Why We All Dream of Being Jewel Thieves

There’s a reason we’re all entranced by big burglaries like the Hatton Garden heist. It’s because we dream of skeleton keys that will unlock the hidden parts of our urban lives.

01.03.16 6:15 AM ET

Billed as the “biggest burglary in English legal history,” the April 2015 Hatton Garden heist in central London is already the stuff of legend—from the silver-haired suspects and their Ocean’s Eleven-style intricacies to the loot discovered in a graveyard. Within moments of the crime’s revelation by a stunned Metropolitan Police, media outlets outdid one another to produce architectural diagrams of the targeted building, down to the black silhouettes of unidentified men shown abseiling down empty elevator shafts and cutting holes through solid concrete walls. One reporter for the BBC even taught himself basic climbing skills and familiarized himself with a specific make of concrete drill in order to reenact the heist—for useful forensic insights or merely for clicks, it was hard to say.

The crime itself took three years of planning but just one long Easter weekend to pull off. What we now know, in terms of how the heist occurred, comes not only from the group’s eventual confessions—they were arrested only a month later—but also from police recordings obtained using hidden cameras in the gang’s preferred pub, The Castle in the London borough of Islington. Despite their apparent criminal expertise, the group stupidly continued to meet there (and to openly gloat about their spoils) in the weeks following the burglary.

This gang of pensioners, one of them 76 years old, broke into the underground vault of Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd. in London’s jewelry district. Their estimated take was anywhere from £14 million worth of gemstones and cash to a truly eye-popping £200 million. Some of the booty was later found buried under a headstone, but only about one-third of the stolen goods have so far been recovered. To access the vault itself, the men used a diamond-tipped Hilti DD 350 to drill through nearly 20 inches of solid concrete. Hilti tools are already known for their combination of raw power and sonic discretion: Recent tests in New York City have favored a municipal shift to Hilti tools for use in public construction projects precisely because they produce less noise. They are a late sleeper’s—not to mention a bank robber’s—best friend.

The other details of the crime—the crew’s misleading orange work vests with GAS written on them, the hard hats, the plastic garbage bins, the walkie-talkies, the concrete drill—reveal that the tools and techniques of breaking and entering are more often than not also those of architectural construction and maintenance. In other words, cutting through walls for reasons of plunder and cutting through walls for reasons of firefighting or architectural renovation are conceptually separate but technically identical.

As I explore in my book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, what are commonly thought of as “burglar’s tools”—such as lock picks, crowbars, and bump keys—are far surpassed in both efficiency and function by the official tools of breaking and entering used by maintenance crews, SWAT teams, and fire departments. That is, the equipment already exists for near-unlimited entry into even the most secure architectural structures in the world; but, thankfully, public access to these tools is carefully regulated. In many cases they require training so specific that criminal suspects can often be deduced from lists of qualified operators. So when a concrete drill like the one used by the Hatton Garden gang is found at the scene, it immediately opens a trail that can lead investigators back not to the criminal underworld but, interestingly, to the construction industry. Indeed, London police were able to trace the Hatton Garden gang’s drill to a theft at a nearby construction site.

Seen in this context, burglary becomes the flipside of the architectural world: a dark twin to the world of building renovation and maintenance.

When news of the crime broke, Google queries for the Hilti DD 350 noticeably spiked—perhaps implying something more than mere idle curiosity about the capabilities of a power tool. Indeed, sudden public interest in a previously obscure concrete drill suggests that the promise of a new super-tool, allowing illicit access to buried vaults, was something that, in however metaphoric a sense you want to look at this, people had been hoping for all along. It promised a true key to the city, putting you always just one extension cord away from secret treasure.

Further, the hole itself, so cleanly produced by the machine’s diamond-tipped teeth, later became part of local mythology. This was true to the extent that an enterprising jewelry designer created a gold necklace shaped like the hole, forming a portable entryway you or your loved one could wear like an amulet. The idea that a bank heist could produce a geometric symbol so recognizable as to become iconic reveals something about the imaginative hold a crime like this can hold over a city.

To understand exactly why the Hatton Garden heist has achieved such widespread, even global resonance, it’s important to look beyond the individual crime to the fabric of the city itself. While there is an understandable fascination with the gritty lives of specific criminals—not to mention the unknown treasures they so masterfully liberate from hidden vaults—the appeal of a great heist lies in what it tells us about the city where it occurs.

