London, Dec. 18: Ronnie Biggs, one of the gang which robbed a London Euston to Glasgow mail train in 1963, died today. He was 84.
Biggs died on the very day the BBC were due to show a dramatisation of what has come to be called “the crime of the century”.
The BBC film, The Great Train Robbery: A Robber’s Tale, enacts the events on the night of August 8, 1963, when an 15-strong gang made the train stop in Buckinghamshire with false signals and stole used bank notes to the value of £2,631,684 — £46 million (around Rs 465 crores) in today’s money.
The audacious crime was not entirely victimless — the train driver, Jack Mills, was coshed on the head and died from his injuries seven years later. His son Stephen Mills died on Christmas Day, 2011, aged 48. His widow Barbara Mills, 57, from Sandbach, Cheshire, said today: “I’m just sad Stephen died before he did. Biggs is not a hero, he’s just an out and out villain.”
Despite that deserved condemnation, the British public have had an ambiguous relationship with some of the robbers, notably Biggs, although it is believed he was the one who coshed Mills.
The robbers hid in a nearby farm with their loot but they left too many clues and when the police closed in, they divided up the money and scattered. But they were caught and given heavy prison sentences. Biggs, who had previously been a minor criminal, was given 30 years but escaped in 1965 after serving only 15 months.
He fled first to Australia and then to Brazil where he lived for 36 years after fathering a son, Michael, by a Brazilian woman, Raimunda. This gave him legal protection so that he could not be extradited back to Britain despite the best efforts of Scotland Yard.
There were tragedies in his life — for example, back in England his 10-year-old son, Nicky, was killed in a car crash in 1971.
Biggs came home voluntarily in 2001 and was locked up once again. But he was now a frail man and was released on “compassionate grounds” in 2009. He now needed 24-hour nursing care. Biggs died this morning at Carlton Court Care Home in East Barnet, north London, where he had lived after suffering several strokes in recent years.
Had he lived another few hours he would have been able to see the BBC’s dramatisation of the robbery which earned him notoriety and fame in equal measure. (In another coincidence, Nelson Mandela died as the film on his life, Long Walk to Freedom, was being premiered in London)
When Biggs spoke earlier this year, he said he “regretted” the attack on Mills. He admitted: “It is regrettable, as I have said many times, that the train driver was injured. And he was not the only victim. The people who paid the heaviest price for the Great Train Robbery are the families.”
He added: “The families of everyone involved in the Great Train Robbery, and from both sides of the track. All have paid a price for our collective involvement in the robbery. A very heavy price, in the case of my family. For that, I do have my regrets.”
But he also said he was proud to have been one of the Great Train Robbers: “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 role of Biggs in today’s BBC film is played by Jack Gordon, a 29-year-old actor, who commented: “What great timing and bad timing, how strange that it happened today.”