In 1963, a Royal Mail train heading to London from Glasgow was targeted by fifteen thugs. The gang was led by Bruce Reynolds and their plan involved changing the light ahead to red and cutting telephone lines, so when the train stopped the boys could pounce. They made off with 2.6 million pounds tucked in 120 mail sacks, the equivalent of 50 million pounds today. There were 128 mail sacks on their way to London banks on the train in total.
Ronnie Biggs was friends with a retired train conductor which was his in to the heist heard around the world. Biggs had married three years earlier and needed funding to buy a house for his wife and sons. Because this group of thieves never held up a train, they enlisted the help of three men from the London gang “The South Coast Raiders” who had worked on train heists. During the heist train driver Jack Mills was beaten with a metal bar forcing him to retire from his job. Leatherslade Farm became their hideout and new autos were purchased to evade police.
Eventually, the ringleaders were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Ronnie Biggs escaped from Wandsworth Prison after serving 10 months. He scaled the wall where a getaway van was waiting for him. He fled to Brussels and then to Paris getting plastic surgery and sending for his wife and kids. In 1966, he moved to Sydney, Australia with his family. After an anonymous warning note that interpol was moving in on him, he moved to Melbourne from Adelaide. Eventually fleeing to Brazil, where there wasn’t an UK extradition policy, after watching a local news reporter talk of his police chase. He made his money in Brazil by having dinner parties at his home, entertaining tourists with stories of his wild robbery days. In 1981, Biggs was kidnapped by British ex-military soldiers hoping to score some reward money but their boat had mechanical failure off Barbados. Local police rescued them and returned Biggs to Brazil. The kidnapping story was turned into the 1988 movie Prisoner Of Rio, which was co-written by Biggs.
“One report said that since my time on the run I’ve had 2,500 girlfriends. I mean, you have got to realize I’ve been on the run for more than 30 years. I have got to have had more than that.” -Ronnie Biggs
Appropriately, Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols were fans and flew down to Brazil to record “No One Is Innocent,” and “Belsen Is A Gas,” which were on The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle album. I remember listening to those tunes as a teenager and wondering who this vocalist was. He must’ve been a pretty bad guy for Johnny Rotten to let him replace him on a couple songs!
“There’s a difference between criminals and crooks. Crooks steal. Criminals blow some guy’s brains out. I’m a crook.”. -Ronnie Biggs
When ringleader Bruce Reynolds passed away, Mick Jones of the Clash and punk poet John Cooper Clarke were present at his funeral. Clarke wrote a poem which ended “RIP Gentleman Thief.”
On December 18, 2013, Ronnie died in his nursing home just two hours before the BBC mini-series The Great Train Robbery was to air. Biggs became an outlaw icon, even a British Hell’s Angel honor guard escorted his hearse to the crematorium. The punk rock ideals of uprooting the system and thieves stealing from the rich go hand in hand. No wonder all these punks befriended these criminals. I believe we look up to the bad guys because they represent a freedom that most of us will never experience. Where ethics lack… thrills abound!