There is a peculiar subterranean pull in London, for example, a “mania for boreholes,” as writer Iain Sinclair has remarked. “The epidermis of the city is so heavily policed,” Sinclair recently wrote in the London Review of Books, “so fretted with random chatter, so evidently corrupted by a political assault on locality, that humans unable or unwilling to engage in a war they can’t win respond by venturing into forbidden depths.” From billionaire homeowners constructing mega-basements—cellars so large they could accurately be described as caverns—to lone eccentrics, like the Mole Man of Hackney and his warren of hand-carved subterranean passages, Londoners, Sinclair writes, respond to the city’s constraints by going underground.

One of the most interesting aspects of London, from both an historical and urban perspective, has always been its sponge-like porosity: the presence of tunnels, sewers, and ancient basements waiting just below the surface of the city. Indeed, London hides an unusually intense world of secret architectural connections. Whether it’s the city’s abandoned Tube stations and lost rivers or its Roman archaeological sites and medieval catacombs, the cumulative effects of these examples is that the city seems riddled with shortcuts, promising an unexpected link from one building to another behind the next basement door or a forgotten underground world lurking silently beneath the next manhole.

Consider the abandoned Tube station of King William Street. As Tube enthusiast Hywel Williams explains on his website, access to the station today can only be achieved by way of “a manhole in the basement” of the far more recently constructed Regis House next door. If you manage to locate and open that manhole, Subterranea Britannica adds, you will find yourself looking down at the original emergency staircase for the Tube station, spiraling deep into the darkness.

It gets stranger. As Antony Clayton explains in his book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, a utility subway for the city’s electrical network can be accessed “through a door in the base of Boudicca’s statue near Westminster Bridge.” That is, if you open a door in the base of the statue, you will find yourself at the start of a tunnel that “runs all the way to Blackfriars and then to the Bank of England.” This, of course, is a particularly noteworthy detail for an ambitious bank robbing crew.

Or think of the electrical substation buried far beneath London’s popular Leicester Square. Clayton writes that the substation can be “entered by a disguised trap door to the left of the Half Price Ticket Booth, a structure that also doubles as a ventilation shaft.” The shaft leads to a deep pedestrian tunnel, more than a mile long, “that connects it with another substation at Duke Street near Grosvenor Square.”

Recall, in fact, that the elaborate underground heist depicted by Roger Donaldson’s 2008 film The Bank Job succeeds, at least in part, due to the accidental discovery of a medieval plague pit. This forgotten burial chamber extends right up to and below the concrete cliff of the bank’s underground foundation walls—and the burglars use it as a staging ground for their final assault.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

The upshot of this is that, if you know what door to open, London’s secret circuitry is yours to explore. Or to burglarize, as the case may be.

These examples are not only fascinating on their own as infrastructural factoids or as urban esoterica: They are also evidence that the logic of the city of London is already a logic of secret connections and startling proximities. Putting this knowledge to work in order to access bank vaults or to plunder safe deposit boxes is thus, in some ways, just an everyday temptation encountered by living in England’s capital city—as if cutting holes through walls, or digging tunnels between buildings, is, perversely, one of the more efficient ways of moving through the city.

The fabric of London, then, is one defined by perforation: serendipitous adjacencies that allow for movement out of sight and across property lines, through walls, from one building to another. After all, in a city where you can open a door in the base of a statue and walk underground to an entirely other neighborhood, in a sense, why not dream of bank tunnels?

For the Hatton Garden gang—indeed, for any prospective London burglary crew—looking out at the grey metropolis they traveled through every day, the city would have appeared as a landscape of potential holes and tunnels in waiting, of implied elisions and improvised cross-routes, of openings from one hallway to the corridor beside it, from one room seemingly to all the others in the city. For them, London is a place where parallel lines only exist to be forcibly fused together. The complex stratigraphy of the city already implies that these sorts of connections can be made real, that they are simply of a piece with what already exists beneath the surface of the metropolis. Jumping from one level to another is just one diamond-tipped drill away.

If, in a city so thoroughly wormed through with underground connections, burglars become obsessed with creating their own shortcuts, who can blame them? And if we find ourselves captivated by the heist, perhaps it’s because we’re seeing the spatial possibilities of our city for the first real time.

Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which is set to be published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in April.