Jack Burt takes a journey through the life and experiences of Lambeth-born Ronnie Biggs with the assistance of Mike Gray
We can safely say that everyone has heard of the Great Train Robbery of 1963, when a group of 15 gangsters led by Bruce Reynolds attacked a train and successfully made off with £2.6 million.
But how much do we know of those involved in the robbery dubbed by the media as “the crime of the century”? What were their lives like? Brixtonite Mike Gray, who has an unusual admiration for Riggs, has now written numerous books about the man. I had a few questions to ask him about his friendship with Biggs.
Ronnie Biggs, prominently known for his involvement in the robbery, was born in Lambeth in 1929 and grew up in Brixton during the Second World War. He was evacuated to Bedfordshire for a period of time. In 1947, after the war, he would joined the RAF before eventually being dishonourably discharged for desertion after having served only two years with the military. Biggs married Charmian Powell in 1960 and they had three sons.
What occurred later would skyrocket Ronnie Biggs and others into a position of fame and history. On August 8 1963, Ronnie Biggs and 14 others led by Bruce Reynolds attacked a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London in the early hours of Thursday morning. Although unarmed, they had managed to escape with a total of around £2.6 million.
Mike Gray is one of Biggs’s greatest defenders, describing him as “a very ordinary humble man” going on to say “He was not and never has been a violent criminal, he only got involved in the train robbery because he knew a retired train driver, and Biggs’s best mate was the mastermind of the robbery, Bruce Reynolds. None of the great train robbers had ever heard of Biggs before, he is just like your family granddad, his whole life has been of a working class background and hes had to fight for every penny/dollar offered to him.”
Gray first contacted Biggs in September 1989, when Biggs was living in Rio De Janeiro. At the time, there was no extradition treaty between Brazil and the U.K, which meant that legally Ronnie Biggs could not be extradited from Brazil by the British government.
Gray was struck by case from the very beginning and became obsessed with finding Biggs while he was on the run. He collected as many clippings about the man as he could, mainly – bizarrely – from the publication Loot, which had an edition in most countries of the world at that time. What he really wanted was to get in contact with the man himself. And eventually he got hold of his address and sent him a letter. It was the start of a real friendship.
Gray and Biggs began to send letters and photographs back and forth to each other for around a month until Biggs gave him his telephone number. They would speak to each other roughly every month until Biggs’ voluntary return in May 2001 when he was imprisoned. Gray would visit him in prison too.
When asked why he would want this generation and those ahead to know about Ronnie Biggs and The great train robbery, Mike responded “First of all, crime does NOT pay.” then adding “All the great train robbers lost out on years of life, lost family, had the majority of the money stolen from them while they served 30 year prison sentences, etc, But from the historical point, it was Britain’s biggest cash robbery, then 2.6 million, but today some 55.2 Million.”
“The police did a great job of tracking the robbers and the courts obviously sided with the police and handed down severe draconian sentences of 14 to 30 years, and in those days (1964) parole was not Home Office legislation.”
“The Great Train Robbery Quiz Book”, “The Ronnie Biggs Quiz Book”, and “101 Interesting Facts on Ronnie Biggs and The Great Train Robbery”, all consisting of quiz like questions and facts about Ronnie Biggs and the robbery itself.
It’s clear throughout my research of Biggs and his life, that he was a man who quickly obtained the skill of being able to circumvent the British law enforcement for a long period of time, though sometimes out of sheer luck. It is interesting how the crime was conceived, conducted, and what it resulted for its participants. But we must never confuse this interest with the fact that it was indeed a crime.