Charmian Brent, wife of train robber Ronald Biggs. Brent with Ronnie Biggs in 1985, celebrating the former’s freedom in Brazil. Photo: Russell McPhedran
In a universe of ironies, an 18-year-old Charmian Powell first met Ronnie Biggs on a train.
He would become one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century, conspirator in the Great Train Robbery of 1963, prison escapee and international fugitive.
She was determined not to be defined by once being his wife.
“It’s horrible to be tarred with that brush and there’s nothing that you can do about it,” she would remark years later.
“I’m not some sort of appendage. I’m me. I want to be me in my own right . . . not as a hanger-on for somebody else.”
Or as friend Val Reilly put it more bluntly in an interview with ABC TV: “Charmian is anything but a gangster’s moll.”
Charmian Brent, as she was known, died peacefully in a Box Hill hospital on December 11. She was 75.
But independent and strong of character as she was, her story was inextricably tied to her former husband.
The media and public held an insatiable fascination with their 1966 escape, months apart, from Britain to Australia and an anonymous hideaway in the suburbs of Melbourne, where he worked as a carpenter at the studio of Channel 9 and she in a biscuit factory.
She would be abandoned with three children in Blackburn North only a few years later when he fled a police dragnet to a bolthole in South America.
When her eldest son, Nicholas, was killed in a car accident in 1971, police and reporters swarmed the funeral in the hope Biggs would reappear.
“People have judged me because of my involvement with Ron ever since the robbery took place,” Mrs Brent told Australian Story in 2010.
She sold her story for $65,000 to the Packer media empire after Biggs disappeared, with most of the money lost to the taxman.
She was much criticised with claims she lived off ill-gotten gains, and about an hour when she secretly met Biggs one last time before he hopped on a ship from Port Melbourne.
But being associated with a criminal was very different to being criminally inclined herself, she said.
She had fallen for Biggs, a man 10 years her senior and “known to police”, but believed he just needed the love of family to mend his crooked ways.
His part in the brazen heist – to rob the equivalent of nearly $5 million in cash (£2.6 million) from the Glasgow to London mail train – came as a shock.
“From the day that happened, really, everything was totally out of my control and everything to do with him since has been totally out of my control,” she said in an earlier ABC interview.
Biggs was jailed for 30 years for the crime, only to escape in 1965, undergo plastic surgery in Paris and slip into Australia on New Year’s Day in 1966 under an assumed name.
Mrs Brent arrived in Darwin six months later and the couple drove inland, south to Melbourne.
“I didn’t want the children to grow up without a father, so the possibility that we were going to go somewhere else in the world together and start life afresh was what I wanted,” she said.
A third child was born in Australia, and the middle boy, Chris, was so acclimatised that he made it for a season in 1981 as a promising forward for Fitzroy.
After Biggs fled to Brazil, Mrs Brent agreed to a divorce when he was arrested but found to have a baby with a local woman, giving him the chance for asylum.
She said the pair remained in contact during his near three-decade exile in Brazil before he was sent back to prison in Britain, but it was a strain.
“He sent me a card in 2005 with words on it saying, ‘This is just to break the ice Charm’. I wrote him a letter back and said ‘This isn’t ice. This is a glacier we’re talking about’.”
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