In a slim volume of his writings from prison, entitled Thoughts and published in 1991, Reggie Kray, who has died aged 66, concluded that "my eventual aim is to be recognised, first as a man and eventually as an author, poet and philosopher". He will certainly always be recognised, but only as one half of Britain's best-known team of gangsters, the leader of the Firm, a man who spent the first half of his life breaking the law and the second half paying for it.
Reggie and Ronnie Kray were born in London's East End, the twin sons of the feckless Charlie and the protective Violet. They came from Romany, Irish and Jewish stock, and their earliest aspirations to fame were in the boxing ring where, along with big brother Charlie, they excelled. But it soon became clear that their physical strength was going to be pressed into combat that took little notice of the Queensberry rules.
Their national service was spent mainly in the glasshouse for assaulting NCOs or going AWOL, and they emerged from Shepton Mallet military prison well prepared for a lifetime challenging authority.
By then, Ronnie - "The Colonel" - was already showing signs of the unbalanced personality that was to become both the strength and weakness of the twins: a strength in that Ronnie's sudden violent mood swings meant that other criminals and those who paid protection money were always fearful of him; a weakness, because it embroiled the three brothers in the pointless violence for which they eventually paid with more than 70 years of their collective lives behind bars.
It was in 1954 that the twins' reputation was established. They had taken over the Regal billiard hall on the Mile End Road, and Ronnie cutlassed members of a Maltese gang that tried to extract protection money from them. Word spread. They soon saw their future in clubs, either owning them, extracting protection money from them, or - in Ronnie's case - wielding them. By 1957, they had their own establishment, the Double R, in Bow Road, east London. The Firm, the name by which their gang was known, was born.
The Krays recruited a mixture of Scottish hardmen, London heavies and bent businessmen, and soon had a tight little empire in east London, within spitting distance of their old home (now demolished) on Vallance Road, "Fort Vallance" as it was called.
Had they been content with the regular earnings offered by people anxious to keep on their right side, they could have avoided the attention of what was, in the 1960s and early 70s, the often corrupt world of detectives happy to turn a blind eye. But they wanted to expand into the West End and this, coupled with Ronnie's increasing paranoia, derailed them.
Ronnie murdered fellow villain George Cornell by shooting him in the Blind Beggar pub, in the East End, in 1966. All the witnesses were, initially, too scared to give evidence against him, and, for a time, it seemed as though the Krays were untouchable. The following year, Reggie too crossed the line. According to one of their former henchmen, Albert Donoghue, Ronnie egged his brother on to kill Jack "The Hat" McVitie, a smalltime crook and irritant to the brothers. "I've done mine," Ronnie supposedly told Reggie. "About time you done yours."
McVitie was lured to a party in Hackney, where he was accused of damaging the Kray name, and stabbed to death by Reggie. Members of the Firm were left to clean up the mess while the body was disposed of.
Again, it looked initially as though the twins would get away with it, but Leonard "Nipper" Read, one of a new breed of clean Scotland Yard detectives, was determined to halt them. Reggie and Ronnie named one of their boa constrictors after Read when they heard he was on their trail, and he proved to be just as wily and powerful.
There turned out to be little honour among their gang of thieves and hard men: many gave evidence against the twins when they finally appeared at the Old Bailey in 1969. There they were jailed for life, with a recommendation that they serve at least 30 years.
If the sentencing judge, Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, hoped that the lengthy term would wipe the Kray name from the public mind, he was wrong. The twins became more famous with every year they spent in Broadmoor or Parkhurst. There was a Kray musical by Snoo Wilson (England, England), Kray t-shirts, The Krays film in 1990, Kray boxer shorts, more than 20 books (the best of which remains the earliest, John Pearson's The Profession of Violence) and, inevitably, a web site.
This constant attention may have stiffened the resolve of successive home secretaries to refuse to parole the twins, but the real reason was probably that Reggie continued to justify the McVitie killing - likening it to the slaying of an Argentinian soldier in battle.
Inside prison, Reggie kept himself fit, "adopted" a succession of young men, and wrote his memoirs and occasional poems. In Born Fighter (1990), he wrote that he had become a born-again Christian, and he stunned prisoners in Parkhurst by saying grace before Christmas dinner. His favourite reading, he said, was Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. He also took up the metaphorical cudgels on behalf of gay prisoners who were bullied. In the past, he had helped other prisoners to escape (including, in the 1960s, "Mad Frank" Mitchell, later killed when he became a nuisance to the Krays, who were hiding him) but he never made it over the wall himself.
He gave interviews in jail, in which he was always the courteous gent, and campaigned for his freedom as his relatives gradually died. He was allowed out to attend the funerals of his mother and twin brother, who died in Broadmoor in 1995. Eventually, on August 26 this year, he was released on compassionate grounds, suffering from terminal cancer.
But even if he was much mocked - the generation of bank robbers who took over the criminal world referred to the twins as "Gert and Daisy", and Monty Python's Flying Circus lampooned them as the Piranha brothers - his following never disappeared. Young gangsters imitated and even named themselves after him and Ronnie, and there was never a shortage of people prepared to pay for the privilege of having their photo taken with him.
As a young man, Reggie had married Frances Shea in 1965, but she had committed suicide two years later, having left him. In the 1990s, through a friend, he met Roberta, a bright, attractive, public relations woman, who added her voice to calls for his release, visited him regularly, and became his second wife.
He argued that without the Kray name, he would have served a much smaller sentence - and he was right. The same aura of menace that had allowed the brothers such power in the old East End meant that their release was always going to attract attention, and it constantly delayed the chance for Reggie to re-enter a society he would barely have recognised, and a criminal world taken over by drugs.
Other families - the Richardsons, the Arifs, the Adams - may have emerged on the criminal scene, but none ever had the Kray cachet. Whether that was any consolation to Reggie is another matter. Ronnie had always wanted to be famous, to be a British Jimmy Cagney figure; Reggie might have been happier ending his days on the Costa del Sol, trying to work out exactly what philosophy it was that had made him so notorious.
- Reginald Kray, gang leader, born October 24 1933; died October 1 2000
Ron Kray was not the most successful of criminals, and he was far from the most violent. But he was a glamorous gangster who contributed to local charities, a murderer who loved his mother. He was at heart a street fighter and local hard man whose unambiguous embrace of the gangster ethic at the expense of commercial rationality now seems as dated as bubble cars and full employment.
Along with his twin brother Reg (or "Reggie"), Ron (or "Ronnie") Kray grew up in wartime east London, an area which forged their identities along with their Romany/Jewish inheritance. As their father, Charles, spent most of the war years "on the trot", avoiding the rigours of armed service, the twins were raised by their mother, Violet, a woman whose stoicism through year after year of prison visits was later to emerge as something approaching heroic. Violet turned the family home in Vallance Road into a safe haven from a hostile world that was always threatening to impose itself upon the self- contained, largely self-policed area that Jack London once christened "the awful east".
The twins however had a multitude of local heroes as role models. Street fighters and cobblestone gladiators abounded. Legendary characters such as Jimmy Spinks and Dodger Mullins and the twins' grandfathers Cannonball Lee and Jimmy Kray were hugely influential upon the twins, and they and their elder brother Charles became accomplished boxers. The twins' street reputations were the result of successful unlicensed bouts with various local rivals.
Their strengths lay in their inseparability: a fight with Reg was a fight with Ron and vice versa. Yet from early days Ron was reputedly slower and less outward-going than Reg. According to their biographer John Pearson, this was the result of a series of severe childhood illnesses, but for whatever reason Ron began to develop at an early age a fantasy world that revolved around notions of charismatic leadership that were to shape the upward trajectory of his criminal career as well as its eventual downfall.
The twins' military career ended in the Guard House after just 15 months. Direct confrontation and total disregard for military authority ensured a discharge; nothing was to get in the way of the locally based entrepreneurship that had evolved from the territorial disputes of their adolescence. By the age of 20, the Kray twins had taken over a billiard hall and entered that contentious grey zone between security and extortion.
