Ronnie Biggs: It was our romantic attachment to crime that turned the Great Train Robber into a star

He assumed the mantle of the rogue with no regrets

Share
Related Topics

Ronnie Biggs, the great train robber who has died aged 84, was a small-time criminal transformed into a notorious monster/celebrity (take your pick) by forces beyond his own making or control. That he emerged as he did – as a survivor of a criminal world long since reduced to a branch of entertainment: turn on the telly any night – was entirely due to the romance with crime and criminals with which even the law-abiding have long been besotted.

This is not an apology for Biggs or his fellow conspirators, rather an explanation. Biggs had other options than to become a criminal, yet he was a thief as a teenager and was dishonourably discharged from National Service for breaking into a chemist’s shop. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s there was a criminal culture into which he easily slipped. He was a village footballer, as it were, who found himself – thanks to his role in the Great Train Robbery – a centre-forward in the World Cup.

Once liberated (by his 1965 break-out from Wandsworth Prison and by his propulsion into the world of 24-hour news), Biggs took full advantage of his infamy and assumed the mantle of the rogue with no regrets. Had he and his 16 fellow robbers stopped the “wrong” train that night in 1963 and come away with bags of coal rather than with £2.4m (£45m in today’s values), a sum that stunned the gang as much as it did the public, he would now be going to a south London grave quietly and without fanfare.

For the crime was indeed the money. Mr Justice Edmund Davies, who handed down 30 year terms to the robbers, stressed their “greed” – surely the sine qua non of all robberies. The gang hit and concussed the train driver, Jack Mills, whose bandaged head became an enduring image. Those who felt that the sentences were excessive could point to regular robberies of similar brutality that profited criminals little and drew far shorter jail terms.

There is a chasm in British criminal justice between the majority who believe that courts and prisons exist to punish (the day the train robbers were sentenced – then 30 years was exceptional – a man I knew muttered: “They should have thrown away the key”), and those who believe that the aim should be to rehabilitate. The opposition to votes for prisoners shows where the majority (and most politicians) stand. Biggs lived on the fault line (and in the spotlight) between these two opposing views of criminal justice.

In 1963 Biggs’s imagination scarcely extended as far as Calais, never mind Australia and Brazil, where he lived most of his life on the run. But, finding himself on the most wanted list and in possession of a small fortune (each robber received £147,000: today’s equivalent is £2.6m), the world perforce became his oyster – first Spain and Australia and then famously Brazil, where his paternity of a Brazilian child offered him legal sanctuary.

Although Biggs embraced both life on Copacabana Beach and the fame/opprobrium he enjoyed, once Fleet Street had tracked him down, in his heart he carried a fading mid-20th century picture of England. In an interview in Brazil, he spoke of the “green grass of home”. When he returned 12 years ago, it was of his own volition.

The man once quick on his feet (in all senses) was a wreck. I saw him shuffle into a visitors’ room at Belmarsh Prison, a decrepit pensioner who had suffered strokes. Many saw little point in further confining Biggs, but Jack Straw, then Justice Secretary, ruled that Biggs should not be released because he was “unrepentant”, adding that he had committed a further crime by escaping.

When he was finally released in 2009, on the grounds that he was at death’s door, he infuriated many who believed he should complete his full time by lingering among us for another four years. Last seen in public at the funeral of fellow train robber Bruce Reynolds, Biggs was a sad sight. From his wheelchair he raised two shaky fingers at the cameras and at the world beyond.

Biggs will be mourned by few, but with his death has gone a high-profile symbol of a vanished criminal era that diverted many.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The woman featured in the Better Together campaign's latest video  

Tea and no sympathy: The 'Better Together' campaign's mistake is to assume it knows how women think

Jane Merrick
On alert: Security cordons around Cardiff Castle ahead of this week’s Nato summit  

Ukraine crisis: Nato is at a crossroads. Where does it go from here?

Richard Shirreff
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model of a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution