The Krays

Image courtesy of Associated Press

Ronnie and Reggie Kray--“Everybody Likes a Gangster”

| published April 13, 2018 |

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

On March 29, 1995, the east end of London witnessed one of the most high-profile funeral processions seen in decades. Typically, such a scene was reserved for celebrities, politicians, or otherwise noteworthy citizens of England or the city of London. And on this day, east-enders lined the streets in the thousands. Some were there because they were merely curious, others wanted to gawk or to take part, if only vicariously, in an important piece of London’s history. The cortege’s horse-drawn hearse, bedecked in flowers, was a throwback to an earlier period in London’s history. The hearse carried the remains of Ronald Kray, who had died at Broadmoor Prison, on March 18th, at the age of 61. The service was to be held at St. Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green. Traffic was stopped by police who once sought to bring Ron--and his brother Reggie--under arrest.

There was a sense among many onlookers that a piece of their history was also being borne along with the hearse. Many of those in attendance remembered Ron Kray, and his identical twin, Reggie, with a sense of nostalgia and respect. Others experienced a sense of loathing and/or relief. Nevertheless, memories remained vivid even though the twins had been incarcerated since 1968. Numerous accounts of the twins over the years have appeared in print and on film. The most recent movie, released in 2015, “Legend,” starred Tom Hardy playing the role of both brothers and was directed by Brian Helgeland. Earlier, in 1990, “The Krays” was released, starring twins Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet. Printed versions of the Kray story include a joint autobiography from 1988 and a 1972 biography, “The Profession of Violence,” by British author John Pearson. Many of the accounts tend to provide stylized and/or black-and-white versions of the twins. Who were the real men behind the “legend” of the Krays. Were they evil, brutal gangsters or, as their mother said “my lovely boys,” or something in between? Depending on the source of the material and one’s perspective, opinions regarding the Krays’ life and criminal career describe the twins in terms ranging from generally positive to very negative. Their story has been shaped into whatever an author or filmmaker wants.

A fascinating aspect of the Krays is that they were not identical in terms of personality and temperament although they were always fiercely loyal to one another. Their lives were so closely intertwined, it almost seems impossible to write about one of the brothers without also telling the tale of the other one. In fact, British crime reporter Lynn Lewis once said regarding the Krays “It was only the existence and actions of the other who made the one.” Ron and Reggie were extensions - and reflections - of each other. Former associates and friends would say that each of the twins could almost appear to take on the personality of the other and that the more subtle differences in their personalities were often difficult to discern.

Ronald and Reginald Kray were born in Hoxton, in London’s east end, on October 28, 1933, to Charles and Violet Kray. They had an older brother, Charlie, Jr. The Krays lived on Stene Street until 1938, when the family moved to 178 Vallance Road, Bethnal Green. The twins took up boxing under the tutelage of their older brother, Charlie, Jr., and their grandfather, Jimmy “Cannonball” Lee, training at the Repton Boys Club, which exists to this day. Both twins advanced as far as the London Schools Boxing Championship. It is said they never lost a match before turning professional in 1951, at the age of 17.

Both boys were talented in the ring but Reggie, it was felt, had more potential for success because he was a more disciplined boxer than Ronnie, whose heart was never really in the sport and who had become too aggressive in the ring. The twins lack of discipline in the ring and resistance to following rules for organized conduct foreshadowed the future course of their lives.

The east end of London was as much about attitude and tradition as it was architecture and geography. It is very different today compared to the area in which the Kray boys grew up in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Since the 1970’s, gentrification and redevelopment have altered the look and feel of the east end and most of the area would probably be unrecognizable today by the Krays and their contemporaries.

The London docks, Spitalfield and Smithfield were among the areas of the east end most prone to violence and crime, although most of the criminal activity was unorganized or loosely organized. The activity was increased due to the black market business which developed during World War 2 in order to circumvent the strictures of rationing. People with problems didn’t go to the police and the police weren’t trusted. Disputes were settled among each other, outside the boundaries of the law. In that context, the Krays would become viewed as an alternative police force. Sports, especially boxing, or crime were the only realistic options for many young east end men to achieve social advancement.

The twins first brush with the law occurred when they were arrested in 1949 for grievous bodily harm but were acquitted through lack of evidence. Even though they were only sixteen years old, people were already afraid of testifying against them as their reputation for violence began spreading outside the boxing ring.

