Britain’s most celebrated fugitive — "the last of the gentlemen crooks," as he liked to describe himself — was born Ronald Arthur Biggs in Lambeth, south London, on August 8, 1929.
The youngest of five children, his criminal career began at the age of 15 when he was arrested for stealing pencils from a local shop. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1947, but was dishonourably discharged two years later after being convicted of breaking into a chemist’s shop while AWOL. The latter offence resulted in his first spell in prison — four months in Lewes Prison for Young Offenders. He was released in June 1949, but was back in jail within a month for car theft. This second prison term — also at Lewes — was to change Biggs’ life. He met, and became friends with Bruce Reynolds, the man who later masterminded heist commonly known as the Great Train Robbery. Between 1949 and 1963 Biggs was regularly involved in criminal activity — he served several jail sentences — although he also made money legally working as a painter and decorator. In 1960 he married Charmian Powell with whom he had three children — Nicholas, Christopher and Farley. The couple were subsequently estranged. On August 8, 1963 — Biggs’ birthday — he was one of a gang of 16 who held up the Glasgow to London mail train, escaping with a record haul of more than £2.6 million ($4.4 million). He was arrested a month later after his fingerprint was found on some stolen notes and in January 1964 he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. After serving only 15 months, however, he made a daring escape from Wandsworth Prison in south London, thus beginning 35 years on the run. His first stop was Paris, where he spent much of his £147,000 ($246,000) cut of the train robbery money on plastic surgery and acquiring papers to Australia. He remained in Melbourne until 1969, working as a builder, before he slipped out of the country using a false passport on a ship bound for Panama. There followed brief spells in Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela before he eventually settled in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
‘Great Train Robber’ Ronnie Biggs released to die
In 1974 he was arrested and faced being sent back to the UK. His Brazilian girlfriend Raimunda de Castro, however, was by that point pregnant with his child, and under Brazilian law that meant he could not be deported. Several further attempts were made to bring him back to England, including a highly publicised kidnapping in 1981, when he was seized by adventurers hoping to claim a reward for his capture. He was taken to Barbados in a sack marked “Live Snake,” but subsequently released due to a loophole in Barbadian law. In the meantime he became something of a celebrity in Rio. He would entertain visitors at his house, where for a set fee he would provide a barbecue and tales of his criminal past. He featured on The Sex Pistols album “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” — singing No One is Innocent. Biggs suffered a minor stroke in March 1998 and, with his health and finances failing, he finally returned to the UK in 2001. His estranged wife Charmian said at the time: “The man I remember was a strong, fit, big man who could take on the world. Now he looks like a walking corpse, just skin and bone. I feel so sorry and sad for him.” Biggs and his family campaigned for him to be released because of his poor health virtually from the day he returned to the UK and was immediately incarcerated in Belmarsh high security prison. Instead, Biggs was moved to a prison facility for elderly prisoners in Norwich, his parole prospects dismissed by justice ministers because of his apparent lack of remorse. But on August 4 Biggs was moved to a hospital suffering with severe pneumonia. On August 7, the eve of both his 80th birthday and the 46th anniversary of the heist that turned him into a fugitive, Biggs’ was formally released on compassionate grounds.
In 2001 Biggs said his last wish was to buy a pint of beer in a pub in the southern seaside resort of Margate. But Biggs’ legal advisor Giovanni Di Stefano told journalists that Biggs was unlikely to ever leave his hospital bed. “This man is ill, he’s going to die, he is not going to any pub or going to Rio, he is going to stay in hospital,” said Di Stefano.