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The Boys from Bethnal Green - Part 2: How the infamous Kray Twins ruled the London underworld

By Thom L. Jones

This is part 2 of a series. To go back to part 1 click here. To skip to part 3 scroll down.

Going Away

London has always had criminals. The biggest city in Britain, it acted as a magnet, drawing into its fold those anxious to make money without the respectable inconvenience of working for it. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Odessian and Bessarabian gangs preyed on Russian immigrants in the Whitechapel quarter of the East End. The Blind Beggar Gang, a team of skilled pick-pockets, operated out of a public house that would become famous in later years as the site of a gangland shooting involving the Krays. Street thugs formed into groups and called themselves The Titanics or The Hoxton Mob or The Vendetta Mob. The Jamaican underworld, and a Japanese called Sess Miyakawa, along with Chinese, “Brilliant” Chang, rang drug rings in the early 1920s.

From the Sabini gang to Jack Spot and Billy Hill

The first of the British gangs that had any real international connections were the Sabinis, led by Charles "Darby" Sabini, who the press labeled “Britain's Leading Gangster. He operated around the racecourses of South England and also ran protection rackets with clubs as well as running highly organized robbery teams. The Sabinis flourished for almost twenty years, often importing Sicilian criminals to help them in their skirmishes with other groups such as the Elephant and Castle Mob, and even the Peaky Blinders from Birmingham.

After the Second World War, the two major gang leaders in London and South England were Billy Hill and Jacob Colmore, aka Jack “Spot” Comer, who between the 1930s and 1950s may have been the most powerful gang boss in the south of England.

They had formed an alliance and liked to refer to themselves as “the kings of the underworld.” And then, for some reason, they fell out. Spot was attacked in Soho and had his faced slashed. He called on the twins to back him against Billy Hill and his gang. The twins accepted the invitation and made it known they were supporting him. In the spring of 1955, they accompanied Comer to the spring Epsom Races, where underworld power brokers would gather and strut their status like Peacocks in heat.

Off and on over the next twelve months, the two groups fronted up to each other, but full-scale warfare never erupted; then on a warm May night in 1956, Jack Spot was ambushed outside his home in Marylebone by Frankie Fraser, Bobby Warren, and a group of other thugs and severely injured. That was it for Jack Spot. He called it quits, retired and bought a furniture store. Billy Hill also retired and purchased a villa in southern Spain.

The twins had been almost ready to graduate into the big time, but without Spot to guide them, they were lost in the intricacies of complex criminal administration. The vacuum created by the resignations of Spot and Hill was filled by several criminal gangs, the most important being a group of Italians, based in a social club in the Clerkenwell Road. Rumors spread that some of these men were after the twins to settle old scores resulting from the Hill-Comer altercation.

One night, the twins and a group of their gang drove to this address. Ronnie stormed into the club and, after a brief dispute with a group of men at the bar, he drew out a Mauser pistol and fired three shots. He hit no one, and no one attempted to stop him as he walked back out to the group waiting for him in a truck parked outside.

Ronnie left the social club in a glow. This was what being a gangster was all about. If Spot and Hill could rule the London underworld with gangsters like the Italians, he and Reggie would be unstoppable. Now as Ronnie said, “We weren't playing kid's games anymore.”

Another account of this incident, suggests the altercation at the Central Club was in fact triggered by merely an argument between Ronnie and another patron, a man called Billy Alco, over a perceived insult.

Becoming “The Firm”

Things began to change, subtly within their group. The kids' games were over. There would still be plenty of partying and good times, but now they no longer had gang fights just for the hell of it. Acts would require reason. Everything had to have a purpose.

