In today’s blog author and guide John Bennett presents a summary of the life and times of East End gangland leaders Ronnie and Reggie Kray.
Ronald and Reginald Kray have often been described as Britain’s only gangsters. For over ten years they ruled the East End underworld with a heady mix of protection rackets, club ownership and business fraud, underpinned with extreme fear and violence.
Backed by their ‘Firm’, a constantly shifting group of minders, drivers, sidekicks and hangers-on, they mixed with East Enders, the gentry and celebrities alike and, through their desire for fame and recognition, were described as legends in their own lifetimes.
Born in 1933 to a poor family in Hoxton, Ronnie and Reggie, identical twins, soon settled in Bethnal Green, a rough part of East London where crime and violence was a way of life and a way of survival.
As young boys, they followed in the footsteps of their Grandfathers and took up boxing, showing great promise in the ring. At seventeen, they turned professional, with Reggie looking to be a great champion of the future. Naturally, their skill as fighters also came in very handy on the streets of Bethnal Green.
But after going on the run as deserters from the army when they were called up for National Service, they soon found that their particular skills were suited to crime; and when they were given a dishonourable discharge from the army in 1954 they began their rise in the underworld.
Beginning with protection rackets and turf wars, they gravitated to owning nightclubs and even made sure they had a hand in the running of exclusive West End clubs and casinos.
Their establishments became the haunt of celebrities like Judy Garland and world champion boxers. Their dubious business dealings made them wealthy and yet all the time they were building up a wall of respect and fear in their community.
They attracted the attention of Scotland Yard, who found it hard to pin offences on them because witnesses would obey the code of ‘thou shalt not grass.’
They grew increasingly powerful and become immune to the law and the press. By 1965 they would reachthe peak of their influence.
Ronnie, however, was a schizophrenic and prone to extreme violence: in 1966 he shot rival gangster George Cornell dead in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel.
The following year Reggie, falling to pieces after the death of his young wife Frances, murdered some-time associate Jack McVitie.
With the twins becoming more unpredictable and dangerous, Scotland Yard found strange bedfellows in members of the ‘Firm’ who began to talk openly about the twins’ activities.
In 1968 they were arrested and the following year, after a lengthy court case at the Old Bailey, they were sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommendation they serve no less than 30 years.
Eventually Ronnie ended up in Broadmoor where he died of a heart attack in 1995.
Reggie died of cancer in 2000 after a few weeks of freedom.
The twins’ exploits have been immortalised in books, documentaries and feature films.
They continue to divide public opinion; to some they were Robin Hood figures who gave generously to local charities, to others they were mindless thugs. It is this difference of opinion they keeps the Kray legend, like that of Bonnie and Clyde or Al Capone, alive.