On 15 May 1855, approximately £15,000 of gold bullion was stolen from the South Eastern Railway Company mail train from London to Dover. Part I of this story recounts the transportation of the gold, the discovery of the robbery and the investigation so far.
A Woman Slighted
It was shortly after dawn in early autumn of 1855 and Fanny Bolam Kay was lying in her bed working out what to do next. Henry Agar had paid the rent on the house in Shepherds Bush up until he was arrested and provided enough for her and Edward to live on for about a month. After he left her for Emily Campbell, she had cleaned the house from top to bottom, not because there was a huge need but out of anger.
Albeit, when it came to the washhouse and spare bedroom they did need a good clean. The spare bedroom grate was black while the wooden floor was covered in burn marks. Fanny had covered these with rugs in anticipation of taking in a lodger. There was also a pile of charcoal sacks to be rid of and other bits and pieces that Fanny failed to understand why Henry and William Pierce needed them.
She was about to get up when suddenly there was a loud banging on her front door followed by an even louder voice, with a Lancashire accent that Fanny hoped never to hear again. ‘Wake up your drunken whore or do I have to kick this door in!’ The banging started again together with Pierce yelling further obscenities waking up young Edward, her son.
Fanny reached the front door before Pierce had kicked it open. He immediately charged past her and went to the washhouse. His wife was behind him and told Fanny to get Edward as they were to go with them. Mrs Pierce said that she had brought a handcart and went through the house putting some of the mother and child’s possessions into a large carpetbag that she had brought with her. Neither of the pair paid any heed to Fanny’s protestations.
On arrival at the Pierce residence, Crown Terrace, Hampstead Road, London, Mrs Pierce showed Fanny into a small room in the attic that she was to share with Edward. Pierce told Fanny that she was to stay with them until the ‘heat’ had died down and to pay her way, she was to look after the Pierce children. Further, she was not to go out, in case the police saw her. Listening to the conversations between her two captors Fanny realised that Henry and Pierce had been involved in a bullion robbery and that the gold had been melted down in the washhouse and the spare room at her home in Shepherds Bush.
It was not until April 1856 that Fanny heard from Henry again. The letter came care of Pierce, dated 2nd of that month and the address was given as Portsea where Henry was held awaiting Transportation. From the letter, Fanny surmised that Henry thought she and Edward were no longer in London and that she was financially well cared for as Henry had given Pierce money for them. Out of this money, Henry asked Fanny to buy a silver cup for Edward and one each for Pierce’s children to remind them of Henry.
Since moving in with the Pierce family, Fanny had been treated as a poorly paid servant and she immediately confronted Pierce with Henry’s letter. Pierce screwed it up and threw it on the fire. He then grabbed hold of Fanny and pushed her out of the front door and into the street. Edward was still in the house and it was Mrs Pierce who answered her banging on the door.
After collecting Edward, Mrs Pierce seemed genuinely concerned as to where they were going and quietly gave her a small amount of money. A few days later Fanny, believing that Pierce had left the house, called for their belongings. Pierce had, however, returned by the back door and on seeing Fanny he attacked her and badly beat her up.
Distressed and heavily bruised, Fanny went to see Superintendent Weatherhead at London Bridge Station. There she recounted what had happened and her belief that Agar and Pierce were involved in the Great Bullion Robbery. Soon after Mr Rees, the solicitor of South Eastern Railway Company (SER) and one of the four key investigators into robbery, came to see Fanny.
Rees took the young mother and her son to a place of safety paid for by SER and gave her some money. Along with the other three investigators, Sergeant Smith, Sergeant Thornton and Detective F Williams, Rees went to see Agar. They presented him with Fanny’s statement and eventually Agar agreed to turn Queen’s Evidence on one condition. If, on conviction of the others involved in the robbery he was allowed to go to a country of his own choosing and never to return to Great Britain again. Agar was then transferred to Pentonville prison, London.
Turning Queen’s Evidence
Agar told the investigators that some years before, while Pierce was working for SER, they had carried out a robbery at London Bridge railway station. On that occasion they had stolen £800 from an iron safe kept in the basement after making a duplicate key. Agar was uncomfortable carrying out the robbery preferring to create counterfeit cheques and have them cashed, which required more skill. Following Agar’s last trip to America, Pierce had suggested that they should consider robbing a gold consignment going to France. Agar was not convinced but up for a challenge he agreed to go with Pierce to Folkestone to see if it was possible.
In the second week of May 1854 they rented rooms in Folkestone, near the station for a couple of weeks. At the quay side railway station they saw that the chest, in which the bullion was carried, was only transported on the mail train and that the chest had two locks. Over the next few days Agar noted that the clerks used just two keys and that the same two keys fitted all the chests. The problem was that the keys were kept separately and he could not see anyway of getting hold of them to make copies.
While they were in Folkestone Pierce recognised Inspector Hazel who had arrested him over the tickets fraud back in 1850. Following this they made out that they were not together but not long after Agar returned to London telling Pierce that the robbery was impossible.
On Pierce’s return to London he told Agar that he had spoken to William Tester, whom they both knew. Tester was the senior clerk in the London Bridge superintendent’s office and had access to one of the keys but only briefly. This was when loading or unloading a consignment from the mail train, for the rest of the time the key was locked in the Superintendent’s drawer.
A couple of weeks later Tester told them that at least one of the chests was going to be returned to Chubbs, the lock smiths, during the summer as a lock had seized up. When it was came back he would have one, if not both, of the keys for more than just a few minutes. In fact, Tester authorised for two chests to be sent to Chubbs but as it was the same lock that had seized up on both, only one key was needed. The chests and the key were returned in early October 1853 and Pierce arranged with Tester for Agar to make an impression. Agar made four impressions in wax.
The second key proved more problematic to get hold of. So Agar, who still had well over £3,000 from his American trip arranged for £200, in gold sovereigns, to be sent from London to Folkestone. The package was addressed it to: C E Archer c/o Mr Ledger or Mr Chapman, Senior Clerks, Folkestone Harbour station. Agar then went to Folkestone to see how his consignment was dealt with and to see if he could work out a way of getting an impression of the second key.
Agar arranged for his consignment to arrive at Folkestone three days after he did. During that time he observed that before a ship from Boulogne moored up the clerk left his office, closing the door but not locking it. He also went into the office every day to enquire about his package, choosing a time when the clerk, Charles Chapman, did not have any other customers and was busy cashing up. On the third day, when his consignment was due, Agar bound two fingers of his right hand with a black silk finger-stall.
He again inquired about his package at a time Chapman was cashing up but this time the clerk assured Agar that it had. He then put the cash into a drawer from which he took two keys. With one of the keys he opened a cupboard in which there was the second key – the one Agar wanted an impression of. Using both keys Chapman opened the chest and took out Agar’s consignment. Agar, drawing attention to his bound hand asked Chapman would sign for the consignment on his behalf. Agar made a cross and Chapman added a note saying that ‘Mr Archer had hurt his hand.’
A few days later, with Pierce wearing a specially made black wig and whiskers, Agar booked into the Rose Inn, Biggin Street, Dover using false names. They had arranged to meet James Burgess, a senior guard with SER. Burgess said that he was not keen on taking part in the robbery but Pierce talked him round. The following morning the Agar and Pierce walked across Western Heights, through Capel to Folkestone.
Shortly after arriving, they watched a ship come in from Boulogne and pandemonium then reigned. Although both Chapman and Ledger, the second senior clerk at Folkestone, were on duty, both left the office without locking the door. Pierce sneaked in and following Agar’s instructions took the key from the cupboard. Agar made several impressions and Pierce put it back before either of the two clerks returned.
Agar made several copies of the two keys but to ensure that they worked he travelled on the mail train when Tester had scheduled Burgess as the guard. While Agar was in Burgess’ van he sat on the floor so that he would not be seen by engine driver or the fireman would see him. Tester also made a point of scheduling John Kennedy as the under guard for although he was not part of the conspiracy, it was important as Burgess had to establish a routine that was slightly out of the ordinary.
At each station Burgess alighted, as always, but dealt with the third class passengers immediately behind the brake van. This was something that Kennedy would normally be expected to do but it was important to stop Kennedy coming to the front of the train. It took six to eight journeys before Agar was satisfied that he could open both locks with the counterfeit keys and he told the investigators that of the four chests only two required the second key. The locks on the other two were still seized up.
Back in London, Agar and Pierce bought about 2cwt of lead shot from different outlets. This they carried in carpetbags to Agar’s home in Shepherds Bush and kept it in a locked trunk. There they made small bags that held about 4lb-8lb of shot and packed them into two large carpetbags. The filled the spaces up with hay to stop the shot rattling. The two men also bought four large leather courier (shoulder) bags that they packed into a carpetbag.
For the robbery, the plan was for Tester to tell Burgess when there was a consignment of gold worthwhile stealing. So every evening for a couple of weeks Agar and Pierce went to the station prepared. Burgess was to give the signal by taking his hat off and wiping his face with a large handkerchief. On the evening of 15 May, Burgess made the signal.
On that evening Agar and Pierce bought two first class tickets to Dover and a porter took the two largest carpetbags and put them in Burgess’ van. Both men were wearing caped short coats and Pierce had on his black wig under a broad rimmed hat. Pierce got into a first class carriage and when no one was looking Agar climbed into Burgess’s van. Tester had already boarded the train, getting into a third class carriage and pulling the blinds down.
The train left at 20.30hrs and Burgess put a cape over the windows of his van so that the engine driver and fireman could not see into it. There were two iron chests and as soon as the train started to move, Agar, using number one key, opened the first. It did not require the second key. Inside were two wooden boxes one smaller than the other. Both had iron hoops around them. The larger box contained Messrs Abell consignment and the smaller, Messrs Spielmann’s.
Agar levered off the hoops using a mallet and chisel but carefully drawing the nails out and putting them to one side. Inside the larger box were gold bullion bars some of which he put into a black bag. By this time, the train had reached Redhill and Pierce came to the van. Agar passed him the bag and he passed it to Tester. Pierce then joined Agar in Burgess’ van just as the latter was blowing his whistle and Tester crossed the line to the opposite side of the tracks.
Together Agar and Pierce emptied the remaining gold bars from the large box and the small box, in which there was a considerable amount of foreign gold coins. They then filled both boxes with shot, replaced the iron hoops and put the nails back. Using a taper provided by Burgess, they waxed on new seals that had been purchased by Pierce for the purpose.
They then opened the second chest that required both keys. This contained Messrs Bolt’s package in which there was a large quantity of different coloured gold bars. These, Agar assumed, was Californian gold not only because of the colour but because the bars were much smaller. They took out as many as they estimated the weight of the amount shot that they had left. They then sealed the consignment and locked the chest.
The bullion was put into the shoulder bags and these along with the spare carpetbags into the two large carpetbags. When completed, the three men tidied up and swept the van. Agar and Pierce alighted at station before reaching Folkestone, at first getting into a third class carriage. On reaching Folkestone, where there was a lot of bustle, they moved to a first class carriage. As they walked down the platform, they saw that the chests containing the shot were removed while their carpetbags, full of gold, stayed on board.
At Dover Town station, the two men collected the two carpetbags and went to the Dover Castle Hotel where they had a drink and left to catch the 02.00hrs train back to London. For this, they had two first class tickets from Ostend. These they showed to the porter who had insisted on carrying Agar’s bag. Agar, told the investigators that he thought he had appeased the porter (Joseph Witherden) when he gave him a tip but after what happened outside Mansion House lock up, he knew that it had not worked!
