Opinions on the man differ; opinions on the merits of his notoriety even more so; but the death of Ronnie Biggs in 2013 undoubtedly ended a chapter in British crime history. Whereas the consensus today is to condemn the Great Train Robbers as ruthless villains who left an innocent man fatally damaged by his encounter with them, it tends to be forgotten that the general view of the general public at the time of the crime was that Bruce Reynolds, Buster Edwards, Biggs and co were effectively Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
An Us & Them mood was extremely prevalent in British society before rigid class divisions gradually melted as the 1960s progressed; the working-class public identified more with the Great Train Robbers than they did with the judiciary’s grandees who sentenced them to prison, and most bemoaned the fact that the Robbers hadn’t gotten away with it. Biggs’s highly publicised escape from Wandsworth just 15 months into his sentence was cheered by the social demographic Biggs had come from, as was his career as a celebrity exile. Ronnie Biggs belonged to a period of post-war British history in which a particular kind of clever crime that required brains as much as brawn was an especially potent escape route from humble beginnings as much as boxing and football.
The recent robbery at the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company, taking place over the Easter weekend, was as incongruous as it was audacious. These kind of crimes rarely happen in Britain nowadays; most of us would associate such a job with a celebrated and iconic police series such as ‘The Sweeney’ or even that most endearing of Great British heist movies, ‘The League of Gentlemen’. The Hatton Garden operation was a throwback to an age before the criminal underworld realised ill-gotten gains could be gotten without the need for a ‘blag’ – to use parlance of that age – involving a large team of specialist blaggers recruited on reputation via the underworld grapevine, with the larger the team the greater the risk of one disgruntled member turning Queen’s Evidence.
These days, criminal empires are largely built on the manufacture and sale of illicit substances; it’s not a business enterprise without risk, but the risks are considerably lower than the planning and executing of a traditional blag. Getting away with the actual robbery would not be the end of the story; there is then dividing up the rewards and deciding what to do with them whilst all the while attempting to minimise the number of individuals with enough knowledge of the project leaking any snippets of it into the wrong ears. Sitting atop a food-chain of indispensable drug dealers is a far easier way of making an illegal fortune, one that can also generate a constant flow of wealth, unlike the limited booty available in a bank vault. The growing sophistication of alarm systems to protect riches from gloved hands clutching sawn-off shotguns has also played its part in the decline of what was once one of the country’s most recurrent crimes.
The ‘Golden Age’, if it could be called such, was in the twenty years between 1963’s Great Train Robbery and 1983’s Brink’s MAT Robbery. It’s no wonder that so many British TV shows of the era would regularly feature episodes based around large-scale violent crime, with ‘The Sweeney’ in particular recognising the dramatic potential of the blag as it brought the lingo of cops and robbers into everyday slang. The biggest blags of this age included 1969’s Linwood Bank Robbery, 1971’s Baker Street Robbery and the Bank of America Robbery in 1975. There were two distinct approaches for criminals to take at this time, and the divisions between the two were usually based on the intelligence and ambition of the participants.
Those that required the robbers being ‘tooled-up’ (i.e. carrying firearms) tended to be more simplistic and impromptu in their construction, mostly born of desperation and thus negating the need for a ‘Mr Big’ to employ smart crooks to devise a plan and heavies to do the dirty work. Heavies acting on their own initiative was the classic ‘Hand over the money and nobody will get hurt’ job, generally carried out during business hours, thus maximising both the possibility of something going wrong and of innocent deaths, usually those of police officers. This happened in a particularly brutal manner during the Linwood Bank job, when two officers were shot dead point-blank by the gang’s leader. Others were more ingenious in their construction and demanded meticulous military-like preparation, such as the Baker Street Robbery, which was an after-hours affair closer to an escape from a Second World War POW camp than the more commonplace (and opportunistic) stocking-mask method. This required the digging of a 50 foot tunnel underneath the building dividing the shop from where the job was launched and the safe deposit boxes at Lloyd’s Bank, two doors down.
These operations, ones that were undertaken after months of planning, usually necessitated the employment of an ‘insider’ who could access the interior of the premises and then pass on the information. The insider factor has yet to be ruled out of the Hatton Garden job, as precise knowledge of the layout of the intended target is an essential element of an operation being carried out quickly and efficiently. Again, the numbers of people in on a job will always increase the chances of loose lips, which is why so few of the blaggers of the Golden Age got away with it in the end.
However, the collapse of an old extradition treaty between the UK and Spain in 1978 gave the villains a literal get-out-of-jail card, with hundreds of wanted men crossing the channel and establishing bases on what became colloquially known as the Costa Del Crime. The clever kingpins remained on home soil and bought Spanish villas that were handy if they needed to go on holiday quickly, whereas many who fled to the Iberian Peninsula were forced to settle there permanently, creating colonies of expat Little Englanders sticking two fingers up at Scotland Yard. This then became the regular route out of the country following a big blag, but ironically had a knock-on effect on the kind of crime blaggers specialised in; with many of the firms that had carried out the most infamous operations out of action, these became far less commonplace. The next generation of criminals capitalised on the flood of drugs into the country (and into the poorer housing estates of Britain), realising they could make far bigger profits than their predecessors without the need to gamble on a dramatic blag.
The death of Ronnie Biggs brought to an end the criminal era he belonged to, purely due to the fact that he was one of the last villains around whom a folk-hero mythology was spun in a way that no longer happens; and the difference between the generations can be measured by the length of the damage done to their victims. A drug-dealer will inflict far more long-term misery on a greater number of people than those to have lost money or jewels to a blagger. And while crime remains a get-rich-quick option for those born on the lowest rungs of Britain’s social hierarchy, it is the drugs baron who is now the role model, not the blagger. This is one reason why the Hatton Garden blag was such a surprise. The ingenuity of the team, abseiling down a lift shaft and employing industrial drills to get through several feet of reinforced concrete protecting the vault, was worthy of a movie plot; and were it not for the fact that several small businesses face ruination as a result of their endeavours, it’d be hard not to admire their bottle.
But don’t expect a majority voice expressing admiration, let alone support; we live in different times to 1963, and the fallacy of social equality promoted by the Blair administration has left its mark in the media and amongst the public. We have to be seen to condemn crime at every level as a sign that we are a classless society, that there is no longer an Us and Them – even if criminals emanating from privilege, such as those employed by the banking industry, have continued to show that crime does indeed pay.