When Reg and Ron were eighteen, they were ordered to report for duty in the British army with the Royal Fusiliers. They left after a few days, going AWOL, telling their brother, Charlie that they weren’t going to stand around having men yell at them. Hiding out in the familiar turf of the east end, the twins eluded authorities for several months until they were finally captured and were among the last prisoners confined in the Tower of London. The twins ultimately received a dishonorable discharge in part because their behavior in prison was so bad. The twins assaulted guards and set their bedding on fire. With no chance of military service and seeing their boxing careers also over, the twins turned the only other option they saw—crime. In the boxing ring, or the army, the twins were compelled to observe rules and parameters for their aggressive behavior. Without the rules and regulations of organized sport or military discipline, the twins were able to give free rein to their ambition.

The twins began their criminal business activity by taking over the operation of a “snooker” or billiard hall, “The Regal,” located in Mile End. Their involvement in gang activity led to brawls and disputes with the “Watney Streeters.,” who traditionally were rivals of gangs from Bethnal Green, the Krays home turf. In one brawl with the “Watneys,” Ronnie stabbed a man and served three years in prison for grievous bodily harm, the most serious form of assault under British criminal law. Ronnie was again imprisoned in 1960 for eighteen months for running a protection racket. During this time, Reggie was in charge of the brothers’ various enterprises and he began operating a nightclub, “Esmeralda’s Barn,” in Knightsbridge, which expanded the twins’ activities into the West End of London. The Berkeley Hotel stands on that location today. They received assistance and advice from a West End banker, Alan Cooper, who wanted protection from the Krays main rival, the Richardson brothers, Charlie and Eddie.

After Ronnie’s first stretch in prison ended in 1959, the Krays decided they needed to organize themselves better. They took a loan from their older brother, Charlie, and began recruiting other Cockneys into their group, which was by then informally called “The Firm.” with the resources of their burgeoning organization behind them, Ron and Reg’ began to feel invincible.

Eventually “The Firm” could be seen as a collection of friends and associates of the Krays who also grew up in the East End of London, and which operated criminal activities largely out of the area known as Bethnal Green. The Firm was loosely organized and typically not run with a high degree of efficiency. However, its lack of both efficiency and organizational sophistication made the Firm, paradoxically, more elusive in terms of being tracked by the police. The Firm consisted of an inner core of more-or-less permanent members and a changing group of temporary or fringe associates.

Among the permanent circle of members was Albert Donoghue, who joined the Firm in the early 1960’s after being shot in the leg by Reggie Kray. Reggie was impressed with the fact that Albert refused to talk to the police or identify the shooter. He offered Albert a job and he accepted, becoming a Firm enforcer and acting as a “minder,” or right-hand man to Reggie Kray. Donoghue also collected protection money and acted as a face to the public in various clubs so people would be on notice not to cause trouble in a Kray-owned establishment.

Payne encouraged the twins to broaden their business scope and persuaded them to buy interests in various pubs and nightclubs. Payne was more of a fringe member of the Firm and he and the twins never fully trusted one another. The relationship was one of convenience for the Krays. Payne was a skilled con-man who lived on the fringes of the criminal underworld but claimed to be repelled by the violence employed by the Firm.

Charlie Kray, Jr., was the twin’s older brother and he began teaching them boxing when they were boys as an outlet for their aggression and to teach them self-discipline. Charlie had boxed for the Royal Navy during World War 2. Later, Charlie provided funding for the twins first business venture, the “Double-R” club. Charlie always claimed to be a peripheral member of the Firm, but he benefitted from his association with it and in terms of his reputation in the East End. Charlie did not always agree with their increasing violence and he didn’t take part in meting out beatings to rivals. He was active, though, in booking acts for their clubs and overseeing other business ventures for his brothers. Charlie’s temperament was different from that of his brothers but he remained loyal to them all his life.

Other key members of the Firm included Ian Barrie, Ronnie Kray’s minder and driver, Dickie Morgan and Jack Dickson, co-founders of the Firm with the twins, Ronnie Bender, Pat Connolly, et al.

Protection rackets and fraud were the mainstays of the Kray empire and these—and other—activities were of course physically conducted by the Firm. The Krays also engaged in an informal franchise system where other criminals, such as the Lambrianou brothers, Chris and Tony, could use the twins’ names and reputations to enhance and support their own criminal activities. The twins benefitted financially from that arrangement, too. The Lambrianous were also loyal to the Krays even upon the demise of the Firm in 1968. Their loyalty was based on traditional underworld ethics and their East End ties.

