LOVE HIM OR LOATHE HIM …. CERTAINLY ONE OF THE UK’S MOST ICONIC PETTY CRIMINALS WHO BECAME A HOUSEHOLD NAME WORLDWIDE AS A RESULT OF BEING PART OF THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY GANG OF 1963. SUBSEQUENTLY ESCAPING TO A CELEBRITY LIFESTYLE IN RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL BEFORE RETUNING TO THE UK WHERE HE SERVED A FURTHER TERM IN PRISON BEFORE BEING RELEASED IN 2009 ON COMPASSIONATE GROUNDS. SPENDING THE REMAINDER OF HIS LIFE UNDER PRISON LICENCE IN A CARE HOME IN BARNET UNTIL HIS SUDDEN DEATH ON 18TH DECEMBER 2013 , AGED 84.
The son of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs today paid tribute to his son saying he hoped he would be remembered as ‘gentle, generous and fine man’.
His son Michael announced the death of his father this morning – less than 24 hours before a TV drama about the notorious crime is broadcast on BBC1.
Speaking from his house on Stanhope Road, which is close to the care home, Michael, 39, said: ‘I want to say thanks to him for all the love he gave me and who he turned me into as a person.
‘He was always present, very present in my life. He was always there for me and when my mother left, he was my mum and my dad all my life.
‘I always knew about everything growing up but it was just part of my life.
‘I’m sad for all the family. Hopefully he will be remembered as a good father, and a gentle, generous and fine man.
‘I haven’t thought about the funeral yet as it’s only been 12 hours since he died but I’ll maybe scatter his ashes in Brazil.’
But today many people spoke out against such warm descriptions of Biggs, saying that his crimes mean he does not deserve to be celebrated.
‘Ronnie Biggs was a violent criminal who evaded facing justice for decades,’ tweeted Tory MEP candidate Daniel Hamilton. ‘I find today’s gushing eulogies slightly offensive.’
Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef, added: ‘While naturally we feel sorry for Mr Biggs’s family at this time, we have always regarded Biggs as a nonentity, and a criminal, who took part in a violent robbery which resulted in the death of a train driver.
‘Jack Mills, who was 57 at the time of the robbery, never properly recovered from the injuries he suffered after being savagely coshed by the gang of which Biggs was a member that night.’
In a remarkable coincidence, tonight the BBC is showing the first part of a drama series which marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Great Train Robbery.
The first film, A Robber’s Tale, focuses on the story of mastermind Bruce Reynolds as he masterminds the raid on the Royal Mail train, while the second instalment, A Copper’s Tale, tells the story from the perspective of DCS Tommy Butler, the officer leading the investigation.
Biggs became a household name as a result of his part in the gang which stole £2.6million (the equivalent of £40million today) from a train that they forced to stop at a bridge in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire.
He shot to legendary status a couple of years later, however, when he escaped from prison and went on the run and he was one of the last known robbers from the incident still alive.
Taunting: Ronnie Biggs, who has died at the age of 84, pictured while on the run in Brazil
Defiant: Biggs flashed the V-sign at photographers at the funeral of Bruce Reynolds in March
Arrest: Biggs pictured after being apprehended by police in the wake of robbery
He spent 30 years evading British justice, getting plastic surgery in France before heading to Australia and later Brazil where he had a son with a local woman meaning he could not be extradited.
The last time he was seen in public was in March this year when his character shone through as he flicked Vs at photographers despite appearing to be extremely unwell.
He returned to the UK from exile in Rio de Janeiro in 2001 against the wishes of his family, saying he wanted to go to a pub in Margate ‘as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter’ – a wish he never got to fulfil.
Announcing his death at Carlton Court Care Home in East Barnet, his son Michael said today: ‘I’m sorry to say my Dad passed away in the early hours.’
Biggs’s involvement in the Great Train Robbery has long been debated with some suggesting he was only involved because he could recruit a train driver to move the train once it had been stopped at a false set of signals.
Others suggest that he was the one who hit train driver Jack Mills around the head causing injuries that he never fully recovered from.
Still sticking two fingers up: Ronnie Biggs’ defiant March 2013
Biggs, pictured with his wife Charmian in 1974, was sentenced to 30 years’ behind bars on April 15, 1964, but was to serve just 15 months in prison
The wreckage of the car in which Biggs’s son Nicholas, aged 10, was killed in a two car crash near Melbourne
Speaking to Nicky Campbell on Radio 1 in 2000 – before his return to the UK – Biggs said his share of the money had been £147,000, but he had quickly spent the loot.
‘I squandered it totally – within three years it was all gone,’ he said. Since then he had been ‘living on my name only,’ he added.
