Ronald Arthur Biggs – Ronnie to his mates- died on Wednesday, aged 84. A rather apt headline read ‘Biggs; the death of a train robber, fugitive, celebrity.’
He was best known for his role in the Great Train Robbery in 1963 and why the robbery got that name is a bit of a mystery. It was not a great train, neither was it a great robbery. They did all get caught rather quickly!
Phil Collins as Buster
But it did catch the public’s imagination. 50 years on, there is still a plethora of books, quizzes and TV programmes. You might recall the film ‘Buster’ about one of the other members of the gang, Buster Edwards.
The real Buster Edwards from the Mirror
Biggs himself had two very small parts to play in the robbery. He had to secure the services of a driver for the diesel train once it had been stopped (Biggs failed to do this- the guy he found had no idea how to drive that type of train). His other job was to be passenger in the stand by getaway car. I think he managed that bit OK.
The plan was simple. Stop the Glasgow London mail train. They changed the signal from green to red, pulling the train to a halt. They then boarded it, knocked out the driver, got their own driver to try and drive the train along to where the human chain was waiting to move the mail bags but then realised their mistake. They then had to revive the driver they had coshed. Once in place, they systemically moved the mail bags into the waiting cars netting what would be £124 million in today’s money.
The cars then moved the loot to nearby Leatherslade farm where the gang holed up, keeping out of sight, playing Monopoly with real money, eating chips and leaving fingerprints all over the place, notably on the tomato sauce bottle.
I am too young to recall the emotion at the time but sensible grown up folk seemed to have a wee titter at their audacity. That turned to genuine shock when all the train robbers were sent down for 30 years plus. (Longer sentences than murders were getting- or indeed other robbers.) The message seemed to be clear; don’t steal from the establishment.
The establishment, according to some, has constantly played up the idea that Mr. Mills – the injured driver died as a result of his head injuries. He actually died of leukemia many years later, not downplaying the trauma both physical and mental of being coshed on the head while driving the night train, but people have served much lighter sentences for much worse.
Three weeks later, Biggs was arrested along with 11 other members of the gang and in 1964, nine of the 15-strong gang were jailed. Biggs had only served 15 months of his sentence before escaping from Wandsworth prison on 8 July 1965. In a plot worthy of a Desmond Bagley novel, he scaled the wall with a rope ladder and dropped into a waiting removal van. He then went to Brussels by boat. Then onto Paris where he had plastic surgery and got a new identity. His wife Charmain (she 17 when she married him) joined him with their two kids...
Then on to Australia in 1966. A year later, after the birth of their child was born, Biggs received an anonymous letter from Britain informing him to get a shift on as Interpol suspected where he was. A year later they were in Melbourne, thinking they were safe then in October 1969, a story by Reuters revealing Biggs whereabouts was the lead story on the news. Biggs fled his home, to be shielded by friends before getting away on a passenger liner 5 months later. He left the wife and kids in Australia as he entered the Panama Canal and made his way to Brazil where there was no extradition treaty with GB. In 1974, The Daily Express got after him and they confirmed his whereabouts to the authorities and the famous Scotland Yard detective Jack Slipper (Slipper of the yard) flew to Brazil. But Biggs was saved again as his girlfriend, nightclub dancer Raimunda de Castro, was pregnant and Brazilian law at the time did not allow a parent of a Brazilian child to be extradited. I can recall that picture, Biggs and his beautiful missus walking hand in and along the beach in Rio- it filled the front pages
Then he became a celebrity, attended a cocktail party onboard a Royal Navy ship which was in Rio at the time. He couldn’t work because of his felon status so he earned a crust by hosting barbecues at his home in Rio, where tourists could meet Biggs and hear him recount his involvement in the robbery. Famous folk visited him, “Ronnie Biggs" mugs, coffee cups and T-shirts also appeared throughout Rio. He recorded vocals on two songs for the ‘great rock n rock swindle’ film
"No One is Innocent" was released as a single in the UK on 30 June 1978 and reached number 7 in the charts!
The oddest thing, and one I’m not sure anybody ever got to the bottom of was the kidnap of Biggs by ex-British soldiers in 1981. They snatched him and made away with him on a boat – which broke down and had to be rescued by the Barbados coastguard. The kidnappers hoped to collect a reward from the British police; however, like Brazil, Barbados had no extradition treaty with the United Kingdom and Biggs was sent back to Brazil.
In 1997 the UK and Brazil ratified their extradition treaty. The UK applied to get Biggs sent back and the Brazilian government refused... The extradition request was rejected by Brazilian Supreme Court, giving Biggs the right to live in Brazil for the rest of his life. Although Biggs had said he would no longer oppose extradition.
He knew when he came back he still had 28 years of his sentence left to serve. The Sun newspaper paid for his trip back to GB and on arrival 7 May 2001, he was immediately arrested and re-imprisoned.
He was pretty ill by then but by no means at death’s door. The ‘establishment’ view was that he had come back to GB to receive health care but his son insisted, it was his dad's wish to "walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter”.
On 14 November 2001, Biggs petitioned for release on compassionate grounds based on his poor health.
In December 2007, Biggs issued a further appeal, from Norwich Prison, asking to be released from jail to die with his family:
“I have been in jail for a long time and I want to die a free man. I am sorry for what happened. It has not been an easy ride over the years. Even in Brazil I was a prisoner of my own making. There is no honour to being known as a Great Train Robber. My life has been wasted."
In January 2009, after a series of strokes that were said to have rendered him unable to speak or walk he was still able, even by March 2013, to attend the funeral of fellow train robber, Bruce Reynolds.
photo from the guardian. A rebel till the end
With immaculate timing, his death occurred hours before the first broadcast of a two-part big budget docudrama chronicling the Great Train Robbery called The Robber's Tale’
Caro Ramsay GB 20 12 2013