End of the line as train robber Ronnie Biggs dies in sleep at 84
Even at the end, Ronnie Biggs picked his moment. The most notorious of the Great Train robbers died yesterday, aged 84, just a few hours before his exploits were dramatised once again.
He died in his sleep at Carlton Court care home in Barnet, north London, where he had been since his release from prison in 2009. His death could almost be regarded as advance publicity for 'The Great Train Robbery' on BBC One, a two-part drama that concludes tonight.
"What great timing, and bad timing," said Jack Gordon, who played Biggs in the drama. "How strange."
Biggs had suffered a series of strokes and had been unable to speak for more than a decade. When he was released from prison four years ago on "compassionate" grounds, his son, Michael Biggs, said: "Ronnie Biggs is about to close this last chapter. He will now be retreating fully from public life."
Yet, according to friends, Michael had not expected his father's situation to deteriorate so rapidly this week. "It was a big surprise," said Chris Packard, one of Biggs's biographers. "He had an eye appointment yesterday and I was going to see him on Thursday," he said. "We were going to see what he thought of the new drama."
Biggs was never intended to play more than a minor role in the robbery. He was a 34-year-old carpenter, with minor crimes to his name, when his friend Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind who died in February, aged 81, recruited him.
To the end, Biggs refused to disclose his role in the heist. "It has been rumoured that I was the brains of the robbery, but that was incorrect," he once said. "I've been described as the tea boy, which is also incorrect."
Whatever his involvement, the gang carried out the most notorious robbery of the era, holding up the Glasgow-Euston overnight mail train on August 8, 1963, and stealing £2.6m -- equal to more than £40m (€47.7m) today. During the robbery the train driver, Jack Mills, was hit over the head with an iron bar. He never fully recovered.
After escaping, the gang hid out but police traced the seven members and brought them to trial the following April.
They were jailed for a total of 307 years. Mr Justice Edmund Davies said the sentence reflected "a crime which in its impudence and enormity, was the first of its kind in this country".
It was nothing, however, compared to the impudence of Biggs's subsequent escape. After just 15 months, he used a rope ladder to scale a 20ft wall at Wandsworth Prison. He would spend the next 36 years on the run.
He first fled to Australia, where his wife Charmian and their three sons joined him. He took on a fake identity but when police found out who he really was, they raided the family home.
Biggs had fled alone the day before. He moved on to Brazil, where he began an affair with Raimunda de Castro, a young nightclub dancer.
Their peace was shattered on February 1, 1974, when a 'Daily Express' reporter tracked him down. He was closely followed by Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard.
The Yard applied for the extradition of Biggs but Ms de Castro gave birth to a son, Michael. As the father of a Brazilian child, Biggs could not be deported.
His notoriety spread. He frequently traded on his name and taunted British authorities by recording 'No One Is Innocent' with 'The Sex Pistols'.
He returned voluntarily to Britain in 2001, when his health deteriorated and was sent to HMP Belmarsh, where he married his second wife, Raimunda, Michael's mother, a year later.
Mike Gray, a biographer who regularly visited Biggs in prison, is certain that his notoriety will endure. "There have been bigger robberies since but no one can remember where and when," he said. "Everyone knows Ronnie Biggs." (© Daily Telegraph, London)