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The Boys from Bethnal Green: How the infamous Kray Twins ruled the London underworld

By Thom L. Jones

East is East

American author Robert Warshow declared in an essay: “For the gangster there is only the city, he must inhibit it in order to personify it….not the real city but that dangerous sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world. And the gangster, though there are real gangsters- is also and primarily, a creature of the imagination. The real city, one might say, produces only criminals, the imaginary city produces the gangster, he is what we want to be and what we are afraid to become.”

In the 1960s, the British media often represented the East End of London as a somewhat glamorous and trendy area because of its underworld connotations. Images by famous photographer David Bailey showed snappily dressed young men wearing stylish suits and narrow ties, stovepipe trousers and sharply pointed shoes. TV stories and newspaper articles featured grainy images of street fights and gangland altercations. Teddy Boys morphed into Mods and Rockers. Brash, cocky young men maneuvered their way through an underworld, observed but not comprehended by a general public. You went through the East End but did not stay to linger or browse. It was almost a world apart from the rest of London; a tight-knit community, butting onto the dockland region that stretched from Tower Bridge east up the River Thames towards the countryside of Essex.

It was an area dominated by trade and commerce, some of which was no doubt being siphoned off into the pockets of criminal groups that operated here. Murder, extortion, thieving, money lending and prostitution were a way of life in the parts of the poverty-stricken atmosphere of south and east London.

“City of the Dead”

American Jack London, having lived in the East End for several weeks doing research for a novel, described the area as “Outcast London.” George Gissing, the Victorian author, best remembered for his novels New Grub Street and The Nether World, thought of it as “the City of the Dead.”

Although the destruction caused by bombing raids in the Second World War, and subsequent modern development has altered the look of much of the East End since the days of Charles Dickens, there are still streets in this area that have hardly changed in 300 years.

It is a place redolent of its historical past and cosmopolitan makeup. Jews from Poland, Russia, and Romania fleeing antisemitism settled here along with French Protestant Huguenots. Minorities and oppressed people poured into the area over the years, creating a rich and diverse mixture of cultures and traditions. In the old dockside villages of Limehouse and Rotherhithe, there are still Swedish chemists, Norwegian churches and Chinese restaurants run by the descendants of the people Conan Doyle used as the contacts Sherlock Holmes visited to score his opium supplies.

The East End was also the recipient of good as well as evil. William Booth founded the Salvation Army here and opened his first house in Whitechapel, close to Christopher Wren's Trinity House. George Peabody, an American who lived most of his life in London, bequeathed his considerable fortune to a charitable trust to fund education and slum clearance. Thomas Barnado, an Irishman, became superintendent of an impoverished free school, and in 1870, opened his first Children's Home. In a lifetime of unselfish toil, he rescued and trained 60,000 impoverished children and helped 250,000 more in want. The London Hospital, the largest general hospital in Britain situated in the East End, became the last home to John Merrick, famous as “The Elephant Man.”

Jack the Ripper

The East End is a setting for some of the most famous detective and mystery thrillers ever written. The novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, Henry Mayhew, Arthur Anthony Ward, and other Victorian novelists created images featuring criminal mischief of the deepest hues, involving immortal characters-Sherlock Holmes, Sweeney Todd, and the evil genius of Fu Manchu- among others.

The area is also famous as the stamping ground of the first world-famous serial killer: a man who subsequently became celebrated as Jack the Ripper. In 1888, between Friday 31 August and Friday 9 November, he savagely murdered and mutilated five women. All the killings involved prostitutes as victims, and all occurred in or near Whitechapel, a squalid, densely populated rabbit warren of a suburb flanking the City of London.

To the north, in an area called Hoxton (now commonly known as Shoreditch), was a dingy terraced house in Stene Street, the home of Charlie and Violet Kray and their son Charles David.

Birth of Britain’s most famous gangsters

On Tuesday, October 24, 1933, at 8 pm. Violet gave birth to twins-boys who would be christened Ronnie and Reggie. Reggie came into the world first-ten minutes ahead of Ronnie. They would grow up to become, arguably, Britain's most famous and infamous gangsters. Their rise to prominence was inextricably linked to their birthplace and its legends and folklore.

