Secret underground tunnels, mysterious criminal masterminds, and a fortune worth £2.5m in today’s money. Rachel Howells investigates the greatest Port Talbot bank robbery that never was
It might seem more suited to a Hollywood film than a Port Talbot street, but 57 years ago, Station Road was the scene of a particularly audacious robbery attempt. The plan saw three would-be thieves dig a tunnel under the street with the intention of breaking into the vault of the Midland Bank.
The vault was estimated to hold about £150,000, a sum that was delivered every month to pay the wages of the thousands of staff working at the Steel Company of Wales.
The plan was the brainchild of a mysterious figure, known as John Rivers. Rivers is said to have been looking for an accomplice when he approached a steel erector, Martin O’Brien, who lived in Cardiff. Over the course of several weeks, Rivers met and sounded out the steelman, finally confiding his plan to rob the bank.
Rivers suggested they lease a vacant shop, opposite the Midland Bank, dig through the floor, and construct a tunnel that would reach under the road, enabling the men to break into the vault over the weekend when the bank was shut.
O’Brien, obviously impressed by the plan, suggested recruiting his brother, Dennis, a builder from Barry. Rivers used an assumed name and leased the shop from the landlord, Hopkin Morgan, a retired farmer from Porthcawl, and the plan was set in motion.
The brothers made a start. Their first move was to whitewash the shop’s windows, then they lifted the floorboards, and began work, using the noise of passing traffic to disguise the sounds of their digging. Over the course of 10 days, all went according to plan.
But on the tenth day, on 13 May 1958, the landlord, Mr Morgan, came to check his premises as the balance of the rent he had agreed with Rivers was late. The brothers were not there, but he gained access through an unlocked door, and found the shop floor lifted and piles of earth and rubble.
The rent was paid three days later, but it was too late. Morgan had already reported the state of his shop to the police, and the shop was put under surveillance.
But the police did not make their move immediately. Instead, they watched and waited for the brothers to make their move, allowing them to continue tunnelling during the day, while at night they inspected the day’s work while the brothers slept.
When the police finally pounced, more than 35 feet of tunnel had been dug, and more than 10 tons of rubble and dirt shifted.
But on 21 May, while the brothers were eating their breakfast, the police rushed into the shop and arrested them. They were worried the O’Briens were in danger of tunnelling straight through the wall of the main sewer and feared the men might drown themselves.
“This is it, we have had it. No rough stuff,” said Martin O’Brien, while his brother Dennis also gave himself up without a fight, and is reported to have said: “Take us quietly”.
The brothers were taken to Port Talbot police station, and later charged with attempting to break into the bank, as well as stealing equipment to help them dig the tunnel and causing damage to the shop.
The tunnel was said to be constructed very well and of the highest workmanship. It was ten feet below ground, and 4’6” by 3” square, with timber supports every 20 inches, and its own electric light.
Meanwhile, the police searched for John Rivers, the mastermind behind the plot. The O’Briens pleaded guilty at their trial, with Martin saying his brother had been “more or less led astray by myself and Rivers.” They were sentenced to four years apiece.
However John Rivers, described as “a third man of some intellect and ingenuity”, was never traced nor brought to justice.
In spite of the bungling of the brothers, the authorities seem to have felt some admiration for the scheme. They called it “a remarkable criminal operation”, and perhaps, as historian Denys Parsons suggests in his definitive article on the attempted bank job, you have to wonder, “one wonders which hurt the most – four years in jail, or the loss of £150,000.”
You can read more about the Great Port Talbot bank robbery in Port Talbot in War and Peace, by Denys Parsons, which is held in the collection of Port Talbot Historical Society.