Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs dies aged 84

Police "mug shots" of Ronnie Biggs taken after his arrest in Rio in 1974 Ronnie Biggs said his share of the haul had been £147,000

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British criminal Ronnie Biggs, who took part in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, has died aged 84, his spokeswoman has confirmed.

Biggs was part of the gang which escaped with £2.6m from the Glasgow to London mail train on 8 August 1963.

He was given a 30-year sentence but escaped from Wandsworth prison in 1965.

In 2001, he returned to the UK seeking medical help but was sent to prison. He was released on compassionate grounds in 2009 after contracting pneumonia.

Train driver Jack Mills was struck over the head during the robbery and never worked again. He died in 1970.

'Small-time crook'

At the scene

Santa Teresa is a bohemian refuge from Rio's often chaotic streets and it was here that Ronnie Biggs settled - in a lovely belle epoque house overlooking the city, with a swimming pool where he threw countless parties.

News of his death spread quickly around the neighbourhood, with much of the reaction centred around the pub where he was a regular and used to pay for his beers in dollars.

As well as a good friend, Ricardo Esteves says Biggs was a great client at his grocery shop. He'd bring in scores of foreign visitors for drinks and once ordered 30 crates of beer for a party to celebrated the 30th anniversary of the train robbery.

No one here seems to judge his past or the controversy around him. A passer-by said "we are used to bandidos", an apparent swipe at corruption among Brazil's politicians.

A taxi driver said Biggs was a very simple guy who used to mix with "normal people" - even though, as everyone here seems to agree, he was seen as a celebrity.

Biggs, who died early on Wednesday, was being cared for at the Carlton Court Care Home in East Barnet, north London.

He could not speak and had difficulty walking after a series of strokes.

He was last seen in public at the funeral of his fellow Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds, in March.

Christopher Pickard, ghost writer of Biggs's autobiography, said he should be remembered as "one of the great characters of the last 50 years".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme his friend was "a very kind and generous man with a great sense of humour".

Biggs was "one of the first products of the media age" who "inherited fame while running around the world," he said.

Anthony Delano, who wrote a book about Biggs, met the criminal a number of times.

"He was a man with no moral compass whatever," he told BBC Radio 5 live.

"He was a small-time crook who probably would have ended up in prison for a greater part of his life anyway.

"I think he was lucky actually to have so much of it free."

And Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers' union Aslef, expressed sympathy for Biggs's family but said: "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."

Ronnie Biggs in Rio, 1985 Biggs lived in Australia and Brazil while on the run

"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."

'Totally regrettable'

Biggs, Reynolds, Ronald 'Buster' Edwards and the other gang members wore helmets and ski masks to carry out their crime, which took place near Cheddington, Buckinghamshire.

Analysis

Loveable old rogue or violent criminal? Ronnie Biggs divided opinion like few other offenders.

Some admired his audacity - the robbery, the prison escape and the 36 years on the run, cocking a snook at authority as he lived the high life in Brazil. Others detested his cavalier attitude to the rules by which most law-abiding people live their lives - and they remember that the robbery was not a "victimless" crime. Jack Mills, the train driver, beaten with an iron bar, never fully recovered and died of leukaemia seven years later.

The case of Ronnie Biggs is a reminder of our sometimes conflicting attitude to crime and criminals.

They made off with 120 bags of money totalling £2.6m - the equivalent of £40m in today's money.

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.

"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.

He said it was "totally regrettable" that train driver Jack Mills has been injured during the robbery.

"I regret it fully myself - I only wish it would not have happened but there's no way that I can put the clock back."

But Biggs said he did not regret the robbery and, referring to comments made by the judge in the trial, he said: "I'm totally involved in vast greed, I'm afraid."

Peter Rayner, a former chief operating officer for British Rail who worked with Mr Mills, said: "My view is that whilst I was, and am, critical of the Great Train Robbers and the heroes' welcome they got, especially in light of the death of Jack Mills, my sympathies go out to his family."

Biggs, who lived in Australia and Brazil while he was on the run, had been in prison for 15 months when he used a rope ladder to climb over the prison walls.

Train driver Jack Mills Train driver Jack Mills was hit over the head with an iron bar

He had initially fled to Paris, with his wife Charmian and two sons, Farley and Chris.

