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The Boys from Bethnal Green – Part 5: How the infamous Kray Twins ruled the London underworld

By Thom L. Jones

This is the final part of a 5-part series. To go back to part 4 click here. To start at the beginning click here.

Enter the Old Bill

Jack McVitie had disappeared, but the police at this stage did not know what had happened. The woman he lived with reported him missing, but there was not much the authorities could do. Lots of people knew something had gone down, but the wall of silence remained up in the East End. Reggie and Ronnie went off for a holiday in Cambridge and then into the beauty and peaceful solitude of the Suffolk countryside. Ronnie borrowed a car and was chauffeured around to look at rural properties. He could see himself as a country squire, riding to the hounds, trout fishing on his private estate. Reggie drank himself stupid most nights into gin-fueled dreams.

Back in London at about the time Reggie was making his kill and achieving his longtime ambition to at last be the equal of his brother, another man was also accomplishing a long-awaited desire. Physically smaller than the twins, at only five-feet-seven-inches in height, he was a compact, dark-haired man, with a serious smile and an easygoing nature. At forty-three, Leonard Read (right) was promoted to detective superintendent, posted to Scotland Yard and allowed for the first time to wear an exceptional tie. A globe pierced with a stiletto on a maroon background, it signified him as one of the top twelve detectives in the nation.

Soon after moving into his new office, he was summoned to a meeting with Assistant Commissioner Peter Brodie. He was briefed on a secret inquiry that had been started months before. He was to take over and see it through. It was to be a top-priority investigation, and its aim was simple. To stalk, track down, corner, and finally once and for all, catch the Kray twins. His last brush with the twins had created problems, for him and The Yard. This time, he made sure everything was secure from day one.

Of all the policemen available for the job, “Nipper” Read was almost a perfect choice. He had enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the Metropolitan force, based on ability rather than political clout; he was already a detective-inspector by the early age of thirty-six and was one of the youngest men to carry his present rank. A loner by nature, he had made police work his only interest and pursued it with a passion that allowed nothing else. He had no hobbies and few friends. His wife and teenage daughter had resigned themselves to coming second in his life, after his job.

A calm, deliberate professional, he did not underestimate the nature of the job he had been given or the size of the problem. The twins had already beaten off the law on numerous occasions, and he had felt the power of their control, not only over gangland London but also the media. There was also the problem of police corruption.

It was long rumored that the Krays and other gangs had Met (Metropolitan) Officers in their pocket, making security of protocol a major consideration. There were times when it seemed the frontier between authority and crime in London was almost a Berlin Wall of opportunity. Crooked coppers were fighting to get over it, pushing aside the recidivist criminals struggling in the opposite direction. Documents detailing police corruption in this period are sealed until 2037 so no one really knows for sure how bad a situation it was.

The first problem he encountered on taking over the investigation was the lack of coordinated intelligence available on the twins' activities. There also seemed to be a singular lack of urgency and even of interest among the top men at Scotland Yard to nail the brothers.

One thing Read soon established was the strength of the Krays in the East End, and he realized it would take an enormous effort to destroy them. He needed a lot of support and quickly put together a strong team to form his operating and administration weapon.

He brought in John du Rose, head of the Murder Squad; Superintendent Harry Mooney, Superintendent Don Adams, and for his personal assistant, Chief-Inspector Frank Cater. They and the other fifteen staff that would form the nucleus of the “Get Krays” squad moved into offices in a building called Tintagel House. It was located across the River Thames from Scotland Yard. When they were all settled into their new premises, Read called a meeting and briefed his team. He finished by telling them that he had set a deadline on their investigation. It was to be for three months. As events would prove, it would take a bit longer than that.

Read had acquired his nickname “Nipper,” as a light-weight police boxing champion when he fought as a young man early in his career. He was to display the same speed and guile in his war with the Krays. He set up parameters for his team in their preparation for the work ahead. They would be up against a deadly enemy. All of them would have regular handgun practice. At this time, as it is now, it was not common for British police to carry firearms. Reed's people had to become proficient with them. He knew that their opponents were. Security had to be strictly observed; travel routes would vary each day, and each member would take all measures necessary to protect themselves and their families.

Read decided that one way to get the twins would be through their past. For over twelve years they had been extorting, wounding and committing other acts of a significant criminal nature. Somewhere in among all of this, he reasoned there had to be a weak link in the chain fence the twins had erected shielding themselves from the law. He narrowed down potential targets to thirty and listed them in a black notebook. He called this his “delightful index.”

The squad began its investigation by visiting nightclubs and book-making offices to try and pin down any evidence of extortion by “The Firm.” Read soon realized that at some stage, they would have to rely on evidence from other criminals if they were going to be successful in their objective.

He and du Rose had a long and heated meeting at Scotland Yard with top police lawyers and eventually persuaded them to accept the need to use criminals to catch them. As Bert Wickstead, a senior London policeman was fond of saying, “In the twilight world of the gangster, archbishops are thin on the ground.”

Potential witnesses against the twins were interviewed, but the chain-link fence could not be broken. One man, who had been attacked by them and subsequently ruined, was asked why he would not help to put them away.

“I hate the sight of blood,” he said, “particularly my own.”

Then Read had his big break. It came from Leslie Payne. He knew about McVitie's abortive bid to kill him, and how it had originated. “The Hat's” subsequent disappearance convinced Payne that he needed to act and protect himself further against Ronnie, and the wrath of “The Firm.” He passed the word down to Read that he was ready to talk.

Over the next three weeks, secreted away in a seedy hotel in Marylebone, North London, he sat and talked to Read and some of his team. He had filled over two hundred pages of testimony by the time he was through. He detailed all that he knew about the twins: Esmeralda's Barn, the long-firm frauds, the rackets, the violence, and their connection to the Mafia in America. By Christmas, Nipper had a vast database. Next, he needed proof and witnesses to corroborate it all.

Decision Time

1968 was a year for all things. As Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

In May, students and workers in France almost toppled the Gaullist government.

The Nigerian Civil War in Biafra entered its eleventh month.

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr. were assassinated.

Two black athletes at the Mexico Olympic Games shocked the world with their Black Power salute.

In Vietnam, the Tet offensive brought home yet again what an unwinnable war this was turning out to be.

The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.

Stanley Kubrick released his film masterpiece, 2001.

In mid-December three American astronauts were the first people to orbit the moon.

And Read finally achieved his objective. After almost fifteen years of playing their own tune, Reggie and Ronnie had eventually to pay the piper.

In the first weeks of the new year, Read's team travelled extensively across England, into Europe and across to Canada and the United States checking out Payne's leads. While Read and his team were working around the clock, Reggie and Ronnie were adopting a low profile. They knew from their informants what was going on; they were just not sure how much information the police were going to be able to dig up. Ronnie rang up Harrods, the famous store, and had their pet department send him a python. He played with it for hours, calling it Read, and feeding it pet mice.

He went ahead with his dreams of becoming a country squire and purchased a Victorian mansion called The Brooks at Bidleston, a pretty village in Suffolk. The twins spent a lot of their free time here, entertaining their closest friends. Their parents moved into a small lodge on the estate and managed the property for them.

The twins had a long history with Suffolk, having been relocated in January, 1940, with their mother and brother Charlie to Hadleigh, just five miles from The Brooks, during The Second World War as refugees from the constant bombing attacks by Germany on East End factories and shipyards. Although their criminal activities were being curtailed by the constant police action, Ronnie was still working away at his schemes, now using Alan Cooper, who had replaced Payne, as their chief adviser.

On April 2, he and Ronnie travelled to Paris and then flew to New York. There they met up with Joey Kaufman, a physically small Jewish-Sicilian businessman. He acted as their host and arranged for Ronnie to travel around the city to meet up with an assortment of people-gamblers, boxers, entertainment celebrities, and some small-time gangsters.

Kaufman was connected to the Gallo Brothers, who, with a dedicated group of followers, were busy waging a fierce, internecine war within the Brooklyn-based Profaci Family of the New York Mafia. As a result, Ronnie never actually touched base with anyone of significant importance in the Mob, although one day, Kaufman drove Ronnie across Brooklyn to the Gallo headquarters. Set in an old building one block up from the waterfront at 49-51 President Street, in the Red Hook section, he met up with and had talks with the two of the three brothers. Nothing concrete developed from this meeting, but overall, Ronnie enjoyed his trip, and seemed well and rejuvenated, when he flew back into London.

He and Cooper had frequent meetings about reorganizing “The Firm” along the lines that the American Mafia followed. They needed to move in on the unions, the docks, taxis, and building construction areas. There was a vast market waiting to be exploited outside of the limits of their usual rackets.

They met up again with Angelo Bruno, the Philadelphia Mafia boss, who was visiting London, checking out opportunities in West End casino interests. Ronnie believed that he was not being taken seriously enough by his American counterparts, and decided that he would impress them by engineering a series of high profile assassinations. One of these would be on a West End club-owner, a Maltese called George Caruana, and to make it more impressive, Ronnie decided that he was to be killed by a bomb detonated in his car.

