The Krays are probably the most well known of all British Gangsters, and to some are probably the only British Gangsters that they have heard of. The Krays are not only well known but are looked upon by many as good guys. Many people that were around at the time (and presumably had never got on the wrong side of them) would recall how the streets were much safer when the Krays were about. Twin brothers Ronald “Ronnie” Kray (24 October 1933 – 17 March 1995) and Reginald “Reggie” Kray (24 October 1933 – 1 October 2000) were English gangsters who were foremost perpetrators of organised crime in London’s East End during the 1950s and ’60s. Ronald, commonly referred to as Ron or Ronnie, most likely suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. With their gang, “The Firm”, the Krays were involved in armed robberies, arson, protection rackets, assaults, and the murders of Jack “The Hat” McVitie and George Cornell. As West End nightclub owners, they mixed with prominent entertainers including Diana Dors, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and with politicians. The Krays were much feared within their milieu, and in the ’60s became celebrities in their own right, even being photographed by David Bailey and interviewed on television. They were arrested on 9 May 1968 and convicted in 1969 by the efforts of a squad of detectives led by Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read, and were both sentenced to life imprisonment. Ronnie remained in Broadmoor Hospital until his death on 17 March 1995, but Reggie was released from prison on compassionate grounds in August 2000, eight weeks before his death from cancer.
Ronnie and Reggie Kray were born on 24 October 1933 in Hoxton, East London, to Charles David “Charlie” Kray, Sr., (10 March 1907 – 8 March 1983), a scrap gold dealer, and Violet Lee (5 August 1909 – 7 August 1982). Reggie was born roughly 10 minutes before twin Ronnie. Charlie and Violet already had a six-year-old son, Charlie Jr, (9 July 1926 – 4 April 2000). A sister, Violet, born 1929, died in infancy. When the twins were three years old, they were struck down with diphtheria and recovered. Ron almost died from a head injury suffered in a fight with his twin brother in 1942. In 1938, having previously lived in Stean Street, Hoxton, the Kray family moved to 178 Vallance Road, Bethnal Green. At the start of the Second World War, Charlie Kray Senior was called up into the army but went into hiding. The twins first attended Wood Close School in Brick Lane and then Daniel Street School. The influence of their grandfather, Jimmy “Cannonball” Lee,led both boys into amateur boxing, which was at that time a popular pursuit for working class boys in the East End. An element of rivalry between them spurred them on, and they achieved some success. They are said never to have lost a bout before turning professional at the age of 19.
The Kray twins became notorious locally for their gang and the mayhem they caused. They narrowly avoided prison several times, and in early 1952 they were called up for national service with the Royal Fusiliers. They deserted several times, each time being recaptured. While absent without leave, the twins assaulted a police officer who had spotted them and was trying to arrest them. They were initially held at the Tower of London (they were among the very last prisoners ever kept there) before being sent to Shepton Mallet military prison in Somerset and jailed for a month awaiting court-martial. They ended up being jailed in the Home Counties Brigade Depot jail in Canterbury, Kent. Their behaviour there was so bad that in the end they were given dishonourable discharges from the service; for the last few weeks of their imprisonment, when their fate was a certainty anyway, they tried to dominate the exercise area immediately outside their one man cells. They threw tantrums, upended their latrine bucket over a sergeant, similarly dumped a dixie (a large camp kettle) full of hot tea on a guard, handcuffed another guard to the prison bars with a pair of stolen cuffs, and burned their bedding. Eventually they were discharged, but not before escaping from the guardhouse and being recaptured by the army one last time. The escape was executed when they were moved from a one man cell to a communal cell and they assaulted their guard with a china vase. Still, once recaptured and while awaiting transfer to civilian authority for crimes committed during their most recent period at large, they spent their last night in Canterbury drinking cider, eating crisps, and smoking cigarillos courtesy of the young national servicemen who were acting as their guards.
Their criminal records and dishonorable discharges ended their boxing careers. As a result, the twins turned to crime. They bought a run down local snooker club in Bethnal Green, where they started several protection rackets. By the end of the 1950s, the Krays were involved in hijacking, armed robbery and arson, through which they acquired a few clubs and other properties. In 1960 Ronnie Kray was incarcerated for 18 months on charges of running a protection racket and related threats, and while he was in prison, Peter Rachman, the head of a violent landlord operation, gave Reggie a nightclub on the Knightsbridge end of Wilton Place beside Joans Kitchen a bistro, called Esmeralda’s Barn. The site is now where the Berkeley Hotel is, the club itself was on the corner opposite the church. This increased the Krays’ influence in the West End of London, with celebrities and famous people rather than East End criminals. They were assisted by banker Alan Cooper who wanted protection from the Krays’ rivals, the Richardsons, who were based in South London.
Part 1 of the BBC 1 documentary on the notorious Kray Twins