Post Mortem November 2005

An Old-School Copper

Jack Slipper (1924-2005)

"He was always affable and very much a gentle giant," said Bruce Reynolds. "He was one of the old school," agreed one of Reynolds's colleagues.

Gentlemen publishers? Art dealers? Well, Reynolds has a small antiques business in South London these days, but he was being quoted in his capacity as the mastermind of Britain's Great Train Robbery. His colleague is a rather less eminent member of the United Kingdom's criminal class. And the man they were eulogizing was Slipper of the Yard—Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper, the last British police detective to become a household name. If "Slipper of the Yard" sounds vaguely like a 1950s British movie—black-and-white crime thriller, decent old stick of a copper, girlfriend one of those burly English birds radiating health rather than sex, you catch it late at night in some motel and stick around waiting for the gunfire to start but it never does, except for a single shot in the final reel when the sweaty, rodentlike villain panics—well, Jack Slipper certainly looked the part of the Scotland Yard man. Ex-RAF, he was a tall man with copper-sized boots (size 12 in Britain, 13 in America) and a bristly pencil moustache. The 'tache was standard issue for police detectives when he started, though his was a rare survivor by the time he retired, in 1979.

If Slipper was indeed an old-school copper, Reynolds and Co. were old-school robbers, remnants of not exactly an age of innocence but a time many Britons now look back on fondly: the cops didn't carry guns, and neither did the robbers; the former were known as the "Old Bill," the latter were "diamond geezers"; and when the Bill collared one of the ne'er-do-wells, he'd say, "You're nicked, chummy," and the geezer would respond, "It's a fair cop, guv." The moral contradictions of this era of British crime are summed up in misty Cockney reminiscences of the psychopathic Kray twins: lovely boys, proper gentlemen, always treated everyone with perfect manners—well, except for the people they killed. Years ago I used to date a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, and after her shift we'd go for a drink round the corner at the Blind Beggar, an East End landmark famed for one night in the sixties when Ronnie Kray strolled into the pub and shot his gangland rival George Cornell between the eyes. The jukebox was playing the Walker Brothers' No. 1 hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." "The sun ain't gonna shine for him anymore," said Ronnie.

Nor, in the end, for British gangland's reputation as a playground for lovable rogues. Today London has worse property crime than New York, the diamond geezers have been succeeded by Jamaican drug gangs—"Yardies" with Uzis—and if you take the East London Line to Whitechapel for a pint at the Blind Beggar, remember that since the July 7 bombings the metropolitan police have had a shoot-to-kill policy on the tube. But somewhere in its folk memory much of Britain still holds a soft spot for the lads responsible for the events of August 8, 1963. That's when Bruce Reynolds and his comrades pulled off the Great Train Robbery, seizing the Royal Mail express from Scotland to London as it passed through Buckinghamshire and getting away with £2.6 million in used notes, which was quite a sum in 1963 and today translates to more than $65 million.

They'd cleaned out the train without firing a single gunshot, but the driver, Jack Mills, was uncooperative, and one of the gang brutally whacked him with a cosh. Nevertheless, at a time of imperial decline abroad and government scandal at home, the public seemed to take a perverse patriotic pleasure in the crime. Pace Dean Acheson, Britain may have lost an empire but it had found its rolling stock—stripped clean with immense boldness and panache. "Britons may not admit they are proud," wrote The Daily Telegraph of Sydney, "but in private many are thinking 'For they are jolly good felons.'"

If only they'd planned the post-robbery phase as efficiently. Investigation of the Great Train Robbery fell to the Sweeney—the metropolitan police's mobile armed-robbery division, the Flying Squad ("Sweeney" is Cockney rhyming slang: Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad). Among the six detectives assigned to the case was a junior sergeant named Jack Slipper, who got his first break when a woman named Charmaine Biggs went on a shopping spree in a fancy West End store and paid in cash. Her husband was a petty criminal named Ronnie Biggs, and when he returned home on September 4, Detective Sergeant Slipper was waiting for him. The Great Train Robbery had been cracked within a month. The following April, Biggs and the others were sentenced to thirty years in prison.

He didn't stay long. After fifteen months Biggs escaped from Wandsworth Gaol, getting over the wall with a rope ladder and then dropping into a waiting furniture van with a hole in its roof. He skipped to France and then Spain, Australia, and finally Brazil, where in 1974 he renewed his acquaintance with Slipper of the Yard. Tipped off by a Daily Express reporter that Biggs was holed up in Rio, the detective flew out on a secret mission to recapture his man. The fugitive opened his hotel-room door to be confronted by a most un-Brazilian-looking cove with a familiar pencil moustache. "Long time no see, Ronnie," said Slipper—a line he'd apparently rehearsed.

"Fuck me," said Ronnie—a more spontaneous reaction.

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Mark Steyn is a columnist for Britain's Telegraph Group, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other publications.

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