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Ronnie Biggs by Jack Harvey

ronniebiggsIt seems that The Great Train Robbery, which took place over 51 years ago still catches peoples imagination and The Ed has asked if I could provide any more details of what has been described as ‘The Crime of the Century’.

I must point out that I am not a crime historian and most of my information comes from memory and noting events that are connected to previous crimes later on This means you’re relying on information from a bloke who may remember what happened thirty five years ago but can’t remember what he had for lunch yesterday.

Prior to 1963, the Great Train Robbery title went to the theft of gold bullion en route to Paris from London by train in 1855, however the events of 8th August 1963 displaced this to become the Crime of the Century.

When the Great Train Robbers (circa 1963) were finally rounded up they did their ‘porridge.’

Late on Wednesday the 7th August 1963 the "Up Special" train left Glasgow en-route for Euston. The train was a Travelling Post Office (TPO) and the second carriage along was a High Value Package (HVP) where registered mail was sorted. Much of this consisted of cash. Usually the value of these items would have been in the region of £300,000 but, because there had been a Bank Holiday Weekend in Scotland the total on the day of the robbery was a staggering two million, six hundred and thirty one thousand, seven hundred and eighty four pounds, no shillings and no pence!

In the early hours of Thursday 8th August criminal history was made, but despite the huge amount of money stolen none of the thieves seems to have lived happily-ever-after on their ill-gotten gains.

The mastermind of the operation, Bruce REYNOLDS took five years to be tracked down and eventually served 12 years imprisonment. Mr. Reynolds – now a Septuagenarian - ‘popped up’ last year as a Guest of honour at a fete where he presented a talk to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Great Train Robbery in Oakley in Buckinghamshire - not too far from where the crime was committed.

He actually made his appearance for £2.50 a head to assist in raising £34,000 for a new roof for the village hall – a far cry from his original fund raising venture 40 years previous!

When Reynolds was on the run, he stayed in Mexico and Canada before his £150,000 share ran out and he was eventually caught penniless in Torquay. He recently went to see his old partner in crime, Ronnie BIGGS, who received a 30 year term, but escaped from Wandsworth Prison in a furniture van some 15 months into his sentence. His flight to Brazil (via Spain and Australia) and his eventual return to the United Kingdom in 2001 are well documented. During that visit Reynolds was deeply saddened by his old friend’s condition, who – following three severe strokes – can only communicate using a pointer and alphabet.

Another Great Train Robbery team member, Charlie WILSON, (who escaped prison at the same time as Ronnie Biggs) moved to Canada and lived in a large secluded house surrounded by trees in the posh Rigaud Mountain area just outside Montreal. It was here he evaded the police for four years – until (there’s always an ‘until’!) – his wife made the mistake of telephoning her parents in England enabling Scotland Yard to track him down and bring him back to UK to be sentenced.

After serving his ‘time’ he moved to the Costa del Sol where it is alleged he became involved in drug dealing. He was shot dead by a hired gunman in 1990 as he relaxed by his swimming pool.

Ronald EDWARDS, the Train Robber who was immortalized in the film ‘Buster’, played by Phil Collins also went on the run abroad following the robbery. He moved to Mexico but things didn’t turn out well for him there as his wife didn’t like the food or the weather, got homesick and went home. ‘Buster’ had to make a choice between staying in Mexico on the run or return to his wife. He returned a few years later, gave himself up and went to prison.

After his release in the early ‘70’s he enjoyed minor celebrity status when he opened and ran a flower stall outside Waterloo Station. Clearly the flower stall was not his sole means of income and it is rumoured he was involved in ‘van dragging’ (a term used for the stealing of lorries and selling their contents) and counterfeit cash crime.

In November 1994 a stolen lorry full of coffee beans was discovered by police in Liverpool and ‘Buster’ Edwards name was linked to the stolen vehicle. Convinced the police were closing in on him, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his lock-up behind Waterloo station. He was 62. Perhaps his life as a career criminal finally caught up with him.

So, after all the excitement, the thrill of the crime and the public accolades, it did end like a children’s party – sick and in tears!

