Fifty two years ago today Great Train Robber Ronald Biggs escaped from Wandsworth Prison. His liberty obtained by climbing over a 30ft prison wall on a rope ladder thrown from a waiting van outside.
The security during the incident, seems about as lax as that encountered by Peter Sellers and his cohorts during their jail break in the 1960’s prison comedy Two-Way Stretch.
Bearing in mind Biggs was part of a gang who undertook one of the crimes of the century, robbing a Royal Mail train of £2.6 million in August 1963, it appears a surprisingly easy escape.
Biggs was initially jailed for his part in the robbery for 30 years. Although, he nearly got a longer sentence, after foolishly engaged this man as his advocate:-
Anyone who doesn’t watch the US animated show The Simpsons probably won’t have a clue who that is. The man in question, Lionel Hutz, is an incompetent lawyer who attracts desperate clients with cut price legal fees and a free pencil eraser with every case. Biggs could afford a more accomplished advocate, but liked the eraser so engaged the klutz counsellor.
Anyway, Hutz’s defence that Biggs couldn’t have been at the scene of the crime, as he was sleeping with the judge’s wife at the time, did his client no favours at all. A furious Justice considered adding further time to his sentence, until it dawned on him he wasn’t even married. Dubbing Hutz a fool, the judge gave Biggs’ 30 years and confiscated his free eraser.
After his escape, Biggs became a fugitive from the law for the next thirty six years, predominantly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Here the anti-hero evaded being returned to the UK due to no extradition agreement being in place between the countries.
In 1974, Biggs gave an interview to the Daily Express from Rio. This was passed onto Scotland Yard who dispatched DCI Jack Slipper to arrest him and bring him back to the UK. This failed though due to Biggs’ Brazilian girlfriend being pregnant with his child at the time.
The Express, which my dad bought on a daily basis, followed and reported the story with the same tenacity as they convey their thoughts on immigrants to the UK now. On an almost daily basis, they fed the British public’s prurient fascination with Biggs’ antics.
He returned to the UK voluntarily in 2001 in ill health, serving eight years before being released on compassionate grounds in 2009. He died in a North London care home in December 2013.
One of the more well-known members of the gang. Biggs’ fame and notoriety probably transpired more from his escape in 1965, along with thirty six years as a fugitive, rather than the robbery itself.
In the 1970s, Biggs was given an honorary mention in the song No One Is Innocent by the punk band The Sex Pistols, thus:-
Ronnie Biggs was doing time until he done a bunk.
Now he says he’s seen the light and he sold his soul for punk.
I’ve no idea, on regaining his liberty in 1965, if he saw the light or indeed sold his soul for punk. However, his part in the gang that robbed the Royal Mail train fifty four years ago, along with his daring escape and time on the run, will ensure his notoriety will live long in the British public’s consciousness.