Today we’ve got an unusual double anniversary involving a well-known, but curious, character, Ronnie Biggs. Biggs helped carry out the Great Train Robbery on August 8, 1963, 38 years ago today. August 8, 1963 was also his 34th birthday.. A lot of people also persist in thinking that he was some sort of master criminal who set up and led the whole thing. He wasn’t, by a very long shot. He was a very minor figure in the ‘Crime of the Century’ and not in any way a criminal big-shot.
It was actually Bruce Reynolds who planned and masterminded the robbery. It was Reynolds who agreed to let Biggs, a small-time thief and robber of no particular notoriety, join the gang because Biggs said he could recruit a retired train driver. He could, it was just that the retired train driver couldn’t actually drive that type of train which meant that Jack Mills (who’d already been coshed with a steel bar) had to be dragged into the driver’s cab and forced to move the train instead.
As far as the robbery itself goes, the rest is history. The gang stole 120 mailbags containing nearly three million pounds (worth around forty-six million in today’s currency) and split the loot at their hideout, Leatherslade Farm. Biggs himself took a share of £147,000 (worth around 1.6 million pounds today). If the accomplice assigned to burn the farm to the ground and destroy any incriminating evidence had actually done so, then the gang would have had a far better chance of not being caught. He didn’t, and they were. Along with many other members including Bruce Reynolds, Biggs received thirty years. He was sent to Wandsworth to disappear into obscurity as just a mugshot and a convict number, but didn’t quite follow the rules. After fifteen months at Wandsworth (known to British inmates as the ‘Hate Factory’) Biggs escaped.
Between 1965 and 2001 Biggs was a fugitive. First in Australia (reporters found him before the police) and then Brazil by way of Panama (reporters found him in Brazil as well, also before the British police). Once he’d fathered a child in Brazil and as Brazil had no formal extradition treaty with the UK, Biggs was effectively free to taunt the British authorities from afar and taunt them he did. The robbery had made him a little famous, his escape made him very and his repeatedly flaunting himself in the media made him internationally-known, not just to the police. He collaborated on a popular jazz album in 1977. He was barred from working and lived under a curfew under Brazilian law as a known felon, so started entertaining tourist parties with accounts of the robbery at his home. Around that time he also started marketing merchandise, T shirts, coffee mugs, cups and so on, all over his adopted home of Rio de Janeiro. 1978 would see even more outrageous excesses.
In 1978 he collaborated with notorious punk rockers the Sex Pistols, appearing in their film ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ and providing vocals on two song, one being ‘No-one is Innocent’ which had the delightful alternate title of ‘Cosh the Driver’ a crude reference to Jack Mills. He also provided vocals on the equally-delightful ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ and managed to be photographed for the album cover as well. Scotland Yard were unlikely to forget him and he seems determined to ensure that they couldn’t even if they’d wanted to. Especially when ‘No-One is Innocent’ reached Number Seven in the UK Singles Chart in July, 1978. For a man on the run he seems to have spent a lot of it standing out very visibly while flicking two fingers at the British authorities and saying ‘Catch me if you can.’ In 1978 a group of British ex-soldiers did. They kidnapped him to try and claim the reward.
They didn’t return him to the UK and they didn’t get their reward, either. Suffering mechanical problems their boat was forced into Barbados. Barbados didn’t have an extradition treaty with the UK and they don’t aid and abet kidnappers either. Biggs was simply returned to Brazil and took full advantage of his latest escape from the law. He gave Independent Television News exclusive acces to him and to cover his return to Brazil (in exchange for a very large fee) and made sure the British authorities knew they hadn’t got their man. It was another two-fingered salute to the system..
In 2001, he’d finally had enough. He wanted to come home to die. He was arrested as soon as he arrived and wasn’t released until 2009 on compassionate grounds (he was dying). He finally died in December 2013 and, on January 3, 2014, he was cremated. But he couldn’t resist one last dig at the authorities he’d confounded and infuriated for so long. His coffin had two flags on it, one British and the other Brazilian. The Brazilian flag largely hid the British one from view, a final dig at British justice for pursuing him so relentlessly and for so long. His coffin had a guard of honour, composed of Hell’s Angels. And, in the rear window of the hearse where it couldn’t be seen by anyone looking on, one last message for British officialdom.
A floral wreath showing two raised fingers.
Biggs was a small-time villain who lucked into a big-time robbery. He didn’t even perform his role in the robbery very well, having recruited an engine driver who couldn’t actually drive the engine.. But one thing he was extraordinarily good at was playing the celebrity villain. He managed to parlay a walk-on part in a major robbery into lasting fame simply by escaping from prison and evading extradition for nearly 40 years. He was, in reality, a small-timer when he was an active criminal, but as a celebrity villain he was immensely successful.