He was arrested in Rio de Janeiro in 1974 by Chief Supt Jack Slipper, of Scotland Yard.

But he successfully argued against extradition because he had fathered a son, Michael, by his Brazilian girlfriend, Raimunda.

In 2011, his son, Michael, told the BBC News website his father had a final wish that his ashes be spread between Brazil and London.

The BBC said two film dramas about the robbery - A Robber's Tale and A Copper's Tale - scheduled to be broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday and Thursday, would still go ahead.

INTERACTIVE
  • Escape from Wandsworth

    × Scene of Ronnie Biggs' escape in 1965

    In April 1964, Ronnie Biggs was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his role in the Great Train Robbery eight months earlier. But 13 months later he escaped from Wandsworth prison by scaling a wall with a makeshift ladder, and jumping onto a parked removal van.

  • Paris

    ×

    Biggs fled first by sea to Antwerp in Belgium, and then travelled to Paris where he underwent plastic surgery in an attempt to alter his appearance.

  • Australian years

    ×

    Travelling on forged documents, Biggs then flew to Sydney on 29 December 1965. He was joined by his wife and sons, and the family settled in Adelaide. A year later they moved again to Melbourne.

  • Flight to Brazil

    ×

    Tipped off that the police had discovered him, Biggs boarded a ship from Melbourne to Panama before flying on to Rio de Janeiro. In 1974 the Daily Express newspaper tracked him down, and British police began moves to bring him back to the UK. However as Biggs had fathered a child with a Brazilian woman, under Brazilian law he could not be extradited and he remained in Rio for the next 27 years.

  • Return to the UK

    ×

    The UK and Brazil agreed an extradition treaty in 1997, but all legal moves to bring Biggs back failed. However in 2001, with his health failing, Biggs told the Sun newspaper that he would be willing to return. He arrived back by private jet on 7 May 2001, and was immediately arrested and returned to prison. Biggs was eventually released in 2009, two days before his 80th birthday, having served around a third of his original 30-year term.

Writer Chris Chibnall said the programmes did not focus on Biggs. The first is from the point of view of Reynolds, while the second tells the story of the police investigation.

"With anything like this your thoughts have to be with the family on a day like today," Mr Chibnall said.

"He has children and obviously it's going to be a very difficult day for them."

Your comments

He was a greedy criminal "with no moral compass" and yet he's portrayed as some kind of anti-hero. What is it about Britain and our cheeky-chappy cockney bad guys? Matthew Gibbs, Bournemouth, England

It is with deep sadness I write regarding the passing of Ronald Biggs. For those that know me, know that he played a huge part in my life. To me he was a dear close friend and a father figure at times. For nearly 20 years we shared laughs, beers and a few tears. A great train robber he was but a caring and generous man he became. Brian Running, Nicaragua

This man was a criminal whose actions resulted in the death of a man who was simply doing the job he was paid for. My grandfather was a near contemporary of Jack Mills and if he had worked out of a different depot, it could have been him that night. The glorification of these criminals sickens me. Caroline Watson, Hexham, England

So another thief is dead - who cares. Thanks for the BBC for immortalising this man, are we going to have front page coverage of other thieves that have died? Is this what we aspire to? Markey, Watford, Hertfordshire

I meet Ronnie in Brazil at his home in 1995, a gentleman, great host and all around good guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Andy, Miami, USA

He was a common criminal who was involved in injuring a decent hardworking man. It's not glamorous and he should be forgotten and good riddance. Julie Marshall, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire,

He does sound like a real character, and a nice man in the end. It's a pity he felt he had to do something like this, and I am sure Mr Mills and his family would agree. Christopher Morrison, Lake Katrine, NY, USA

The guy was a thief and a murderer and he life should not be glamorised in this way. Ben Rattigan, Hartlepool, England

I really wish this man's death had been reported with a passing mention rather than all this publicity. He was not a loveable rogue. He was a nasty, arrogant criminal who should have been left to rot in a Brazilian hospital. This story is taking precedence over the death of a British doctor in Syria whose desire to do good led to his murder. I'm disgusted. Peter, Manchester, England

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