The Audacious Bank Heist That Was Doomed to Fail
Sixty years ago, three men hatched a plan to tunnel into the vault of a bank containing £2.5 million in steelworkers' wages. Today, their tale mostly lives on in local gossip and myth.
A Mirror front page from the time of the robbery; a police photograph of the tunnel dug to the bank. Images via
The Burgess Green Hotel in Port Talbot is a cheerfully unremarkable pub. Strip lighting, time-worn furniture, careworn regulars – the whole reassuring shebang. It's quiet on the Monday night I visit, save for a few young-looking lads sipping Diet Coke and the strains of a lively sounding bingo tournament in the adjacent room.
I've been chewing the bartender's ear for an hour. Aid – a local Iron Maiden head wearing a recent tour T-shirt – is my obliging verbal tour guide through the byways of the town's recent history. We're talking all sorts. The iniquities of the housing rental market, the fortunes of his football team (Spurs) and the long decline of the local steelworks, which still employs an estimated 10 percent of the town's population of 35,000.
Most importantly, I'm here to talk about the heist. In May of 1958, three out-of-towners hatched a convoluted plan to burrow into the vaults of what was then the Midland Bank on Station Road, to help themselves to the £150,000 (roughly £2.5 million in today's money) that was deposited every month to pay the thousands of workers then employed by the Steel Company of Wales. A get-rich-quick smash-and-grab marked by an absence of violence and basic opportunism.
Their names are public record, even if some of the details of their lives remain a mystery. The plan was devised by John Rivers, "a man of some intellect and ingenuity", who found accomplices in Cardiff-based steel erector Martin O’Brien and his brother Dennis, a builder from Barry – two younger men recruited for their brawn, not brains. After ten days and nights burrowing a tunnel from a vacant shop opposite the bank that Rivers had rented under an assumed name from a local farmer, the idea was to break-in over the weekend while the bank was closed, swipe the loot and ride off into a glorious, financially secure sunset, straight into Port Talbot folklore.
Unfortunately for them, only the latter part of their scheme came to fruition. The O'Brien brothers were picked up by police as they ate their breakfast on the 21st of May. They'd been placed under observation days before, after the shop's landlord had come sniffing around for unpaid rent and discovered the entire shop floor pulled up.
They didn't put up much of a fight. "This is it, we have had it. No rough stuff," Martin is reported as saying, while his brother Dennis simply requested that they "take us quietly". The spectre of John Rivers melted away, never to be seen again, while the brothers were handed four years each in prison.
It's a good yarn. A victimless caper, with enough Ealing Comedy ineptitude to justify repeated retelling in the pubs and social clubs in town for those old enough to remember those long gone days. After all, those were the boom times. Port Talbot had never had it so good, and though the town's affluence was to peak in the late 1960s, it's never had it anywhere near as good since.
There's a reason the town was known as "Treasure Island". Full-employment, generous wages and a job for life down the steelworks (which opened in 1951), whose scale defeats the naked eye and takes ten minutes to traverse by car. These were the conditions that led to the opening of the UK's first "Monte Carlo style" casino on the high street a decade later, a fully legal "gambling, cabaret, dance and fine dining establishment", opened by George Alfred James – a patrician gambling entrepreneur who wouldn't appear out of place in vintage Scorsese.
With Casino Club Port Talbot came the nightclubs, and crowds from all over Wales. Even punters from London made the journey, including – it's rumoured – members of the infamous south London dynasty, the Richardsons. There was money here, and plenty of it. It was a place to be proud of coming from – the hometown of Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, among other glitterati.
But it wasn't to last. As British Steel restructured in the 1980s, it also shed almost half of the entire workforce of what had been Europe's largest works. The decline was as rapid as it was ruinous, with a crisis point reached in 2016, when the plant's current owners Tata reported losses of almost £1 million a day. Rumours floated that there were plans afoot to close the entire operation – a decision that would have thrown nearby Swansea, Llanelli, Neath, Bridgend, Newport and Ebbw Vale into a state of economic devastation, as well as Port Talbot itself. Although apocalypse was averted, the numbers are stark. From 14,000 employees in the 1970s, the number stands at nearer 4,000 today.
It's pissing it down when I arrive in town. Though there's a merciful lull on the approach to Station Road, site of both the robbery and a small cluster of pubs that I hope will house the sort of folk who remember both the events of May, 1958 and Port Talbot's glory days, and might just be willing to talk about them.
A week or so earlier, I'd put up posts on a few Facebook pages dedicated to the Port Talbot history, as well as sending some cold emails off to a local historical society. It's not a personal affront when nothing pings back. After all, there have been no shortage of journalists appearing in the past few years to write doom-laden stories, usually centred on the continued travails of the steelworks and the ripple-out effects within the local community.
Port Talbot was a Leave town, by a slender 52 percent. How could they back Brexit, commentators scoffed, when the region benefited from years of EU funding? The answer lay with Tata's proposed pull-out, amid a global crash in steel prices. How could they compete with China "dumping" steel into the European market, after their own domestic market had slowed? A failure to impose tariffs on the Chinese marked the EU as an easy focus for a woefully complex crisis.
But the chaos of the subsequent Brexit negotiations have sparked panic in the town. Any deal would be better than a no-deal that saw Tata flee for good, frozen out of the EU markets on which they rely to remain competitive.
The national media scrum descended in March of 2016, at the height of the rumours of Tata's flight. But just for a few days; there was an equally quick vanishing as soon as the news cycle demanded fresh content.
In The Lord Caradoc, a decently vibrant Wetherspoons just doors from the old Midland Bank building, there's a mixed group of middle-aged and elderly men sipping pints. Within minutes there's a steady stream of anecdotes raining down, after I approach and mention the heist. Those memories are a bit frayed now, though everyone knows the outline of the story.
It isn't a universal welcome, though. One sad-eyed man is adamant that he doesn’t trust me, or Chris, who's taking the photos. You shouldn’t be sniffing around, even if it was so long ago, is the gist of it. Anyway, he knew several of the blokes involved, and no: you won't be getting a single peep out of him.
Others are more forthcoming. It isn't long before we're joined by a man who introduces himself as Michael Thomas, who says his grandfather Bryn was heavily involved with all the casino business way back when. Michael was born and raised in Port Talbot, though he’s spent many of his 48 years living elsewhere. University in London, a life in Cardiff, that sort of thing. He's been back for the last 15 or so years and now lives just outside of town.
He's lightly scathing about some of his peers from the fag-end of the golden years. Faces from his sixth-form class, "90 percent [of whom] wouldn't dream of coming back to the town. [They live in] gated communities in London, the lot. You can't really say it's part of the Welsh diaspora. It's a Port Talbot diaspora, because the town was so awful and has been for years and years."
Michael knows the history and almost all of the stories, even the ones from just before his time. His grandfather was one of a family of highly successful shopkeepers, back when the high street was the town's booming epicentre. "There were about 17 tailors on the street at one time, and 38 pubs in the old town. Cardiff and Swansea were dead in comparison. The Welsh rugby team trained here. Port Talbot was the place to be," he tells me over a lager.
For Michael, the wildest thing about the bungled heist is that it's not even the best story from the era. Usually, it's something that just crops up in pub talk – but as a footnote to all the other madcap activity that has been lost to history, outside of local gossip and myth.
"It sounds a bit silly, but it's true," he says. "There was a lot of stuff like that going on. A lot of money and a lot of crazy people coming from all over. The 1958 thing is remembered because of how funny it was, more than anything else."
"People got away with a lot of things. These fellas were kind of idiots. Everyone knew what they were up to, as they were in all the pubs, getting pissed and telling people exactly what they were doing." What you need to remember, he says, is the context. People loathed the banks, and didn’t mind would-be (or actual) villains ripping them off, at least not in principle. It was all good fun, part of the slightly unreal boomtown feeling in the air.
Even the authorities seemed to have a grudging admiration for the scheme, with police labelling it "a remarkable criminal operation", according to one account. That's easy to say after its doomed conclusion, though, and not much consolation for the O'Brien brothers – locked up for the best part of half-a-decade, left to stew on their failures.
It's Michael who directs us back to The Burgess Green Hotel, a short taxi ride to other side of the roundabout that partitions the town centre. It's late now, and though Aid is obliging company, the pub is thinning out, save for a few determined bingo enthusiasts and a couple of solitary men, sipping pints in silence. He's not really sure he can remember much about the heist anyway, even if it sounds familiar; in that dim way a vivid dream becomes fragmented by the afternoon.
The next day makes the town look different. We take in the faded art deco of the Plaza cinema, derelict since 1999, though a sign below its frontispiece declares something is Coming Soon: offices, a fitness club and a recreational hall, according to Wales Online. There's a healthy crowd in Ferraris cafe, though we're told the original Mr Ferrari – an Italian expat – is long dead. One bemused cashier in the HSBC confirms that yes, it was the old Midland Bank – but doesn't really have the time to chat about an aborted robbery from 60 years ago.
You could say that Port Talbot's story is no different to any other slice of once industrial Britain's. The long mid-century boom followed hard by the sudden, catastrophic losses that no one knows quite how to reverse. The apathy and neglect of the powers-that-be, coupled with the global markets' impersonal cruelty. But the steelworks still stand, employing thousands. Port Talbot isn’t a heritage shell like Glasgow’s shipyards or London's Docklands, nor a crude cypher for total desolation like the ex-mining towns elsewhere in Wales.
But there was nothing quite like those decades, when life felt it was on one endless upwards curve. The presence of excitement and danger, with casinos and would-be bandits, right here in Port Talbot. They’re just memories now, gate-kept by a dwindling cohort who remember the old town and the way things were.
It reminds me of something Michael touched on, over our beers. Things are different now, not just here, but all over. All the stuff you thought was a big deal: the little bonds of community and hyper-specific local quirks. All of that, vanishing and never to return. It's not just the memories of a stupid, bungled heist that will die out with the older generation in Port Talbot: it's an entire way of life.
"It was a great time and these were lovely, clever men," he says as we drain our drinks. "You can't repeat those stories and jokes, it's a whole sensibility. It's tough to say what was lost exactly, but you know it was glorious. And you know what we have now is less."