I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Double Lives of the Krays
During the 1950s and '60s, Ronnie and Reggie Kray held sway in London's underworld. They were violent criminals yet they moved in some aristocratic circles and had friends in the highest levels of the entertainment industry.
The Early Years for the Krays
Reginald Kray arrived in this world on October 24, 1933; he was followed, 10 minutes later, by his identical twin brother, Ronald. The boys grew up in the gritty East End of London in a family that was well acquainted with poverty.
They were tough kids in tough neighborhoods; probably the toughest. They were persuaded by their grandfather, Jimmy “Cannonball” Lee, to take up boxing. Not surprisingly, they turned out to be good fighters, but they simply couldn't keep their pugilistic skills confined to the boxing ring. As a result, the twins became well known in the juvenile courts of the 1940s.
Then came military service in 1952, which, at the time, was compulsory for all males over 18. It seems the Kray boys didn't much like being ordered about by officers and others. As they reported for duty, Ronnie punched a corporal in the face and the two went home. They were rounded up and put in a military prison.
There were more assaults, including dumping a latrine bucket and its contents on a sergeant, and absences without leave, followed by incarceration. Eventually, the army gave up on the twins—they were given a dishonorable discharge, which suited them just fine.
Back in civilian life, Reggie and Ronnie began putting together a criminal enterprise that terrorized London for more than 15 years. They called their outfit “The Firm” and their main line of business was the protection racket: “Nice little business you've got here, Mr. Smith. It would be a shame if there was a fire.”
Violence and the threat of violence were enough to encourage shopkeepers, garage owners, publicans, and others to pay the twins to ensure nothing bad happened to them or their businesses. The reputation of the Krays for merciless thuggery meant that very few resisted their offers of protection. Those that did regretted it.
Hijacking, armed robbery, arson, and murder were added to their portfolio of crimes.
By the mid-1950s, Ronnie's penchant for violence was growing. He attacked a man with a bayonet and received a three-year prison sentence. Behind bars, his mental instability became obvious and he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
With Ronnie in prison, Reggie expanded the business by branching out into nightclubs.
The first foray into the entertainment world was the purchase of a rundown billiard hall, which became headquarters for The Firm. From that modest beginning, The Firm expanded to more upscale nightclubs, especially Esmeralda's Barn in fashionable Knightsbridge.
It was here that the Kray twins began hobnobbing with the rich, powerful, and famous. Guests at Esmeralda's Barn included Frank Sinatra, George Raft, Judy Garland, Peter Sellers, and many politicians. The brothers loved being in the limelight and many celebrities enjoyed rubbing shoulders with men known to be dangerous crooks.
The notoriety of the brothers attracted all sorts of followers, and they were good copy for Fleet Street's journalists. They had every reason to feel themselves safe from prosecution because they had more than a few of London's police officers on their payroll. Given the twins' well-earned reputation for violence, witnesses to their crimes were impossible to find.
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Writing for mylondon.news, Zak Garner-Purkis notes that “The Krays' influence actually extended further than that, it’s been revealed there were a large number of politicians under their influence too.”
A couple of high-profile politicians in particular were compromised by the activities of the Krays.
They were the best years of our lives. They called them the swinging sixties. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were rulers of pop music, Carnaby Street ruled the fashion world . . . and me and my brother ruled London. We were f****** untouchable.
— Ronnie Kray in his autobiography "My Story"
Ronnie Kray was bisexual at a time when sex between men was a criminal offence in Britain. One of the people drawn into his orbit was Conservative politician and media personality Lord Bob Boothby.
Britain's secret service MI5 became aware of a sexual relationship between Kray and Boothby and that they attended gay parties at which "rent boys" were procured for the pair's entertainment.
The news media got wind of the concerns and, in July 1964, The Sunday Mirror, published an exposé of connections between certain criminals and a well-known public figure.
