The 50th Anniversary of the Great Train Robbery

In keeping with the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, invites Ronnie Biggs author Christopher Pickard to discuss his involvement in revealing the truth about the world-famous heist.
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Christopher Pickard has known Ronnie Biggs since the early 1980s when they both lived in Rio de Janeiro. Chris helped Ron write his autobiography, ‘Odd Man Out’ in 1994, and they subsequently wrote the novel, ‘Keep on Running.’ Chris aided Ron in his return to the UK in 2001, and helped Ron update his autobiography on his release from prison in 2009. Chris has now worked with Ron, along with Bruce and Nick Reynolds, to publish 'The Great Train Robbery 50th Anniversary: 1963-2013.'

Fifty years ago, in the early hours of Thursday, August 8, 1963, sixteen men stopped a train, the Night Flyer (a.k.a. Up Postal), that was traveling between Glasgow, Scotland, and Euston Station in London. The train, a Traveling Post Office, was carrying mail and High Value Packets, many of which contained bank notes being shipped back to the banks in London.

There were nearly 80 men on the train, and until it was stopped at Sears Crossing in Buckinghamshire, 38 miles north west of London, it had been a pretty routine journey—so routine that 72 of the men would not even know a robbery was taking place until it was all over and they discovered that they were missing the engine and two carriages, including the one carrying the High Value Packets. These had been moved a short distance up the track to Bridego Bridge where 120 of its 128 mailbags would be removed and spirited off into the night.

What happened that August morning would become known as the Great Train Robbery and turn out to be Britain’s best-known theft. It was one of the world’s most famous crimes and at the time, even the New York Herald Tribune called it “History’s greatest robbery.” It was truly an iconic heist, one that has impacted not only the people involved but also modern culture and politics.

The sixteen men at the track that night came from two separate London gangs. One firm is credited to the crime’s mastermind and mentor, Bruce Reynolds, the other firm to a man called Roger Cordrey who ran the South Coast Raiders.

Three of the suspects connected to the Great Train Robbery. August 16, 1963. (Getty)

Three of the suspects connected to the Great Train Robbery. August 16, 1963. (Getty)

Together the robbers and their accomplices would share the spoils, which in today’s estimates were in excess of £46 million pounds (or about $72 million U.S. dollars). Each man’s share was larger that the largest football pools or lottery win in the UK at the time, but the sheer volume of money would also be the robbers’ downfall and make them the world’s most wanted men.

There were, however, two odd men out at the track. One was the robbery’s most famous participant, Ronald Arthur Biggs, the other a law-abiding train driver who had been brought to the track by Biggs. He was not a criminal or a thief, but he would drive the train from Sears Crossing to Bridego Bridge if the train’s own driver refused to move it.

Read's coverage of the Great Train Robbery

Biggs was on the job at the specific invitation of Bruce Reynolds. The two had been long-term friends since their days in Borstal, although this would be the first and only crime they committed together.

It would need a book to explain why Reynolds had invited Biggs to the robbery, and it’s more complicated yet more obvious than most people imagine. That’s the rub. When you have an event as famous as the Great Train Robbery, the myths and legends, as well the truths and half-truths, build up until nobody knows what is truth and what is fiction. Both sides, cops and robbers, have used spin over the year that has helped muddy the waters.

Ronnie Biggs in 1965. (Getty)

Ronnie Biggs in 1965. (Getty)

Ronnie Biggs wrote his autobiography, Odd Man Out: The Last Straw, exactly to help clarify the many misconceptions about his own life, both at the time of the robbery and during his 13,068 days on the run.

“A lot of rubbish has been written about the train robbery and the robbers over the years,” Biggs explains, “so Bruce and I thought it was time to put the record straight, or as straight as we can as there are still a few secrets we think it is best to keep. I have already seen a number of books that are looking to cash in on the anniversary, and most are pure speculation or simply repeating myths and half-truths from the past. They do not tell the story of what actually happened on and around August 9, 1963.”

So to dispel some of the fiction out there, here is a taster from the book provided by Biggs, now 84, in his own words. He responds to some of his favorite myths and legends about the world-famous heist.

Ronnie Biggs shot the driver. No, I did not. No guns were carried or used during the robbery. Between us we carried coshes, pickaxe handles and an axe, but these were to break into the high value carriage and to intimidate people. The driver got coshed once, by mistake, and then hit his head on the interior of the cabin as he fell. I was not on the train at the time he got hit, as I was still on the embankment looking after my back up driver.

The robbery took place on Ronnie Biggs’ birthday. True. August 8, 1963 was my 34th birthday. I was born in 1929 whilst the oldest of the gang at the track was Jimmy White, born in 1920. The youngest was our getaway driver, and a real-life racing driver, Roy James, who was born in 1935.

The London Airport robbery was used to finance the Great Train Robbery. For Bruce Reynolds, who masterminded the Great Train Robbery, the London Airport robbery was just another job. Bruce personally invested his own money in making the train robbery happen, and that is why he could not lend me any money when I asked him. Bruce reckoned it cost him around £38 ($50)per head to fund the Great Train Robbery, about £650 ($863) each today. At the hideout Bruce went around after the robbery asking for it back, some generously gave him £40 ($53) telling him to keep the change. I can’t remember if I paid him. Knowing me, I probably didn’t.

Biggs, giving a defiant gesture to reporters at partner-in-crime Bruce Reynolds’ funeral in central London. March 20, 2013. (Getty)

Biggs, giving a defiant gesture to reporters at partner-in-crime Bruce Reynolds’ funeral in central London. March 20, 2013. (Getty)

The money was being transported to London to be burnt, as the government at the time could not trust the Scots to do it themselves. This is an old wives’ tale. All the high-value packages on the train came from banks along the route, and most of these were in England and were being transported to the East Central District Post Office in King Edward Street in London.

All the robbers were brought to justice. Not the case. For four of the 16 of us at the track it was the perfect crime. Three of the main gang, two from Bruce’s firm and one from Cordery’s firm, were never caught. The same is true for the back up-driver that I brought along. Then there were the informants and other people who worked behind the scenes but who never had their collars felt.

Bruce Reynolds played on the theme tune to The Sopranos. It wasn’t Bruce, but it was his son Nick who plays with Alabama 3 that recorded the theme.