On the way back to London they travelled in a first class carriage and emptied the two carpetbags throwing the hay out of the windows. It was still dark so no one saw it and as they were in the first class, they were far enough away from the engine for it not to catch fire. They put the carpetbags into one and Pierce left that in the waiting room of one of the stations that the train stopped. Hiding the very heavy shoulder bags under their caped coats, on arrival in London they caught a cab from the station alighting not far from Pierce’s house.
Later they met up with Tester who gave them the part of the consignment he had taken off the train at Redhill. They then exchanged one Californian gold bar for £203 6s and the gold coins for £213 10s. Pierce was in serious financial trouble at the time so Agar gave him most of this. The remaining gold bars were taken to Agar’s house where the two men created a furnace, first in the backyard washhouse, but they were concerned that the noise would arouse suspicion. Following Pierce sacking the maid, (Charlotte Painter), they moved into her room where they melted the gold to make bars weighing between 100 and 200 ounces each.
It was agreed that they would sell the gold in small batches and Agar sold two bars weighing about 200 ounces each to James Seward of Walworth Common. For this they received £3 2s 6d an ounce in gold sovereigns. Agar later sold a further four bars to Seward for the same price. When they had £2500 in sovereigns Pierce changed it for notes.
Over this, the two men had disagreed, Agar saying that the notes were traceable but Pierce argued that carrying around a lot sovereigns would bring unwanted attention. Pierce had said that he would ensure that the notes could not be traced by telling the bank cashier that he was acting on behalf of a company that the railway used. Much to Agar’s surprise, the bank accepted this and did nothing, but the investigators knew otherwise.
The four men, Agar, Pierce, Burgess and Tester met at the end of May with Pierce, Tester and Agar receiving £600 each and Burgess £700. The differences were to be made up at the subsequent share-outs. On Agar’s conviction, he received word that Pierce had moved the remaining gold and Agar’s own money from Shepherds Bush to his property. He had been assured that Pierce had given Fanny Kay £3,000 of Agar’s own money and that she and their son were living comfortably at Greenwich.
Trial and Sentencing
Agar signed the confession and was taken to Millbank Prison, London. While at work on the evening of 5 November 1856, Burgess was arrested. Pierce had moved house but the police soon traced him and he was arrested later that same evening. Underneath his pantry steps, a hole was found in which the remaining gold bullion was stashed. The four investigators then went to Agar’s former home in Shepherds Bush. There they found traces of gold adhering to the firebricks in the washhouse and in the spare room. In the latter, they also found burns on the floor that glittered when a light was shone on them. Tester, who was in Stockholm, was ordered to return to London.
Burgess and Pierce were brought before Alderman Humphrey, at the Mansion House, London on 6 November 1856 with Tester joining them when he returned to the capital. The prosecution was conducted by William Henry Bodkin (1791-1874) the Recorder of Dover (1834-1874). The evidence presented rested heavily on Agar’s confession augmented by Fanny’s and Witherden’s testimonies. On 24 December, having pleaded not guilty, the three men were sent for trail at the Old Bailey. From when they were arrested they had been incarcerated in Newgate prison with no special privileges allowed. James Townsend Saward alias The Barrister alias Jim the Penman, was brought before Alderman Humphrey in early January 1857, and charged with having being involved in a ‘great number of forgeries upon London Bankers.’
The trial of Burgess, Pierce and Tester opened at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, London on 11 January 1857 before Mr Baron Martin and Mr Justice Willes, they were accompanied on the bench by Alderman Humphrey, Sir F G Moon, Mr Sheriff Machi, Mr Under Sheriff Crossley and Mr Under Sheriff Anderton. Throughout the trial, the three prisoners kept constant communication with their legal teams and were charged with:
- Stealing 200lb weight of gold valued £12,000
- Stealing a number of gold bars and some gold coins
- Stealing the same property in the dwelling house of South Eastern Railway Company
- Feloniously receiving property knowing it to be stolen.
All three prisoners entered a plea of ‘not guilty.’