Cooper was to organize the killing using a contact called Paul Elvey who was allegedly a hit man but turned out to be a technical engineer once connected to the Radio City pirate radio station operating near the mouth of the River Thames on an old gun fort called Shivering Sands.

They finally decided to use dynamite as the explosive agent, and Elvey went to Glasgow, in Scotland, to collect four sticks from an associate of Cooper's. As part of their investigation, Read had Cooper under constant surveillance, and through this learned of Elvey's proposed visit. He arranged for the police in Scotland to arrest Elvey as he was boarding his aircraft for the return London flight, and had him delivered to Tintagel House. Under interrogation, he broke down and revealed Cooper as the brains behind the attempt on Caruana's life.

Read had Cooper brought in for questioning, but when he was threatened with being charged, Cooper stunned Read by informing him that he was working for Scotland Yard. He had, it seemed, been working for some years for the US. Treasury Department; they had caught him in one of his gold-smuggling schemes, and offered him the option of working with them, or going to prison. He worked through a Treasury agent based at the US. Embassy in Paris, who continually monitored him, and passed the information on to John du Rose. One senior police officer at The Yard believed that Cooper was playing off the Krays, Scotland Yard and the US. Treasury, to safeguard his own interests. John du Rose had apparently tolerated him but kept him away from Read.

For now, Read had to accept the situation, and instead of arresting and charging him as an accessory, had to use him instead, as a witness against the twins. An important strategy meeting was called with the senior investigating officers, and it was decided to go for the twins. It was risky, in that a lot of evidence so far gathered, had to be supported by informants' testimony, and unless the twins were remanded without bail, there was a significant threat from them of witness intimidation. If that was successful, the Krays might well walk away again. They wouldn’t.

Sturm und Drang was about to visit them in a big way.

Time for Parting

Late in the evening of May 8th, Read gathered his team together for a final briefing. By midnight, over sixty extra police officers had arrived at Tintagel House. The plan was to strike at dawn, and simultaneously arrest the twins and twenty-four other members of “The Firm.” The police officers would all be armed and could expect to meet violence. Every one of the twenty-four addresses targeted had to be hit at the same time so no one could give warning of the attack. All those arrested would be brought in to West End Central Police Station, Headquarters of C Division, situated in Saville Row, for processing.

As Read was briefing the squad, the twins were on the town, entertaining the New Yorker, Joey Kauffman. After picking him up at The Mayfair Hotel, they first went drinking and socializing in a favorite local pub in Bethnal Green and finished the night at the Astor Club in the West End. The twins returned to their parents' apartment at Braithwaite House, in Shoreditch, where they were currently living. Here, at dawn, Read and his men smashed in the front door and stormed the bedrooms. Ronnie was curled up with a fair-haired boy, and Reggie was sleeping with his girlfriend, Christine Boyce, from Walthamstow.

Before they knew what was happening, they were handcuffed and on their way to the police station in the West End of London. Read's car was the first one to arrive at the building in Saville Row.

Once Read had the twins remanded and safely locked away in Brixton Gaol, he and his team had only a few weeks before preliminary hearings to stitch together their case. Two of “The Firm”-Ronnie Hart and Ian Barrie- had escaped the police net on May 9, and it was feared that many of the potential witnesses would back off, fearing retribution. However, they were quickly tracked down and arrested, and on July 6th, the twins were arraigned in a preliminary hearing before the Metropolitan Chief Magistrate, Mr. Frank Milton, at Old Street Court. A preliminary hearing lays down evidence to discover if there is just cause to commit defendants for a trial to a superior court.

While seated in court, the twins realized just how thorough Read and his team had been in their investigation, when one of their crew, Billy Exley, was summoned to give evidence. A former bodyguard of Ronnie's, he had helped to organize some of their long firm frauds. He knew a lot of their secrets; among other things, he had been on watch the day Cornell was killed. His presence as a witness for the prosecution was an ominous warning of things to come.

In the East End of London, police informants were sometimes known as “wedding men”-they like weddings, but wanted no part in the funerals of life. Another Cockney term to describe them is “screamers”- people who are okay when life is going well, but who scream their heads off when things go wrong. The police called a long list of these people, including close family friends the Teal brothers: Bobby, Alfie and David, and their evidence was a crushing blow to the Krays.

Also among the witnesses paraded through the court in the days that followed was the barmaid from The Blind Beggar. Although she had been unable to identify the killer of Cornell when questioned by the police that night, she was now under police protection and a lot more confident when she pointed out Ronnie and Ian Barrie as the two men who had walked into the bar and committed the murder.

By the time that the preliminary hearing was over, enough evidence had been presented to refer the case for trial at the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court and the premier court of criminal justice in Great Britain.