In comparison to the Mafia of Sicily and its American version, Cosa Nostra, the fiefdom that they would create in the years ahead was more akin to a raucous bunch of “jack-the-lads” than an evil organized crime cartel. But their fame or notoriety is vested more in the manner with which they achieved their status as much as in the quality of their acts of violence.

Their career was marked by the sheer improbability of their success and the ease with which they achieved it. Old style Cockney** villains, they came close to building a criminal empire, with an effortlessness that illustrated just how out of touch the forces of law and order were in this period, and how little the British establishment comprehended the true meaning of organized crime.

They were only ever convicted of two murders (one each) and, both of their victims were street thugs, with little to redeem them. The Krays were never charged or convicted of drug dealing, union manipulation and corruption or terrorism of the order demonstrated by their Italian or American counterparts. And yet, when finally cornered, tried and convicted, they received the most substantial prison sentence ever handed down by a British court of law for their criminal acts. Many people believe that the real victim in the case of Regina v Kray was the law itself.

Growing Up

The Krays were an old-fashioned East End family: self-sufficient, very clannish and devoted to each other. Their ancestors had arrived in Britain from Austria, and the twins had Irish, Jewish, and Romany (gypsy) blood in their veins.

Early in their lives, they were taken ill, having caught diphtheria. Reggie recovered quickly, but Ronnie almost died of the infection. It may have affected him for the rest of his life.

In 1939, the year that World War Two began, the family migrated from Shoreditch, one of the most congested areas in London, and moved about one mile east down the road to settle in Bethnal Green at 178 Vallance Road. It was a small, row house with no bathroom, and the toilet was located in the back yard.

In those days, Vallance Road was part of a ghetto, with many gambling dens, seedy pubs, billiard halls and brothels dotted across the blighted landscape. It was an area of hardened drinkers and boxing enthusiasts, renowned for its slum housing and high crime levels, and had some of the highest unemployment levels in Britain. The district was severely bombed during the Second World War; before that, it was one of the poorest parts of the entire East End and a breeding ground for criminals. It was the home of Bill Sykes, and Jack the Ripper murdered one of his victims here in Hanbury Street, a fifteen-minute walk from Number 178.

The Krays were a part of this vanishing Dickensian world. The older family members were well-known and distinctive local characters. “Big” Jimmy Kray, the paternal grandfather, was a stallholder in Hoxton Market, renowned for both his drinking prowess and his ability as a bar-fighter.

The maternal grandfather, Jimmy Lee the “Southpaw Cannonball,” had in his youth, been a bare-knuckle boxer, and then a music hall entertainer. He was a rarity in the family as he was a non-drinker. He and his son-in-law Charles, the twins' father, frequently clashed over the subject of booze. Granddad Lee was famous for his many talents and party tricks, which included stroking a white-hot poker over his tongue, walking on bottle tops, tap dancing and singing and playing musical instruments. He was a Jester to a court of poverty rather than one of wealth and power.

In his younger days, he had been a great athlete, and on one occasion when his son Johnny drove a group of friends in a hired bus to Southend-on-Sea, a distance of forty-two miles from London’s East End, Granddad Lee turned up on his bicycle, having ridden to the venue just for fun. His son was hard pressed to persuade him to make the return journey on the bus. Granddad was seventy-five at the time!

Young Charlie Kray, the twins' brother, had been born in 1927 at the first family home in Gorsuch Street in Hackney, the northern point of a triangle that included Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. His father, Charlie senior, had a great passion for boxing and passed this on to his three sons. Young Charlie often dreamed of winning the Lonsdale Belt as a boxing champion of the world. He was seven when the twins were born and would often wheel them around the neighborhood in their pram.

Violet's husband was a “pesterer,” a traveling trader, who would go on the “knocker,” roaming the country buying and selling silver, gold, and clothing. He became a familiar sight in the provinces with his old clothes bag and a pair of gold scales. He earned good money, and his family lived well above the standard of most others in Bethnal Green. A spendthrift, gambler and "serious" drinking man who was friendly with many of the better known East End villains of his day, he was something of an absentee father as his twins were growing up.

As the elder Charlie roamed the country buying and selling, Violet worked hard at holding the family together. A warm, generous woman, softly spoken, but with exceptional will power and perseverance, as a girl, Violet had been something of a local beauty, and strong-willed, romantic and possessive. With her husband away from home so much, she built her life around her three sons. Endowed with a great singing voice and had a pleasant sanguine personality, Violet never seeming to criticize or complain about anything. The twins were always well dressed and taught the values of respect and the need to treat people less fortunate than themselves with consideration and understanding.