At that time Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, rejected a request for parole for one Ronald Arthur Biggs – just one of the gang responsible for the robbery - on the basis that he was “wholly unrepentant” for his actions 46 years ago.

Only a few weeks later, however, Straw reversed his decision, releasing Biggs on “compassionate grounds”.

The fact that Ronnie Biggs could not speak, eat or was aware of his surroundings made the Lord Chancellor’s initial remarks somewhat peculiar to us simple mortals out here in the real world.

I must point out that I am not a crime historian and most of my information comes from memory and noting events that are connected to previous crimes later on. This means you are reading information from a bloke who may remember what happened years and years (and years!) ago but can’t remember what he had for lunch yesterday. Enough said?

Back in Blighty
When I left England in May 2001 to return to Portugal, a well known celebrity arrived in England from Brazil and was promptly arrested. Ronald Biggs, flatteringly known as The Great Train Robber – when in fact he played a minor role in the crime – returned after 35 years on the run.

Age 70 and allegedly returning for free medical care for his ailing health, Ronnie placed himself at the mercy of the justice system, seeking sympathy and perhaps attempting to capitalise on his celebrity status. Wrong! 

Mr Justice Edmund Davies, the judge who put Biggs away the first time, summed it up all those years ago and focused on the violence against the train driver when delivering his judgement. “Let us clear out of the way any romantic notions of daredevilry,” he said, “This is nothing less than a sordid crime of violence inspired by vast greed.” He then dished out over 300 years of penal servitude to the gang. History recently repeated itself and Biggs found himself back in prison serving the remainder of his original sentence – 28 years.

At the time of the most infamous robbery in British history, Ronnie Biggs was the youngest member of the gang, in fact the robbery took place on his 34th birthday (in his parole application it was expected that he would released on his 80th birthday a once dashed expectation that unexpectedly was fulfilled). He was also more of a scallywag than a hardened criminal; however, he was in the team mainly for his connections with a retired train driver plus his friendship with Bruce Reynolds, an antiques dealer who lived well beyond his means (doesn’t everybody?), drove an Aston Martin and later emerged as the mastermind of the entire operation.

The heist
Early in 1963 Reynolds began to assemble a team that seemed like the start to a Mission Impossible film. Of the 20 or so men and women involved in the raid each had a particular skill set. Buster Edwards (I wonder what skill set a florist brought to the party?), Gordon Goody, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy Hussey, John Wheater, Roger Cordrey, Brian Field and Ronnie Biggs were the central figures.

Using information regarding the movements of cash and valuables on postal trains in and out of London, Reynolds put together the perfect plan for robbing the ‘Up Special’, a diesel-hauled Travelling Post Office train from Glasgow to London. On August 8th they were ready, and in the early hours of that Thursday Reynolds and his gang went into action.

The master plan hinged around a set of rigged signals that would stop the train at a point on the track, where the members of the gang would be waiting. A glove was used to cover the real green ‘go’ signal at Sears Crossing, near Cheddington in Buckinghamshire and the train driver would follow the instructions of a set of lights powered by six volt batteries. The gang presumed (oops, there’s that word!) that if they were caught, the sentences given for robberies of this kind would only be around four years. Almost par for the course!  Steal a ‘wedge’, put it in a high yield Post Office (sic) Savings account, serve out four years of table tennis and education, come out and retire to Portugal (why not?) – simple! Or so it would seem.

The heist began just after 3am when the train came to a halt at the false signals and a group of people disguised as railway workers appeared on the tracks wearing blue overalls. The fireman on the mail train got out of the cabin to find out what was going on and was frogmarched down the embankment by a florist.

The train driver, Jack Mills, wasn’t so lucky. When he ventured into the darkness after his fireman, other members of the gang were there to meet him, and for reasons best known to the assailants (Jack was only a slight-built chap) hit him violently over the head with a metal bar. The injured train driver collapsed, bleeding from head wounds. He never returned to work, said to have suffered severe traumatic headaches, and he died two years later from leukaemia, the lone victim of The Great Train Robbery.

After this dramatic incident – one that would extend a probable four year term into a much longer one - things became increasingly difficult for the train robbers. In order to get the mailbags full of money off the train, they needed to move the locomotive further down the track, but Ronnie’s retired train driver wasn’t used to mail trains and couldn’t get it to move, so, when they needed him most, their back-up man was as useful as a chocolate teapot.