His ghostwriter said today that Biggs would be known as ‘one of the great characters’ – but an expert on the robbery dismissed him as an ‘idiot’.
Christopher Pickard, who collaborated on the thief’s memoirs, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: ‘People will remember him as one of the great characters of the last 50 years.
Youth: Biggs pictured in an early police mugshot, before he left Britain for a life in exile
Biggs and 11 other robbers were jailed for a combined total of more than 300 years for the robbery. Pictured is Biggs’s police record sheet
Decades earlier: Three of the robbers covered in blankets leave a court hearing in 1963
‘You have people who would still say hanging is too good for him and others who like him.’
However, Anthony Delano, who has written a book on the Great Train Robbery, said that Biggs was an ‘idiot’, adding: ‘He was a small-time South London crook who nobody wanted on the team because he was a weak link.’
Biggs always portrayed himself as a lovable personality who spurned violence, insisting he was a ‘crook’ rather than a ‘criminal’.
Lobbyist Alex Deane added: ‘Biggs wasn’t a cuddly heart of gold cockney character to be feted. His gang beat a man with an iron bar, ruining his life.’
And writer Sali Hughes said: ‘RIP member of gang who beat an innocent train driver minding his own business with an iron bar. You were a real “character”.’
Target: The train after it had been ransacked by Biggs and his fellow thieves in Buckinghamshire
Scene: The train parked on an embankment in Buckinghamshire in the aftermath of the robbery
Investigation: Police walk along the railway lines while looking into the circumstances of the crime
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association today tweeted: ‘In case today’s media confuses you: attacking railway staff with an iron bar to the extent they’re barely able to work again really isn’t OK.’
The retired police officer who was the first person to discover the robbers’ hideaway at Leatherslade Farm said today that Biggs was a ‘self-publicist’ who had managed to inflate his own role at the expense of his fellow plotters.
‘The reality is that amongst the robbers, Ronnie Biggs was a bit of a nonentity – not at all involved in planning the robbery or even carrying it out,’ John Woolley told MailOnline.
‘He’s the man who has had all the publicity, and arguably he’s had the benefits because he lived the high life for 30 years.
‘He was a colourful character. Being a bit of a self-publicist, he absolutely capitalised on being involved in the “crime of the century”.’
Conspirators: Bruce Reynolds, left, and Charlie Wilson, right, two of the ringleaders of the Great Train Robbery
Gang: Buster Roberts, left, and John Daly, right, were both arrested in the wake of the heist
Jailed: Roy James spent 12 years in prison for his part in the Great Train Robbery
Mr Woolley added that it is important to remember the violent nature of the Great Train Robbery, even if Biggs was less responsible for this than some of the others.
‘It’s too easy to forget that this was a greedy, vicious crime that completely shattered the life of at least one person,’ he said.
‘The only reason the Great Train Robbery wasn’t recorded as a veritable bloodbath was because the only person who stood in their way was the train driver.’
A detective who was part of the original investigation said he was pleased to have outlived Biggs, who he claimed lived ‘a charmed life’.
Retired Detective Constable John Bailey was first on the scene of the robbery, and took hundreds of photographs which were used as evidence.
The former policeman said today: ‘When I found out about Ronnie Biggs’s death I was glad, he has lived a charmed life, quite frankly.
‘Despite his crimes, he has been living it up. He then came back here on the scrounge and got put in a nursing home.
‘He was a very ordinary bloke really, he needed the money as we all do I suppose. But when this came along he knew the right people as he used to be part of a clan or gang of those sorts.
‘I am glad I have outlived him because otherwise my work would not have been worthwhile.’
But Nick Reynolds, an artist and musician who is the son of robbery mastermind Bruce, insisted that Biggs was a ‘great guy’ who was misunderstood.
‘He was like an uncle figure to me,’ he told Sky News. ‘I used to visit him in Brazil – in fact, I was with him when he flew back.
‘Before he lost the power of speech, he was a great guy. There was a lot more to him that the media cartoon figure that was portrayed – he was very intelligent, very well-read, loved jazz.
‘He was a great wit and raconteur – he was a man’s man.’
The gang hid at Leatherslade Farm (pictured) following the train robbery but they quit the site hurriedly after they became aware police were hot on their scent
A spade in a hole dug at Leatherslade Farm by the train robbers to burn the mailbags
Victim: Train driver Jack Mills was unable to work after being attacked during the robbery
HOW THE ‘CRIME OF THE CENTURY’ UNFOLDED LEADING TO THE THEFT OF £2.6MILLION IN BANKNOTES
The country was left stunned after a train was hijacked and robbed 35 miles from its London destination in August 1963.
