Reynolds' train heist captured the public's imagination

Bruce Reynolds never hid from the fact that he was a thief. Photo: Matthew Fearn/PA Archive

So, another robber bites the dust.

Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of the 1963 Great Train Robbery, has died aged 81, just months before the 50th anniversary of Britain's most infamous heist.

There have been other robberies since that have been more spectacular and netted much more in cash, diamonds or gold than the '63 robbery. But in those days, a 15-man gang stopping a train, robbing it of £2.5 million in minutes and disappearing with bags of loot seemed big, big news.

Bruce Reynolds in 1963. Credit: PA/PA Archive

So much so, that as a little boy in my primary school playground, the only game to play was Cops and Great Train Robbers. We virtually fought to be Bruce Reynolds, or his fellow robber Ronnie Biggs, or one of the policemen, like the hapless Jack Slipper, who later chased Biggs to Rio.

Reynolds wrote a book about the robbery, widely praised as honest, but he never hid from the truth; he was a thief. After doing time in prison, he occasionally toured with his musician son Nick.

The police record sheet of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. Credit: Ian Nicholson/PA Archive

Biggs did less time, escaping with a rope over Wandsworth jail's wall, fleeing to Brazil, marrying a local woman just as extradition was being discussed and fathering a son who became, for a few years, a pop star in Brazil.

I visited Biggs at his home in Rio, the walls around his snooker table covered with goodwill messages from visiting Brits. He was a bit of a celebrity. No wonder; once a gang of former British soldiers kidnapped him and took him on a boat to Barbados which then got into difficulty and had to be rescued. The soldiers went home empty handed, Biggs went free. Barbados, like Brazil, had no extradition treaty with Britain.

Bruce Reynolds met John Woolley, the officer who helped bust the gang, on the 40th anniversary of the heist. Credit: Matthew Fearn/PA Archive

But as we remember Biggs and Reynolds, spare a thought for the man most often forgotten in the tale of '63. The driver of the mail train that night was beaten by the gang with an iron bar and died soon afterwards. I have to admit we found no place for him in our playground rerun of the heist of the decade.