On August 8, 1963, a gang of well-organized criminals robbed the Royal Mail train headed from Glasgow, Scotland to London, England of £2.6 million, or about $3.2 million. This daring heist became known around the world as the “Great Train Robbery” and was the subject of numerous movies, books, and documentaries. Most of those involved in the crime were captured within about five years, served several years in prison, and were released by the late 1970s. From there, some became minor celebrities, while others went back to their lives of crime.
One of the robbers, Ronnie Biggs, just wouldn’t give up; he kept fighting the system until he was an old man.
Ronnie Biggs’ role in the Great Train Robbery was relatively minor and, for the most part, unsuccessful. He was supposed to work with an “insider” and move one train to another track, but when the insider was unable to do so, Biggs violently assaulted another train operator.
The operation was much like his life. Biggs was a petty criminal who was kicked out of the Royal Air Force and had already been in prison three times before the Great Train Robbery. He wasn’t a particularly bright guy, but he was resourceful and wasn’t afraid to use violence when necessary.
And, perhaps most importantly, Ronnie Biggs knew how to keep his mouth shut.
It wasn’t Ronnie’s mouth that got him busted in the Great Train Robbery, it was his fingerprint on a ketchup bottle recovered by the police at a farm the group used as a hideout. Biggs and eight of his accomplices were given thirty-year sentences and sent to the Wandsworth Prison.
Most people thought they had heard the last of Ronnie Biggs.
Prison, however, was nothing to Biggs but a chance to see some of his old mates and to devise his next move. Biggs carefully made a rope ladder and kept it hidden. When the time was right, he used it to scale the wall. He then made it across the English Channel to Paris, where his wife Charmian met him with his take from the Great Train Robbery. The couple then moved to Australia with their two sons and later had another son.
Life seemed good for Biggs in the late 1960s. The plastic surgery he got in France would surely throw the police off his scent, so he thought, and why would they look for him in Australia anyway?
Well, Biggs was wrong. Both he and his wife had maintained contact with friends and relatives in England, so it was probably one of them who eventually told the authorities Ronnie was in Australia. With the police closing in, Biggs made another big move.
Ronnie fled to Brazil in 1970 and had a child with a Brazilian woman, which prevented him from being extradited to England. He lived openly in Brazil for the next thirty years, visiting with tourists and giving interviews for fees. Ronnie Biggs had truly lived up to his name, but he never truly felt at home in Brazil.
He wanted to return to England to drink some English beer.
Ronnie returned to England in 2001 and was immediately placed back behind bars. His health deteriorated right away and he was hospitalized more than once. In August of 2009, just days before his eighty-first birthday, Ronnie Biggs was paroled on compassionate grounds.
Ronnie Biggs died on December 18, 2013, at the age of eighty-four, having lived enough in his lifetime for several people. But for those of you who may be foolish enough to try to duplicate Biggs’ life, let his own words be a warning. When he looked back on his life on the run, he often did so with regret. In a statement from prison, he said:
“Even in Brazil I was a prisoner of my own making. There is no honour to being known as a Great Train Robber. My life has been wasted.”