A 17-strong gang launched the raid on the overnight service from Glasgow at the Bridego Railway Bridge in Ledburn, Buckinghamshire in the early hours of August 8 in what has been dubbed the ‘crime of the century’.
Led by the charismatic Bruce Reynolds, the group of criminals pulled off the notorious heist, making off with £2.6million – the equivalent of £40million today.
The train was stopped at a set of fixed signals which the gang had switched, leading driver Jack Mills to go and investigate.
He was knocked out by an iron bar wielded by an unknown member of the gang, forcing him to give up work, and he died seven years later.
Following an outcry over Charmian Biggs cashing in on her husband’s crime by selling her story to the Press, the Daily Mail sponsored a fund to help Mills’s family, raising more than £34,000 by the time of his death.
The bulk of the huge haul has never been recovered.
The gang shared out the proceeds at isolated Leatherslade Farm – Biggs taking around £148,000 – but thereafter things started to go badly wrong, with nearly all the gang members being rounded up by the police.
In fact, the Leatherslade Farm hide-out was a huge mistake on the part of the gang. The police were telling reporters that they were looking for an isolated farm which had just changed hands and which was 25 miles from the scene of the crime. Leatherslade met every one of these requirements.
When the gang became aware that the police were hot on their scent, they quit the farm hurriedly, leaving behind scores of tell-tale fingerprints.
Most of the ringleaders were quickly rounded up, and 11 of the robbers got jail sentences ranging from 14 to 30 years.
Despite Biggs’s elevated reputation as a ‘Great Train Robber’, his one job in the robbery on August 8, 1963 – to provide the team with a train driver – was an utter failure.
The robbers needed to move the mail train around half a mile from the signal box where it was stopped to Bridego Bridge, where a truck was waiting to load the loot.
Biggs was tasked with finding a driver and provided a retired railway man known as ‘Stan Agate’. But despite his years of experience, the driver was unable to operate the new-style locomotive.
When it became clear the driver was useless, he and Biggs were banished to the waiting truck to help load the mail bags.
No guns were used, but driver Jack Mills was coshed and left unconscious by an unidentified assailant, suffered constant headaches for the rest of his life and died in 1970 from leukaemia.
Two of the robbers, Charlie Wilson and Biggs, escaped from Wandsworth Prison within two years of being jailed – Biggs scaled a wall with a rope ladder.
Biggs then spent 36 years on the run, living mainly in Brazil where he would taunt the British police and boast about his notoriety to unsuspecting tourists.
However, in 2001 he returned home to face arrest, when he had grown tired of his life in exile and required medical treatment which he could not afford to pay for, after he had suffered three strokes.
He was eventually freed from jail in 2009 on ‘compassionate grounds’ by then Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
Three years before the robbery, Biggs married his wife Charmian, with whom he had three sons.
They joined him in Australia after his escape from prison, and began a new life together using fake new identities.
When police discovered who he really was, they raided the family home – but Biggs had fled a day earlier, leaving his wife and children behind.
The fugitive ended up in Brazil while Charmian and the boys continued living in Australia, where in 1970 son Nicholas died in a car accident at the age of 10.
While living in Rio, Biggs began an affair with Raimunda de Castro, a nightclub dancer 18 years his junior, and the couple had a son, Michael, in 1974.
The birth of the boy meant that Biggs could no longer be extradited, as the parents of Brazilian citizens cannot be deported from the country.
Michael – who later became a well-known musician in his homeland – tried to dissuade his father from returning to Britain, and been one of his most outspoken supporters.
By contrast, his other two surviving sons, Farley and Chris, are said to have little contact with him, as they are angry at him for abandoning them and betraying their mother.
BBC show The Great Train Robbery to air on Wed 18 Dec
Reconstruction: A scene from a BBC drama on the Great Train Robbery which premieres tonight
Cast: The gang of robbers as depicted in the BBC’s drama, including Jack Gordon as Biggs, second right
Gang: The programme’s depiction of the thugs who orchestrated the carefully planned robbery
Portrayal: Jack Gordon playing Biggs in the BBC television drama which will begin tonight
Biggs divorced Charmian even though she had flown to Rio to try and save their marriage, and in 2002 he married Raimunda in a prison chapel.
In July, just days before the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, Biggs insisted he was ‘proud’ of the crime that made him a household name.
‘If you want to ask me if I have any regrets about being one of the train robbers, my answer is no,’ he said via an alphabet board.
‘I will go further: I am proud to have been one of them. I was there that August night and that is what counts. I am one of the few witnesses – living or dead – to what was the crime of the century.’