The key to understanding the Kray’s story is an understanding of their East End background. In fact, the Krays were acutely aware of East End culture, tradition and sense of community and safety. They knew that many East-Enders lived within a “wall of silence” which often made it impossible for the police to pursue criminals, make arrests or collect evidence. Reggie and Ronnie embodied many east end traits and have been referred to as twin symbols of an idea that stretched back to the second World War: Decent, hard-working people of the East End running their own lives, working together, keeping their own code without interference from officialdom in any form. In that sense, many Eastenders felt loyal to the Krays and they were viewed as “peacekeepers” for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to the police.

Many small business owners availed themselves of the Firm’s protection in order to fend off rivals and keep neighborhood trouble-makers at bay. All done for a price, of course. Sometimes, the initial contact was made by a member of the Firm instead, if the twins were interested in owning a piece of a specific business. An offer of “protection” from the Krays was difficult to turn down.

The twins took care to cultivate their public image, and not just in the East End. Casinos were legalized in Britain in 1960 to keep the industry out of criminal hands. Criminals still found a way to make money through owning them legally after often acquiring them through illegal means, or through employing phony companies to conceal true ownership . The Krays did this with venues such as Esmeralda’s Barn in Knightsbridge, the Kentucky Club and the Regency Club. They were frequently photographed in the clubs with celebrities such as Judy Garland, George Raft and British stars Diana Dors and Barbara Windsor. They enjoyed mingling with the acts who played at the clubs and their charm and manners convinced many people they were legitimate businessmen operating various nightclubs. The twins even agreed to be subjects for a series of photographs for celebrity photographer David Bailey’s “Box of Pin-Ups” in 1965. The Bailey collection also included photos of Andy Warhol and John Lennon. The Krays always appeared in public immaculately dressed and well-groomed and insisted their associates in the Firm wear a suit and tie when conducting the organization’s business.

Members of the Firm enjoyed the reflected notoriety they received and collectively they felt untouchable regarding the law. They seemed to fit right in to the “swinging London” social scene. In the eyes of many of their fellow East-Enders, the Krays had “made it.”

However, the image presented to the public through the media was not entirely accurate. The media themselves were often oddly attracted to gangsters and saw them as legitimate material for news articles, gossip columns and photo spreads. The Krays, in particular, were glad to oblige. The media were certainly aware of the public’s fascination with the Krays and other gangsters in London and their presence in newspapers and magazines sold copy. In the Krays’s minds, virtually any publicity was good publicity. But in 1964, the Sunday Mirror published a photograph of Ron Kray chatting with Lord Robert Boothby, a member of the House of Lords. The picture accompanied a story entitled “Peer and Gangster,” which implied an “inappropriate" relationship between Boothby and Kray. Ultimately, Scotland Yard and the Prime Minister’s office intervened and used their influence to shut the story down and prevent further disclosure. Boothby also used his political influence along with rumors of threats uttered by Ron Kray against individual Mirror journalists. The story died a quiet death and Boothby received £40,000 from the Mirror. The newspaper even published apologies to Boothby and Ron Kray. The Krays, it seemed, had even beaten the press. Ron Kray did not like the implications from the article but it kept the Kray name in front of the public. Years later, author and Kray biographer John Pearson revealed the original allegations were largely true.

The disintegration of the Firm likely began in March, 1966, when Ron shot and killed rival gangster George Cornell in the Blind Beggar pub. The motivation typically given was that Cornell was going around various pubs, etc., referring to Ron as a “fat poof,” a reference to Ron’s homosexuality. In later years, though, from prison, Ron stated in an interview that he was bisexual, not homosexual. Ron also emphasized that the reason he killed Cornell had nothing to do with name-calling but was due to threats uttered by Cornell against Ron and his brother.

In 1967, Reggie Kray killed another criminal, Jack “the Hat” McVitie, at an apartment on Evering Road. McVitie’s killing was due, according to Reggie Kray, to McVitie’s “uncouth behavior” and his owing money to the Krays. And according to Firm associate Tony Lambrianou, McVitie and Cornell “were capable of doing to the Krays what the Krays did to them.” Another motive may have been the fact that Reggie’s wife of two years, Frances, had died four months earlier. The coroner concluded her death was a suicide. According to Charlie Kray, “Reggie was slaughtered by Frances’ death. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from it. He had been drinking heavily since then and his judgment was clouded….”