Like most Cockney matriarchs, she understood the importance of family values and the strength and support they create in times of stress and adversity. Her sisters Rose and May lived either side of her in Vallance Road; her brother Jimmy shared her home and slept at nights in the living room of the small terraced house, while Granddad Lee, his wife and son John, lived across the road above the cafe they operated.

Aunty Rose was the twins' favorite. When Ronnie was teased in school about his eyebrows being too close, she told him that it was an omen- that he was "born to be hanged." Her death in later years was the catalyst that finally tipped Ronnie over the edge into the madness that had been waiting to claim him for most of his adult life.

Charles David was a gentle, easygoing sort of child. As a young man, he worked as a messenger for Lloyd's of London in the City. He became more and more involved in boxing, training in the local gym. His Granddad Lee set up a punching bag and a small gym in a room in the Vallance Road home. Charles carried out his National Service in the Royal Navy, where he boxed as a welterweight, winning many fights. He was eventually discharged, medically unfit, because of severe migraine attacks.

He joined up with his father, working as a dealer in second-hand clothing and precious metals. On Christmas Day, 1948, he married his childhood sweetheart, a girl called Dorothy Moore and, after converting his gym back into a bedroom, they moved into Vallance Road. Charlie's wife was apparently possessive, highly-strung, moody and had a vivid imagination; also, she did not make friends easily, and the twins didn't care for her very much. As Charlie spent more and more time with his wife, he and his brothers pulled further and further apart.

As they grew older, the twins were mischievous. They were identical, dark-eyed like their father, and hard little nuts. Violet and her parents doted on them, and they were indulged mainly by their Aunt Rose. Rose had been a pretty woman in her youth, but with a fiery temper, who often would fight, physically, with other women in the street. After the twins had caught diphtheria and measles, Ronnie seemed slower and more socially awkward than Reggie, who seemed to find it easier to get on with people than his brother did.

Ronnie and Reggie Kray as young kids

Charlie, their older brother, taught the twins to box, and they proved so good at this that they got through to the finals of the London Schools Boxing Championship three times, and even ended up on one occasion fighting each other. In December 1951, all three brothers appeared on the same billing in a middle-weight boxing championship held at the Royal Albert Hall.

The twins were always inseparable. They would often fight each other, but would never allow a third party to come between them. Like many identical twins, they seemed "different" to the other tough little kids in the neighborhood.

Growing up during the Second World War period, the boys were basically reared by a household of women. Their father was on the run from the law, having refused to join up for military service. So Ronnie and Reggie's formative years were strongly influenced by their mother Violet, her two sisters, and their grandmother. Violet's love, almost a kind of "smother care" gave the twins a sense of nearly superhuman invincibility. She accepted everything they did, destroying their ability to judge right from wrong.

Boxing

Although Reggie (right) loved the company of others, Ronnie was a bit of a loner and spent a lot of time on his own, or in the company of his Alsatian dog, Freda, roaming across the bombed-out sites and blighted landscape of the East End. By the age of twelve, after attending Wood Close School, they were both pupils at Daniel Street School, in Bethnal Green, where Reggie excelled in English and Ronnie's forte was general knowledge. Three times a week, their father or Charlie, their brother, would take them to the Robert Browning Youth Club for boxing lessons. From there, they graduated to The Repton Boxing Club, where sometimes, they would fight each other.

When they reached fifteen and left school, they worked in the Billingsgate Fish Market, the biggest in Europe, for six months. This was to be the most extended legitimate employment they ever had. Reggie trained as a salesman, and Ronnie worked as an “empty boy,” scouring the market each day, collected empty fish boxes for his employer. They also worked on the weekends, helping out their Granddad Kray on his stall in Hoxton Street Market which had its origins in the 17th Century.

On one occasion, a traveling fairground came to Bethnal Green, and the twins fought each other in an exhibition match at one of the boxing booth stalls. They collected some money for their efforts, and afterward considered themselves as professional boxers.

In 1948, Reggie was the Schoolboy Boxing Champion of Hackney and went on to become the London Schoolboy Champion, as well as getting to the finals in the Great Britain Schoolboys event. Ronnie also achieved similar accolades within junior boxing levels. Charlie, their brother, recalled: “As boxers, they were quite different from each other. Reggie was cool, cautious with plenty of skill; most importantly, he always listened to advice. Ronnie was quite the opposite-he would go in boots and all, and never hold back, until he dropped.”

