It was the biggest bullion robbery of all time — £26 million in gold bars stolen from a Brink’s-Mat warehouse near Heathrow. Known as Britain’s Crime of the Century, the heist and its bloody aftermath are being recreated in a new BBC One drama, starring Dominic Cooper and Hugh Bonneville. This is the minute-by-minute story of the six robbers who expected to escape with cash, but accidentally stumbled on gold.
Saturday, November 26, 1983
6.30am: Outside a high-security warehouse on a trading estate near Heathrow Airport, five security guards are waiting for the automatic security shutters to open.
It’s pitch-black and cold, and the men can’t wait to get inside to start their shift. They work for Brink’s-Mat, a company that specialises in transporting valuable goods around the world.
At the heart of the warehouse, labelled Unit 7, is a reinforced concrete vault protected by 11 locks and five alarms.
Known as Britain’s Crime of the Century, the heist and its bloody aftermath are being recreated in a new BBC One drama, starring Dominic Cooper and Hugh Bonneville (pictured)
6.40am: Security guard Peter Bentley is making tea for his colleagues in the first-floor staff room. Former British Army soldier Robin Riseley, the crew leader, later explains: ‘Usually on a Saturday it’s a bit laid back as there’s only a few of us in.’
Their colleague Tony Black, also ex-Army, arrives late and rings the doorbell. Mike Scouse, who has the keys for the front door, goes downstairs to let him in. Black looks tired and dishevelled and apologises for being late. Scouse looks outside. He notices an old blue Ford Transit van parked nearby, then locks the door.
Black makes his way up to the staff room and explains to the others that he overslept. He then says he needs to use the toilet and heads back downstairs.
6.43am: Six masked men storm into the staff room, overturning tables and chairs. Their leader, who is wearing a yellow balaclava and a herringbone trilby hat, shouts, ‘Get on the floor or you’re f****** dead!’ He points a Browning pistol at the security guards who immediately do as they are told, but for a moment Bentley thinks it’s a practical joke and doesn’t move fast enough. He is knocked to the floor.
Hoods are put over the guards’ heads, their hands are handcuffed behind their backs and duct tape is wrapped around their feet.
Scouse is given a kicking. Blood is now running down Bentley’s neck. None of the guards has time to hit the panic buttons dotted around the room.
The trilby-clad gangster is ‘Mad’ Mickey McAvoy. His accomplices include Tony White and Brian ‘The Colonel’ Robinson. The identity of the other three remains unknown.
McAvoy has a painting and decorating business, but is known to Scotland Yard as one of London’s most prolific armed robbers.
Robinson has a reputation as a planner of successful robberies. White is known for using his many rings as knuckledusters.
The trilby-clad gangster is ‘Mad’ Mickey McAvoy (left). His accomplices include Tony White and Brian ‘The Colonel’ Robinson (right)
6.45am: One of the gang asks which of the guards is Robin Riseley. They then pick him up and push him into a nearby office.
Riseley hears a voice shout: ‘You’re going to open the vault — and you’re not going to mess us about!’ The robbers also identify Scouse and drag him into the manager’s office. The gang somehow seem to know that Scouse and Riseley are the two guards who can deactivate the alarms and will have memorised the lock combinations.
Riseley later recalled: ‘It looked to me almost like a military-type operation. All of them seemed to know exactly where they were going and what to do.’
He is right to be suspicious — the robbery is an inside job.
His colleague Tony Black is the brother-in-law of gang member Brian Robinson. It was Black who let the gang in when he claimed he was going to use the toilet.
Black had no intention of living on Brink’s-Mat wages for the rest of his life and he was in the debt of Robinson, who had helped him buy a flat. A few weeks earlier, he had told his brother-in-law that a large shipment of money was due to arrive at the warehouse.
He had given him photographs and detailed plans of the layout of the warehouse, plus the names and roles of his colleagues.
The gang expects to find £3 million in cash in three safes in the basement vault.
Tony Black is the brother-in-law of gang member Brian Robinson (left). The most infamous associate was Kenneth Noye (right)
6.46am: Security guards Richard Holliday and Ron Clarke are carried into a nearby office and handcuffed to heating pipes; the injured Bentley is put into a cupboard. The man in the trilby, McAvoy, pretending he doesn’t know Black, puts a pistol in his back and gets him to open the doors to the loading bay.
McAvoy says: ‘Stay right here and don’t move a muscle — got it?’ The gang’s blue Ford Transit van is driven into the loading bay.
6.47am: A strong smell fills the nostrils of Scouse and Riseley, whose heads are still covered by hoods. ‘You know what this is?’ one of the gang asks. ‘Petrol,’ Scouse replies. ‘Clever boy’ says the robber. McAvoy shakes a box: ‘And these?’ ‘Matches’, Scouse replies. Petrol is then poured over the terrified men as one of the gang shouts: ‘You’ll do what we want, or we burn you alive!’
As an added threat, McAvoy tells Riseley and Scouse that he knows exactly where they live.