It was at the billiard hall that Ron began to play out the dominant of his fantasies, that of the gangster. As the twins gathered a group of young and old villains around them, Ron's dreams of forming a powerful criminal "firm", with him and Reg at the helm, looked like becoming a reality. But it was not all talk; the violence became if anything more extreme and - most importantly - highly stylised in both form and content. The mimicry of celluloid gangsters was always backed up by action. Ron, as a result of his dedication to military operations against rivals, became known to his followers as "the Colonel".
The twins acted as ciphers for criminal information, and operated various scams and cons from their base at the billiard hall. However, by the mid- 1950s, the post-war criminal consensus had ended, the cessation of rationing ensured the end of the black market, the established "guvnors" were ageing, and it was they that talent-spotted the twin threat from the east.
The Krays flirted with the two major firms of the day but eventually allied themselves to Billy Hill, who introduced them to gambling just in time for the legalisation of the industry in 1961. The twins moved up West - and most of Ron's fantasies started to come true.
Ron eventually he came unstuck and was sentenced to three years for GBH in 1956, and two years later was certified insane. He escaped from the secure hospital after a visit from his identical twin when the brothers swapped places. But after a spell on the outside, he gave himself up and was eventually released in 1959, to find the firm thriving under the increasingly business-like Reg.
But the violence continued. Whether it was imposing order in clubland, protecting their investments or dealing with recurring feuds, the twins had reputations to protect. While Reg was serving 18 months for his alleged part in a protection racket, the businesses were severely affected as Ron's paranoid schizophrenia was free to dominate the firm's agenda.
As they bought into clubs and gambling establishments in the West and East Ends of London, they came to entertain sportsmen and showbiz personalities. Ron's homosexuality enabled the forging of some exotic alliances within the world of politics, and the twins became central to the newly democratised social lites of the 1960s.
They had criminal contacts all over Britain as well as business contacts in many police stations: as a team they appeared smart, well-connected and invulnerable. But as Reg developed as an impresario, albeit with criminal leanings, it became apparent that Ron could only thrive on conflict. Murder was inevitable. In 1966 an old enemy, George Cornell, was killed by Ron in the saloon bar of the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel. But, despite every detail of the killing entering East End folk-law, no witness could identify the assailant to the police.
As the Sixties progressed the twins, and Ron in particular, became more impudent in their confrontations with authority. They arranged the escape from Dartmoor of Frank "Mad Axeman" Mitchell, and were later acquitted of his murder. They flirted with the Mafia, and looked abroad to expand. But Ron's condition was deteriorating and the responsibility for the firm fell to Reg, who remained staunch in his devotion to his brother. However, after the suicide of his wife, Reg went to pieces, and eventually with Ron's encouragement murdered a troublesome fringe member of the firm.
The killing of Jack ("the Hat") McVitie was the turning-point. The twins could no longer be ignored, and under pressure the firm crumbled. Witnesses to the killings of both Cornell and McVitie were found after a police operation which initially took the Krays off the streets as the result of evidence provided by an agent provocateur working for the United States Treasury.
The Krays' trial in 1969 was a show trial for the Sixties. There was a perception in the beleaguered Establishment that the old order was disintegrating. The twins' sentences of life with a recommendation of 30 years were out of proportion even to the horrendous murders of which they were found guilty. There were frequent campaigns to get them released, numerous books, and a film of their lives. They were idolised by many as icons of safer, predictable days, exploited by hangers-on and ridiculed by a few ex-gangsters. But it was all irrelevant to Ron, who was certified a paranoid schizophrenic in 1979 and served out his sentence heavily medicated in Broadmoor.
The potent mixture of money, violence, sex, madness andnostalgia that characterised Ron Kray's life ensured that he will not be forgotten. When he was a child his aunt Rose had told Ron that he was "born to hang", and although this proved not to be the case his incarceration ensured that the decline of Britain's most notorious criminal was suspended in front of a voracious audience in a cruel parody of a public execution.
- Ronald Kray, gangster: born London 24 October 1933; married 1985 Elaine Mildener (marriage dissolved 1989), 1989 Kate Howard (marriage dissolved 1994); died Slough 17 March 1995.
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