The Hatton Garden Heist: analogue crime in a digital age

Vivian Watson shares an extract from his recent book ‘How Did Our Garden Grow’ The History of Hatton Garden’

The imposing black doors of the Hatton garden Safe Deposit set in pale sandstone
The Hatton Garden Safe Deposit

The author Vivian Watson first came to Hatton Garden during his school holidays and spent over 50 years in the jewellery trade before retiring in 2017. He has just published a definitive guide to Hatton Garden called How Did Our Garden Grow? The History of Hatton Garden and says of his old stamping ground: “It’s a unique area of London and continues to evolve as one generation makes way for the next.” Below, an extract from Vivian’s book tells of the fabled 2015 “heist”.

The Hatton Garden Safe Deposit was officially opened on 24th October 1949 in the basement at 88-90 Hatton Garden. For over 60 years it provided a service to the trade and others wishing to store their valuables or cash in a secure vault. It was a matter of routine for dealers, manufacturers and merchants to store goods overnight or over a weekend. There were a variety of different-sized boxes from floor to ceiling, but most dealers only required a basic facility. Each member had a unique metal box inside their own safe. The safes could only be opened when the owner and the official both used their keys simultaneously.

Over the Easter weekend of 2015, which coincided with Passover, a team of burglars entered the building and broke into the vault. They arrived on Thursday night and were given assistance by an accomplice, who had a key to the front door and knew how to disable the alarm system and CCTV. The accomplice was known as Basil and wasn’t part of the gang, most of whom had met inside prison or previously been involved in other jobs. Basil also removed the hard drive of the security system. (It has been suggested that the name Basil is simply an acronym for Best Alarm Specialist In London.)

However, all did not go as planned. An alarm signal went out to the monitoring company who, in turn, alerted the police. The alarm company attended the premises and found no trace of intruders. The police didn’t attend and later apologised for a breakdown in their communications. The protagonists laid low until the all clear was given for them to continue work. One of the team, John ‘Kenny’ Collins, had the task of surveillance from an upstairs window across the road at 25 Hatton Garden.

Basil then opened the rear access and they were able to move in with their equipment. Once inside the building they had to enter the vault in the basement. This involved descending a lift shaft, drilling through a reinforced concrete wall that was half a metre thick and forcing over a rack of deposit boxes with a hydraulic ram. The police assumed that anyone who could do this would be young and fit, but most of the gang were in their 70s. Once again, the gang’s efforts were thwarted when the lever on the hydraulic ram broke. They hadn’t realised that the cabinets were all bolted to the walls and couldn’t easily be pushed over. Brian Reader, who was the mastermind, said that they should abandon the job and they all went home feeling frustrated. Over the next 48 hours, however, some of the gang decided that they should go back and acquired a replacement ram. So, on Saturday night they were back again and this time the ram did its job.

It was initially estimated that they took between £10 and £200 million worth of goods, making it the largest ever burglary in British history. The perpetrators were keen that it should be a bur- glary and not a robbery as the maximum sentence was only ten years for that offence
It was eventually decided that £14 million was proba-bly a better estimate of the value of the items taken. In all, 73 boxes of a possible 999 were forced open, and the true value of the goods taken will never be known. Many dealers had no record of what they had put away and may have overstated their claims, while some less than honest box holders were not able to declare their cash or other ill-gotten gains. There was a period of tension after the burglary was discovered as it took some time to advise owners which boxes had been opened.

The Flying Squad were called in and were able to make quick work of their enquiries and surveillance. On 19th May, over 100 officers were involved in simultaneous swoops at 12 different addresses across London and nine men were arrested. Brian Reader, who had previously been involved with the Brinks Matt Robbery in 1983, was arrested at his home and the others were caught red-handed as they were about to divide up (‘slaughter’) the remainder of the haul.

Five of the gang pleaded guilty and received between six- and seven-year prison sentences. Terrence Perkins, who had been part of the Security Express Robbery in 1983, died in prison in 2018. It has been suggested that one reason the gang were caught so quickly is that they were analogue men living in a digital age.

Only about one-third of the haul was recovered, suggesting that there is the best part of £10 million still to be found.

Basil (aka Michael Seed) had kept himself apart from the gang and was not there for the carve up. However, he was arrested in 2018 with £150,000 of unexplained loot, and in 2019 was sent down for 10 years.

The safe deposit company went into liquidation in 2015. Many honest dealers lost their stock and were forced to leave the trade. Some lost their “pension funds’ and have been forced to work longer than planned. Several books have been written, and a number of films and TV programmes were made, all telling the story with either a dramatic or a factual slant.

How Did Our Garden Grow? The History of Hatton Garden (The History Press, £29.95) available now: thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/how-did-our-garden-grow/9781803990415/

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