After eight months on remand, the Kray twins went to trial early in January 1969. Theirs was to be the most protracted, and expensive criminal case in British history, at that time. Held in Number One court before Judge Melford Stevenson, it rolled on for thirty-nine days.

Although they had spent years running a criminal empire across the East and West ends of London, involving long firm frauds, extortion, strong-arming of club owners, disposal of stolen securities, fraud, blackmail and assault, the twins, in fact, were only tried and convicted for the murders of George Cornell and Jack McVitie.

On March 8, 1969, after the jury found them guilty, Mr. Justice Melford pronounced sentence. For the murders, Ronnie and Reggie would go to prison for life (under British law, this generally means serving a term of between ten and twelve years), but the learned judge, in his wisdom, recommended that their sentences should be not less than thirty years.

The twins were thirty-five years old, and their lives on the streets were over forever. About 370 years earlier, William Shakespeare had written in his play, Rome and Juliet, “These violent delights have violent ends.” The Krays were finding out the hard way, just how true that was.

Their brother, Charlie, now aged 41, received a ten-year prison sentence for being an accessory to the murder of Jack McVitie. For his part in the Cornell murder, Ian Barrie went down for life, with a recommendation that he served at least twenty years. Four other members of “The Firm” were sent to prison for their parts in the murder of McVitie. These were the sprats caught along with the two great white sharks in the law’s net.

After his sentence, Reggie was transferred south to Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, Ronnie (right) was sent north to Durham Prison, and Charlie went east to serve his time in Chelmsford Prison.

The brothers and their criminal organization were effectively eliminated by a sentence that reflected more the petulance of the establishment, than the legal requirements of justice being served. Particularly when examined in the light of another iniquitous crime that occurred only two years earlier in London.

On August 12, 1966, in broad daylight, three police officers were shot dead in Braybrook Street, Hammersmith, in West London. Three men were eventually arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, which the presiding judge described as:

“The most heinous crime to have been committed in this country for a generation or more.”

And yet, one of the killers, John Witney, was released from prison after twenty-five years. The gang leader, Harry Roberts, who personally killed two of the policemen, after forty-eight years. The third, John Duddy, died in prison in 1981. Murdering street thugs like Jack McVitie and George Cornell was apparently a more heinous crime than shooting down police officers.

Carpe Diem

The Richardson mob had gone, and the Kray's “Firm” had gone, but life carried on, and so, of course, did crime. There would be other gangsters and other gangs to terrorize London and keep the police busy over the years to come: the Dixons and the Tibbs; Bertie Small and his mob; the Arif family; the Legal and General gang led by Reggie Dudley and Bob Maynard; the Knight family. The Adams family. The list of villains is as endless as the opportunities that spawned and nurtured them.

Detective Sergeant Harry Challenor, a famous “Flying Squad” detective once remarked: “Fighting crime in London was like trying to swim against a tide of sewage; you made two strokes forward and were swept back three. For every villain you put behind bars, there were always two more to take their place.” But the Kray twins were out of the loop now, seemingly forever.

John du Rose, known as “Four Day Johnny” for the speed with which he solved his cases retired from The Yard. "Nipper" Read went on a course and then became guvnor of Y Division covering North London. He eventually moved even further north to become the Deputy Chief Constable of Nottingham police. He’s still around at the age of 94. Ronnie Hart, the cousin of the twins and one of their chief betrayers, attempted suicide and then emigrated to Perth, Australia. It’s rumored he died there from cancer. Alan B. Cooper, the man of mystery, lived up to his reputation and disappeared.

But for Reggie (right) and Ronnie (left), there were only endless days and endless nights to fill, as they wasted their lives away behind prison bars. Early in 1972, after much lobbying and campaigning by their family, led by their redoubtable mother Violet, Reggie and Ronnie were reunited in the maximum security wing of Parkhurst Prison. Here, Reggie would exercise each day with his weights, and Ronnie would paint, always the same picture of a country landscape with a distant cottage and a tree. On his bad days, he would change the painting by including a black sun in the sky.

Years later, in July 1979, after attacking another prisoner, Ronnie was transferred to Broadmoor Mental Hospital at Crowthorne in Berkshire. He would be here for the rest of his life.

Every six months, Reggie was taken on an escorted visit to meet with his brother who, sedated and with luxuries such as a plentiful supply of cigarettes to comfort him, seemed happy and content. Ronnie, the avowed homosexual, married twice while he was serving his time. In 1985, he wed Elaine Mildener. She had started out writing to and visiting Reggie, but somehow her allegiance changed focus.

