Last week the news broke that Ronnie Biggs has died at age 84. Whilst I can certainly spare a thought for his family as they grieve, l cannot reconcile the popular perception held by many that Biggs was a kind of ‘loveable rogue’ who got one over on ‘the man’. It is fair to say that to many, the saga of Ronnie Biggs is one of cheeky charm, notoriety, and decades spent as a sun drenched fugitive.
For me, as a train driver, and as a writer and willing student of criminal history, it is a tale of forgotten victims.
Whilst press and celebrities queue up to fawn over the cult of celebrity that envelops Biggs, l will be focusing my thoughts on two men synonymous with Biggs’ most famous and Feckless act, and yet anonymous in equal measure. Jack Mills was the driver of the 1850 mail train from Glasgow to London Euston that was stopped at Bridego Bridge near Ledburn in Buckinghamshire on August 8, 1963. David Whitby was the ‘second man’.
During the robbery, Jack Mills and David Whitby were overpowered and Jack was severely beaten with an iron bar. His only crime, unlike Biggs and his 14 gang mates, was to react with indignation at these criminals invading his train. Whilst police investigations seemingly confirm that neither Biggs, or Buster Edwards were directly responsible for battering a defenceless Jack Mills in the driving cab of his locomotive, the perversity of the cult following they enjoyed in subsequent years, whilst Jack Mills and David Whitby struggled to reconcile their lives afterward, is plain to see.
Jack Mills was 57 years old at the time of the attack. He posed no credible threat to a 15 strong gang of armed robbers. He had spent his entire working life as a railwayman, reaching the status of Driver (no mean feat in the days of BR!) where he was well liked and respected.
David Whitby was only 25 years old. He was overpowered outside of the train, having climbed down from the locomotive to make a telephone call to the signaller. The phone cable had been cut, and Driver Mills, and Secondman Whitby were hopelessIy outnumbered. Neither men were equipped either physically or mentally for the ordeal that had been thrust upon them.
Jack Mills returned to work some 18 months later, his wounds healed, but so traumatised was he that he never drove a train again, retiring in 1967 as a broken man. He died 3 years later.
David Whitby fared little better. He also returned to work but died aged just 34 of a heart attack.
In the years following the attack, and Biggs’ infamous jailbreak, these two men were allowed to quietly slide into the clouds of historical anonymity whilst their attackers basked in the notoriety of their crime. This is almost as large an injustice as the attack itself, and the responsibility for that lies squarely with the media. Over decades, newspapers, crime writers and film makers have perpetuated a twisted form of worship aimed at a criminal street gang who essentially got nasty, got caught, and got lucky, and ruined the lives of two honest, hardworking men along the way.
Even the term ‘Great Train Robbery’ – a term fixed firmly within the lexicon – was a media construct. (The robbery was originally referred to as The Cheddington Van Raid) Over those years, countless column inches and screen time have been devoted to the service of celebrity in terms of Briggs et al, with Mills and Whitby seldom mentioned.
As a writer I spend much of my free time weaving plots that I hope may fascinate, so I understand why this story grips the imagination.
That said, not only is the approach to a seminal moment in our criminal history lamentable, it is also a barometer for the often skewed moral climate of our news and media executives.
Supporters and converts of the Biggs cult point hastily at the fact that he was not physically responsible for the brutal attack on Driver Mills. whilst that may be true, it is in my view as irrelevant as any rare displays of contrition. Biggs, Edwards and others lived off the fat of their crime. They cultivated the celebrity that their ruthlessness brought. By virtue of that, they assumed collective culpability for each blow that rained down upon Jack Mills’ skull, regardless of whose grubby hand clutched the iron bar. So to bathe in the infamy of the act, then back away with hands raised, cries of indignation filling the air is as hypocritical as these men were morally impotent. These admittedly iconic criminal cannot have it both ways.
So whilst I so extend my sympathy to those mourning Biggs’ passing, l would ask that during the imminent media driven adulation, you spare a thought for those whose lives were wrecked by what some scandalously still refer to as a ‘victimless crime’.Tags: Domestic (UK)
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This post was written by Karl Davis