Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs dies at 84

Ronnie Biggs, known for his role in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, has died, his daughter-in-law said.


He was 84.

Veronica Biggs did not provide details of the cause of his death on Wednesday. He had been released from prison four years ago on compassionate grounds because of ill health and had suffered several strokes.

Biggs was famous – or notorious – for taking part in the robbery and then escaping from Wandsworth Prison in 1965. He initially came to Australia and then eventually made his way to Brazil, where he lived for many years beyond the reach of British justice.

He was free for 35 years before voluntarily returning to England in poor health in 2001. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned.

Biggs was part of a gang of at least 12 men that robbed the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail Train in the early hours of August 8, 1963, switching the signals and tricking the driver into stopping in the darkness. The robbery netted 125 sacks of banknotes worth more than STG50 million ($A91.94 million) today – and became known as “the heist of the century.”

Most of the gang was caught and sentenced to long terms in jail. Biggs got 30 years, but 15 months into his sentence escaped from London’s Wandsworth Prison by scaling a wall with a rope ladder and jumping into a waiting furniture van. It was the start of a life on the run that would make him a folk hero to some – the cheeky rascal one step ahead of the law.

Biggs fled to France, then to Australia and Panama before arriving in Rio de Janeiro in 1970. By that time, life on the run and plastic surgery to change his appearance had eaten up most of his loot from the train robbery.

He spent more than 30 years in Brazil, making a living from his notoriety. For a fee, he regaled journalists and tourists with the story of the heist and offered t-shirts with the slogan “I went to Rio and met Ronnie Biggs … honest.”

He recorded with punk band The Sex Pistols, wrote a memoir called Odd Man Out, and even promoted a home alarm system with the slogan: “Call the thief.”

“It’s been a screwed-up life in many respects, but a different life,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. “I’ve never been much of a 9-to-5er.”

Biggs foiled repeated attempts to force him out by deportation, extradition and even kidnapping. British detectives tracked him down in 1974, but the lack of an extradition treaty with Brazil saved him. When Brazil’s military government tried to deport him, Biggs produced a son by a Brazilian woman, and the law again prevented his expulsion.

Biggs had said he didn’t want to go back to Britain.

“All I have to go back to is a prison cell, after all,” he said. “Only a fool would want to return.” But within a few years, debilitated by strokes and other ailments, he began to yearn to see England again.

Britain’s tabloid Sun newspaper helped arrange his return, even chartering the private jet that flew Biggs home in 2001. Aboard the plane was Det. Superintendent John Coles, who took Biggs into custody with the words: “I am now going to formally arrest you.”

Biggs spent less than a decade in prison, although emerging as a frail shadow of the dapper “gentleman thief” of popular image.

Biggs’ lawyers had long argued that he should be released on health grounds, although then-justice secretary Jack Straw objected, saying Biggs was “wholly unrepentant.”

However, finally convinced that Biggs was a dying man, officials released him in 2009, a day before his 80th birthday. He has been living in a care home since.