However, by 1989, the marriage had become a burden to them both, and they were divorced. Two months later, Ron married again inside the walls of Broadmoor. This time to a “Kissogram Girl” called Kate Howard, a divorcee from Kent. Strangely enough, she also started out visiting Reggie, but again he missed out to his younger brother.

During their time In prison, along with Charlie, on the outside, they produced at least five books. Earned over £25,000 each from the movie “The Krays” released in 1990, and set up a legitimate firm to produce and distribute Kray memorabilia which grossed them at least £3000 each, every week. They were continually visited by celebrities such as Richard Burton, James Fox, Ray Winstone, and the Kemp brothers of Spandau Ballet, the pop group, seeking advice on how to play a psycho killer for forthcoming films, singer Jess Conrad and well-known Disk Jockey, and now revealed, pedophile and sex pervert, Jimmy Saville, among others.

With Charlie, they established a security company, called Krayleigh Enterprises, that was successful enough to at one time, provide eighteen bodyguards for Frank Sinatra during a visit he made to London in the summer of 1985.

There were books on them galore in the years ahead, by 2018, at least fifty, and another four films, the one, in 2015, Legend, has Tom Hardy playing both brothers. There would be multiple documentaries produced over time, a stage play, and a musical based on their lives. The twins were also the inspiration for the famous Monty Python skit “The Piranha Brothers,” starring Doug and Dinsdale. A weekly guided tour of their neighborhood begins, not unnaturally, at The Blind Beggar.

One of their heroes, American gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond in a 1988 Broadway musical proclaims: “I'm in show business, only a critic can kill me.” Perhaps that was how they saw life on the outside from where they were in the inside.

A criminal empire built mainly on sand and mirrors, their brand name remains a potent reminder, years after their deaths how obsessed, fascinated and at the same time, repelled we can be by their image.

Their place in gangland history is assured, if not for the acts they committed then surely for the publicity they have generated and the punishment they received.

One of their associates claimed, considering their living expenses in prison, which were nil, “they probably earned more money in the nick that on the streets.”

Throughout their lives they collectively racked up over 60 years in prisons, although the way they filled it was seemingly different to the other 60,000 or so prisoners in Britain who were, every year, serving sentences while the Krays were locked up.

The twins adopted their own, individual carapace to survive the unending days. Ronnie, curled up, not with a good book, rather the best-looking lad on the block, and filed his days with luxuries. He once ran up a bill with the famous department store, Harrods, for over £7000. Reggie worked-out feverishly, as though fitness would keep death at bay. Which it did until it didn’t.

On March 17, 1995, Ronnie Kray (left) died of a massive heart attack in Wexham Park Hospital in Slough, Berkshire. He was 61, and his death was due in no small way to an appalling tobacco habit. He smoked 100 cigarettes a day through most of his adult life. His dying words were supposedly, "Oh God, Mother, help me!" This according to a tabloid newspaper The Sun.

In the solitude of his prison life, perhaps he dreamed of himself as “The Colonel” commanding a battalion of the fiercest soldiers. In fact, a British army colonel, is a staff appointment, not a field commander so all of Ronnie’s men would have been clerks or paper-pushers, not warriors. The greatest irony in the lives of the Krays was not that they underestimated violence, more they misunderstood the implication of generating fear which carries within it an inherent risk of revenge.

Reggie and Charlie organized the funeral arrangements, and it was set for Wednesday, March 29th, 1995. The service was held at St. Matthew's in Bethnal Green, and the burial was scheduled for Chingford Cemetery, six miles to the north, where the bodies of Charlie senior, Violet, and Frances Shea are interred. At he end of the service, one of the songs Ronnie had chosen to see him off was “Fight the Good Fight.”

Many thousands of people lined the streets from Bethnal Green to the cemetery to watch as the coffin, enclosed in a glass-sided hearse, was carried along by six black, plumed horses, leading a procession of twenty-five limousines. The funeral was said to have cost the equivalent today of £100,000.

The arrangements were handled by W. English & Son, who it is rumored were never paid in full for their services. In a bizarre twist, a second funeral had to be held some months later to bury Ronnie's brain. This had been removed by a Home Office pathologist and sent off for forensic analysis. None of the Kray family had been informed about this at the time of the funeral. Two years later, Reggie was trying to organize an official inquiry into his brother's death.

Among the mourners, were well-known gangsters from London's past, including Frankie Fraser, Johnny Nash, Teddy Dennis, and Frankie Foreman. Reggie placed a wreath on the grave that simply said, “To the other half of me.” He went to the service and the internment, the whole time handcuffed to a man who appeared to be the biggest prison guard in Britain. Reggie, who stood a under six feet, looks in a photograph taken at the time like a tiny, confused Lilliputian manacled to a stern, inexorable Gulliver. Journalist Duncan Campbell wrote in The Guardian newspaper, “Ronnie’s funeral was a strange event that hovered half way between Pulp Fiction and The Lavender Hill Mob.”

