us have got nothing,” one of them was heard saying.
“Whereas this way, we have all got 300 grand to cut up when we come back in the morning.” It was from this conversation that Rowlands knew for sure that he was listening to a robbery in progress. He quickly called Scotland Yard (the police headquarters) and told them everything.
Officers frantically checked 750 banks within a 10-mile radius of Rowland’s home that same evening and into the early morning. Then, on Sunday morning, they headed over to Baker Street. But would they make it in time? Early that morning, Gavin and the group were back at it and inside the vault again.
They had no idea, though, that on the other side of the vault door, the police were already at the scene of the crime. But their inspection proved unsuspicious. The vault was tightly closed, equipped with a time-sensitive locking system that wasn’t tampered with, yet. And so, the police moved on. Now, if you were to pan left behind the vault, you would see robbers scrambling. Just like a scene in a movie.
One by one, the men pried open the safety deposit boxes with crowbars, throwing the empty cartridges and leaving them scattered across the bank’s floor. In total, they managed to break into close to 270 deposit boxes before safely exiting the bank. Don’t forget, it was Sunday, and the banks were closed. On Monday morning, when bank staffers were ready to start a new week, they would be in for a big surprise.
It was the manager of Lloyds Bank, who ultimately discovered his nation’s largest and most sweeping bank robberies. Early indications of how massive this robbery was were evidenced by the stacks of safety deposit boxes sprawled out on the floor. It was estimated that the thieves got away with £1.5 million in cash (about $2 million).
There was also another £1.5 million in valuables stolen, but exactly what was taken was never reported. Many of the bank’s powerful clients who rented the deposit boxes did so for the assumed level of secrecy. Even the culprits knew that what they pulled off was impressive since they wrote, “Let’s see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one” on the wall.
Of course, it was a reference to the story of “The Red-headed League,” the book that served as the inspiration for the entire heist. The writing on the wall was the first clue the police used to track the men down. Unfortunately for the group of thieves, it wasn’t the only clue they left behind.
In 1971, a robbery like this was unheard of, especially when it affected the wealthiest and most powerful people in London. As police worked hard to solve the case, they were aware that it would attract a lot of media attention. And once the media started covering the story, theories began to circulate. These theories even reached the Royal Family.
On September 13, two days after the heist, Radio 4 reported on the case, and word quickly caught on. Before long, the Baker Street Robbery was the talk of the town. At the time, it was known as the Walkie Talkie Robbery, and it was on every TV and radio station in the UK. But four days later, the media coverage suddenly stopped.
Without explanation, the British Government issued what was called a “D-Notice,” which demanded every news outlet to end their coverage on the Baker Street robbery. The government gave a vague explanation, stating that there were concerns over national security. But those following the story closely believed the reasons were much more sinister than that.
With the sudden D-Notice, the British government hoped to keep the whole story off the radar. But all it did was create the opposite effect. As the search for the robbers continued, and news coverage stopped, rumors quickly and wildly grew. People were debating about what exactly led to the already notorious heist and its mysterious hush-hush nature.
The conspiracy theories surrounding the robbery started to surface. For those following the case, the news of the British government’s intervention was only proof that the government itself was likely involved, somehow, in the heist. Soon, the speculation turned its head towards the Royal Family, eventually centering on Queen Elizabeth II‘s sister, Princess Margaret.
Those following the Royal Family, and even the members of the family themselves, knew that Princess Margaret had a knack for flirting with controversy. The Countess of Snowden was a regular character of interest for British gossip columnists. After marrying photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, the rebel of a princess was rumored to have extramarital affairs. (Have any of you seen The Crown?)
Some of these rumors were later proven through love letters. But others remained hearsay, like her supposed rendezvous with Mick Jagger. Regardless of their authenticity, Princess Margaret’s lavish lifestyle created a fair share of attention, wanted, and unwanted. Her trips to the Caribbean island of Mustique in St. Vincent and the Grenadines were the main subjects of gossip.
So what did this all have to do with the bank robbery? Well, Princess Margaret and her fancy friends apparently brought cameras with them to their beach vacations. Years after the Baker Street robbery, one of those photos surfaced and proved that the princess was courting a landscaper 17 years younger than she. Rumor had it that more sensational photos of the Princess’s secret life were leaked.
According to popular theory, these photos ended up in the hands of a “Trinidadian radical” named Michael X. Michael X had rented out a safety deposit box at Lloyds Bank and was among the victims of the Baker Street Robbery. As the theory goes, Princess Margaret’s photos were in Michael X’s safe.
Meanwhile, the police were able to crack the Baker Street Robbery case relatively easily. They found the tunnel, traced it up the block to the Le Sac shop. The police didn’t even need their greatest detective. Despite all of the gang’s planning, there was one simple rookie mistake that led police directly to the culprits, specifically to Benjamin Wolfe.
Wolfe made the rookie mistake of renting the leather goods shop under his own name. Once police tracked down Wolfe, the rest of the arrests were relatively simple. They were able to find the other members by their associations with Wolfe. Gavin, Stephens, and Tucker were all subsequently arrested for their roles in the Baker Street robbery.
Word of the arrests spread quickly, but rather than closing the case and moving on, there was now just more fuel for the conspiracy theorists. There were many unanswered questions, like how exactly did these novice criminals pull off such a sweeping robbery? Also, why did the police check 750 banks in a 10-mile radius when Rowlands’ radio only picked up broadcasts in a one-mile radius? It all seemed very suspicious.
