Whatever Ronnie Biggs was it wasn’t a ‘lovable rogue’ or any other of these terms of endearment that have been floating about. He was part of a gang that plotted a robbery and ultimately took the lives of two people. Neither of them died on the night of the robbery but both their lives changed because of that night.
On August 8th 1963 the Glasgow to London Royal Mail train was stopped at Ledburn, at a bridge which was known then as the Bridego Bridge. The robbers interfered with two sets of signals bringing the train to a halt.
Driving the train was 57-year old Jack Mills. His secondman was 25-year old David Whitby. David left the train to contact the signalman but found the wires in the phone cable had been cut. He was then attacked track-side.
Inside the train cab Jack Mills waited on the return of his secondman but instead some of the robbers filled the cab and overwhelmed him. He was hit over the head with a metal bar and became semi-conscious.
Despite the gang not using firearms in this robbery, the attack was violent.
David Whitby was able to return to work but he died aged 34 of a heart attack. His sister, Nancy, believed that he never truly recovered from the trauma of that night. She firmly believes that the robbery contributed to his death at such a young age and while that can never be proved, it’s easy to understand why she would feel that way.
Nancy said her brother was quieter after the robbery and never really the same.
Jack Mills never truly recovered from his injuries. He did return to work for a period of time in 1964 on light duties but various illnesses would overcome him and he died in 1970 from lymphatic leukaemia. Again, although no direct link can be made between the robbery, the assault and his death there is no doubt that it did have an effect on his life in the years after.
His family remember a proud working man who was always immaculately turned out. His son, John, feels pride that his dad initially stood up to the robbers, trying to prevent them from remaining in the cab and from his initial refusal to move the train forward.
“He just went downhill. He was a great big strong man. He aged ten years in no time. He looked pained after the robbery. Everybody was shocked.
“We had a son just before the train robbery and I think when dad finally came home it was the baby that kept him going.”
So when the world hears that Ronnie Biggs has died (and many of the other robbers before him) there is a natural divide in opinion. Some think he should be remembered as a great man. What criteria does he fulfil that makes him a great man?
As a young man he spent two years in the RAF before being dishonourably discharged for desertion.
He failed in his role within the gang of robbers, to provide an alternative train driver. The bloke he got couldn’t drive that type of locomotive. He was caught, arrested, charged, found guilty and sent to jail.
Maybe it’s the events after that which make people want to remember him as a ‘lovable rogue’ or ‘a great man’. His escape from jail in 1965 and his 36 years as a fugitive. That really just makes him a criminal who never properly served his time for his part in a heinous crime.
While I do feel for his family at what is undoubtedly a sad time for them, my thoughts remain with Jack Mills and David Whitby and their families, who lives changed considerably following the events of August 8th 1963.
This article also appears here.