The story did not name names, but plenty of people knew who was being referred to. Boothby threatened to sue the newspaper, which settled out of court for £40,000 and fired its editor. The government was able to squash the story, which, of course, was true, and Kray promises of mayhem should anyone take it up helped keep it quiet.
Another of Ronnie's relationships was with former Member of Parliament Thomas Driberg (Baron Bradwell). This was also swept under the carpet, because it was strongly suspected that Driberg was a Soviet spy.
The Downfall of the Kray Twins
Other crime gangs tried to elbow their way into the Krays' rackets, including a sadistic bunch led by Charlie and Eddie Richardson in South London.
A particularly odious member of the Richardson Gang, and a former friend of the Krays, was George Cornell. In public, Cornell had expressed his opinion that Ronnie Kray was a “fat poof.”
Three months later, in March 1966, Ronnie Kray walked into a pub called The Blind Beggar to find George Cornell drinking at the bar. Ronnie shot Cornell twice in the head and then calmly walked out of the pub. When the police arrived to investigate, nobody had seen anything; apparently, everybody was in the washroom when the shooting happened.
In 1967, a member of The Firm, Jack “the Hat” McVitie, was paid £1,000 to kill Leslie Payne. Once The Firm's business manager, Payne had drifted away from the Krays, sickened by their egregious violence.
McVitie did not fulfill the contract, spent the money on booze and drugs, and bragged about it. In so doing he signed his own death warrant. In October 1967, Reggie ended McVitie's life by stabbing him several times in what looked like a frenzied attack. McVitie's body was never found.
By now, police were becoming alarmed at the increasing violence of the Krays and started putting pressure on minor members of The Firm. Some of the Krays' associates were concerned they might suffer a similar fate to McVitie's, so they started to talk.
In May 1968, in a dawn swoop, police arrested the Kray twins and 24 other gang members. At trial, Leslie Payne and a few gang members were star witnesses, along with the barmaid at The Blind Beggar. Ronnie and Reggie were found guilty of the murders of George Cornell and Jack McVitie. They both received 30-year sentences.
Ronnie was incarcerated in the Broadmoor psychiatric hospital where he died in 1995 at the age of 61. Reggie was released from prison in August 2000 on compassionate grounds. He died two months later of cancer. He was 66.
- In April 1965, Reggie Kray married 22-year-old Frances Shea. A priest who was asked to officiate at the wedding and refused said “Not merely was there not the faintest hope of either of them finding happiness together, but I could see them causing serious harm to one another.” On their honeymoon in Greece, Reggie went out drinking most nights, leaving his bride alone in a hotel. Within three months, Frances left and returned to live with her parents. There were brief reconciliations but, in June 1967, Frances took an overdose of barbiturates and died.
- Reggie developed a specialty fight move. He would offer his intended opponent a cigarette. As the man opened his mouth to insert the cigarette, Reggie would strike with a single blow at the relaxed jaw, invariably breaking it.
- There was an older brother, Charlie Kray, who stayed in the background and away from the rough stuff. He mostly looked after the money and ended up with a 10-year prison sentence.
- The Thursday Club met weekly at a restaurant in London's seedy Soho district for drinking, feasting, gambling, and sexual romping. Prominent members included Prince Philip, Lord Mountbatten, actor David Niven, Soviet spy Kim Philby, and the Kray brothers. You can read more about the Thursday Club here.
- “The Krays: A History of Violence.” BBC News, April 4, 2000.
- “How the Kray Twins Ruled the Underworld of Swinging Sixties London in Style.” Daniel Rennie, allthatsinteresting.com, April 9, 2019.
- “Inside the Murderous Lives of the Krays - and Why East London Is still Obsessed.” Zak Garner-Purkis, mylondon.news, May 22, 2021.
- “Ronnie Kray and Tory Peer Lord Boothby 'Attended Homosexual Parties.' ” BBC News, October 23, 2015.
- The Kray Twins Wiki.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor