Biggs revelled in robbery notoriety

Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs’s place in the annals of crime owed more to his status as a notorious fugitive than his prowess as a villain.

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His conviction for his part in the most celebrated robbery in the history of British crime and his subsequent escape and high-profile life in Australia then Rio de Janeiro brought him the sort of worldwide notoriety in which he seemed to revel.

On July 8, 1965, Biggs made a daring escape from Britain’s Wandsworth prison just over 12 months into his 30-year sentence for his part in the robbery.

While other prisoners created a diversion in the exercise yard, Biggs scaled a wall with a rope ladder and dropped onto a furniture van parked alongside.

After a brief stopover in Paris for STG40,000 ($A73,549.69) worth of plastic surgery to change his appearance, he travelled to Australia, entering the country on a false passport using an assumed name.

For several months he ran a boarding house in Adelaide, using the name Terry King, and in June 1966 his wife Charmian and two children joined him, also on false passports.

The family moved first to Perth and then to Melbourne, where Biggs took a job as a foreman carpenter at Tullamarine in the name of Cooke.

In 1968 came a breakthrough for his pursuers. Biggs had formed a business partnership with another fugitive from British justice. His partner was arrested and the trail began to hot up.

But a year later, a security slip allowed the elusive Biggs to slip the net yet again. A Melbourne newspaper published a story that the manhunt was being renewed in the city and the report was taken up by TV.

A day before police swooped on his home, Biggs had packed a suitcase and disappeared – without even taking the family.

Ronald Arthur Biggs had been, essentially, a small-time crook who suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the big league.

He was born on August 8, 1929, and his first court appearance came as a 15-year-old in January 1945 – for stealing pencils from Littlewoods.

In 1950, Biggs cut a faintly absurd figure in the robbery of a bookie in Lambeth Road. His contribution was to ask the bookie’s wife for her handbag.

“When she did not have one, Biggs picked up a vase as though to hit her,” reads the court report of the case.

Nine convictions and 13 years later he was given the chance to play a bit part in a robbery on an altogether grander scale and, by accepting it, set himself on the path to a lifetime of infamy.

He joined the gang which held up the Royal Mail night train from Glasgow to London on his 34th birthday, August 8, 1963 – the Great Train Robbery.

Biggs’s role was to find a driver for the train. In fact, the driver he found had problems with the controls and the train’s legitimate driver, 57-year-old Jack Mills, was hit with iron bars and forced to move the train. He died seven years later.

The gang seized a cargo of used banknotes worth around STG2.6 million ($A4.78 million), a huge sum at the time.

The hold-up was planned in minute detail and, initially at least, was a spectacular success.

The gang shared out the proceeds – Biggs taking around STG148,000 ($A272,133.86) – but thereafter things started to go badly wrong, with nearly all the gang members being rounded up by the police.

In fact, the hideout was a huge mistake on the part of the gang. The police were telling reporters that they were looking for an isolated farm which had just changed hands and which was 25 miles from the scene of the crime. The farm met every one of these requirements.

When the gang became aware that the police were hot on their scent, they quit the farm hurriedly, leaving behind scores of tell-tale fingerprints.

It was then but a matter of time before most of the ringleaders were rounded up.

Eleven of the robbers got jail sentences ranging from 14 to 30 years.

Anthony Delano, who wrote a book about the robbery, told Sky News on Wednesday that Biggs was an “idiot”.

“He was a small time south London crook who nobody wanted on the team because he was a weak link.”

But for many years, Biggs made law enforcement look like the idiots.

Following his vanishing act from Australia, the trail went cold.

Throughout 1970 and 1971, there were reports of sightings in Hong Kong, South Africa and Japan, but there were no firm leads as to Biggs’s precise whereabouts.

The Australian underworld put it about that he had been killed in a plane crash.

In fact, he was building a new life for himself in Brazil.

In the sunshine city of Rio de Janeiro the fugitive, now calling himself Michael Haynes, carved out a new career as a jobbing carpenter.

But his peace was shattered on February 1, 1974, when he was tracked down in Rio by the Daily Express reporter Colin MacKenzie – and shortly afterwards by Detective Inspector Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard.

But the police’s efforts to get Biggs back to Britain were foiled by Brazilian law.

Biggs had got his Brazilian lover Raimunda de Castro pregnant, and, as the father of a Brazilian child, had won himself immunity from extradition under Brazilian law.

In May 1978, in an interview for the Sunday Times, Biggs told how he learned of the technicality which was to preserve his freedom.

“I found myself in a cell, feeling very sour, with a couple of Rio taxi drivers who shared the bedclothes with me – they gave me the sports pages to sleep under.

“There I am, all upset, and one of these blokes says to me: ‘If you could pretend to have got a Brazilian girl pregnant, bribe or beg one, do anything, but get one, then they can’t extradite you. Only deport you.’

“I said, ‘Look, fellas, you’re not going to believe this, but…”‘

Michael, his son, was later to earn a different kind of renown in Brazil as a pop star.

Raimunda eventually left Biggs, but a lucky star continued to shine over him.

In March 1981, he was kidnapped in Rio by a gang of adventurers and smuggled to Barbados by boat. Their aim was to bring him back to Britain.

But the Barbados High Court decided the rules governing extradition to Britain had not been properly put before the island’s parliament, and Biggs pulled off another Houdini-like escape, being allowed to return to Rio.

In 1978, Biggs made a CD, No One is Innocent, with the punk rock group the Sex Pistols.

During lean times in Rio, he also raised money by selling T-shirts of himself and entertaining Japanese tourists, posing in pictures with them for STG25 ($A45.97) a time.

But for Biggs, the holiday was over. He suffered his first stroke in 1998 though he recovered to throw a 70th birthday party.

Second and third strokes followed, permanently ending his days of beaches and parties, and starting the chain of events that led to his return to Britain and a life as prisoner.

Barely a month back in his home country, a fourth stroke followed and Biggs was moved from prison to a hospital.

He was finally granted compassionate release from his prison sentence on August 6 2009, just two days before his 80th birthday.