The billiard hall developed into a business venue rather than just a party place. Ronnie spent more time thinking about what he called the politics' of crime. Genuine criminals and villains began to replace the young tearaways that had formed the nucleus of the gang. These new men banded together into what became known as “The Firm” and, over the years to come, would consist of Ronnie and Reggie, their cousin Ronnie Hart, and men such as Albert Donoghue, Alfred “Limehouse” Lilly, Ian Barrie, Teddy Smith, Pat Connolly, Big Tommy Brown, also known as “The Bear”, Connie Whitehead, Dave Simmonds, Nobby Clarke, Sammy Lederman, Scotch Jack Dickson(Ronnie’s driver,) John Barry, Ronnie Bender,(Reggie’s driver,) and the Greek brothers, Tony Lambrianou, and sometimes, his brother, Chris, (who lived in Birmingham,) Johnny Davis, Billy Exley, Billy “Jack” Frost and others. Some came and went, into and out of prison, or when they moved from London, or died. Charlie Kray (right) did not play much of a part in the gang and was often left out of many of their enterprises.

In London at this time, a firm was an enterprise that was cash-driven: bars, clubs, extortion-rackets and gambling. They kept no records and generally looked after their people when they landed in prison. A mob, on the other hand, was a group of villains who specialized in robbery with violence.

The brothers had plenty of enforcers in their crew. “Bear” Brown was once arrested at his home in Tottenham, and allegedly knocked out eleven police officers before being subdued.

At some stage late in the 1950s, a man became attached to “The Firm,” working small time on the fringes, never strictly "made" into the group. He was balding, and always wore a hat, and one day he would come to haunt the twins.

Real money, real problems

Now, for the first time in their lives, the Krays were making some real money. Reggie acquired his first American car and Ronnie was openly admitting his homosexuality. By the end of 1956, they controlled an area from Bethnal Green east to Mile End, and Bow, south to Stepney and north to Hackney and Walthamstow. Within this area of over fourteen square miles, every thief, gambling den, most of the pubs and many businesses paid their dues to the Krays. Whatever else they did, extortion was the primary source of income for “The Firm” during this period They were becoming known as "the most dangerous mob in London."

In the autumn of 1956, Ronnie shot someone for the first time.

A car dealer in Bethnal Green Road was under the protection of the twins. He sold a car to a dockworker from South London. When the man returned the car, complaining it burned oil, the dealer refused to refund the purchase price. The irate buyer threatened to return the next day with his friends from over the water (the River Thames). The dealer rang Ronnie who agreed to deal with the matter. The next day the car owner did return, but he came alone. He was talking to the dealer when Ronnie stormed into the office and in a brief struggle, fired his Luger pistol, shooting the man in the leg.

Taken to Bancroft Road Hospital, the man identified Ronnie as the shooter. The next day, a man was brought to the hospital, and the victim identified his attacker. Except when the police charged Ronald Kray with gbh (grievous bodily harm), he swore he was not Ronnie but Reggie and produced his driving license to prove it. His alibi for the time of the shooting was so strong, the embarrassed police at Arbour Square station had to release him. Then using the services of “Red Face” Tommy Plumley, an East End fixer of great renown, all the other parties involved were sworn to secrecy, and the victim was rewarded with a substantial cash settlement for his pain and suffering.

Lenny Hamilton, one of “The Firm” had a different version of this incident, claiming after the shooting, the victim was taken to a Dr. Blasker, a struck-off physician, who patched-up the wounded man. There were allegedly a number of these doctors scatted across the London area, often drug or gambling addicts, barred from practicing, who paid their way through life offering this kind of service.

After the shooting, Ronnie seemed a bit like Superman, according to one of the gang. It appeared that there was nothing he couldn't do and get away with.

But the tension between the twins increased dramatically after the affair with the shooting of the docker. Although Ronnie couldn't stop boasting of his confrontation, Reggie's attitude was the opposite. At times he seemed horrified at Ronnie's actions. “You must be raving mad,” he would shout at his brother. “You shoot a man, then leave it to me to clear up the mess. One day you'll get us hanged.” His brother invariably replied something along the lines of, “You couldn't shoot a someone if you tried. You haven't got the guts of a flea.”

By the middle of 1956, the twins, at last, had a foothold in the West End of London. A friend of theirs, Billy Jones, an ex-docker, had taken over a drinking club called The Stragglers, situated off Cambridge Circus in Soho. Although it was a well-run place, it also attracted a lot of undesirables and, consequently, was a favorite place for fights. These were unwelcomed by the owners, as they, in turn, also attracted the law. An associate of Jones, called Bobby Ramsey, suggested calling in the twins as partners to handle the troublemakers. Reggie and Ronnie were delighted to be partners, and they soon put an end to the trouble. Then some real problems developed. Jones got into an argument with a thug called Charlie who was part of a gang called The Watney Streeters, descendants of the old-time Watney Street gang operating mainly in Shadwell and Poplar, who had always been enemies of the villains of Bethnal Green.

They were mainly dockworkers, who apart from their reputation as brawlers, thieved off the docks they worked. Jimmy Fuller was their leader, and many were related by marriage. They were all thieves and renowned for their drinking capabilities. The twins scornfully referred to them as “weekend gangsters.”

Jones came off the worst in the fight. Ramsey, the boxer, retaliated by beating up Charlie the next night. Two nights after that, Charlie and a bunch of thugs corner Ramsey in an East End pub called The Artichoke, beat and kicked him and left him on the street, badly worked over.

Although Ramsey recovered, Ronnie felt he now had to become involved because of his relationship with both Jones and Ramsey. He laid careful plans, using his secret service of small boys to update him on the movements of his victims. Two weeks after Ramsey was beaten, Ronnie, Reggie, and a dozen men descended on a pub called the Britannia in Morris Street, Whitechapel where Charlie and his friends were drinking. However, they had learned of the ambush, and as Ronnie and his mob came in through the front door, the intended victims disappeared through the back door. The only one left in the pub was someone called Terry Martin, who Ramsey believed had been one of his attackers. He was dragged outside and beaten almost to death.

Later that night, Ramsey and Ronnie were stopped by a police patrol car, as they were driving through Stepney in Ramsey's black Buick. Eventually, both brothers were tried for assault on Martin, and although Reggie was acquitted, Ronnie took the fall and went off to prison. On a miserable, wet Friday, November 5, 1956, he entered Wandsworth Prison to start a three-year sentence. Things would never be quite the same after this day for Ronnie.

In and Out

In the East End of London, anyone serving a prison sentence is simply referred to as an “away.” Any close friend of the Krays who had been locked up had always been looked after. The brothers would organize regular visits and do what they could to help the prisoner's family. The professional prisoners in Wandsworth had heard about “The Colonel” and the way the Krays looked after their friends. They knew he had a brother outside who still commanded much power and could be of great help to men on release.

Prison life adjusted smoothly for Ronnie. In theory, all men are equal in prison. In practice, it varies significantly according to the distribution of the currency that governs the prisoners' lives. In all prisons, almost everywhere, in this period, the currency was tobacco. Reggie soon had manipulated the currency at Wandsworth to benefit his brother. Once Ronnie had all he needed, he began to use it to isolate himself from the rest of the prison society. He manipulated the work system and supplemented his prison diet with supplies bought from the canteen.

And so, Ronnie started his jail sentence to suit his requirements, rather than that of the penal system that had sent him there. His life behind bars became an extension of his other life. His followers and sycophants flocked around him and listened to his philosophy on the masterminding of crime. He had his servants to look after his needs, and he had his periods of silence and meditation when he was not to be disturbed.

Back on the streets, Reggie began life without his brother, more relaxed and confident outside of his Ronnie’s shadow. Now that he headed “The Firm,” he came into his own and started showing who was a leader and an earner. He decided that they needed a new base, and started looking for a suitable site. The billiard hall was under threat in any case, as the area was to be redeveloped into blocks of city-funded apartments or housing projects. It ultimately became, ironically, a retirement village.

New headquarters

After a long and thorough search of his “manor,” he settled on an empty shop, which was located at 145 Bow Road about two miles east of the family home in Bethnal Green. It was derelict, but it was well located, and the rent was cheap. Reggie and two of his crew did all of the redecorating and, a few months after Ronnie walked into Wandsworth Prison, Reggie was hosting the opening night on their new base - “the finest drinking club the East End's ever known.” It was a mere 200 yards from Bow Street Police Station.

Reggie built a gym above the club rooms and Henry Cooper, the famous British boxer, came along and officially opened the premises on May 6, 1957. It soon developed a reputation and started to attract celebrities -show business personalities, artists, a playboy or two. To them, it was an authentic East End atmosphere. To Reggie, they were the start of a love affair he would develop over the years with the rich and famous. Although the club was all Reggie's, his brother was not forgotten. It was called The Double R.

The club was a success, and Reggie started to make money as a legitimate businessman, although he did not forsake his criminal activities. Instead, he moved through these more cautiously. He was still cunning and manipulative and was prepared to settle old scores.

A few months after Ronnie went to prison, a club owned by the Martin family, in Poplar near The Isle of Dogs, was burned to the ground. At the time, Reggie and a friend, who just happened to be a policeman, were fishing in Suffolk. He heard about an enemy who was shopping around for a gun and visited the dealer who subsequently sold the firearm to the man. When the enemy fired at Reggie one night outside The Double R, it exploded and blew away most of his hand.

Elder brother Charlie came back into Reggie's life. Without Ronnie around, Charlie and Reggie seemed to relate to each other more equitably. Charlie was an easygoing sort of man, and he and his wife Dolly fitted in well with the atmosphere of The Double R. Charlie, in fact, was one of the lessee’s of the new club.

Fame

They mixed and mingled comfortably with the stars that were now visiting in increasing numbers, particularly women such as Jackie Collins, Sybil Burton (wife of actor Richard,) and Barbara Windsor.

Charlie was a shrewd businessman. He convinced Reggie to expand, and they bought another drinking club in Stratford and developed a used car lot on some spare land next to the billiard hall in Eric Street. Although gambling was illegal and horse betting could only take place at recognized racetracks, they set up The Wellington Way Club, what was referred to as a “spieler,” an illicit gambling venue. It became their biggest money-spinner by far. What made the place particularly interesting was that it was situated in a house they had rented right next to the car park of Bow Street Police Station.

After six months in Wandsworth Prison, Ronnie was transferred to Camp Hill on the Isle of Wight, about one hundred miles southwest of London. This was not to Ronnie's liking. Here, he had no power, no tobacco currency clout and seemed a continent away from his friends and contacts back in the East End. Slowly he began to change. He withdrew into himself and began to believe that he was the target of unknown assailants. He spent most of his time in his cell, and the wardens, worried that he might harm himself, kept him under constant observation. This only made him more nervous.

“Certified insane”

In due course, he was moved back across to the mainland and sent to Winchester Goal and transferred into the psychiatric wing for observation. He was diagnosed as having “prison psychosis,” which covered any kind of mental disorder brought on by confinement, and he was heavily sedated. It seemed that the treatment was working and he would recover, and then on Christmas Day, 1957, Aunt Rose died after a long battle with leukemia. Ronnie learned of the news two days later and went berserk. He had to be placed in a straitjacket for his own safety.

On the morning of December 28, Violet Kray received an official telegram from the governor of Winchester Goal:

“Your son Ronald Kray is certified insane.”

On February 20th, 1958, Ronnie (right) was removed from Winchester and driven by ambulance back towards London. He was taken to Long Grove Hospital, situated in the peaceful Surrey countryside. A Victorian lunatic asylum, located just a mile from Epsom, it was one of many erected in the late nineteenth century to accommodate the growing numbers of mentally disturbed people from the slums of London.

After analyzing and examining him, the doctors decided he was: “A simple man of low intelligence, poorly in touch with the outside world.” He had been the victim of a schizophrenic breakdown, and although he could never be cured, drugs would make his life more comfortable. The experts, however, were not entirely on the ball in diagnosing Ronnie.

He undoubtedly was schizophrenic, but what they missed was the fact that his illness also fell into a category that was often very difficult to spot. He was a paranoid schizophrenic. In this version, the patient, although apparently outwardly healthy, is driven inwardly by his obsessions. The classic symptom-delusions of grandeur, extreme feelings of persecution, self-protection phobia and identification with historical figures-were apparent in Ronnie's mental instability, but without a thorough background check on their patient, the doctors came to miss this and underestimated the seriousness of his illness.

Although the specialists noticed an improvement in Ronnie's condition, they decided he should stay at Long Grove, and by the end of May, he was desperate to escape. Reggie was just the man to come up with the perfect plan.

Sundays were the primary visiting day, and on one of these in June, Reggie accompanied by a friend, George Osborne, walked into the visiting room at the hospital. Reggie was wearing a fawn raincoat, and Ronnie was there to greet them, smartly dressed in a blue suit and maroon colored tie. Although there was always a male nurse on duty during visiting hours, Ronnie did nothing to arouse his concern. He and his brother and Osborne sat chatting until afternoon tea was ready. This was prepared in a kitchen along a corridor from the visiting room, and as patients were not allowed to leave the room, guests were allowed to collect it.

The twin in the fawn raincoat left the room and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. About twenty minutes later, the nurse realized that the guest had not returned and went to check with Ronnie and the other guest. Of course, it wasn't Ronnie sitting there, but Reggie. He and his brother had agreed to wear identical clothes, and Ronnie had flown the coop by now and was on his way to London. The police were called and questioned Reggie and Osborne for over an hour, but as usual were helpless in the face of the intractable fact, that yet again, the twins had used their identities to fool the authorities. As Reggie said to an officer, “It's not as if we actually done anything. We've been sitting here waiting for a cup of tea that never came.”

He's My Brother

Suffolk is a county in the southeast of England. A generally flat, low-lying area, its primary economic activity is agriculture. About forty miles to the northeast of London is the market town of Sudbury. Lying between here and the site of Borley Rectory on the River Stour, once the most haunted house in England, was a farm that belonged to a friend of Reggie.

Two weeks before Ronnie walked out of the hospital, Reggie had towed a caravan here and hidden it in a wood on the farm property. Nearly a week after the escape, Ronnie left his hiding place in Walthamstow, North London, and Reggie drove him to the hideout. A young villain called Teddy Smith was to stay with Ronnie and act as his minder, bodyguard and keeper. They needed to stay undercover for at least six weeks. Under prison regulations, any certified prisoner who remained at liberty as long as that had to be re-certified on recapture. All Ronnie had to do was stay out of trouble and then give himself up in due course, when he could complete his sentence and be released within a year, at the most.

Ronnie could not settle in the countryside, and he insisted on trips back into the East End. Often he would go to The Double R and spend the evening drinking and partying with his friends. At times, disguising himself and walking up and down the Whitechapel Road, deliberately seeking out policemen to walk past, knowing they were on the lookout for him. On one occasion, dressed in one of Reggie's suits Ronnie went drinking in a pub his brother often used.

“Evening, Reg. Any news of Ron?” people would ask him.

“No. Why? Have you seen him lately?” Ronnie would reply.

“We heard he's in town. Wish him luck if you see him”"

The old maxim, “farce piddles on tragedy’s doorstep” could not be better illustrated than by this encounter (if true,) auguring the dark and dangerous road ahead.

