Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs was starting the “last chapter” of his life last night after being freed from prison on compassionate grounds by Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
Biggs, 80 today, was said to be “extremely weak” in hospital in Norwich, where he is being treated for pneumonia.
Relatives said they hoped that Biggs, who spent 30 years on the run after being part of a gang which stole £2.6 million in 1963, would be fit enough to move to a nursing home later this month.
Biggs was moved to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital last week from Norwich prison.
Mr Straw announced late on Thursday that he planned to free Biggs, and three prison wardens standing guard left the hospital at around 2pm yesterday after release paperwork was completed.
Biggs' son Michael said the robber would live the rest of his life away from the public gaze.
“As a family we are absolutely thrilled,” he said. “My father is now a free man and that's all there is to say. It was very emotional when the guards left.”
He told journalists gathered outside the hospital: “The media made Ronnie Biggs into what he is and the media is here when Ronnie Biggs is about to close this last chapter.
“He will now be retreating fully from public life. This is not going to turn into a media circus.
“There is absolutely no chance of my father being seen in the West End with a couple of girls around him. This is not going to turn into some sort of freak show and my father is not going to turn into some sort of ‘z-list’ celebrity.
“It is going to be very private from now on.”
Mr Biggs waved the terms of his father's release licence at reporters and said: “It smells like freedom.”
And he told how Biggs had “joked” as the guards left.
“My father still has a sense of humour,” he said. “He shook hands with the prison guards and then just waved them off.”
Mr Biggs said his father, who can no longer walk or speak, would undergo minor surgery in the next few days. He said no decisions on when he might leave hospital would be made for at least a week.
A 15-strong gang attacked the Glasgow to London mail train at Ledburn, Buckinghamshire, 46 years ago today — making off with £2.6m.
Biggs, from Lambeth, south London, was given a 30-year sentence but escaped after 15 months and lived in Australia and Brazil — where Michael Biggs was born.
He returned to the UK voluntarily in 2001 and was sent back to prison. Since then his health has deteriorated and he has suffered a series of strokes.
Hospital officials said last night that Biggs' release would make no difference to his treatment.
They said he would remain on a general ward with other elderly patients until he was deemed fit to leave by doctors.
‘Prison is no place to grow old and die if it can be avoided’
The decision to release Ronnie Biggs from prison has provoked a mixed reaction.
Biggs was one of the gang that committed the Great Train Robbery in 1963, during which train driver Jack Mills was coshed over the head and knocked unconscious.
Mr Mills did not work again after the attack.
Keith Norman, general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, said that Biggs was “no Robin Hood”, adding: “While driver Mills was lying in hospital the man involved in attacking him while he was going about his daily work was enjoying himself in bars in South America. There is a clear and desperate injustice in that.”
However, the Prison Reform Trust said that the Government should now review the jail terms of hundreds of elderly prisoners.
Trust director Juliet Lyon said: “Our prisons are filling up with infirm, elderly people for whom that bleak environment serves as a double punishment.
“The Justice Secretary will now need to give thought to the hundreds of prisoners over the age of 70 who — if they are still considered a danger to the public — should be held in secure homes for the elderly rather than in prisons which, day in, day out, run in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act.
“Prison is no place to grow old and die if there is any way that can be avoided.”
Justice Secretary Jack Straw chose to release Biggs on compassionate grounds after medical evidence showed that he was not expected to recover from a bout of pneumonia.
Biggs' son Michael said the decision was “good news for the taxpayer”.
He said: “They will no longer have to pay to have three prison guards with metal detectors and so on watching over my father.”