Notorious train robber Ronnie Biggs, a key player in one of Britain’s most famous crimes, died on December 19 in London. He was 84.
Biggs was a carpenter and small-time thief who became an international celebrity for the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Afterward he spent decades eluding a worldwide manhunt by Scotland Yard.
Imprisoned in England since he returned there voluntarily in 2001, Biggs was granted compassionate release for health reasons in August 2009 by Jack Straw, the British justice secretary at the time. Straw had earlier denied Biggs’s application, saying he had shown no remorse for the crime, in which 15 men robbed a Glasgow-to-London mail train of more than $7 million in bank notes. The train’s driver was seriously injured.
The robbery took place on Biggs’ birthday.
Biggs, who had had several strokes and other health problems in recent years, had been serving what remained of a 30-year sentence in Norwich Prison, in eastern England.
At the end, Biggs had been living at a nursing home. His last public appearance was in March, when he attended the funeral of Bruce Reynolds, a fellow train robber.
Biggs’ enduring reputation stemmed not so much from the heist itself as from what happened afterward. Tried and convicted, he escaped from prison and became the subject of an international manhunt. He spent the next 36 years as a fugitive, much of that time living openly in Rio de Janeiro in defiance of the British authorities. He thwarted repeated attempts to bring him to justice, including an instance when he was kidnapped and spirited out of Brazil by yacht.
During his years at large, the British tabloid press cultivated an image of Biggs as a working-class Cockney hero. He sold memorabilia to tourists, endorsed products on television and recorded a song (“No One Is Innocent”) with the Sex Pistols.
Had Biggs not fled Britain, he would have served his sentence and been paroled years ago.
Ronald Arthur Biggs was born on Aug. 8, 1929, in Lambeth, a south-central borough of London. By his own account, his was a close, warm household.
“My mother always made sure that my cap was square on my head and my socks were pulled up,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 1980.
After his mother’s death in 1943, Ronnie embarked on a life of petty crime. With time out for service in the Royal Air Force, he was in and out of jail until his early 30s.
In 1960, Biggs married Charmian Powell, a schoolmaster’s daughter he had met on a train. They had two sons, and for the next few years Biggs settled into a happy routine as a husband and father, working as a carpenter.
It was hard to make ends meet. In 1963, Biggs approached Bruce Reynolds, a man he had known in jail, to request a small loan. But Reynolds had other plans, involving an unusual Royal Mail train. Running by night and appearing on no printed schedule, it transported large quantities of cash between provincial bank branches and central banks in London. The money was in the second of 12 cars.
The gang Reynolds assembled included men with intimate knowledge of railroad timetables, signals and switches. Biggs recruited a retired engineer to drive the train.
After midnight on Aug. 8, 1963, the gang turned a signal light along the route to red. The train ground to a halt in the Buckinghamshire countryside at 3:15 a.m. When the engineer, Jack Mills, stepped out of the cab, a waiting gang member bludgeoned him with an iron bar.
The gang uncoupled the last 10 cars. Biggs’ engineer was brought on board but was unable to release the train’s brake. Mills, bleeding badly, was forced back into the cab and ordered to drive the head cars to a secluded spot down the line. There the robbers stormed the second car, subdued its crew and unloaded 120 mailbags into waiting vehicles.
The whole thing was over in about 15 minutes. Biggs spent most of that time sitting in a Land Rover near the railway embankment, his failed engineer beside him.
The bank notes in the bags came to 2.6 million pounds, or about $7.3 million — roughly $70 million today. Most of the money has never been found. Mills never fully recovered from his injuries and was unable to work again. He died in 1970.
Within a month, Scotland Yard had caught most of the gang, including Biggs. Convicted in April 1964, he was sent to Wandsworth Prison in London.
In July 1965, after serving 15 months, Biggs scaled the prison wall with a rope ladder and took off in a waiting furniture truck. He made his way to the European continent, where he had cosmetic surgery, and eventually to Australia, where his wife and their children joined him. The couple’s third son was born there.
In 1969, as Scotland Yard began to close in, he fled again. By 1970, Biggs had made his way to Brazil, which then had no extradition treaty with Britain. His marriage to Powell, who remained in Australia with the children, ended in divorce.
Biggs lived covertly in Rio until 1974, when Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard arrived there. Detective Slipper, who had pursued Biggs around the world for years, was determined to bring him back to Britain, treaty or no treaty.
Happily for Biggs, his Brazilian girlfriend was pregnant, and under Brazilian law, no parent of a Brazilian child could be deported. Biggs’ fourth son, Michael, was born a few months later, and the proud papa remained in Rio, living openly and sometimes extravagantly under his own name.
In 1981, Biggs was abducted from a bar by members of a British security concern. Hustled into a yacht, he was taken to Barbados, from which his kidnappers hoped to extradite him to England. But luck was with Biggs again: The Supreme Court of Barbados ruled in his favor, letting him return to Brazil.
By this time, Biggs’ share of the heist was long gone. For a few years, he managed to live lavishly anyhow, supported by his young son, Michael, who had joined a successful children’s pop group on Brazilian television. In later years, Biggs held barbecues at his home for paying guests, sold souvenir T-shirts and appeared in TV commercials, including a Brazilian ad for a home security system.
In 2001, with his health failing, Biggs returned to Britain for treatment, although he knew it would also mean prison. He flew from Brazil on a private jet furnished by The Sun, a British tabloid.
The next year, Biggs married Michael’s mother, Raimunda Rothen, in Belmarsh Prison, a maximum-security facility.
Biggs is survived by his wife; their son, Michael; and two sons from his first marriage, Chris and Farley. Another son from his first marriage, Nicky, died at 10 in a car crash in Australia.