INFAMOUS: Train robber Ronnie Biggs in old age.
INFAMOUS: Train robber Ronnie Biggs in old age. Contributed

Meet the publican who knew train robber Ronnie Biggs

STUART Toms is putting the Biggs in Biggenden - or at least, the curious tale of how he used to spend time with one of the world's most wanted men.

Mr Toms, who has become the new publican at Biggenden's Grand Hotel, lived in South America for several years in his younger days, working on luxurious cruise ships.

While there, every fortnight or so he would dock in Rio de Janeiro where he would catch up with an on-the-run Ronnie Biggs, one of the gang members of the famous Great Train Robbery in 1963, the "heist of the century” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Mr Biggs spent decades in Brazil until returning to the UK in 2001 and died in 2013 aged 84.

"I used to have a drink with him every couple of weeks in the '90s,” Mr Toms said.

A friend pointed out who Mr Toms had been hanging out with, but the reality didn't sink in straight away.

"I knew the history, but didn't know he was in Rio at the time,” Mr Toms said.

FRESH START: Diane and Stuart Toms, Grand Hotel Biggenden's new publicans.
FRESH START: Diane and Stuart Toms, Grand Hotel Biggenden's new publicans. Erica Murree

Despite Biggs' part in the train robbery - which would go on to become the subject matter of numerous books and movies - Mr Toms said Biggs was a remarkable man.

"I still have a lot of really good photos with him,” he said.

Biggs signed one photo with: 'to Stuart, my kind of luck, Ronnie Biggs'.

Mr Toms said the meetings were unforgettable.

"He was so humble - the aura of this man - he is my number one as just a brilliant man, very humble,” he said.

"He was a great character - he's definitely one I will always remember.”

Mr Toms said Biggs was an open book when it came to discussing the robbery, but had revealed there was a one mystery not even he could solve.

"The only question he couldn't answer was who shot the mail clerk,” Mr Toms said.

"They were all supposed to be unarmed, but I don't believe anybody has actually been pinned for the firearms.”

The Toms family, which includes wife Di and daughter Maddison, 15, settled in Hervey Bay where Mr Toms managed a series of pubs, before the parents moved out to Augathella to take over the Ellangowan Hotel.

Augathella's pub was nine hours west and the only pub within 100km.

"After being at Augie we decided our next pub would be out west somewhere,” Mr Toms said.

"It's always been hospitality. That's been our life, pubs and motels.”

With a population of around 900 and a relaxed lifestyle, Biggenden was the perfect next step for the family.

"The Grand Hotel turns over pretty well,” Mr Toms said.

"I think we did 20 lunches and we're averaging 30-40 dinners.”

Mr Toms said he couldn't do it without his wife, Di, helping to run the show.

"I couldn't do this without her,” he said.

Mr Toms said everybody knew everybody and in Biggenden, your nearest neighbours might not be that near, but that didn't stop them coming together at the town's only pub.

"They're true, honest people here,” he said.

"No one has their phone in their face here.

"A good conversation beats a phone any day of the week.”

Mr Toms was also involved with casinos for many years, and during a stint living in Las Vegas, he became one of the first Australian dealers to lay the cards out in a World Series of Poker tournament.

"I became a bit of a whizz kid at it and studied it for a number of years,” he said.

While not a player himself, Mr Toms learned all the ins and outs of reading poker players.

How people hold their cards, the strength or weakness in touching their chips and the movements of their eyes and body all play a big part, he says.

As for what's popular on the menu, Mr Toms said steaks were always popular.

"We source everything locally. We bring all our purchases back into town to help the community, the meat is fresh and delicious,” he said.

Classic bangers and mash is a hit at lunch time.

"My drovers, stockmen and farm owners want a decent meal,” Mr Toms said.

Mr Toms said being a publican was the life for him.

"We're really stoked, it's a dying breed but it's something I still sternly believe in,” he said.

"We're happy to be here and we'll be here for a while and supporting the community.”

Mr Toms will continue the good work of former publicans Danny and Kerry Nevins by donating $2 from chicken schnitzels to Biggenden State School.



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