The daring and audacious Brink’s-Mat robbery took place at Heathrow airport’s International Trading Estate on 26 November 1983. The robbers stole approximately £26 million worth of gold bars, cash, and diamonds (equivalent to roughly £93 million today) from a Brink’s-Mat warehouse, making it one of the largest and most significant heists in British history and changing the UK’s knowledge of the criminal underworld.
How did the robbers pull this off, and what consequences did the robbery have?
Shortly after 6.40am, six armed robbers in balaclavas entered a warehouse at Heathrow airport belonging to security company Brink’s-Mat. At the time, the Brink’s-Mat vault was thought to be one of the most secure facilities in the world. The robbers were there because they knew there was £3 million in cash locked in the vault as their inside man, security guard Anthony Black, had told them so. They were able to enter the warehouse with relative ease, with Black even opening the door to let them in.
Once inside, (led by Black’s brother-in-law, Brian Robinson, and Michael ‘Micky’ McAvoy), they overpowered the security guards, tied them up and poured petrol over them, threatening to light it if they didn’t comply. Thanks to Black, they identified the two most senior guards who held the keys and combination numbers for the vault where three safes were located.
Whilst they’d come for the £3 million, in a happy accident their plans went awry when one guard was unable to remember his half of the code due to nerves. This caused the frustrated robbers to restlessly begin looking around the vault.
They saw a pile of large grey boxes, and incredibly, found inside more than three tonnes of gold bullion – packed into more than 70 cardboard boxes were almost 7,000 gold bars. (The bullion was the property of Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd, which collapsed the following year after making large loans to fraudsters and insolvent firms). They therefore ended up making away with a haul of more than £26 million.
Leaving Heathrow by van, one of the robbers wished the security guards a ‘Merry Christmas’.
The police soon connected Black to the raid (he lived with McAvoy’s sister), who then implicated Robinson and McAvoy. The two were later sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Black was sentenced to 6 years. Black later had to assume a new identity after becoming an informant. (However, neither McAvoy nor Robinson had ‘laid low’. Within weeks of the heist, both had moved from humble South London council houses to paying cash for a grand estate in Kent, and there were even rumours McAvoy had bought two Rottweilers to protect his mansion, naming them ‘Brinks’ and ‘Mat’).
The robbers couldn’t simply sell the gold bars, so turned to crime boss Kenneth Noye. His contact John Palmer, the former director of gold and jewellery dealing company Scadlynn Ltd near Bristol, then regularly took the gold to his smelting company where it was quickly melted down after being mixed with copper and brass to look like scrap gold. It was then sent to the Sheffield Assay Office for official approval and authorisation (no-one suspected a connection to the robbery), then sold on the black market, making it nearly impossible to trace. About £13 million-worth was disposed of in this way.
The movement of the money through a local bank soon aroused the Bank of England’s suspicion (with £3 million withdrawn from a single Bristol bank branch) and surveillance operations of known criminals began. In 1985, undercover police officer DC John Fordham was stabbed ten times after Noye found him hiding in the grounds of his large Kent estate. Noye was arrested for murder but convinced the jury he acted in self-defence, and he was acquitted by a majority decision.
However, police later found 11 gold bars worth £100,000 on his premises, and in 1986 Noye was found guilty of handling the Brink’s-Mat gold and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Nevertheless, most of the cash was never recovered, and it is believed that much of it was used to fund organised crime and other illegal activities.
The robbers’ identity
One of the most intriguing aspects about the Brink’s-Mat robbery is the robbers’ identity. Although six men were eventually arrested and convicted, it is widely believed that they were only a small part of a larger criminal network.
Whilst police tried to follow the money, their investigation was hampered by a lack of cooperation from witnesses and a lack of physical evidence. However, it eventually revealed links to organised crime and corrupt police officers, leading to several high-profile convictions.
By September 1985, a new specialist team of officers were assigned to the case. Patrick Diamond became a person of interest, and after raiding his financial service operation’s office, officers discovered he was laundering criminal cash through offshore companies. Investigators didn’t know if this money was related to the Brink’s-Mat robbery, but Diamond led officers to investigate the British Virgin Islands, and one accountant in particular.
The officers discovered that this accountant was conducting a huge money laundering operation. Unsure as to whether any of this money was related to the robbery, the officers delved deeper and found that vast amounts of money were being smuggled to the island by light aircraft. This particular accountant was laundering hundreds of millions for various crime syndicates (equivalent to three or four times that today) – on a scale the police hadn’t seen before. Whilst they couldn’t link this particular money laundering scheme back to the Brink’s-Mat robbery, suspicions remained.
Nevertheless, the true masterminds behind the robbery remain unknown, and much of the money is yet to be recovered. This has led to numerous conspiracy theories about the identity of the real culprits.
The Brink’s-Mat robbery has become legendary in the criminal world. It exposed serious weaknesses in the security arrangements at Heathrow airport and prompted a review of security procedures at other airports worldwide. It also revealed links between large-scale organised crime, corrupt police officers and money launderers – some of which the police had been unaware of. The robbery changed how financial and organised crime was viewed and understood in the UK, resulting in a major shake-up of the police force and a crackdown on organised crime.
The Brink’s-Mat robbery also provided the police with an understanding of how criminals were hiding their money. The robbery coincided with the development in London’s property market, particularly the Docklands area, and it is thought that proceeds from the stolen gold helped finance this – the first time that professional criminals had enough capital to invest in such legitimate areas. It is also thought to have fuelled Britain’s cocaine market.
Only two of the original armed robbers were jailed, but at least 33 people were arrested and 14 convicted in connection with the raid. Despite police efforts, much of the mystery surrounding the robbery remains.
Many people suspected of involvement in the case have been killed – the ‘curse’ of the Brink’s-Mat gold. Before his conviction, McAvoy was known to police as one of London’s 20 most prolific armed robbers, and police long suspected McAvoy was still active in criminal circles during his time in prison. Over the years, a large number of McAvoy’s criminal associates were murdered or disappeared. His share of the robbery’s proceeds was later stolen while he was in prison, with police suspecting he had ordered the contract killing of the man entrusted to guard his money. McAvoy was released in 2000 and died in January 2023.
The Brink’s-Mat robbery continues to fascinate people due to the sheer audacity of the crime, the huge sums of money involved and the mysterious identity of the robbers. The case has been the subject of numerous books, films, and documentaries, and is one of the most significant British heists.