Trouble and gangs

They seemed to attract trouble and, from an early age, and loved to scrap and fight with anybody. It was customary for gang differences to be settled with fists, boots, knives and various other weapons. They were the toughest in any of the local teenage gangs and managed to reach the age of seventeen before they had a serious run-in with the law. Then, a boy who had been badly mauled in a gang fight outside a dance hall in Hackney testified against them. But at that moment, with a foretaste of things to come, their trial was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Somebody had got to the witnesses.

By this time, they were boxing professionally and were quite successful; Ronnie (right) had six bouts arranged and won four of them, and Reggie won all of the six fights in which he competed.

On March 2, 1952, they were called up for National Service. This was a two-year mandatory military duty that all fit men over the age of eighteen were required to complete in Britain. They reported to Waterloo Barracks at the Tower of London and were assigned to the Royal Fusiliers. The twins did not take kindly to the military, and after an altercation with one of their training sergeants, they beat him up and fled back to Vallance Road. The police arrested them the next day, and they were returned to their regiment for punishment.

For the next two years, they were either on the run from the Army or serving time in military prisons. Sentenced on one occasion on May 12, 1953, to nine months at Shepton Mallet Military Prison, in Somerset, then, the oldest prison in Great Britain, they met up with a whole new group of men who shared disrespect for any kind of discipline. One of this faction was a man whose path they would repeatedly cross in the years ahead; a man who would come to run his own outfit in the south of London, surprisingly enough in conjunction with his brother. In due course, into this crew would come a man who was to have a profound impact on the future of the twins.

Lords of the Manor

After they were dishonorably discharged from the Army, the twins went into their first business venture. In 1954, with a loan from elder brother Charlie, (although he never mentions it in his biography, “Me and My Brothers,”) they assumed the title to a lease on a fourteen-table billiard hall, which had been converted from an old movie theater called The Regal in Eric Street, off the Mile End Road in Bethnal Green. Before this, they may have been part of a gang run by Tommy “Scarface” Smithson, a Liverpool-born gangster who was shot dead by a group of Maltese thugs in June 1956.

Maltese gangs came and went through the history of London’s post-war underworld. The biggest, run by Bernie Silver and “Big” Frank Mifsud, known as “The Syndicate,” was alleged to have over 170 members at its peak.

The billiard hall was open day and night, and soon became a regular meeting haunt for a disparate group of people. Men fresh out of prison, old friends the twins had known in the Army, some of the local criminals and tough teenage boys from the Mile End looking for some excitement. Ronnie began to develop an image he had dreamed of over the years. Dressing gangster-style, double-breasted, wide-shouldered suits, large rings, and chunky bracelet watches, facing the door from his own chair to check the arrivals. He loved the atmosphere, and as the table lights flickered on, he would hand out cigarettes to people and say, "Smoke up. There's not enough smoke in here."

A local Maltese gang tried to strong-arm them into paying protection. Ronnie sorted them double quick, with a saber. Nobody tried this approach again with the brothers. In Cockney rhyming slang, the Epsom Salts i.e. Malts, became more involved in vice and prostitution, and slowly, disappeared off the Kray’s horizon.  

Some nights, the twins would invite a group of their hangers-on to drink with them. They would go to a crowded, noisy pub, never knowing what the evening would bring.

One thing was for sure. At some stage, it would involve brawling and fighting.

Hundreds of bar brawls

The twins loved to mix it with anyone at any time. Although not particularly big men, standing about five-nine and weighing under one hundred seventy pounds, they were extremely skilled fighters, and in the several hundred bar brawls, and punch-ups they were involved in, they never seemed to come off second best. They both were abnormally sturdy in the arms and shoulders and precise in the use of their fists as weapons. They seemed to exist on little or no sleep. Ronnie, on one occasion, reputedly drank fifty-five bottles of beer in one night, and yet the next day, carried on as usual.

Reggie developed a trademark “sucker punch.” He practiced it for hours on a punching bag. He would offer a man a cigarette with his right hand, and as the man was accepting it into his mouth, Reggie would slug him with a cruel left hook. He broke many jaws. An open jaw fractures easily.

