Obituary: Ronnie Biggs

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Media captionA look back at the life of Ronnie Biggs

For more than 35 years, Ronnie Biggs thumbed his nose at attempts to bring him back to Britain to serve his sentence for the Great Train Robbery.

Biggs became easily the best-known of the gang that got away with £2.6m from the Glasgow to London mail train near Cheddington in Buckinghamshire on 8 August 1963.

But in reality, he had never been more than a small-time criminal and played a relatively minor part in the crime.

Ronald Arthur Biggs was born in Stockwell in south London on 8 August 1929, and after spending much of World War Two as an evacuee in Cornwall, embarked on a career of petty thieving.

Image caption Biggs spent four years in Australia before he flew to Brazil on a false passport to evade Interpol

In 1947, he volunteered for the RAF, only to be jailed and dishonourably discharged after two years for breaking into a chemist's shop.

A month after his release, he was behind bars again for stealing a car and, at 21, Biggs took part in a bungled raid on a bookie's office in Lambeth, south London.

When he was 27, Biggs married 17-year-old Charmian Powell. He was working as a carpenter at Reigate, Surrey, when he approached Bruce Reynolds, whom he had met in prison, for a loan. But Reynolds had something else in mind.

"I'd been married and going straight for three years," Biggs said, "and then along came this invitation to take part in the train robbery. I asked for 24 hours to think it over. I suppose I needed about 20 seconds".

A gang of 17 halted the train at night with false signals, but Biggs's contribution - he had recruited a retired train driver to take the train to a rendezvous with getaway lorries - impressed no-one.

The retired driver could not master the controls, and the real driver, Jack Mills, was hit over the head with an iron bar and forced to move the train. Mills never fully recovered from his injuries and died of leukaemia seven years later.

Biggs's fingerprints were also found on a ketchup bottle at their hideout, Leatherslade Farm.

Three weeks later, Biggs was arrested along with 11 other members of the gang.

At today's value, the haul from the robbery was worth £50m.

Plastic surgery

In April 1964, Biggs was sentenced to 30 years, but was free again 14 months later after scaling the wall at Wandsworth prison with a home-made rope ladder and dropping on to a waiting removal van.

Image caption In Rio, Biggs managed to evade a number of attempts to bring him to justice
Image caption Biggs celebrated his 70th birthday in Rio with the mastermind of the train robbery, Bruce Reynolds (right)

Biggs fled to Paris, where he spent £40,000 of his £143,000 share of the robbery proceeds on plastic surgery, and bought forged documents to go to Australia.

His wife and their three sons lived there for four years, until Interpol started making inquiries and Biggs flew to Brazil on a false passport.

In February 1974, Chief Supt Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard, who pursued Biggs around the globe, thought he might have got his man when he arrested Biggs in Rio.

But the resourceful Biggs exploited local law by announcing that his 19-year-old Brazilian girlfriend, a stripper named Raimunda, was having his baby.

Image caption Biggs returned to the UK in 2001 and was arrested on landing

She had a son Michael and because he was getting divorced from Charmian, the fugitive could not be extradited.

He regularly charged tabloid newspapers for the "scoop" that he was coming home, and made a record with punk band the Sex Pistols.

In 1981, another attempt to recapture him was made by a group of British ex-soldiers. They kidnapped him and smuggled him to Barbados, where they handed him over to the authorities.

But again Biggs was freed by a legal loophole and returned to Brazil. There, Biggs exploited his questionable celebrity status by making television commercials and writing his autobiography.

It was a tabloid newspaper, the Sun, that finally brought Biggs home in May 2001, by which time he was very ill. He was arrested on landing.

Celebrity status

When his bid to appeal against his 30-year jail term was dismissed, his dream of enjoying a pint in a Margate pub seemed as if it would remain just that.

In London's high-security Belmarsh prison, he married Raimunda Rothen, the mother of his son Michael, who had long campaigned for his father's release.

In July 2007, Biggs was transferred from Belmarsh to a unit at Norwich Prison specially designed for elderly inmates on life sentences after strokes and heart attacks left him seriously ill.

Two years later in July 2009, after a sustained campaign for freedom, Biggs was denied parole. Justice Secretary Jack Straw said he was "wholly unrepentant" about his actions, and had "outrageously courted the media" while on the run.

Image caption Biggs was last seen in public at the funeral of Bruce Reynolds

Mr Straw also said it was "unacceptable" that Biggs had chosen not to obey the law and had tried to avoid the consequences of his decision.

But then on 6 August, Mr Straw changed his mind and decided to free Biggs, citing medical evidence that his condition had deteriorated and he was not expected to recover.

Ronnie Biggs expressed no regrets about the Great Train Robbery. In fact, he was quite pleased he had been involved.

"My poor old dad used to say to me, 'I know you'll make good one day'. You know, I made good in a curious way, I suppose. I became infamous."

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