Ronnie Biggs wasn’t a hero or a villain, just an idiot

The death of Great Train Robber (which, rather like the Holy Roman Empire, is a descriptive phrase that falls down on all possible counts) Ronnie Biggs has led to some predictable, polarised reactions: the geezer-ish “he was a fackin’ legend!”, and the handwringing “but he was a violent cwiminal!”.

Both are fairly stupid.

Ronnie Biggs certainly wasn’t a great robber. By 1963, he had a record for a couple of inept property crimes, but had been clean for a few years. He asked his (more seriously and more competently criminal) friend Jack Reynolds for a loan; as a favour, Reynolds cut him into the mail train robbery he was planning.

Biggs had a friend who claimed to know how to drive trains; Biggs’s role was to escort his friend to the scene of the crime so that he could drive the train. It turned out that Biggs’s friend had no idea how to drive the train at all. The two of them were instead sent off in disgrace to count the money.

At the same time, going against the plan that Reynolds had devised and the conspirators had agreed to, a thug probably going by the alias of Alf Thomas [1] bashed train driver Jack Mills repeatedly in the head with an iron bar. Mills suffered a black eye, bruising, concussion, and what we’d now call PTSD. After trying to go back to work and not being able to concentrate, Mills took early retirement, and not long afterwards developed fatal leukaemia [2].


Biggs was a man who signed up for an awesome, audacious and non-violent (while obviously, extremely criminal) plan which he had no role in formulating. He screwed up his only actual job in the plan, quite possibly contributing to the failure of the wider exercise. He was an incompetent petty thief out of his depth, not a legend.

Biggs was not a man who was morally culpable for the beating of Jack Mills by someone he’d never previously met, against the plan that he’d signed up for, whilst he was somewhere else. He was an incompetent petty thief out of his depth, not a violent thug.

[1] I’m informed by Archie V on Twitter that the conspirator named James Hussey confessed on his deathbed to assaulting Mills, although the accuracy of his confession is questioned [3].
[2] Which, despite the claims sometimes made by the handwringers, is not caused by a blow to the head.
[3] It’s considered likely that the conspirator known as Alf Thomas was later allowed to escape by the police, in exchange for returning a proportion of his share of the money. Hussey was jailed for the robbery, but had not been accused of the assault before he made his confession.

One thought on “Ronnie Biggs wasn’t a hero or a villain, just an idiot

  1. What a load of tosh. He was certainly an idiot – and dangeroius one. He was also a villain – a thick, self-centred twat who had no thought for anyone other than himself. He showed no remorse – not one bit – for the coshing of the train driver. He wasn't a modern-day Robin Hood (as I've read elsewhere). He was after money for himself so that he could buy a house. Not for him what the rest of us have to do – work for it and save up.

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