William Bodkin headed the prosecution and among the defence team was Henry Bodkin Poland, the nephew of William Bodkin and his successor as Recorder of Dover (1874-1901). Poland was representing Pierce. It was recognised by all concerned that Agar was the brains behind the robbery and the basis of the prosecution was Agar’s testimony. However, unlike the earlier hearing, there was a stream of witnesses most of whom had given statements prior to Agar’s confession (Great Bullion Robbery Part I).
The defence centred on negating Agar’s account saying that he was a ‘scoundrel that, by his own admission, had only done 3 years honest work in his life.’ As for the other witnesses, the defence argued that little weight should be attached to their evidence as it was purely circumstantial. That was, with the exception of Fanny Kay. Her evidence, they argued, was based on malicious jealousy over a supposed £3,000 that Agar had supposedly given to Pierce for her and her bastard child. In reality, they argued, Pierce ‘had taken in the destitute woman and her offspring and given her a job when Agar had abandoned her.‘
Baron Martin summed up the case but before making a number of observations he emphasised: ‘That for the purpose of convicting anyone on the evidence of an approver (Agar), it was necessary that it should be corroborated by an other witness or witnesses whom the approver cannot have had communication with or control.’
The learned Judge then went on to say that Agar was arrested on 15 August 1855 and convicted in October so had no way of communicating with any of the witnesses. That he had remained loyal to all three until he heard of Pierce’s despicable behaviour towards Fanny Kay and the child. Agar, said the judge, had no animosity towards either Burgess or Tester nor shown any other than how they featured in the story. He then went through the corroborating evidence (Great Bullion Robbery Part I).
The Jury was dismissed at 17.00hrs and returned ten minutes later. Both Burgess and Tester were found guilty of larceny by a servant and were sentenced to 14 years transportation. Pierce was found guilty of larceny and sentenced to hard labour for two years during which, for three months – the 1st 12th and 24th – he was to be kept in solitary confinement. The Judge said that it was the maximum sentence he could give reflecting the difference between simple larceny and larceny by a servant. The latter, in consequence to the abuse of confidence, was treated under the law, as the graver offence.
Post Script: Kay-v-Pierce
Following the judgement the three men’s money was confiscated to the amount stolen minus the amount found hidden underneath Pierce’s the pantry steps. Of Agar’s money, the Court of Chancery ruled that £3,000 belonged to Fanny Kay and her son Edward, as she had played no part in the robbery. A trust was set up on 3 February 1857 for Edward, until he was of age, and this was held by the Commissioner of Police, then Sir Richard Mayne.
In the meantime, Fanny was given more than enough money for her to live as a gentlewoman with Edward. However, Fanny was ill and Mrs Pierce, following her husband’s conviction, had been kindly towards Fanny and Edward. Therefore, Mrs Pierce was asked to take care of Edward for which Fanny gave her £500 in trust while she went to the coast in the hope of recuperating. Fanny died of tuberculosis at High Wickham – a part of Hastings, Sussex – on 27 February 1858 age 27. By that time, concern was being expressed that Mrs Pierce was neglecting Edward so Sir Richard moved him into the care of Mr and Mrs William Cranston in Tottenham.
In July 1875, when Edward was twenty, he brought a case against Mrs Pierce for the return of the £500 that his mother had given in trust to look after him. It was heard by the vice-chancellor of the Court of Chancery Sir James Bacon (1798-1895). Mrs Pierce contended that the money was given to her personally, not in trust, but the ruling went against her and Edward received his full entitlement.
It would seem that Edward became a carpenter and in 1888, he married Jane Emma Lane. Edward had at least three children, Beatrice Fanny born 1885, Edward Robert born 1888 and Laura Ada born 1890 and lived in South Grove, Walthamstow, Essex. At the time William Morris is claimed to have complained that Walthamstow was becoming spoilt and ‘Cockneyfied!’ Edward’s three children were christened in 1895 at St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow but the year before, in January 1887, Edward had died of a stroke brought on by alcoholism.
- 11 May 2014