“They are fascinating characters. There won’t be a crime family like them again”, said Steve Wraith a friend of the Kray family.
Ronnie and Reggie Kray were once considered the most dangerous underworld figures in Britain. Their once tight grip on the East ends remains unparalleled. Like all gangsters there was a fine line between glamour and violence. They built up an empire, as West End nightclub owners they mixed with the likes of Diana Dors, Barbara Windsor, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.
A figure of urban folklore to becoming the title of the new Tom Hardy staring biopic, society has long held a fascination with the Krays.
“The Kray name certainly makes money”, Steve Wraith tells his Westminster University audience.
There is no denying that crime, glamour and violence sells. Who could forget Marlon Brando as the ‘Godfather’ in a role that won him an Academy Award? Scarface, Al Capone, the Sopranos, The Goodfellas, Charles Manson and Whitey Bulgar, what is it about gangster’s life stories that continue to fascinate audiences?
Ronnie and Reggie Kray were born in 1933 in Hoxotn, Middlesex. They started off as boxers in the East End, never loosing a fight and turning professional at the age of 19. They became notorious locally for their gang and its violence and narrowly avoided being sent to prison several times. They were arrested after refusing national conscription and were one of the last prisoners held in the Tower of London. Their behavior in prison was so appalling that they both received dishonorable charges from the army. After which they turned to full time crime.
Crime is something that Ronnie and Reggie excelled at. They opened nightclubs in the West End, a move that would cement their celebrity status. David Bailey photographed the pair; Frank Sinatra was a regular, personally signed autographs from Barbra Streisand were part of their mementos, they were not only East End’s most infamous criminals, you could argue that they were also London’s greatest actors.
But underneath their opulent façade were two identical brothers involved in protection rackets, illegal gambling, arson and murder. Their downfall occurred in 1968 when Ronnie shot rival gang member George Cornell in the face as he drank in the Blind Beggar Pub. Reggie stabbed gang member Jack ‘the Hat’ Mcvitie in the face and neck.
The twins were tried and convicted and both were sentenced to life imprisonment.
When sentencing, Justice Melford Stevenson famously stated, “I am not going to waste words on you. In my view society has earned a rest from your activities”.
Prison did not hinder the Krays image; they retained notoriety even inside prison. Frank Sinatra hired 18 bodyguards off them, a transaction that was conducted even though Reggie and Ronnie were firmly behind bars.
The Krays passed in 1995 and 2000 respectively. Since their passing books, memorabilia, photos and personal accounts have been published. You can even experience firsthand the Krays East End with a guided walking tour. Tom Hardy has immortalised the brothers on the silver screen, ‘Legend’ a seemingly inappropriate title for London’s most notorious violent gangsters.
Steve Wraith is right; the name Kray inevitably sells itself. But before we get caught up in their nostalgic glamour the hard facts need to be presented. Ronnie and Reggie Kray were murderers. Although our society holds a long-term fascination with gangsters we should remain careful that we do not endorse their image.
Legend is currently in cinemas.