6.50am: Scouse and Riseley are dragged downstairs to the vaults. McAvoy points a gun at Scouse’s head and demands he tells them the combination.
For security, they have each been given only half the code to memorise. Terrified, Scouse gives up his numbers: ‘45-75-55-85’ he says. Riseley tells them his: ‘50-90-30-55’. Before the door is opened, Scouse’s hood is lifted so he can switch off the alarm to the vault door.
In 1997, Tony White (left) and John short (right) were jailed for their part in a £65 million smuggling ring unrelated to Brink’s-Mat
6.55am: The gang, together with Scouse and Riseley, walk into the vault. In front of them is a steel cage protecting the three safes inside.
The gang know that Riseley is the guard who knows the combinations to get into the safes. But the numbers had changed just days before and Riseley hadn’t memorised them.
‘I tried to pretend I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t have the numbers with me. I knew we weren’t going to get into the safes. I thought this could end nastily,’ he later recalled.
Shaking with fear, Riseley hears a voice say: ‘Looks like we’ve got a f****** hero — it’s a shame we’re going to have to do him in!’ then there is the sound of a match being struck. Riseley said: ‘He then pulled out a diver’s knife and said he was going to castrate me if I didn’t give him the numbers.’
7am: Up in the crew room, the phone rings. It’s Alan Bullock, the manager of a nearby garage, calling to tell the guards that one of their trucks has been repaired and is ready for collection.
When there is no reply, Bullock calls again, feeling that something must be wrong as one of the Brink’s-Mat team always picks up. He wonders if he should call the police.
7.10am: For ten minutes Riseley, now almost in tears, has been struggling to remember the safe combinations. The delay is making the gang extremely agitated. Scouse said later: ‘I thought they might get so fed up they might start shooting.’
Scouse has noticed that on the floor are two pallets holding chest-high stacks of anonymous grey boxes. They weren’t there when he clocked off yesterday and he realises it must be a consignment of gold that had arrived from Hatton Garden in London in the early evening, due to fly to Tokyo, Frankfurt and Dubai. The robbers are beginning to think they will never get into the safes, then McAvoy notices the boxes on the pallets.
Six masked men storm into the staff room, overturning tables and chairs
7.12am: Using a knife, one of the gang rips open one of the boxes. ‘It’s gold!’ he exclaims, ‘It’s four nines!’ He holds up a gold bar the size of a cigarette packet with 9999 stamped on it, showing that it is the finest quality, pure gold.
The gang members cannot believe their luck. In all, the boxes hold 6,840 gold bars weighing almost three tons, worth a total of over £26 million (about £100 million today). The hope of finding cash in the safes is forgotten.
7.30am: The thieves’ luck continues. They discover several hundred pounds-worth of used banknotes, £200,000 of travellers’ cheques as well as polished and rough diamonds worth £113,000.
As the Transit van is loaded with the loot, Riseley is forced into a cupboard and Scouse handcuffed to a heating pipe.
As part of the charade that Black is not involved, he too is put into a cupboard.
8.15am: The gang prepare to make a hasty exit. Scouse is worried that he and the other guards might be shot before they leave, but thankfully all they hear is one of the robbers shout: ‘Merry Christmas!’
McAvoy whispers to Black: ‘It’s all right — we’ve got the lot!’
The van then pulls out of the loading bay and drives slowly away through the trading estate. The gold is so heavy, the chassis is scraping on the tyres.
8.20am: Security guard Bentley manages to escape from the cupboard and frees Scouse, Black, Riseley and the others. Garage owner Bullock rings the Brink’s-Mat warehouse again and Scouse grabs the phone: ‘Call the police! We’ve been turned over!’
Meanwhile, a few miles away, the gang’s Transit van pulls up at a set of traffic lights alongside a man in a Rolls-Royce. One of the robbers points at the Rolls and then at himself and then holds up two fingers to the driver to indicate that he is going to buy two.
The gang members cannot believe their luck. In all, the boxes hold 6,840 gold bars weighing almost three tons, worth a total of over £26 million
9.30am: Scotland Yard’s elite Flying Squad arrive at the warehouse and set up a mobile control unit.
One of the biggest investigations in Scotland Yard’s history gets underway while the injured guards are given medical attention.
Bill Miller is one of the first police officers on the scene: ‘Right from the start we thought it was an inside job. Somebody has helped them to get in.’
None of the alarms in the warehouse has gone off and none of the locks has been forced. The detectives immediately suspect the security guards.
2pm: The gang are meeting at a safe house in South London. They agree not to communicate with each other for at least a month as they decide what to do with their unexpected haul.
The robbers may have become rich, but they can’t spend any of their loot. It poses a major challenge — how to get rid of three tons of numbered gold and turn it into cash.
Back at the Brink’s-Mat warehouse, the police start dusting for fingerprints, while Flying Squad detectives contact their informers, looking for possible intel on the robbery. All the security guards have gone home after getting hospital treatment.
