Remembering Brink’s-Mat, The Biggest Heist In British History

A multi-million pound theft that triggered manhunts, murders and a rumoured curse, the Brink’s-Mat robbery has gone down as one of the most notorious crimes in British history.

On 26 November, 1983, Brink’s-Mat became the highest-value single armed robbery that the world had ever seen, and it all unfolded in a quiet warehouse just outside Heathrow Airport. We’re taking a look at the heist that remains the UK’s biggest, and the figures who made this story legendary.


The heist

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Credit: Thomas Nugent via Geograph

It was a dozy Saturday dawn at Heathrow Airport. At the nearby Heathrow International Trading Estate, six security guards turned up for their shift at 6:30am. Within ten minutes, their lives would change forever. The crime of the century was about to take place.

Six masked men slipped into the warehouse without warning. Declaring themselves to be relief guards, they challenged the men on duty and violence soon broke out.

Armed with guns, the newcomers overpowered the guards, hitting one in the head with a pistol and handcuffing the rest. They tore the uniform of one guard and doused him in petrol, then threatened to set him alight. The unlucky guards were forced to reveal the combination code to the warehouse vault.

The robbers navigated the warehouse with suspicious ease, somehow familiar with the site’s closed-circuit TV. When the vault door swung open, however, they were in for a shock.

As it later transpired, the robbers were expecting to find £3.2 million in cash in that vault. Instead, they found a vast fortune of gold and diamonds too, with a total worth of £26 million. That’s worth about £100 million in today’s money.

Destined for Hong Kong that very day, the fortune belonged to  Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd. Each of the 6,800 gold ingots was about the size of a candy bar. The thieves drove off in a blue Ford Transit van with 3.5 tonnes of gold – with one turning back to the helpless guards and shouting, “Merry Christmas, lads!”

It wasn’t until 8.30 am that one guard broke free of his handcuffs and raised the alarm – with his assailants long gone.

The manhunt

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“If a group of criminals has got £26 million of gold in their coffers, they have probably got more power than some third world countries,” Superintendent Brian Boyce later reflected. “That makes them a very potent danger to our society.”

Britain was abuzz with crime fever, and amateur sleuths across the country were taking an interest. Only two days after the heist, a couple in Bath, Somerset noticed a potential clue: their neighbour was using a crucible under the cover of a hut in his back yard.

With the missing bullion on their minds, the couple called the police. But despite visiting the property, the police didn’t appear to follow up on the suspicious activity. The man in question, John Palmer, was a local gold dealer. When a warrant for his arrest was issued 14 months later, he fled to Tenerife with his family, but was later deported to the UK over an expired passport.

In court, Palmer confirmed that he was melting gold at that time, but swore he didn’t know it was part of the Brink’s-Mat trove. He was acquitted.

But detectives uncovered a more pressing link soon after the heist. The gang’s intimate knowledge of the warehouse indicated that they had a man on the inside.

They soon focused on Anthony Black, a security guard and army veteran. Under questioning, Black eventually told detectives to look for his brother-in-law, Brian Robinson.

Later nicknamed ‘the Colonel,’ Robinson was a 40-year-old father-of-two from Bermondsey.  He was known to authorities for his long history of armed robbery. His childhood friend Tony White had only just been released from a 12-year jail sentence for a different heist. When Black confessed to aiding the robbers and letting them into the warehouse that fateful morning, detectives soon built a picture of the gang.

Robinson was picked out in a police line-up by one of the Heathrow guards, as were Tony White and one Micky MacAvoy.

Discovery

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Left to right: Noye, McAvoy, Robinson

McAvoy was particularly brazen in the aftermath of the robbery. Described as the ‘Ringleader’, he moved from his council house into a mansion mere weeks after the heist, and he guarded his new home with two Rottweilers whom he named Brinks and Mat.

McAvoy took his share of the loot to Brian Perry and George Francis, who in turn sought the help of Kenneth Noye. An expert launderer, Noye was able to make the vast quantities of gold bullion vanish into the underworld.

When police linked Noye to the heist, they began close surveillance. But when Noye discovered police officer DC John Fordham in his home, he stabbed him to death.

Noye was acquitted of murder on the grounds of self defence, but he did land a 14-year prison sentence for his involvement with the gold. McAvoy and Robinson were both sentenced to 25 years in jail, and Black received a six-year sentence. Tony White was acquitted.

Despite the evidence stacked against him, friends of Brian Robinson are certain he didn’t take part in the heist himself. Robinson claims he was visiting his mother in Kent that morning, giving the impression that he and McAvoy were taking the fall for countless other criminals involved.

Cursed gold

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Though most of the men linked to the Brink’s-Mat robbery walked free, many met unusually gruesome fates. The question of whether this is purely down to the violent nature of the robbers’ world, a secret vendetta, or the work of a ‘Brink’s-Mat Curse’, is a source of fascination to this day.

One of the suspected launderers in the case was Charlie Wilson, a resident of Spain. Allegedly he was tasked with investing some of the stolen gold. He was shot dead in 1990.

Another launderer involved with this fortune was Donald Urquhart, who was shot dead in London in 1993. What’s more, Londoner Solly Nahome (a Hatton Garden jeweller) was also linked to the gold, and was shot outside his home in 1998.

Brian Perry, McAvoy’s trusted associate, was shot dead in 2001. His other associate, George Francis, met the same fate in Bermondsey in 2003. The most recent victim of this Brink’s-Mat association is the gold dealer John Palmer, who amassed a £300 million fortune over his lifetime through gang crime.

Palmer never served a prison sentence over the Brink’s-Mat robbery. He was shot dead in 2015 and his murderer has never been discovered.

The fate of the fortune

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Detectives recovered only 11 gold bars from Kenneth Noye’s house.  “There’s been very very little of it recovered. It’s gone back in the market – and you’ve bought it,” explained detective Ian Brown. Melted down and recast, the gold made its way into all kinds of valuable goods.

In 2000, the BBC reported, “It is claimed in some quarters that anyone wearing gold jewellery bought in the UK after 1983, is probably wearing Brinks Mat.”

However, one gang member has made extraordinary claims that the money was stolen in an elaborate scam by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the former president and first lady of the Philippines.

“[They] had stolen the bullion from their own people and were looking for a safe home for the loot in Britain,” the unnamed member told the press in 2001. “The Brinks Mat gang was simply hired to retrieve the gold from the Marcos family. All of it was returned to the Philippines for which gang members received substantial payment.”

‘None of the gold remained in this country, that is why the police will never find any of it here,” the person further claimed. “Everything went back, the gold that has been found was not from Brinks Mat, and the police know that.”

But the price of this ill-gotten fortune goes far beyond metal, according to Wensley Clarkson, who wrote The Curse of Brink’s-Mat: 25 Years of Murder & Mayhem.

“The tentacles of that crime are enormous,” he has stated. “They spread across many deaths and many continents and there are still reverberations until this day. The early intake of ecstasy into Britain came directly through Brink’s-Mat’s money that was made from the job and then ploughed back into ecstasy, which was a brand new drug. It marked a crossover from robbery to drugs.”

Do you remember this incredible robbery? You might want to investigate your jewellery to see if you’re connected to this high-stakes heist…