The small-time crook who became one of the world’s most wanted men but crafted a ‘cheeky chappy’ persona to court public favour
Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs’s place in the annals of crime owed more to his status as a notorious fugitive than his prowess as a villain.
His conviction for his part in the most celebrated robbery in the history of British crime and his subsequent escape and high-profile life in Rio de Janeiro brought him worldwide notoriety in which he seemed to revel.
But at the age of 71, and in failing health after three strokes, Biggs announced he was ending his 35-year exile.
He was penniless and needed vital medical treatment in Britain which he could not afford in Brazil.
Biggs holds his son Michael, aged six weeks, while the baby’s mother, Raimunda Nascimento de Castro, fixes the infant’s clothing
Biggs, pictured with his son Michael in 1981, the same year the Great Train Robber was kidnapped in Rio by a gang of adventurers
Ignoring protests from his family, including son Michael who begged him to reconsider, he sent an email to Scotland Yard informing them that he wanted to give himself up and needed a passport.
He struck a deal with The Sun newspaper which flew him back to Britain in May 2001 on an executive jet stocked with curry, Marmite and beer.
Explaining his reasons for turning himself in, Biggs said: ‘I am a sick man. My last wish is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter. I hope I live long enough to do that.’
But he was immediately arrested on his arrival in this country and found himself back in a dock later that day, a dribbling husk of the cocky cockney villain he had been last time he faced a judge.
Lambeth-born Ronald Arthur Biggs had been, essentially, a small-time crook who suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the big league.
He was born on August 8, 1929, and his first court appearance came as a 15-year-old in January 1945 – for stealing pencils from Littlewoods.
In 1950, Biggs cut an absurd figure in the robbery of a bookie in Lambeth Road. His contribution was to ask the bookie’s wife for her handbag.
‘When she did not have one, Biggs picked up a vase as though to hit her,’ reads the court report of the case.
Nine convictions and 13 years later he was given the chance to play a bit part in a robbery on an altogether grander scale and, by accepting it, set himself on the path to a lifetime of infamy.
ARCHIVE: Royal Mail train Biggs held up in Great Train Robbery
Courting notoriety: Biggs pictured in Brazil in 1992, when he was one of the world’s most wanted criminals
Ronnie Biggs, pictured in Brazil in 1992, spent 36 years on the run, during which time he would taunt the British police and boast about his notoriety
Biggs, pictured in Brazil in 1992, raised money during lean times in Rio by selling T-shirts of himself and entertaining Japanese tourists, posing in pictures with them for £25 a time
He joined the gang which held up the Royal Mail night train from Glasgow to London on his 34th birthday, August 8, 1963, and stole £2.6million worth of banknotes.
Biggs’s role was to find a driver for the train, but the man he found was unable to control it properly.
The hold-up, at Sears Crossing in Buckinghamshire, was planned in minute detail and, initially at least, was a spectacular success.
‘One report said that since my time on the run I’ve had 2,500 girlfriends. I mean you got to realise, I’ve been on the run for more than 30 years, I have got to have had more than that.’
The gang shared out the proceeds at isolated Leatherslade Farm – Biggs taking around £148,000 – but thereafter things started to go badly wrong, with nearly all the gang members being rounded up by the police.
When the gang became aware that the police were hot on their scent, they quit the farm hurriedly, leaving tell-tale fingerprints.
It was then but a matter of time before most of the ringleaders were rounded up. Eleven of the robbers got jail sentences ranging from 14 to 30 years.
Sentenced to 30 years’ behind bars on April 15, 1964, Biggs was to serve just 15 months in prison.
On July 8, 1965, he made a daring escape from Wandsworth prison. While other prisoners created a diversion in the exercise yard, Biggs scaled a wall with a rope ladder and dropped onto a furniture van parked alongside.
After a brief stopover in Paris for £40,000 worth of plastic surgery to change his appearance, he travelled to Australia, entering the country on a false passport using an assumed name.
Return: Biggs being transported to court after he came back to Britain in 2001
In the dock: Biggs pictured in court in 2001 after finally agreeing to return to Britain
For several months he ran a boarding house in Adelaide, using the name Terry King, and in June 1966 his wife Charmian and two children joined him, also on false passports.
The family moved first to Perth and then to Melbourne, where Biggs took a job as a foreman carpenter at a local airport in the name of Cooke.
In 1968 came a breakthrough for his pursuers. Biggs had formed a business partnership with another fugitive from British justice. His partner was arrested and the trail began to hot up.
‘There’s a difference between criminals and crooks. Crooks steal. Criminals blow some guy’s brains out. I’m a crook.’
