A Thomas the Tank Engine cassette helped spark a 30-year friendship between a Stoneleigh man and Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs who died on Wednesday.

Mike Gray, 56, from Rosedale Road, Stoneleigh, has written numerous books about the robbery and his quiz book on the ‘crime of the century’ is coming out on Jan 1.

In 1989 Mr Gray, who became fascinated by the Great Train Robbery as a child, put an advert in a magazine in Brazil, where Biggs was living after escaping from Wandsworth Prison, in search of cuttings to add to his suitcase-sized collection.

A Beatles collector responded, asking for cassettes of Thomas the Tank Engine, narrated by Ringo Starr, in exchange for Biggs’ phone number and address.

Mr Gray said: "The rest is history. From 1989 we developed that friendship. From day one I said I would like to write a book about him."

Speaking about the death of the 84-year-old, Mr Gray said: "It is sad. This is someone who has been part of my life for 30 years now.

"He lived a good life. He has done a lot of things, some good, some bad, but his heart has always been in the right place."

This Is Local London:

Biggs’ death coincided with a BBC drama, aired this week, looking at how the gang stole £2.6 million in a raid on a London-bound mail train in 1963.

Mr Gray, who has lived in Stoneleigh for six years, described the coincidence as "typical", adding: "Ronnie Biggs was always upsetting the apple cart."

After Biggs returned to Britain in 2001 so he could receive free medical treatment, Mr Gray said: "I visited him regularly for the next eight years.

"He was a nice person but he was a chancer in the old days. I always found him an ordinary person, just like your own father or grandfather.

"Before the Great Train Robbery, his criminal activities were laughable."

Before the robbery in 1963, Biggs lived in Redhill and worked as a carpenter in the Epsom and Tolworth areas.

Another local link to the incident is that fellow train robber James Hussey married his wife Gill on Christmas Eve, 1975, at Epsom Registry Office after his prison release.

Of the BBC show, Mr Gray said: "For 25 years I have been villainised by the press for defending Ronnie Biggs and glorifying the crime.

"Who is glorifying the crime now? Ronnie Biggs is a worldwide phenomenon. Even though he died, he and the train robbery will live on for another 50 years."

Mr Gray’s quiz and fact books on Biggs were released in October and his quiz book, The Great Train Robbery Quiz Book, priced £2.49, will be published on New Year's Day.