• Mon. May 20th, 2024

How John Chipperfield came to be one of the first at The Great Train Robbery hideout


Aug 13, 2022

For most teenagers, work experience is all about getting your foot in the door. Something to put on your CV – even if you just made coffees.

For the Oxford Mail’s John Chipperfield, it was an experience he will never forget.

It was the summer of ‘63 and 19-year-old John was on a four-week work placement at the paper during his college holidays, writing ‘quite simple stuff’.

“One afternoon, the news editor said to me, ‘Chipperfield, you’re going to a children’s party at Rose Hill’,” he explained.

He went outside with the photographer, thinking they would be driving his car, but it turns out the snapper only had a motorbike.

They left the former Oxford Mail offices, which used to be on New Inn Hall Street and arrived in Rose Hill. John started interviewing people at the party and the photographer taking pictures of dancing, smiley children.

There was seemingly nothing unusual about that afternoon until someone came running out of the office, hailing down the photographer to say he was urgently needed on the telephone.

Minutes later and he was rushing out, telling John they had to leave… immediately.

They revved up the motorbike. John said he assumed they were heading back to the office until they didn’t make a left turning back to Oxford and instead went down the twisting, windy roads through the countryside.

“I asked him where we were going, he said some place called ‘Leatherslade Farm’,” he explained – describing what he could see from a hill in Brill like something out of a movie with police cars scattered everywhere.

When they arrived, he watched the chaos unfold from the sidelines as the group of photographers and reporters, led by the news editor Ralph Brain, scurried around taking notes and looking for clues. Police were still taping up the remains of a crime scene later known as ‘The Great Train Robbery’ hideout.

The Great Train Robbery happened in the dead of night on August 8, 1963.

Oxford Mail:

A gang of ruthless thugs held up a mail train in Cheddington, attacked the driver Jack Mills – who never fully recovered – and escaped with £2.6million in cash. That works out about £58m in today’s prices.

A police hunt revealed their hideout 27-miles away at a run-down farmhouse at Leatherslade Farm (between Oakley and Brill) five days later.

When tipped off about the latest development in the shocking crime, former news editor Mr Brain later recalled to John: “There was only one thing to do – get to Oakley as fast as we could. We had no office transport then. I had just taken delivery of a new Wolseley 1500 saloon. Three of us piled in and I tested it to the limit.”

John said: “The Oxford Mail didn’t need me there, they already had the deputy editor, news editor and reporters there…I was just with the photographer, so I had to go.”

In those days, the Oxford Mail had eight editions, the last one at 5pm.

The race was on to file copy by the evening deadline – and the mission was successful.

Oxford Mail:

Oxford Mail:

In 2022, our offices on Osney Mead are full of the sound of reporters typing frantically away at their desks. Back then, it worked slightly differently, reporters had to hand over a physical piece of paper with the copy written up so that a team of printers could put it on metal plates for the paper.

If a reporter is writing copy from the scene, these days they’ll go Live on Facebook to show what’s happening or type updates from mobile phones straight onto the website. In the 60s, to give updates from the scene you’d need to find a phone box and read your copy to them. Or as John said, frantically knock-on doors of homes until somebody would let you borrow one.

The next day, as it always does in news, it was back to normal. Then-work experience John was asked to file copy about the children’s party for the next edition.