Another factor in the Kray’s downfall was the progression of Ron’s paranoid schizophrenia, initially diagnosed during a stretch in prison in the 1950’s. The illness affected Ron’s personality—especially his proclivity for violence - as well as his capacity to make rational decisions. Ron was also affected by the medications he was taking to treat the schizophrenia. Members of the Firm in later years would say that Ron’s mental illness made him increasingly difficult to work for and his decisions and behavior became unpredictable. Ron’s instability worked against the personal loyalty they felt as East-enders. It also worked against his relationship with Reggie, who sought refuge in his brother’s company after Frances’ death, but Ron’s behavior offered little sanctuary. When the end came in 1968, several of them cooperated with the police in order to avoid longer prison sentences that they would have otherwise received. Others, such as the Lambrianou brothers, maintained their silence and accepted longer sentences.

The trial of the Krays commenced in January of 1969, on charges murdering George Cornell and Jack McVitie. The trial judge was Melford Stevenson, known as the toughest trial judge in England. They had beaten various charges in the past and there was speculation in the media the Krays could be acquitted again. During the proceedings, the twins denied the charges and their lawyers used the tactic of focusing on the criminal pasts of numerous prosecution witnesses, implying a lack of credibility. Ultimately, after the 39-day trial, the Krays were convicted and received life sentences with a 30-year minimum. fourteen members of the Firm received sentences ranging from seven to twenty years. Only one member, Anthony Barry, was acquitted.

The Establishment, embodied by Judge Stevenson, wanted the Krays incarceration to lead to their ultimate oblivion. Ironically, the Krays mystique only grew. Part of the twin’s mystique was the fact that they probably made more money inside prison than through their criminal enterprises. The Krays retained significant influence and loyalty and they were clever enough to capitalize on the desire of numerous people to develop an affiliation, on any level, with famous gangsters. The twins lent their name to many enterprises, some legitimate, and charged fees to do so. They lent their names to a security firm and sold the rights to their prison weddings and life story. The security firm provided bodyguards for a visit by Frank Sinatra to Britain in 1985. Newspapers often paid the twins for stories and interviews.

The Krays also enhanced their image by sponsoring charity events organized by their brother Charlie and friends on the outside, taking a percentage of the door money. The twins would donate to charities pictures painted by themselves and other prisoners and they made donations to the Repton Boxing Club, where they had been trained as boys. It was Charlie who largely managed what became the “Kray brand.” He helped them establish “Krayleigh Enterprises,” which marketed cigarette lighters and even t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Krays On Tour.” Thus, the Kray name became a brand that retains its potency to this day for people who are both fascinated and repelled by the image and acts of the criminal underworld.

Theories abound regarding the enduring legacy of, as well as the continuing public fascination with, Reggie and Ronnie Kray. They came from a poor background and managed to create a unique image for themselves. Many criminals only become famous when they are finally caught. The Krays also achieved great fame while they were still active criminals, not, as is often the case, long afterwards. They combined elements of the gentleman criminal and the violent thug. They grew from scruffy youths to immaculately dressed and well-groomed men. They were two gangsters in charge of swaths of criminal territory but not in control of themselves. They didn’t harm “civilians” but visited violence on other criminals. They were regarded as charismatic and socially awkward at the same time.

The media also play their part in maintaining the Kray myth. Were the twins victims of their own myth? Parole may have been denied them because the authorities were uneasy with the fascination with which the twins were regarded by the public. By the time of their arrest and trial in 1969, the media circus went into overdrive and many observers believed the Krays were no longer portrayed by the media as celebrities but as serious criminals who were, in effect, convicted by the media before being convicted at trial. They were to become Britain’s first celebrity criminals.

The Krays, of course, wanted everyone to know who they were. The Krays certainly contributed to their own demise, but by the time they were sentenced to life in prison at the age of 35, their brand was already a phenomenal success. They spent half their lives behind bars, prisoners of their own fame. Ronnie died aged 61 in Broadmoor in March,1995, and Reggie, in 2000. He had been released two months prior on compassionate grounds due to terminal cancer.

Perhaps the words of Reggie Kray explain his and his brother’s story most succinctly: "I would not change anything. You can't just select parts of your life and alter them. I know Ronnie would not have wanted to change anything as well. It does not mean to say that I enjoy the fact that I committed a murder but you can't select the parts of life that you do and don't want. Ron and myself wrought some violence on different people, but we lived in a violent world and violence has been perpetrated on us as well. That was the way of life in the East End of London then. I have got no regrets, my brother didn't have any either.”

Or, in the words of author John Pearson “Everybody likes a gangster….”

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Hoffa Disappearance Anniversary Still Raises Questions; Kevin Robbie and Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 2, 2016.

FBI Closes D.B. Cooper Case; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; July 19, 2016.