Magazine

The copycat who nearly died air-mailing himself home

Brian Robson being nursed in Los Angeles in 1965 Image copyright AP

Last month the Magazine wrote about Reg Spiers, who posted himself from London to Australia in a box in 1964. Spiers inspired another stowaway, Welshman Brian Robson, whose journey in the opposite direction was less successful - he was lucky to survive.

"Australia was a complete shock to my system," says Brian Robson. "I found it very difficult, and thought from the moment I got there I wanted to get out as quickly as possible."

But he couldn't just buy a ticket home - he had arrived in Australia in late 1964 on an assisted immigration programme which committed him to spending two years in the country. His travel costs had been paid for by the Australian government, and he wouldn't be able to get a passport to legally leave the country until he had done his time.

He took a "boring and lonely" job as a railway ticket clerk, which left him feeling isolated. And despite having some relatives in Australia, he was homesick and desperate to return home.

So when a relative who was sailing to the UK suggested Robson stow away on his ship, he decided to try his luck.

He used a visitor's pass to get on board, and stayed on the boat until it sailed. But the plan unravelled just hours into the voyage when Robson became violently seasick, and he was taken to the vessel's medical bay by one of the crew. His subterfuge was soon discovered, and he was put off the ship in New Zealand.

With little choice but to accept financial help from another relative in Australia, Robson flew back to Sydney, where he read about the exploits of Reg Spiers. Inspired by Spiers's trip from London to Perth in a wooden crate, Robson decided he would send himself in the opposite direction using the same method.

"From the moment I read it in the newspaper I convinced myself I had no choice," says Robson. "That's what I had to do."

He made his way to Melbourne where he persuaded two friends to help him realise his plan. "At first they said I was completely mad. I spent maybe a week persuading them and they agreed to do it."

The next step was to approach the airline, Qantas. Robson needed to check what size of crate he could air-freight back to the UK, and if, like Spiers, he could send himself cash-on-delivery. Then he went to a builders' merchant and bought the crate he would travel in - a wooden box measuring 30 x 26 x 38 inches (76 x 66 x 96cm).

"I had the crate delivered to the back of the building where I was living, and left it there for a couple of days while we planned the next stage."

Robson wanted to convince Qantas the crate was carrying a computer being shipped back to the UK for maintenance and servicing.

"One of my mates produced an invoice at work on company documents. I took it to Qantas personally, and checked I could send the crate directly by the quickest route, which was about 36 hours," he says.

"I told them we had to make arrangements for it to be collected in London, so wanted the precise flight number."

Confident that his plan would work, Robson decided on a departure date and set about preparing for the journey. The crate was strengthened and fitted with a rope harness to hold him in place. One side of the box was nailed shut by Robson himself from the inside.

"I had a pair of pliers which I could use to pull the nails out on arrival in London."

With less generous proportions than the box Reg Spiers had built for himself, Robson had far less room for manoeuvre, and it was all the more cramped because he put a large suitcase into the crate as well.

"I could fit in there OK as long as I sat down with my knees pressed up in my chest. My back was to the suitcase. It was quite large, which obviously reduced my movements inside even more.

"I couldn't stretch my legs and I couldn't turn around," he says. "I was more or less stuck in that position, which at first was quite comfy but later proved not so sensible."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Brian Robson (left) arrived back in London in May 1965

Robson packed two pillows into the crate, as well as a torch and two bottles - one for water and one for urine. The first leg of his journey, from Melbourne to Sydney, went smoothly. But from there his plan started to go badly wrong.

"They left me on the tarmac, but I was dumped upside down. I was strapped in standing on my head. I tried to turn around but there wasn't enough space, it was impossible.

"It becomes painful very quickly, throbbing in your neck and the top of your head. Your neck is taking all the weight so it becomes excruciatingly painful. The blood is rushing to your head. You get blackouts. I was in serious pain."

Robson spent 22 punishing hours upside down in his crate, but was never tempted to reveal himself. "It was London or die - that's how serious I felt about it."

Eventually, much to his relief, the crate was turned upright again and loaded on to another aircraft. Airborne once more, Robson thought nothing would now stop him from getting back home.

But what he didn't know was that the Qantas flight he thought he would travel on was full, so the airline instead loaded him onto a Pan American aircraft which would take a much slower route back to the UK. Robson was travelling in a hold that wasn't heated, and as the journey continued his situation became increasingly serious.

"I had difficulty breathing," he says, "and I started to get pain in my elbows and knees. Slowly, just about every joint in my body started aching. They were swelling - my ankles were swelling really badly."

Robson's "thinking went haywire". He slipped in and out of consciousness, tormented by a nightmare in which he was thrown out of the aircraft mid-flight. "It sounds crazy when you think about it now. But I spent some really terrifying hours."

His aircraft finally touched down and he was taken, still in his crate, out of the hold to a freight shed. Thinking he must be back in the UK, he tried to check the time and date on his watch. But still in extreme pain, and barely able to move, he first needed his torch, clipped to the inside of the crate only 20cm in front of him.

"I got hold of that torch and turned it on, but then I dropped it. There was no way I could pick it up," says Robson, "I just couldn't do any more. The torch was at the bottom of the crate, turned on."

A freight handler, Gary Hatch, spotted the light shining out through a gap between the crate's wooden boards. He decided to investigate and managed to work open a hole in the box.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Robson's rescuer, Gary Hatch poses inside the crate with his suitcase

When he peered inside, he was shocked to see what he thought was a dead body inside. Robson couldn't speak or move and was unable to signal that he was alive. Hatch promptly disappeared, returning a short while later with a large cohort of customs officers, doctors and police.

After a heated debate about the crate's legal status, they decided to break it open. Robson's ordeal was over. After eight months he had escaped Australia - but he wasn't in London. The startled officials spoke with American accents. Robson was in Los Angeles.

"It took three or four of them to take me out of the crate, and as they laid me on my back my legs stayed in the same position as when I was sitting in the crate. They forced my legs down, and my body came up.

"Of course, between them they held me down and straightened my legs. And then they took me to hospital."

Media interest in Robson's story was huge, and he even did some television interviews while he was recovering in hospital, telling reporters it felt "terrible" to be shipped by crate. As he recovered his voice he was able to explain to the FBI that he had not been kidnapped, and was not a spy, but simply a homesick Welshman trying to get back to the UK.

The question remained what to do with Robson. Although he was in the US illegally, the American authorities decided not to press charges. But responsibility for stowaways lies with the company that carries them - in this case the unwitting Pan American. The airline could have sent Robson back to Australia, but, perhaps keen to ride the wave of positive publicity around his escapade, it decided instead to send him to London - first class.

All told, Robson had spent four days folded inside his crate. He had been lucky to survive, and he fears he could easily have frozen to death had he been loaded on to the final leg from Los Angeles to London, which would have flown over the northern ice cap.

"I am 70 years old now," he says. "On reflection, kids don't think straight. I think most teenagers, youth of those days and certainly of these, make their mind up to do something and don't think of the consequences.

"It was a pretty dangerous thing, but did I ever think of giving up? Absolutely not, that was the last thing that went through my mind."

For a while Robson enjoyed his new-found celebrity, before leaving his home city of Cardiff to set up a string of retail businesses. He's written a film script of his adventure, which he hopes might yet be picked up by a production company, and he's even been back to Australia for a holiday.

"At that time there were no computers and you didn't need a visa for Australia. So I don't think anybody knew I was there."

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