IT was the crime of the century… and 60 years on from the Great Train Robbery, it still makes headlines in papers, books and TV shows.
But while Ronnie Biggs is infamous for stealing a train with the 15-strong gang on August 8 1963, and hiding out for decades in Brazil, his first escape – from a Monmouthshire borstal through the Forest of Dean – saw him accused of stealing a ship as well, laden with ten tons of corned beef instead of millions of pounds in cash!
The gang that stopped the Glasgow to London Mail Train and stole £2.6m in cash – the equivalent of £45m today – struck at 3am at Bridego Bridge near Aylesbury 60 years ago next Tuesday.
The hunt for the culprits, the trials, the hefty 30-year jail sentences, and the escapes are the stuff of legend, capturing the imagination of the public ever since.
But while everyone knows Biggs led the police a merry dance for decades after hot-footing it from Wandsworth Jail in 1965, it wasn’t the first time he’d ‘gone over the wall’.
That honour belongs to Usk Borstal some 13 years earlier when Biggs and another young felon escaped and made it on foot to the Forest, where they stole a car and burgled a cafe before making it back to London.
The duo’s freedom lasted days, not years, before their collars were felt again, and police were keen to clear up a spate of crimes in the Forest.
But while he went on to become infamous for stealing a train, Biggs later claimed in his biography that this time he was accused of stealing a three-masted schooner… filled with corned beef! The duo coughed to the theft of the car and other petty crimes.
But the future train robber almost choked on his tea when he was accused of stealing the William Ashburner in Lydney Harbour.
Writing in ’Ronnie Biggs… his own story’, Biggs described their journey from Usk to London as “four days of crazy events”.
“On the way to Gloucester we broke into a cafe and stole some cigarettes and stuff, which we then carried in a bag. We found two ARP greatcoats on the bonnet of an old Wolseley car which we couldn’t get started, and took them.”
Later they stole a Humber but rolled it into a ditch.
Biggs, now about to appear at the Old Bailey, asked for six offences to be “taken into consideration”.
But he recounted: “The cop who tried it on me wanted me to plead 42 TICs. “It’s all the same, you might as well have them all done. It helps us and I’ll put in a good word for you.” Then he started on about my having stolen a schooner. Schooner! What do you mean, stole a schooner?”
“He showed me the charge sheet: “Stealing a schooner, the William Ashburner, from its moorings in Lydney Harbour with a ten-ton load of corned beef.”
“I said, “Where is the corned beef for Christ’s sake? Where is the bloody boat now?
“I don’t know anything about it, but just because you want it to be cleared off your books you want me to take it into consideration. Screw you, pal, but I am not going to plead guilty to things I didn’t even do.
“As it was, I got three and a half years: a month, I think, for each TIC.”
It was not the last local people were to hear of the William Ashburner.
The old timer- built in 1876 at Barrow-in- Furness, was on passage in a thick fog from Swansea to Sharpness in February 1950 when she grounded on Chapel Rock.
Lifted clear on the next tide, she drifted up and down the Severn for two days before the crew of the Old Passage ferry boat secured her to a slipway at Beachley.
She was later moored at Chepstow’s Buffer Wharf before being taken to Hunger Pill where she was set on fire to enable valuable copper to be retrieved.