NEW YORK — Bruce Reynolds — the chief architect of one of Britain’s most notorious crimes of the 20th century, the caper known as the Great Train Robbery — died Thursday in England. He was 81.
His son, Nick, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. Sky News in Britain reported that Mr. Reynolds died at his home in South London, a few months short of the 50th anniversary of the robbery.
In the early morning of Aug. 8, 1963, a gang of 15 men stopped a Glasgow-to-London mail train about 45 miles short of its destination by tampering with a signal. The train, which usually carried large quantities of money in the second car behind the locomotive, was loaded even more heavily than normal because of a just-completed bank holiday in Scotland, and the thieves escaped with some 120 bags of cash, mostly in small bills, totaling about 2.6 million pounds, or about $7 million at the time, the equivalent of about $60.5 million today.
Mr. Reynolds, who was 31 at the time and known to the police as a burglar well connected in the London underworld, had used insider information from the postal service to plan the heist, which he thought of as a painter would a masterpiece. Indeed, he referred to it in a 1996 interview as ‘‘my Sistine Chapel.’’
It was well executed: The train was stopped and unloaded, and the thieves got away in about half an hour, en route to a farmhouse that had been bought months before as a hideout. No guns were involved. The only hitch was that a member of the gang got itchy when the train’s driver was evidently uncooperative and bludgeoned him with an iron bar. The driver survived, but he never worked again.
The robbers were quickly identified, however, when the police came upon the farmhouse hideout shortly after the gang had abandoned it and found a plethora of fingerprints and other clues; a man who had been paid to destroy the evidence, if not the entire house, had not done so.
Many of the robbers were apprehended within a few months, but Mr. Reynolds, who was first holed up in a friend’s house in London, made his way to Belgium, then Toronto, and finally to Mexico, where he lived the high life on his ill-gotten gains for five years.
When he ran out of money, he returned to England, determined to make another big score, but he was arrested in Torquay, a coastal town in southwestern England, in the fall of 1968, by Thomas Butler, the Scotland Yard detective who had pursued him with a Javert-like obsession.
Among the many eyebrow-raising details in the case, Butler, who had at one point chased down a tip that Mr. Reynolds was in the south of France, was scanning bathers on the beach with binoculars when he was arrested by the French police as a Peeping Tom.
Mr. Reynolds served 10 years in prison.
Bruce Richard Reynolds was born in London. He left school at 14 and, with an early taste for adventure, tried to join the Royal Navy but was rejected for having poor eyesight.
He worked as a newspaper messenger (he wanted to be a foreign correspondent) and in a bicycle shop. He aspired for a time to be a bicycle racer, though he became distracted by the adrenaline rush of committing petty crimes and was in and out of youth detention centers and, later, prison, from the time he was 17. By the mid-1950s, he was already a successful burglar, specializing in breaking into country houses.
Asked whether before the Great Train Robbery he had felt that he was on to the greatest caper of his career, he replied: ‘‘Yeah, I did. To the extent that it was my Sistine Chapel. And really, everything went right. The only problem was the fact that Mills got whacked, Mills the driver.’’
Information about Mr. Reynolds’s survivors, aside from his son Nick, was not available.
Mr. Reynolds lived in penury and relative obscurity after his release, and he was arrested again in the 1980s for dealing amphetamines.
He served as a consultant for a film about the robbery, ‘‘Buster,’’ which focused on another of the robbers, Buster Edwards, who also escaped to Mexico but gave himself up in 1966.
In the 1990s Mr. Reynolds published a well-received memoir, ‘‘The Autobiography of a Thief.’’ He also wrote occasional essays for newspapers.
‘‘We all have our benchmarks,’’ he wrote in The Guardian in 2008, speaking about professional aspirations in general and those of thieves in particular, ‘‘and for us the benchmark was the Brink’s robbery in Boston in 1950, which was the largest robbery in the United States at that time. We wanted to do something as spectacular as that. We wanted to draw our line in the sand. I was quite young at the time, and I liked the challenge. I wanted to move in those circles. It’s insanity, of course, and we knew that we would be in the frame as soon as the robbery happened, but it’s the same madness, I suppose, that drives people to bivouac on the north face of the Eiger.’’