Skeptics were wondering if the robbers had actually received help from the UK security service, MI5. They debated whether or not the heist was a cover-up for the covert mission of recovering the private hush-hush of Princess Margaret. Could the whole heist really have been the work of a couple of rookie con artists?
Gavin, Tucker, and Stephens ended up pleading guilty to the robbery. They were sentenced to 12 years in prison. Wolfe, however, pleaded not guilty and served eight years behind bars. While police suspected others were involved, including one woman, no one else was ever deemed responsible for the crime. None of the men arrested spoke out about the robbery on record, and the police never fully recovered everything that was taken from the bank.
Since the men of the heist never spoke on the record, they saw no big pay-days from the tabloids and no lucrative book deals. They just disappeared into obscurity. One major question remains whether the men were somehow able to retrieve their loot after their release from prison. After the robbery, many of the high-power clientele never came forward to report what they lost in their deposit boxes.
A popular version of the conspiracy theory was later turned into a film in 2008 called “The Bank Job.” Loosely based on the Baker Street robbery, it paints the picture of British intelligence hiring the gang to raid the safety deposit boxes to retrieve pornographic photographs of a royal family member.
But the plot of The Bank Job proves to be more than just speculation. The film’s writers, Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais stated that they based their script on insider information. They retrieved information from a journalist who was actually involved in the case back in 1971. In the film, the underworld figure named Michael X was storing intimate photographs of Princess Margaret at her vacation home in Mustique.
Why was he keeping them in the Lloyd Banks vault? His supposed intention was to use them to blackmail the British establishment. For what reason? It supposedly was to have them turn a blind eye to his criminal activities. So does this explain how well-funded the operation was? Or why the police seemed so reluctant to catch the gang?
Considering what we know about Princess Margaret, it’s definitely plausible that photographs extreme enough to be used for blackmail existed. Apparently, Michael X’s real name was Michael De Freteis, and he was a London gangster, drug dealer, and slums landlord in the 1960s and 1970s. The man even became a minor celebrity by setting up a London branch for the Black Power movement.
He was briefly praised in the press by none other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Shortly after the Baker Street robbery, Michael X left England for his native Trinidad, despite the fact that he was due in court on charges of extortion. This action surely raised a few eyebrows. A few months later, the commune he established in Trinidad was burnt down under mysterious circumstances.
The story ended fatally for Michael X. When police found the bodies of two of its members buried on the property, he was ultimately charged with their murders and sentenced to hanging in 1975. While there is little factual evidence that exists for the scenario depicted in ”The Bank Job,” writers Clement and Le Frenais say their informant was totally reliable.
That informant was Evening Standard journalist George McIndoe, who claimed that he only learned about the exposing photographs after getting to know two of the Baker Street gang members in the 1970’s. But considering how none of the men were talking and Michael X was dead, it’s difficult to verify what McIndoe told the film writers.
The role of British intelligence in a scenario like this could take two forms. One is that the raid was a stunt to provide blackmail opportunities against high-level politicians. But the second and more likely effect is that upon discovering the material after the robbery, MI5 swooped in to cover it up and made sure a scandal wouldn’t break.
This theory isn’t even outlandish. Journalists in the 1970’s already knew which subjects were out of bounds. Princess Margaret’s antics were well-worn gossip, as were the affairs of many other politicians and high profile figures. But the public behavior of pedophiles such as Lord Boothby and MP Tom Driberg, which could potentially damage the establishment, was not reported by mutual agreement.
One piece of circumstantial evidence does exist, though. Michael X’s MI5 file is currently locked up until 2054, which will be 83 years after the robbery and 79 years after his hanging. When you think about it, as many have, the secrecy over the file of an ambiguous London gangster seems unnecessary. So maybe there really was something explosive in those files that could still be embarrassing decades after everyone is dead. Why the year 2054?
In later years, a much more sinister version on the Royal scandal theory has emerged. Brian Reader, a gang member who was never captured by the police, claimed that the men found disturbing images of child abuse involving prominent politicians in those safety deposit boxes.
The now elderly ex-gang member made such claims at a trial for his involvement in another famous robbery, the 2015 heist at London’s Hatton Garden. He said the Baker Street gang was so disgusted by the photos they found that they left them scattered on the floor of the vault for the police to find. If this is true, such a scandal will eclipse the now uninteresting photos of a Princess on vacation.
Allegations of a systematic cover-up of a child-sex ring in British politics persists to this day. If evidence for such a thing was really found scattered on the floor of a bank vault in 1971, it would most definitely be concealed by the authorities, even until the year 2054.
Brian Reader, the 76-year-old “diamond geezer,” was allegedly one of the Baker Street gang, as was Tony Gavin’s usual partner in crime, Mickey “Skinny” Gervaise, the burglar alarm expert. There was also a man known as “Little Legs.” The fourth uncaught man was dubbed “TH,” who was actually connected to Scotland Yard Detective Inspector, Alec Eist.
Eist was, by reputation the, most corrupt officer of the 1950s to mid-1970s. According to a source, Eist was paid off to make sure some of the Baker Street gang were never prosecuted. But by 1976, after multiple corruption allegations, Eist was ordered to monitor parking wardens. He retired and died a few years later. Eist was later suspected of receiving jewelry stolen in the Baker Street raid.