4pm: Outside the warehouse, Flying Squad Commander Frank Cater is talking to reporters. ‘This appears to have been done by a highly professional team of robbers.’ He explains that the gold bars were individually marked and would probably be melted down by the gang.
Asked to describe the volume of gold that had been taken, Cater replies: ‘My information is that in total bulk, it would be, if one were to stack it together in the boxes, about three to three-and-a-half feet in height and about two-and-a-half to three feet across.
‘Not an impossible stash to hide or to bury.’
He appealed for witnesses to a van being driven through the trading estate.
One of the biggest investigations in Scotland Yard’s history gets underway while the injured guards are given medical attention
6pm: Lloyd’s of London offers a reward of £2 million for information leading to the return of the stolen bullion. The international gold markets react swiftly to the Brink’s-Mat robbery. So much bullion has been removed from the market, gold is now scarcer, pushing up the price. The gang’s haul is already worth £1 million more than it was this morning.
Saturday, December 3
1pm: Seven days after the robbery, the six security guards are back at the Brink’s-Mat warehouse, but this time being filmed by the police as they re-enact their movements of November 26.
One by one, the guards describe what happened to them and what the robbers said and did. The police hope the exercise will highlight any discrepancies in the stories of the six men.
By now the police know that Tony Black’s brother-in-law is Brian ‘The Colonel’ Robinson, so the guard is a prime suspect.
Black’s behaviour on the video is damning. He claims on camera not to have seen any of the gang or their vehicle, but when he re-enacts opening the doors to let the van in, he is standing by an internal window with a clear view of the loading bay.
Flying Squad detective Tony Brightwell observed: ‘He was extremely nervous and, in my opinion, obviously lying.
‘When the film was shown to the rest of the Flying Squad officers, it was rather like watching a B-movie whodunnit where everyone sort of jeered when he came on.’
The thieves’ luck continues. They discover several hundred pounds-worth of used banknotes, £200,000 of travellers’ cheques as well as polished and rough diamonds worth £113,000
Sunday, December 4
2pm: All six Brink’s-Mat guards are being questioned in Hounslow police station, but officers are now interested only in Black. They go over his account of the robbery once again and tell him that they’re not happy with his story.
Detective Brightwell asks him: ‘What does your brother-in-law, Brian Robinson, think about the robbery?’ Black recoils at the mention of his name and stammers: ‘I haven’t spoken to him. I don’t know what he thinks.’
Black is clearly rattled and is left to stew in a police cell for a few hours. When the officers return, Black is ready to talk. It takes eight hours to take his confession, which runs to 21 pages. A detective shows him photos of McAvoy, Robinson and White. ‘That’s them,’ Black says.
Wednesday, December 7
6.30am: Flying Squad teams arrive simultaneously at the homes of Mickey McAvoy, Brian Robinson and Tony White. Robinson answers the door of his Rotherhithe council flat in his underwear and says to the police, coolly: ‘Come on in, look around. I’ve half been expecting you.’
Meanwhile in Bermondsey, White answers the door in his pyjamas and then looks on as the police search every inch of his flat.
Two dozen armed officers arrest McAvoy at his home in Herne Hill, South London. As he is led away protesting his innocence, McAvoy is watched by his two Rottweiler dogs, Brinks and Mat.
All six Brink’s-Mat guards are being questioned in Hounslow police station
In February 1984, rogue security guard Tony Black (nicknamed ‘The Golden Mole’ by the Press) was sentenced to six years for his role in the robbery. The judge told him: ‘Never again will your life be safe. You and your family will for ever be fugitives from those you stupidly, and wickedly, helped.’
The Daily Mail reported that a £1 million contract had been taken out on Black.
In October 1984 he spent two and half days in the witness box being glared at by his former associates as he gave evidence against them. The jury deliberated for four days. McAvoy and Robinson were found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in jail. White was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
Black and his wife Lynn were given new identities and are said to live in the Home Counties.
In 1997, White was jailed for his part in a £65 million smuggling ring unrelated to Brink’s-Mat.
After serving his full term, Robinson died penniless in a nursing home in London in 2021.
McAvoy was released from prison in 2000 and divided his time between his homes in Kent and Spain. He died on New Year’s Eve 2022.
It’s estimated that 20 people connected to the Brink’s Mat robbery have been murdered or disappeared as the remaining members of the gang, still unidentified, turned to others to help them turn the gold into cash.
The most infamous associate was Kenneth Noye, who stabbed an undercover police officer to death in 1985. Although acquitted, the following year police found 11 gold bars on Noye’s premises and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
In 2000, Noye was sentenced to life for the M25 road rage murder of Stephen Cameron.
Less than half of the Brink’s-Mat gold has been recovered. It is believed that some was smelted and sold back to legitimate dealers.
The proceeds are believed to have been used to finance property development in London’s Docklands and to fuel Britain’s cocaine market.
The remainder may still be buried somewhere — as yet undiscovered.