More and more Ronnie was becoming moody and paranoid about people, and on one occasion offered to kill a troublesome neighbor for the man who owned the farm where he was hiding. The farmer, concerned about Ronnie's mood swings and apparent homicidal attitudes, organized for Ronnie to visit a friend who was a psychiatrist in Harley Street. After the visit, the doctor rang the farmer, and said, "I don't know who your friend is, but he's clearly homicidal, and showing all the signs of advanced paranoid schizophrenia. Get him to a hospital before something happens."

Then one day the police came visiting the farm checking on another escaped prisoner, one much more famous than Ronnie, Alfred Hinds. A career criminal, with an IQ of 150, he was always breaking out of prison. He was so smart, he eventually became a president of MENSA. The farmer was able to convince the police that Hinds was nowhere near his farm, but Ronnie who had been hiding in the farmhouse had been dreading the police for weeks. He decided he must get away and would kill anyone who tried to stop him.

Reggie came for him and brought him back to London where he stayed with him in an apartment off the Bayswater Road. A doctor was called in to treat Ronnie who had deteriorated and was now in a terrible condition. He was drinking two bottles of gin a day, and this, plus his tranquilizing drugs, had reduced him to a mental wreck.

Suicide attempt

After one particularly harrowing experience, involving a visit in disguise to Maidstone Gaol to visit an old friend, Ronnie attempted suicide. A family conference was called, and the Krays made a decision that must have torn them apart. Against all that they believed in, their inviolable code of not co-operating or "grassing" to the law, they contacted Scotland Yard and arranged for the police to call the next morning at 2 am. to collect Ronnie. When they arrived, Ronnie went quietly without a glance at his family.

By a strange twist of fate, the original plan behind the escape now seemed to work. After a brief spell back at Long Grove, he was diagnosed fit to finish his prison sentence, and in May 1959, he was released from Wandsworth Gaol.

Reggie and Charlie picked him up and returned him to the safety of Vallance Road. After further hospital treatment, Ronnie seemed to have passed out of the realm of madness into a border state of normality. He had become, however a very different man. Moodier and much more erratic now, and as well as being suspicious of everyone, Ronnie had become even more frightening, physically. His time in prison, the mental hospital and on the run had transposed his appearance. No longer an identical twin. His features had become much coarser, his neck and jawline altered; the flesh around his eyes tightened in, and he had grown fat. He had turned into a monster always watchful of his “black dog” which was how Winston Churchill referred to his own depression.

Back at Vallance Road, Ronnie spent most of his time huddled next to the fire. Some weekends he would visit a farm in Wiltshire with a boyhood friend, Henry “Checker” Berry, who sometimes acted as his driver, and lose himself in the countryside atmosphere, drinking and eating in a village pub, horse riding across meadows and wooded slopes. Violet was thrilled to have her boys back. Ronnie slept in the big back bedroom, and Reggie used the smaller room off the second-floor landing.

Ronnie started trying to get back into the business, but was more of an embarrassment than a help, threatening violence and demanding protection money from a gambling club that was partly owned by Reggie. A meeting with the Italians over some delicate profit sharing details was abandoned after Ronnie stormed out of the meeting, cursing and harassing the other party.

Reggie in despair talked to an old friend and asked him, “What can I do about Ron? He's ruining us. I know we should drop him. But how can I? He's my brother, and he's mad.”

The twins and their differences in running “The Firm" became more apparent as Ronnie slowly asserted himself. Reggie believed strongly in capitalizing on their legitimate business contacts, Ronnie was all for rampaging through crime like the proverbial bull-in-a-china-shop.

A few months after Ronnie came back, there was a full-scale bar fight in The London Hospital Tavern on Whitechapel Road, between “The Firm" and the Watney Street gang. The pub, next door to the hospital was the scene of a showdown between the two groups that had simmered for months. The next day the newspapers were calling it the worst gang fight in the East End for years. A few hundred yards east down the road, on the other side, was another pub called The Blind Beggar. It’s importance to the Krays would become apparent a few years into the future.

Continue reading - Part 3

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