It was reported that the funeral was larger than that held for Winstone Churchill, which speaks volumes about the mentality of the human race, even on its good days.

After the funeral, Reggie was returned to Maidstone Prison, where he continued to serve his sentence. After Ronnie had been transferred to Broadmoor, Reggie was shifted around the British prison system. He was moved to Long Lanten, then Wandsworth, then on to Gartree in Leicester. He was progressively committed to prisons in Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire, Kent, and finally to Norfolk.

He finished up at Wayland Prison near the town of Watton, which is situated in the district of Breckland, about one hundred miles northeast of London. Here he lived in the hope that next time the Parole Board would grant him his freedom. Even if it decided to release him, under the British penal system, he would have to serve at least two years in an open prison before finally becoming a free man.

On July 14, 1997, Reggie (right) married 38-year-old Roberta Jones. A bright, intelligent (an honors graduate) successful businesswoman, involved in marketing and media fields, she first met Reggie to discuss details about a proposed video on his late brother. Less than a year later they were tying the knot behind the prison walls at Wayland. She was not the first one to fall under his spell. In 1993 it was Sandra Wrightson, who divorced her husband citing Reggie as the other man in her life. In 1995 it was the turn of schoolgirl Sophie Williams.

He was also the godfather to singer and actress Patsy Kensit. Her father James “Jimmy the Dip” had been an associate of both the Krays and the Richardson mobs, specializing in “long firms” for the criminal underworld.

Even at the age of 66 and seemingly forever behind prison bars, Reggie Kray exerted a transcendent influence on people, particularly women. Roberta devoted her time and energy in fighting for the release of Reggie. She found it hard to understand that her husband remained locked away when the government continued to release child killers and IRA terrorists.

It appears her view was shared by the British public. In a newspaper poll, nine out of ten people thought Reggie had served his time and should be released. Even Nipper Read, his arch nemesis, has spoken out in his defense. In February 1998, in a reported interview in the British Daily Mail newspaper, he said, “He has done the length of time that the court felt was right for his crimes. I see no objection to him being released.”

There was a world wide web site set up and devoted primarily to the same purpose.

Reggie lived on, not only in a different, millennium but almost in a different world. When he went away in 1969, the IT era was simply an idea in a small case... it was possible and probably would come about, but seemed as far away as those men bouncing around on the moon. Cellular phones were not even on the drawing board, and Bill Gates was a teenage kid in baggy shorts.

Looking back on the good old days, one of the "The Firm," Tony Lambrianou, who died in 2004, reminisced in an interview with a reporter. He had gone to prison in 1969 for being an accessory to the murder of Jack McVitie. In essence, all he had done was help get rid of the body. In all probability, he had no idea that Reggie was going to go berserk that night and commit the murder.

In his old age, he was earning his living, like so many of the criminals of that period, by writing books, appearing on TV shows and guest speaking; he even performed on a British rap record called "Product of the Environment."

He spoke enthusiastically about "the swinging-sixties."

“The East End was a hard place...it became famous for turning out gangsters. There was a better class of criminal in those days....there were rules you lived by, and if you broke them, you paid the price. Back when I was doin' it, the code was this: You don't grass on your own mates. Ever. You respect women. You never steal off your own...The violence was among ourselves, or between us and people who knew our rules. If anyone was dealing with us, they were shady, to begin with, and they knew the score...The streets were safer when we was around, 'cos no one in their right mind would come into our area and commit crimes...People don't respect life like we used to, or even respect themselves. I mean look at how people dress. We may have been villains, but we always looked sharp.”

Charlie, the elder brother of the twins, left them as good an obituary as any self-respecting villain from the East End could probably expect:

“Sure the twins killed people. Yeah, people who had families and that, and there's no justification. But they was in the twin’s orbit. What I'm saying is, it wasn't normal people the twin’s done.”

Amen to that.

Final Curtain

Charlie Kray, the eldest brother, died after complications due to heart trouble at about nine pm. on the evening of April 4, 2000.

While serving a 12-year prison sentence for drug smuggling in Parkhurst Prison, he had been transferred to the prison hospital after becoming ill. His brother Reggie was moved from his cell at Wayland Prison in Norfolk so that he could spend time with his brother towards the end.

