The Krays were called up to National Army Service in Mar 1952. When the corporal in charge stopped the twins leaving the barracks, he was seriously injured by Ronnie. The Krays walked to their East End home, were arrested for assaulting a police officer, served a month in Wormwood Scrubs and were dishonourably discharged from the army.
Their home life was grim, yet they created an attractive image for themselves. Ronnie adapted the US gangster image to Britain, dressing in suits with slicked-back hair. They bought a decrepit snooker club in Mile End where they firebombed other clubs and ran protection rackets.
During the WW2 Blitz, and after, the Spirit of the Blitz survived. That meant that the people of the East End would survive, still running their own lives, working together and never dobbing in local hoodlums to authorities. Meanwhile the Krays were widely seen as charming West End nightclub owners, part of the Swinging London scene. On the celebrity circuit they socialised with lords, MPs, socialites and show business characters. They had the manners of gentlemen; they were good to their mum and loved their dogs. A force to be trusted in chaotic times, unlike the new thugs and foreigners, older Londoners said. So although their glamour was a mere cover, the twins represented something lost for East Enders.
Luckily for the Krays, who were involved in hijacking, armed robbery and arson in the late 1950s, the Blitz Spirit survived.
But I still don’t understand the concept of Gangster Glamour. With armed robbery, protection rackets, hijackings, arson and murder, why has history suggested that the twins ruled the East End with a mix of violence and charisma? And why did the twins receive Funerals Fit For Heroes???
In Wandsworth in 1960, Reggie met Frank Mad Axeman Mitchell and Jack The Hat McVitie (see below). With their gang, The Firm, they plotted against their main South London rivals, the Richardsons.
The twins moved into classy territory in the West End, acquiring the Knightsbridge gaming club Esmeralda’s Barn. The club stayed open until 1963 and was patronised by famous film stars.
In July 1964 the Sunday Mirror showed that Ronnie enjoyed an illegal gay relationship with Conservative politician and aristocrat Lord Boothby. The newspaper backed down from this scandal, sacking the editor, apologised and paid Boothby a huge settlement.
Actually there was a problem for both main political parties. The Conservative Party was unwilling to ask the police to end Kray power, for fear that the Lord Boothby connection would re-emerge. And the Labour Party, in power from Oct 1964 with a tiny majority in the House of Commons, feared an imminent General Election. And don’t forget the Profumo Affair, 1964!
In 1965 the twins were arrested for demanding money with menaces from The Hideaway club-owner, but were released after Lord Boothby again questioned their detention in the House of Lords. Protection reached far up British society!
If the twins mixed with show business celebrities and politicians, why commission murders? Ronnie paid Jack The Hat McVitie in advance to kill friend-business partner Leslie Payne. The murder failed, but then in 1966 there had been a public shoot-out in Whitechapel, involving the rival Richardson gang. This led to the arrest of nearly all the Richardson gang. Ronnie was in a pub when he learned of rival George Cornell's whereabouts in The Blind Beggar, Whitechapel. With his driver Scotch Jack John Dickson and his assistant Ian Barrie, Ronnie entered the pub, walked to Cornell and publicly shot him in the head. Barrie warned the public not to mention these events to the police.
In Dec 1966, the Krays helped Frank Axeman Mitchell escape from Dartmoor Prison. Once Mitchell was safely out, the Krays held him at a friend's flat in East Ham. Mitchell's escape and disappearance were murky, but Det Super Leonard Nipper Read of Scotland Yard decided to continue with the case and have a separate trial for Mitchell, after the twins had been convicted for other crimes.
Reggie was encouraged to kill Jack The Hat McVitie, the unreliable member of the Kray gang, in Oct 1967. McVitie was enticed to a Stoke Newington flat for a party where Reggie stabbed McVitie in the face and neck with a carving knife. At dawn they dumped the dead body in the English Channel. Then a gun battle with the rival South London Richardson Gang followed in 1966. The Krays were arrested with 15 gang members in May 1968 by Inspector Read, thwarted in his earlier pursuit by Lord Boothby’s intervention.
Reggie was seen as brutal but Ronnie was described as having many mental conditions and abuse problems. Were those reports accurate? Formal psychiatric reports were prepared by Dr Denis Leigh, Royal Bethlem-and-Maudsley hospital after long interviews in Dec 1968, to establish whether he was fit to stand trial. Ronnie was indeed treated for paranoid schizophrenia. Allowed to go ahead, the Cornell and McVitie trial lasted 39 days, Old Bailey’s longest, most expensive ever. The Krays were found guilty in 1969 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1979 Ronnie was committed as a paranoid schizophrenic in Broadmoor Hospital Berks, dying in 1995. Reggie was locked up in Maidstone Prison and Wayland Prison Norfolk, dying in 2000. Black horses pulled their hearses through Bethnal Green’s jam-packed streets.
crowds in Bethnal Green
Ronnie's celebrity funeral procession, 1995
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