Ronald Arthur "Ronnie" Biggs
(born 8 August 1929)
is an English criminal, known for his role in the Great Train Robbery of 1963, for his escape from prison in 1965, for living as a fugitive for 36 years and for his various publicity stunts while in exile. In 2001, he voluntarily returned to the United Kingdom and spent several years in prison, where his health rapidly declined. On 6 August 2009, Biggs was released from prison on compassionate grounds.
Biggs was born in Lambeth, London. As a child during the Second World War, he was evacuated to Flitwick, Bedfordshire for a time. In 1947, at age 18, he joined the RAF but was dishonorably discharged in 1949 for desertion, serving for only two years. In 1960, he married Charmian Powell, daughter of a local primary school headmaster, with whom he had three sons (one deceased). In 1963, Biggs participated in the Great Train Robbery. Together with other gang members, he stole Â£2.6 million from a mail train, the equivalent of around Â£40 million (US million) today, after holding up a mail train from Glasgow to London in the early hours of the morning on 8 August 1963 (his 34th birthday). Jack Mills, the engine driver, was beaten with an iron bar in the course of the robbery. In 1964, 9 of the 15-strong gang that were at the track were jailed for the crime. Most received sentences of 30 years. Biggs served 19 months before escaping from Wandsworth Prison on 8 July 1965 by scaling the wall with a rope ladder and dropping on to a waiting removal van. He initially fled to Brussels via boat, then to Paris with his wife Charmian and two sons, Nicholas and Chris, where he acquired new identity papers and underwent plastic surgery.
In 1966, Biggs took a BOAC flight to Sydney, where he lived for several months before moving to the seaside suburb of Glenine in Adelaide, South Australia. He was soon joined by his wife and two children. In 1967, just after their third child was born, Biggs received an anonymous letter from Britain telling him that Interpol suspected that he was in Australia and that he should move. In May 1967, the family moved to Melbourne, Victoria where he rented a house in the suburb of Blackburn North, whilst his wife Charmian and his three sons lived in Doncaster East. In Melbourne, he had a number of jobs before undertaking set construction work at the Channel 9 TV studios. In October 1969, a newspaper report by a Reuters correspondent claimed that Biggs was living in Melbourne and that police were closing in on him. The story then led the 6 o'clock news at Channel 9, so Biggs fled his home, staying with family friends in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Five months later, Biggs fled on a passenger liner from the Port of Melbourne using the doctored passport of his friend. Biggs' wife and sons stayed behind in Australia. Twenty days later, the ship berthed in Panama. Biggs disembarked and within two weeks flew to Brazil.
In 1970, when Biggs arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil did not have an extradition treaty with the United Kingdom. In 1971, Biggs' eldest son, Nicholas, aged 10, died in a car crash.
In 1974, Daily Express reporter Colin MacKenzie received information suggesting that Biggs was in Rio de Janeiro and a team consisting of MacKenzie, photographer Bill Lovelace and reporter Michael O'Flaherty confirmed this and broke the story. Scotland Yard detective Jack Slipper arrived soon afterwards but Biggs could not be extradited because Biggs' then girlfriend (Raimunda de Castro, a nightclub dancer) was pregnant: Brazilian law at the time did not allow the parent of a Brazilian child to be extradited.
In April 1977 Biggs attended a drinks party on board the British frigate Danae, which was in Rio for a courtesy visit, but surprisingly he was not arrested. While for the time being safe from extradition, Biggs' status as a known felon prevented him from working, visiting bars or being away from home after 10 pm. To supplement their income, Biggs's family hosted barbecues at his home in Rio, where tourists could meet Biggs and hear him recount tales of his involvement in the Robbery (which was in fact minor). It was not just tourists, however. Biggs had heard that ex-footballer Stanley Matthews was in Rio and invited him to his apartment. "We had tea on the small balcony at the rear of his home, and one of the first things he asked was, 'How are Charlton Athletic doing?' It turned out he had supported Charlton from being a small boy and had often seen me play at The Valley." "Ronnie Biggs" mugs, coffee cups and T-shirts also appeared throughout Rio.
Biggs recorded vocals on two songs for The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, Julien Temple's film about the Sex Pistols. The basic tracks for "No One is Innocent" (aka "The Biggest Blow (A Punk Prayer)") and "Belsen Was a Gas" were recorded with guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook at a studio in Brazil shortly after the Sex Pistols' final performance, with overdubs being added in an English studio at a later date. "No One is Innocent" was released as a single in the UK on 30 June 1978 and reached number 7 in the UK Singles Chart; the sleeve showing a British actor posing as Martin Bormann (Nazi Leader) playing bass with the group.
Following the extradition attempt, Biggs collaborated with Bruce Henry (an American double-bass player), Jaime Shields and Aureo de Souza to record Mailbag Blues, a musical narrative of his life that he intended to use as a movie soundtrack. This album was re-released in 2004 by whatmusic.com.
In 1981, Biggs was kidnapped by a gang of British ex-soldiers. The boat in which Biggs and his kidnappers were sailing had mechanical problems off Barbados. The stranded kidnappers and Biggs were rescued by the Barbados Coast guard and towed into port in Barbados. The kidnappers hoped to collect a reward from the British police but Barbados had no extradition treaty with the United Kingdom and Biggs was sent back to Brazil. In February 2006, Channel 4 aired a documentary featuring dramatisations of the attempted kidnap and interviews with John Miller, the ex-British Army soldier who carried it out. The team was headed by security consultant Patrick King. In the documentary, King claimed that the kidnapping may have in fact been a deniable operation.
Biggs' son by de Castro, Michael Biggs, eventually became a member of the successful children's program and music band Turma do BalÃ£o MÃ¡gico, bringing a new source of income to his father. In a short time, however, the band faded into obscurity and dissolved, leaving father and son in financial difficulty again.
In 1991, Biggs sang vocals for the songs "Police On My Back" and "Carnival in Rio (Punk Was)" by German punk band Die Toten Hosen. In 1993, Biggs sang vocals in 3 tracks for the album "Bajo otra bandera" by Argentinian punk band Pilsen.
In 1997 the UK and Brazil ratified an extradition treaty. Two months later, the UK Government made a formal request to the Brazilian government for Biggs' extradition. Biggs had stated that he would no longer oppose extradition. English lawyer Nigel Sangster QC travelled to Brazil to advise Biggs. The extradition request was rejected by Brazilian Supreme Court, giving Biggs the right to live in Brazil for the rest of his life.