Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, who spent much of his life cocking a snook at authority, was given an appropriate send off yesterday.
When he was last seen in public, at the funeral of robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds, Biggs stuck two fingers up at journalists. Yesterday, as the hearse carrying his coffin passed through the streets of north London, a white floral wreath in the shape of a two-fingered salute was visible alongside a Union flag and the flag of Brazil, the country where he spent many years as a fugitive from British justice.
Well-wishers gathered in the rain to watch the hearse depart. The coffin was surrounded by floral tributes and messages, and adorned with a red ribbon which read “Ronnie”.
The funeral cortege, with a guard of honour formed by 13 Hell’s Angels bikers, left the home of Biggs’s son Michael and daughter-in-law Veronica in Barnet, ahead of the service at Golders Green Crematorium.
Michael, who was wearing dark glasses and jeans with a skull and crossbones belt, met with mourners before the cortege set off. His father, who won worldwide notoriety after escaping prison and living the high life in Rio de Janeiro, died last month at the age of 84.
Ronald Arthur “Ronnie” Biggs, who spent more than three decades on the run, had been cared for at Carlton Court Care Home in East Barnet, north London, after suffering several strokes in recent years. His carers were among those joining the funeral procession yesterday.
Biggs was released from prison in 2009 on compassionate grounds due to ill health, despite being re-arrested in 2001 upon his return to the UK after evading the authorities since his first escape from Wandsworth Prison in 1965.
At the time of his escape, Biggs had served just 15 months of the 30-year sentence he was handed for his part in the robbery of a Royal Mail freight train between London and Glasgow on 8 August, 1963.
After having plastic surgery, he lived as a fugitive for 36 years first in Australia then Brazil, where Michael was born. His son later became the key to him being allowed to stay in the country and not face extradition. Biggs’s money eventually ran out and he traded on his notoriety to scrape a living. Speaking last year, he said he was proud to have been part of the gang behind the robbery, which saw 15 men escape with a record haul of £2.6 million – the equivalent of about £46m today.
Biggs, who could not speak due to his strokes and communicated through a spelling board, said: “If you want to ask me if I have any regrets about being one of the train robbers, my answer is, ‘No’. I will go further: I am proud to have been one of them.”
He did admit to some regrets, however. “It is regrettable, as I have said many times, that the train driver was injured.” Jack Mills was coshed during the heist, reportedly by Biggs, and never fully recovered from the ordeal, dying a few years later.
Some of Britain’s best-known villains paid their respects yesterday. Charles Bronson, one of the country’s longest-serving prisoners, sent a bouquet containing an old ten-bob note with the words “Ronnie Biggs RIP” scrawled across it. Former London gangster and writer Dave Courtney was among the gangland figures gathered at the chapel.
Close friend and writer Chris Pickard, who helped Biggs put together his autobiography Odd Man Out, said: “I am going to remember him as a great friend. He was great fun to be around.”