The unfortunate Jack Mills, still bleeding from his injuries, was forced to move the train. The gang then broke into the Post Office Sorting Coach and unloaded over 120 sacks from the coach and away from the track by human chain.

In all, the robbers took £2.3m in untraceable used notes - an astronomical sum at the time (worth around £40 million today) - and fled to a place called Leatherslade Farm. Here the gang lay low, spending the time singing Tony Bennett’s classic hit, The Good Life, and playing Monopoly with real money.

The getaway - twice
Knowing the police were closing in on them, the gang made a hasty exit which proved invaluable to the police investigation. Forensic experts found fingerprints on cups, in the bathroom, on a cat’s bowl, and of course on the Monopoly set. To make matters worse, Jim Hussey left a handprint in the train itself and it would be these fingerprints, and the dedication of the Flying Squad Chief, Tommy Butler, that would ensure the gang did not pass ‘GO’, but went straight to ‘JAIL’.

So, after a relatively successful robbery, the gang’s luck ran out and to avoid a looming prison sentence they fled and went to ground both in the UK and abroad. Eventually the initial 13 (unlucky for some) Great Train Robbers were apprehended.

When they finally appeared in court, only Roger Cordrey actually admitted his crimes and returned his £80.000 share of the loot. His reward for cooperation - 20 years imprisonment. By the end of the trial Mr Justice Edmund Davies had given each gang member between 20 and 30 years each, the sentences totalling 307 years in prison.

After serving 15 months in Wandsworth prison, Biggs dramatically escaped and fled the UK, moving first to Spain and then Australia, before settling in Brazil. It was here he stayed making money from his fame as the one member of the Great Train Robbers who actually escaped.

Although a very minor figure in the robbery itself, Ronnie Biggs gained notoriety as the public face of this infamous affair; however his celebrity status finally ended in 2001 and he became just another guest of Her Majesty’s Prison Services.

So, after all the excitement, the thrill of the crime and the public accolades, it did end like a children’s party – in sickness and in tears!  I’ll leave the last words to Bruce Reynolds, who summed it up when he last visited his friend in hospital, “We hated going straight. We were criminals more for the hell of it than the rewards. It was very hard for us when we quit. You never stop missing the buzz.”

Biggs’ release

On his voluntary return to the UK from Brazil, Biggs told the public that his last wish “is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter,” something which seems unlikely to happen.

It seems that medical evidence persuaded Jack Straw to reverse his prior decision and allow Biggs to live out the final days of his life a free man, but will he ever get that pint?

Latest reports from the UK state that the 80 year old Biggs has made a “remarkable recovery” since receiving the news and may have even already been transferred to a nursing home by the time get real goes to press.

It seems that euphoria has given his health that extra boost and on his birthday the week before last, he even conducted an interview with a Brazilian television show, Fantastico, using his alphabet board on which he spelled out “I love Brazil” and wrote that the local beer was one of the things he missed most about his former home.Biggs also warned: “I’ve got a bit of living to do yet,” and hopes to last until Christmas. “I’ll live on just to spite those who want me dead.”

His lawyer, Giovanni di Stefano, is not expecting any miracles and explained that he would still require 24 hour care and that Biggs was “very ill indeed.”

Post script

On 18 December 2013, aged 84, Biggs died at the Carlton Court Care Home in Barnet, north London, where he was being cared for.

His death coincidentally occurred hours before the first broadcast of a two-part BBC television series The Great Train Robbery, in which Biggs is portrayed by actor Jack Gordon.

Biggs was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 3 January 2014. His coffin was covered with the Union Flag, the Flag of Brazil and a Charlton Athletic scarf. An honour guard of British Hells Angels escorted his hearse to the crematorium


Jack Harvey is an Independent Security Adviser with ‘one-and-a-half-score-years-and-a-bit’ as a security professional, during which time he has designed and implemented major – and minor – security systems for all types of Clients including Her Majesty’s Prisons, The Royal Palaces and Mr. and Mrs Normal.


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