On This Day 51 Years Ago – Great Train Robbery’s Tea-Boy escaped from Prison

On 8th July 1965 Ronnie Biggs escaped from Wandsworth prison. He was one of the criminals who took part in the Great Train Robbery of 1963 in which  £2.6 million (equivalent to £49.1 million today) was stolen from a Royal Mail train heading between Glasgow and London in the early hours of 8th August 1963. Though the gang did not use any firearms Jack Mills the train driver was beaten over the head with a metal bar. His injuries were severe enough to end his career. It was the latter aspect that lead to the very high sentences of 24 to 30 years being handed out. Judges in most countries are obliged to give bigger sentences if violence is carried out during a crime.

Ten years later after moving from country to country to stay free Ronnie Biggs tried to sell his story to the press in order to make some money for his family so he contacted Colin Mackenzie of the Daily Express who flew to Brazil to interview him. But Colin Mackenzie’s superiors had contacted the police so while the interview was in progress they were interrupted by Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard who arrested Ronnie Biggs. However, the Brazilian authorities refused to extradite him because he had made his girlfriend pregnant and they did not want to expel the father of a future Brazilian.

So feeling safe Ronnie Biggs – who had originally described his role in the robbery as that of a tea-boy – started to capitalise on his notoriety by giving interviews and appearing in advertising campaigns. In 1978 he even recorded a song: “No One Is Innocent” with legendary punk rockers the Sex Pistols. He later held special barbecues where he charged tourists a fee to eat with him and have their photo taken with an infamous fugitive. He also sold T-shirts with the inscription: “I went to Rio and met Ronnie Biggs … honest.” In 1994 he released his best-selling autobiography: Odd Man Out.

Over the course of his long years as a fugitive, Ronnie Biggs’ image evolved from one of a common criminal guilty of what his trial judge described as “a sordid crime of violence” to that of a lovable rogue who had evaded the massed ranks and due processes of the law. His escapades became legend and he was the subject of countless books, articles and films. In all he lived as a fugitive for 36 years but in 2001 he decided to return to the United Kingdom and spent several years in prison. His health rapidly declined and he was released from prison on compassionate grounds in August 2009 and died in a nursing home in December 2013.

The question is: why did he come back! Ronnie Biggs was tiring of the uncertainty and fear of life on the run so he decided to give himself up and serve the remainder of his sentence so that he could ultimately return to a normal family life. Apparently most people who have to escape from their normal life for some reason – for exampleo to enable a partner to make a false life insurance claim – find that they cannot stand the idea of never again being in daily contact with the people they regard as important in their life and feel the overwhelming urge to give themselves up. However, many believed he simply came back because he was ill and wanted to take advantage of free health care.

Was his 36 years of freedom worth the price he eventually paid? Probably not but the amazing thing is that people regarded Ronnie Biggs as a hero despite the fact that they his crime resulted in the injury of poor Jack Mills the driver who died six years after the robbery having never recovered from his injuries!

Jack Mills who died six years after the Great Train Robber having never recovered from his injuries!
Jack Mills the train driver who died six years after the Great Train Robbery  having never recovered from his injuries!
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