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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Groove Book Report: The Great New Zealand Robbery: How gangsters pulled off our most audacious robbery - Scott Bainbridge (Allen & Unwin $32.99)

It should be remembered as New Zealand's answer to Britain's Great Train Robbery: in the dead of the night, robbers broke into the Waterfront Industry Commission's offices and made off with an audacious loot equivalent to almost $1 million today. This 1956 heist, which eventually came to be known as the Waterfront Payroll Robbery, was executed with military precision and the robbers left nothing but a smoking office and an empty safe behind them.

The crime was eventually pinned on small-time crook Trevor Nash. When four years later, Nash made a brazen prison-escape attempt, he rose to notoriety as a kind of anti-establishment hero.  But to this day uncertainty remains about whether Nash alone was responsible for the waterfront heist. Could he really-cunning as he was-have pulled it off all by himself?   And what happened to the money?

Bainbridge's writing on this is almost forensic at times.  He dives deeply into the case notes, mixes it with newspaper articles and even a few interviews.  But better yet his delivery is far from dry.  He uses a lot of the language of the day in his descriptions.  He resurects long forgotten terminologies (used by insiders of the day).  Terms like 'Soup Job' - the practice of cutting a hole in a safe with a  acetylene torch to get at the contents.

The Northern Steamship Building which
held the Waterfront Industry Commission Offices
The robbery of  the Waterfront Industry Commission's offices was undertaken like no other crime of the time.  It was meticulously planned.  At a time of no internet or even a reliable phone service, Auckland Police did well to learn quickly that the job had been planned using inside information to search and locate electrical cables for specific alarms, to hone in on the location of the payroll safe, to understand the potential contents and even how to launder the money after wards.  Along the way we learn of the intricate details of a string of big and small characters that made up the 'gang' who helped Trevor Nash, if indeed it was him, and what their roles were.

This setting was 1950's Auckland, conservative, yet divided along wealth and class lines, not quite colour, as Auckland didn't seem to have the demographic and ethnic mix that it has today. It also talks of a time, when the criminal fraternity in Auckland, if not New Zealand was "run", by colourful characters, mobsters, enforcers, powerful families, yet so far removed from the aggressive "drug", and gang culture crime of today.

Along on the journey, which Bainbridge is at pains to paint in the colours and hues of the political and social climate of the day - right down to the brands of tea and biscuits -we meet a selection of shady dealers including Archibald 'Archie' Banks, the father of future MP and Auckland Mayor John Banks, who along with his partner, Gus Parsons ran Atlas Motors.  The business was a used car dealership and a front for a number of dealings which were not so above the runner boards. Bainbridge goes very close to drawing parallels between this crime and the many infringements that this duo have previously been associated with, all as part of a larger picture puzzle he builds about the general Auckland criminal fraternity and their associated dealings in the 1950's.

He also takes us inside the Police Stations of the day.  We are, effectively, a fly on the cell wall as we watch the detective team work their way through the case page by page.  It shows how the employment process changed from the process of hiring ex-army, post war, and promoting on service, rather than by merit.  That, in itself improved the strike rate of crime solving, along with better 'street' knowledge and informants relationships.

Overall, I found this book to be well written.  So much so that I didn't want to put it down. I didn't grow up in Auckland but Bainbridge's narration about the Auckland of the 950's helped me to clearly  visualise the place, it was almost as detailed as a computer game 3D model in places.

Why was this well orchestrated, but not flawless heist not well known. The "GNZR" was New Zealand's largest robbery in dollar terms up until 2006, Did the government want to cover this up, was it to spare police "blushes".

Only one man was ever arrested, a year after the robbery occurred.T
his book provides a great insight into NZ, in the 50's, and talks of a well planned and daring heist, which left the authorities embarrassed. .   I thoroughly recommend it.     .  

This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

The Trevor Nash Case

In the case of Trevor Edward Nash, central figure in a £20,000 payroll robbery in Auckland in November 1956, who escaped from Mount Eden Prison in February 1961 after serving less than four years of a 10-year sentence, it took the police six months to recapture him, and then only as a result of the astuteness of an Australian detective who recognized him, despite a disguise, in a Melbourne street. The police search in New Zealand extended from Auckland to the Bluff, and at least one innocent man was apprehended for questioning. But all the while Nash was out of the country, and, when arrested in July, he was found to be in possession of a substantial amount of the proceeds of the robbery. How he managed to leave New Zealand has never been determined. When he was finally arrested and locked up in a Melbourne cell, his laconic reaction was, “God, you wouldn't read about it”.

by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.



Scott Bainbridge
Scott Bainbridge

Scott Bainbridge is one of New Zealand’s foremost investigative and True Crime authors. His first two books; Without Trace and Still Missing about missing persons, led to several cold-cases being re-opened, and inspired the acclaimed TVNZ series, The Missing. In his third book; Shot in the Dark, Bainbridge accessed old murder files to examine unsolved NZ murders of the 1920s and 30s, dispelling decades-old myths and uncovering hidden truths.

Bainbridge continues to write and has other similar works in the pipeline. He is actively involved in the continuing investigation of old missing person cases.



scott bainbridge said...

Thank you for a great review. I enjoyed researching and writing this one. Watch this space for the follow on.... Love your amazing station and website. Keep up the good work.

scott bainbridge said...

Thank you very much for the great review. Watch this space for the follow on which covers more of the Auckland Noir era.... Love your station and website too. Keep up the good work.