They put Charlie to rest on Wednesday, April 19. It was a smaller version, scale size that is, of the way the East End had said goodbye to Ronnie five years earlier in 1995. Still, thousands of people crowded the streets and rooftops surrounding the funeral parlor of W. English & Son, the undertakers. The funeral cars were crammed to overflowing with flowers, one in the shape of a broken heart from Charlie's girlfriend Diane Buffini that read, “To my darling Charlie, with my eyes wide open. Am I dreaming, can it be time?” Diane Buffini may have been Diana Ward, a woman Charlie had employed at a nightclub he owned in Leicester years before. They had fallen in and out of love over the years.

People, in and out of the law, had ambiguous feelings towards the elder Kray. Many thought, without the influences of the twins, his life would have taken a much different course. Jonathan Goldberg QC, his brief in an appeal presented to the court in 1997 sought to portray him to the jury as such. He was, said Goldberg, “an old fool, a pathetic old has-been, an utterly washed-up figure made to appear something he is not at all.”

Then again, maybe the man who went to prison and stayed there until his death, was the proper Charlie after all.

At about 11am Reggie, the last surviving brother arrived to cheers and applause from the crowd. Trim and looking fit at 66 years old and after over 30 years in prison, he was smartly dressed in a double-breasted suit and handcuffed to a female prison warder this time.

After a service at St. Matthew’s Church, which was packed to capacity with hundreds more following the service from outside, a funeral procession moved slowly north, yet again, to Chingford Cemetery, guided by police escorts with a police helicopter overhead keeping a close watch on the proceeding convoy.

At the cemetery, people had gathered for their last glimpse of Charlie. Reggie laid flowers, first on his first wife's grave, where he kissed her gravestone, and then his parents' burial plot before throwing a single rose into the one that now held his eldest brother. It can only be imagined if he had begun to feel the first stirrings of cancer that would destroy him, and in less than six months lead him back to this tree-shaded corner site where he would join Charlie and Ronnie in the family plot. He had initially purchased it back in 1967 as a resting place for his first wife, Frances Shea, and subsequently, his mother, father and then Ronnie had been buried there.

Returned to Wayland Prison in Norfolk, Reggie became ill and was rushed to hospital on August 3. After an exploratory operation, he was found to have inoperable cancer of the bladder, and three weeks later, Jack Straw the British Home Secretary, approved his official release from prison, after serving 32 years, on compassionate grounds.

He spent the final days of his life in the £40 a night honeymoon suite of the Beefeater Town House hotel in Thorpe Saint Andrew on the outskirts of Norwich where he died peacefully in his sleep on October 1. He had been discharged from the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital on September 23, after his illness was found to be terminal. He had chosen this hotel for the view over the River Yare. A friend recalled Reggie had not seen a river or the sea since his imprisonment in 1969.

Like his brothers before him, Reggie (right) was buried from English and Son, the ubiquitous undertakers in Bethnal Green. Six black-plumed horses carried the coffin from the undertakers to St. Matthew's Church, half a mile up the road. It was estimated that up to one hundred thousand people lined the streets of the funeral cortege, crowds standing six deep along Bethnal Green Road. “It's an East End event,” said a woman. “I think they were a legend. The public liked them. They were gangsters, fun.”

The Metropolitan Police Force was in attendance, as usual, handling the route to maintain control, eight inspectors, twenty-six sergeants, and one hundred seventy officers taking to the streets to ensure public safety. Police from six districts were called in on the mammoth crowd control exercise along the nine-mile funeral procession from the East End of London to the cemetery in Chingford.

Alongside them, almost 400 burly, sinister looking thugs in long leather jackets or Crombie overcoats wearing red armbands and lapel badges with the letters RFK (Reg Kray Funeral), provided a private security guard for the procession. 18 limousines carried family and friends, two being reserved solely for the vast collections of flowers and wreaths. One, from actress Barbara Windsor, said simply, “With Love.” Some read, “Respect,” “Legend,” “Free at Last,” and “Beloved." But perhaps the most telling of all was “Reunited at Last.”

Unlike the circus, the procession became, the quiet and almost intimate burial of Reggie, who was interred alongside his twin brother Ronnie, took place at 3 pm on this slate gray afternoon. His wife Roberta and a few chosen mourners were seen throwing red roses into the grave. In his will, Reggie had asked to be buried in the same place as Ronnie because he said that way he would be back where he belonged-with his brother.

This corner of the cemetery is filled with Krays, their plots shadowed by the plane trees that fill the grounds. Perfumed by the fresh flowers that are continually renewed on each of the four graves. It’s a place where death and memories linger through Arcadian seasons, an endless reminder that the evil of man will surely never transcend the hope and resurrection that keeps the world from turning into chaos.   

