On this day, in 1965, the BBC’s reported that:
“Ronald Biggs – a member of the gang who carried out the Great Train Robbery in 1963 – has escaped from Wandsworth prison.”
Biggs, 35, escaped by scaling a 30ft wall with three other prisoners after a rope ladder was thrown over the wall of the exercise yard by accomplices on the outside, and dropping into a waiting van on the other side.
Ronnie Biggs was the second of the 15-strong gang of Great Train Robbers to escape from jail within a year, and the story caused a media riot. But the public were not angry at the police – they were enraptured by the story of the Great Train Robbery.
For what was actually a fairly simple heist, the story that ensued was spectacular.
At around 3.00am on Thursday 8 August 1963, around £2.6 million was stolen from the Travelling Post Office train on route from Glasgow Central Station to London Euston Station, worth between £40-50 million in today’s money.
The train was stopped at Sears Crossing, Ledburn, after one of the gang had tampered with the railway signal. The gang overpowered the driver and secondman, detached the first two carriages from the remaining ten, and drove the front of the train where the “High Value Packet Mail” was known to be stored, to Bridego Bridge further down the line. At the bridge, the gang unloaded 120 sacks of cash into a waiting truck on the road below.
Ronnie Biggs was arrested in South London only three weeks after the crime, when his fingerprints were found on a ketchup bottle left at the gang’s hideout at Leatherslade Farm. Along with nine other members of the gang he was jailed, with a sentence of 30 years.
The Great Train Robbery, Biggs’ subsequent escape from prison, and his life as a fugitive for 36 years gained him the notoriety which funded his career as a celebrity. Fleeing first to Paris, then to Australia, Panama, and Brazil, he eventually settled in Rio de Janeiro having left his wife and children in Melbourne.
Although news of his whereabouts leaked in 1974, Brazil did not have an extradition treaty with the UK, and it emerged that Biggs had by then acquired a Brazilian girlfriend with whom he was expecting a child. Brazilian law at the time did not allow the parent of a Brazilian child to be extradited, and Biggs was granted permission to stay in Brazil.
He only returned to Britain in 2001, when he was very ill. He decided to return to face arrest, but receive the specialist healthcare he then needed.
Ronnie Biggs’ fugitive path was certainly exotic and entertaining, but what is truly extraordinary was his approach to crime as an enterprise. In Rio, Biggs’ status as a known felon meant he could not work, visit bars or be away from home after 10 p.m. So, to provide an income, Biggs hosted barbecues at his home where tourists could meet Biggs and hear him recount his involvement in the robbery (which was, in fact, minor: his one role had been to recruit the substitute train driver, who ended up being defunct). He was visited by celebrities and merchandise was created; tourists could buy Ronnie Biggs T-shirts or drink from Ronnie Biggs mugs.
And he wasn’t the only one. After release from prison Bruce Reynolds (the ring-leader and brains behind the theft) went on to work briefly as a consultant on a film about the robbery, and published the Autobiography of a Thief in 1995. Similarly, gang member Gordon Goody released a book in 2013 titled How to Rob a Train. Reynolds and Biggs were even signed up to produce a Great Train Robbery video game in 1999, although it never came to fruition. Even the sons of the robbers cashed in on their fathers’ notoriety and released a compilation, The Great Train Robbery 50th Anniversary, in 2013.
How is it possible for criminals to live off their reputation and story? Economically, the public have a lot to answer for. They provide the demand.
Within a month of the crime, in August 1963, Leatherslade Farm was opened to sightseers by its owner who charged half-a-crown for adults and a shilling for children wanting to visit the gang’s hideout.
Even The British Transport Police themselves added to the hype, stating in their record:
“It must be said that the Great Train Robbery was brilliantly planned and executed. Apart from the attack on the train driver it was non-violent and no firearms were used.”
Why is it we have a strange socially inverted respect for robbers? Heroes are supposed to be strong enough to do the morally right thing, even in the face of difficulty. Does the transformation of criminal to hero reveal something troubling about our era?
Possibly not. The rogue or rebel has long been a heroic character in fiction and real life – Dick Turpin had already made it into Madame Tussauds by 1846.
Psychologists George Goethals and Scott Allison argue that a key ingredient of public support for criminals is the notion of the underdog. This certainly seems to fit the notorious British career criminals: all of the Great Train Robbers were from South or East London, notably poorer districts in the mid-20th century. The Kray twins were also from the East End; the Peaky Blinders grew out of the war-weary industrial slums of Birmingham. Highwayman became romanticised in literature as living conditions for the poor deteriorated. After a population explosion of London in the 17th century saw the rise of urban poor dwellings, labyrinths of wretchedness, rife with suffering, poverty and gin. Robbing from the rich could easily be seen as ‘fair game’ from the point of view of the starving and destitute.
But it is not just society that elevates criminals to the status of celebrities. The criminals themselves perpetuate it. So much of organised crime has been conducted by gangs who, to identify themselves to each other and outsiders, developed a distinctive uniform, look, or trademarks. For example, despite their propensity for violence, the Krays were known to be snappy dressers and moved in 1960s London society circles. The bad guys looked cool, and had enviable friends.
Hollywood has merely added to the glamour by casting some huge names and attractive faces as leading criminals. From the Great Train Robbery, Ronald “Buster” Edwards, was played by Phil Collins in the 1988 film Buster. And thanks to the BBC’s recent TV series starring Cillian Murphy, more than one Peaky Blinder-inspired haircut has been spotted around 2016 London.
Finally, their real stories do lend themselves extremely well to Hollywood scenes: Roy John James, the chief getaway driver of the Great Train Robbery and nicknamed “Weasel”, left a crucial fingerprint at the gang’s farm hideout on and was eventually caught after a rooftop chase.
Of course, this grace and admiration is not extended to all criminals. Drugs, child abuse, prostitution and people smuggling, for example, are not the stuff of which underground heroes are made. But the cunning, daring and planning that went into the Great Train Robbery is considered by many as an ‘acceptable’ crime for celebration.
But maybe times are changing. Hollywood blockbusters now depict heists of such absurd complexity, requiring such remarkable skills and hard work from the heroic criminal, that they beg the question of why the protagonists didn’t get high paying jobs that rewarded them legitimately.
Equally, not everyone is so keen to celebrate those who cheat the system. Cutting through the rose-tinted nostalgia, Tom Hardy’s performance as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray in 2015’s Legend serves as a brilliant reminder that the lives of these men were far from romantic, but bluntly realistic, brutal and tragic.
The gang of 15 will be remembered not only for the scale of their heist, but as the poster children of the commercial age of the celebrity criminal – individuals capable of making profit for years after having done one dramatically illegal thing.