Great Britain: As Good as Gold

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The week's wash hung out to dry in the fitful Monday sunshine, the good ladies of Kentish Town, London, stepped out for their afternoon bingo game. As one bunch of Mums passed a blue truck parked in a side street, a voice cried out: "Lady, lady, will you phone the police? We are tied up in here." "Ah, you're having us on," replied Maude Smyth, 50, the archetype of English womanhood, from home perm to sensible walking shoes. "Truly, lady," came the very English reply from inside, "if you look through the crack you'll see us trussed up like chickens." Maude Smyth and her three stout companions looked, and great consternation followed. For the bingo ladies of Kentish Town were the first to learn about Britain's crime of the year: the theft of $2,100,000 worth of gold bullion.

What Twiggy is doing for fashions, a new breed of audacious British thieves is doing for crime. British crime has become both more frequent and more spectacular ever since the Great Train Robbery of 1963 whetted rascals' appetites for neatly executed commando-type operations—and titillated the imagination of millions with tales of rags to riches. British robbers these days are getting away with an incredible $840,000 in loot each week.

Silent Thieves. The truck that Maude Smyth spotted belonged to N. M. Rothschild & Sons, a firm of merchant bankers. It was making routine deliveries of gold bullion to dealers about London when it stopped, as usual, to drop a bag of silver worth $14 at a small printing shop on Bowling Green Lane. As the guard who delivered the silver bag was walking back to his truck, he was hit from behind. Hearing the usual two-knock signal, his companions opened the roll-up door in the back. Instantly, their eyes were blinded by a liquid squirted from a gas gun. "It was so fast we didn't have a chance. We couldn't even get to our coshes [billy clubs]," said one guard. Blindfolded, hands and feet bound with adhesive tape, the three Rothschild men were driven to an un known rendezvous, where the silent thieves—believed to have numbered ten in all—relieved the truck of its contents: 144 gold bars weighing 1.7 tons.

The loot, unsalable in Britain, must be got out. But how? In Alec Guinness' Lavender Hill Mob, the gold was melted down into souvenir miniatures of the Eiffel Tower and shipped to Paris. In Ian Fleming's Goldfinger, the villain fled England in a Rolls-Royce whose body was made of solid gold. Scotland Yard has boarded and inspected all ships departing England—so far to no avail. Somewhere in England, the 144 gold bricks, whose telltale markings can easily be erased by melting, were probably bubbling merrily in a cauldron.