Kate Kray, who had married Ronnie in prison in 1989, remembered Reggie attending her husband's funeral. “Reggie died the day Ron died,” she said. “The saddest thing I ever saw in my whole life was the moment Reg said goodbye to Ron. He was weeping uncontrollably. He was destroyed.”

Now at last Reggie Kray was free and back home with his beloved brother.

As notorious in a particular field, the twins were definitely a legend, as any dictionary consulted will testify. In the 1962 film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one of the cast says:

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The Krays were both fact and legend. Somewhere, in the middle lay the truth. Freud believed there was something beyond consciousness that drove the human heart and it ruled our lives as strongly as politics and religion. Perhaps The Boys from Bethnal Green were victims to this, or more likely, willingly embraced it. We tend to pick and choose what fragments of history complete us rather than irritate.

A retired villain from the East End when asked to comment on his career as a crook, claimed, “Everyone is a loser. Family, victims, themselves-it’s all a waste of life.”

By the standards of the criminal gangs that succeeded them in London, the Krays and their “Firm” seem in retrospect, more like a bunch of amateurs, wannabes out to satisfy everyone, but mainly, themselves. Thugs, killers, extortionists. They have been characterized as such by friends and enemies. The one thing no one ever called them was boring.

Freddie Foreman claimed that had they not been arrested, the twins would have been “ironed out” because they had both become a liability, to everyone around them. He and some of the gang were plotting to kill them when they went down to the law.

The Kray brothers had dreams to be big-time, international gangsters. They travelled to Africa and Europe and America. They saw themselves as the lions on a veldt that was perhaps, the most blighted landscape in the greater London area. In fact, they never really, were able to shake themselves free from a field of dreams that was less than a half a square mile in size.

From Vallance Road, west past the Repton Boxing Club, where they honed their skills in the ring, the oldest in London, established in 1884, to the Carpenter’s Arms, north up past Wood Close School behind the pub, where they spent their early childhood years, and to St. Mathew’s Church in The Row from where all the Krays were buried. A blueprint of a forgotten time; a snapshot of dreams not realized, lost forever.

It’s sixty-five years since they started their careers in crime. Historically, an eye-blink in time. Metaphorically, the twins are as dead as the Dodo. Why they became what they were is something we will never know. Evil is perhaps not just a social odium, more a host-seeking venom waiting to sink its genetic code into whichever victim that appeals. The tiger burns bright in the darkness of all our souls. How it escapes is anyone’s guess.

If most of us are adverbs and never nouns, as American author Stephen Crane believed, the Krays were a complex sentence hidden beyond dependent clauses, antecedents, and other forms of traditional understanding.

This far removed from their beginning and end, it’s relatively easy to be objective about their place in the criminal underworld of London. There is information overload on their narrative. Life is not negotiable for any of us. For the twins, it was probably set in stone the moment they were born. Looked at subjectively, they have become almost mythical in the same way that man has created gods of religion. Something to hold back the night during the darkest hours. 

Reggie once said he hoped to reinvent himself “first as a man and eventually as an author, poet, and philosopher.” At the end, as he lay dying in a hotel bedroom, atrophied like a walnut shriveled in the sun, if he had read the works of Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, and poet, maybe he could still remember his soundings:

“Were I God almighty, I would ordain, rain fall lightly where old men trod, no death in childbirth, neither infant nor mother, ditches firm fenced against the errant blind, aircraft come to ground like any feather. No mischance, malice, knives, set against life, tears dried…”

** According to Wikipedia, the term Cockney has had several distinct geographical, social, and linguistic associations. Originally a pejorative term applied to all city-dwellers, it was gradually restricted to Londoners, and particularly to "Bow-bell Cockneys": those born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St. Mary-Le-Bow in the Cheapside district of the City of London. It eventually came to be used to refer to those in London's East End, or to all working-class Londoners generally.

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Views: 301

Comment by John Ramsey on July 23, 2019 at 4:11pm

A fascinating insight into the celebrity British gangsters.The Krays were the famous fellas whereas the Richardson gang from South London were arguably more dangerous.They diversified into many different rackets from scrap metal to mining in South Africa.They certainly made way more money than the Krays ever did.Kray enforcer,Albert Donohue used to describe South London as Indian country,the land of the Cherokee !

In the early 70's I used to live in Stepney in East London right in the epicentre of Kray territory.I met a beautiful girl there.On our first date I took her to the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road,near the Stepney Green underground station.The place was nothing more than your average London pub.I was desperately trying to impress the girl so I told her, "this is where the Krays murdered George Cornell".She was slightly horrified to say the least.It was a long time ago now and we have been married for over 41years.

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