But a year later, a security slip allowed the elusive Biggs to slip the net yet again. A Melbourne newspaper published a story that the manhunt was being renewed in the city and the report was taken up by TV.
A day before police swooped on his home, Biggs had packed a suitcase and disappeared – without even taking the family.
Once again the trail went cold. Throughout 1970 and 1971, there were reports of sightings in Hong Kong, South Africa and Japan, but there were no firm leads as to Biggs’s precise whereabouts.
In fact, he was building a new life for himself in Brazil. In the sunshine city of Rio de Janeiro the fugitive, now calling himself Michael Haynes, carved out a new career as a jobbing carpenter.
Reunion: Biggs with Bruce Reynolds, said to be the mastermind of the robbery, at his 70th birthday party
His peace was shattered on February 1, 1974, when he was tracked down in Rio by the Daily Express reporter Colin MacKenzie – and shortly afterwards by Detective Inspector Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard.
But the Yard’s efforts to get Biggs back to Britain were foiled by Brazilian law.
Biggs had got his Brazilian lover Raimunda de Castro pregnant, and, as the father of a Brazilian child, had won himself immunity from extradition.
‘It has been rumoured that I was the brains of the robbery, but that was totally incorrect. I’ve been described as the tea boy, which is also incorrect.’
Michael, his son, was later to find fame in Brazil as a pop star.
In March, 1981, Biggs was kidnapped in Rio by a gang of adventurers and smuggled to Barbados by boat. Their aim was to bring him back to Britain.
But the Barbados High Court decided the rules governing extradition to Britain had not been properly put before the island’s Parliament, and Biggs pulled off another Houdini-like escape, being allowed to return to Rio.
In 1978, Biggs made a record, No One is Innocent, with the Sex Pistols. During lean times in Rio, he also raised money by selling T-shirts of himself and entertaining Japanese tourists, posing in pictures with them for £25 a time.
He suffered his first stroke in 1998 and two more quickly followed, ending his days of beaches and parties, and starting the chain of events that led to his return to Britain and a life as prisoner 002731.
Old age: Biggs shown launching his memoirs in 2011, when he was afflicted with illness
Frail: This picture released by Biggs’s lawyers in 2009 shows how ill he was during his last few years
Barely a month back in his home country, a fourth stroke followed and Biggs was moved from prison to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich.
He was returned to the top-security Belmarsh Prison in south-east London after a week where he was fed through a drip as his health continued to decline.
In August, a few days after his 72nd birthday, he was rushed back to hospital for an emergency blood transfusion.
He was rushed to hospital again three months later after vomiting and passing blood.
On July 10, 2002 Biggs finally married his son Michael’s Brazilian mother Raimunda in a ceremony at Belmarsh jail. He was too ill to say his vows and held up a card which read ‘I do’.
Although permanently linked together by their participation in one of Britain’s most notorious crimes, Biggs and the surviving train robbers saw each other rarely in later years.
The Monopoly set played by the Great Train Robbers while lying low at Leatherslade Farm
The robbers were rumoured to have used real cash stolen from the job to play the board game with
But the gang’s leader Bruce Reynolds did visit his old partner in crime in Belmarsh, and found that he could only communicate using a pointer and alphabet.He said: ‘By that time Ronnie had had three major strokes and he found it difficult to communicate. This guy was a very jovial character with a great sense of humour and a very strong guy physically and my heart was saddened by the condition he was in.’
‘I am no longer a criminal. I gave up that practice years ago.’
Appeals to have Biggs released met with deaf ears. In October 2003 an appeal against his sentence was thrown out by a High Court judge as ‘hopeless’ and ‘misconceived’.
Biggs was moved from Belmarsh to Norwich Prison in July 2007 to live on a unit for elderly inmates.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw refused him parole in 2009 and accused him of being ‘wholly unrepentant’ about his crimes.
But Biggs was old and severely ill, lying in a bed in Norwich Hospital with pneumonia, fractures of the hip, pelvis and spine.
After his four strokes he was unable to eat, speak or walk.
He was finally granted compassionate release from his prison sentence on August 6 2009, just two days before his 80th birthday.
Audacious thieves who shocked the nation: Where all of the Great Train Robbers ended up
Bruce Reynolds (left): The crook regarded as the mastermind of the Great Train robbery died in February aged 81. A career criminal who enjoyed the high life and drove an Aston Martin, Reynolds was a notorious jewel thief and housebreaker who formed the 17-strong gang which held up the Royal Mail travelling post office in Buckinghamshire as it ran between Glasgow and London. After the robbery, using a series of aliases and a false passport, Reynolds went on the run in Mexico and Canada for five years with his wife and young son before returning to Britain wh