The twins very quickly learned the importance of leadership and discipline. From the start, Ronnie understood the significance of reliable information and intelligence gathering, He gathered about him a group of young boys he used to meet in a cafe in the Bethnal Green Road. He called them “my little information service” and used them extensively to watch houses, clubs or to follow someone and then report back. He also started to develop a taste for them in a different way.

Although Reggie was a capable fighter and organizer, Ronnie seemed more and more to grasp the initiative. After one prolonged briefing with a group of their followers, one of them said, "Christ, Ron. You're just like a bloody colonel."

The name stuck.

Although short-sighted and a mediocre shot, Ronnie was obsessed with firearms, and stored a collection of these, along with bayonets, cavalry sabers, and Ghurkha knives, under the floorboards at 178 Vallance Road. Reggie was the more practical and opportunistic one and saw the billiard hall for what it could indeed be: a venue, safe and protected from the police, where local villains could meet freely and exchange ideas and information without fear of interference from the law. In time, the hall was being used to store stolen goods and acting as a conduit for local fences. Always, a good percentage went to the twins.

Outsiders

At this point in their careers, they were basically outsiders in the criminal underworld of the East End. Most of the dangerous “guv'nors” or provincial crime barons ignored them. An apocryphal story of the time relates that three brothers, dockers, from Poplar, who ruled the local area, demanded protection money from the Regal. They refused, so they sent the twins an invitation, sometime in late Autumn, for a Sunday evening drink, (or a mid-day one depending on the source, of which there are many) at a pub in the Mile End Road. It was common knowledge that this was “D” day and the chips were down.

That night, (or day, depending on the source,) the twins wandered down to the pub and walked into the private bar where three huge men were quietly drinking. The twins closed the door, and the fight began. When it ended, the pub manager decided to check and see if the twins had learned their lesson. There were blood and broken glass everywhere; two of the dockers were stretched out unconscious on the floor, and Ronnie had to be dragged off the third one before he killed him. It’s a spurious narrative, one of many similar incidents that over the years have become the weft and weave of the Kray’s legendary amazing technicolor dream coat.  

Living with his parents

Ronnie had a surprisingly simple life. He lived at his parents' home in Vallance Road, where his doting mother cared for his wants. Apart from running the billiard hall and getting into the odd fight, there seemed little else to interest him. He couldn't drive, (eventually, Johnny Dickson would be one of his chauffeurs,) didn't know how to thieve and had no understanding of betting or gambling, and no urge for grand living. His only weakness was for young boys. Having no interest in women, with boys he could be unexpectedly sentimental and gentle. Being wary of being known as a homosexual, he rarely, if ever, took a boy out on the town.

What he really wanted was fame and recognition. All his life, he had lived a "Walter Mitty" existence, peopled with gangsters, boxers, and military heroes. Now that he was the "Colonel," he was achieving his ambition. He had his haircut and his nails manicured at home. A masseur called to give him personal treatment every morning. He practiced yoga each day, and at one time lived on a diet of raw eggs because he believed they helped to strengthen the body and make it useful for sex. He became obsessively cautious about the police and became convinced his telephone was tapped. He would sleep at night with a gun under his pillow and the light left on.

More and more Reggie slipped into the dark and brooding shadow of Ronnie. He adopted Ronnie's dress habits; he would match his violence when required, but craved for what he called "the good life." Possession, respect, a wife, the very things that were furthest from Ronnie's thoughts.

By 1956, their twenty-second year, the twins were a formidable pair. Ronnie would garnish their reputation for violence and Reggie would promote it for all it was worth. But at the end of the day, they both were there if a fight presented itself.

Soon, they were generating cash by “poncing” off local villains. “Poncing” in the London East End vernacular, was extorting a share of illegal profits resulting from thieving and robbery committed on their patch.

Illegal bookmaking and gambling dens also became a primary potential source of corruption. Thieves, anxious to off-load their spoils, would make the twins their first contact point. There were also the old-time Cockney con tricks to be worked. They became experts at working the “tweedle” and “jargon” scams which involved manipulating paste rings and jewelry and screwing victims out of their money before they discovered their mistakes. But the Krays were after more than the small-time stuff. At some stage in this period of their lives, they both agreed that they were hungering for something else. They wanted to be the barons of crime, rather than the serfs.

Continue reading - Part 2

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