Great Train Robbery discovery left me fearing for my life for decades

In August 1963, in the wake of the most infamous crime of the last century, the British public were on high alert.

A band of dangerous robbers were on the loose, and police had asked the public to be extra vigilant as they hunted high and low for the 15 men in possession of millions of pounds of stolen cash.

Like much of the country, farm worker John Maris, then aged 34, had read the news of the Great Train Robbery in fascination, particularly as the crime had taken place just 25 miles away from his home. 

The robbers had stolen £2.6 million (almost £50 million in today’s money) from a Royal Mail train travelling from Glasgow to London.

It was a crime so ambitious, so meticulously executed, that the details read more like a film plot than a real-life crime: at 3am on August 8th, the train had slowed for a red signal near the village of Cheddington, about 36 miles northwest of London.

Fifteen masked men stormed the train, handcuffed two engineers together, and whacked one of the drivers around the head with a crowbar.

The train was carrying 128 sacks of money, takings from a busy bank holiday weekend in Scotland. All that stood between the criminals and the money was a sealed door and four unarmed postal workers, and it didn’t take long for them to break down the door with iron tools and overpower the workers.

The robbers threw the sacks of money down an embankment where two Range Rovers and an old military truck waited. Within 30 minutes, the robbery was over –  the men and the money had disappeared without a trace.

At the time, John lived a simple life as a herdsman on a farm in a quiet Buckinghamshire village with his wife Grace, a 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.

The shocking crime seemed far removed from his daily life, but it was the talk of the town and he was intrigued.

‘The newspapers said the police were looking for remote farmhouses and buildings where they thought the gang might be hiding,’ remembers John.

‘When the police said they thought the robbers were within 30 miles of where the crime took place, my first thought was for the nearby Leatherslade Farm. I made a joke to my wife, saying, ‘That will be them up on the farm,’ but it was just a funny passing remark.’

Close to home 

Leatherslade Farm had been bought a few weeks earlier, and, although John had originally made the comment as a throwaway remark, it wasn’t long before he began to see strange activity going on at the isolated farm. 

‘I saw an old Army truck and Land Rovers going backwards and forwards to the farm, and immediately my suspicions were raised,’ recalls John. ‘The men always closed the gates behind them ­– strange behaviour during the day between milking times.’ 

After inspecting his herd, John decided to investigate further and crept through a gap in the hedge to take a look at the farmhouse. What he saw as he peered through the branches would change his life for ever.

‘Every window was draped with curtains and makeshift coverings,’ he says.

‘Why would anyone in an isolated house on top of a hill want to black out windows in that way? I knew then that this was the hideout of the train robbers that the police were looking for. I didn’t hang about to see if anyone was inside – I was fit and young, but I was scared.’

John raced home and called the police hotline which had been set up for tip-offs. He was so sure that he’d found the gang’s hideout that he spent a restless night worrying about his family’s safety.

When the police still hadn’t investigated the farm the next day, John rang the hotline again. This time, two police officers arrived within hours.

‘They casually showed up and asked if I knew the location of Leatherslade Farm. I pointed it out to them and they returned after less than half an hour,’ says John. ‘One of them told me, “You’ve really started something now!”’

John had indeed discovered the hideout of the criminals, and Leatherslade Farm became known as the Robber’s Roost. By the time police arrived on the farm, the robbers were long gone, leaving empty moneybags littering the ground. But the farmhouse was packed with evidence that would lead to the conviction of 15 of the robbers.

Life changed overnight for the Maris family as police declared him a national hero. ‘I became a virtual prisoner at the farm as press camped outside – any movement I made was immediately photographed and everyone wanted a comment,’ he says. ‘Our home was effectively blockaded.’

Death threats

John’s story and photograph were featured in newspapers around the world, and the Royal Mail invited him to receive a reward of £19,000 (worth around £250,000 today) at a fancy London hotel.

‘I collected my cheque in front of a bank of photographers,’ says John. ‘When we returned home we settled into a routine knowing we had more security as far as finance was concerned.’

But John found himself under enormous strain from the publicity, as he was bombarded with attention from journalists and public alike .

‘The pressure my wife and family had to withstand at that time was overwhelming. I just kept thinking, “What had I done? What had I got into?” This was a totally different world to the one that I knew.’

Within a few months, police had caught 12 of the gang and had significant evidence about the identity of the remaining three. But it also wasn’t long before he began to fear for his safety, as their home was widely known as the adjoining farm to the Robber’s Roost.

Alongside the many letters he received from people impressed by his bravery, he also began to receive sinister letters.

‘Some were bogus but some were not. I remember one in particular that threatened my family and myself, and it was clear it could only have been written by someone who had been at the farm,’ says John.

‘We saw strange men hanging around, people seemed to be watching us. There were death threats – Grace even opened a letter with a picture of a coffin with my name on it. I had become involved with something very big and very dangerous. I was a marked man.’

John reported his fears to the police, but little protection was offered, so he took things into his own hands.

‘We bought an Alsatian puppy, who soon became very protective of Grace and the children,’ he says.

‘I felt very vulnerable being out on the farm with no one else around, so I dotted wooden stakes and jars of acid all over the place, in case I was attacked.

‘Grace even sewed a long pocket into all my trousers so that I could carry a wooden truncheon for protection. I was constantly scared, always worried – for years, I looked over my shoulder.’

Though the family used their reward money to buy a new house away from the scene of the crime, things only got worse for the Maris family.

Shockingly, a relative of one of the robbers began a private prosecution against John alleging perjury. It was part of a complicated defence strategy to free some of the robbers – in an attempt to prove their innocence, their lawyers aimed to show that John had been lying about what he saw at the house.

‘It was a shocking, awful time,’ he says. ‘The legal proceedings went on for months, and although it was eventually dismissed, my legal costs came to more than £4,000. That was quite a sum, the price of a detached house. I never got it back.’

John and his family tried their best to move on from the events of 1963, but they were never able to fully recover.

‘It was absolute hell. Grace suffered terribly and this, we were assured, was due to the original shock to her nervous system,’ he says.

‘I began to question every person’s motives, so it influenced my life rather than changing it completely.’

Fifty-five years later, most of the robbers are now dead. All 15 of them were eventually caught and sentenced to a total of 307 years in prison. To this day, John still sometimes wonders whether he made the right decision turning in the criminals.

‘I felt so guilty for everything Grace and the kids had to go through,’ he says.

‘I would come home some days and they would all be in an awful state. Sometimes I did regret getting involved, but it is not in my nature to ignore what I saw.’

  • My Encounter With The Great Train Robbery: How I Became a Marked Man  by John Maris is out now, £8.75 from Amazon.

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