Ronald and Reginald Kray were born 10 minutes apart, on 24 October 1933, in Hoxton, an East End suburb of London, to Charlie and Violet Kray, who had an older son, also called Charlie.Father Charlie’s desertion from the army, during WWII, meant he was an infrequent presence in the home, and the Kray twins were raised primarily by their mother, a domineering woman who epitomised the close-knit, “salt of the earth”, Cockney matriarch. The twins were inseparable during these formative years, and remained so into their adult lives.
All three Kray boys took up amateur boxing, and their success extended beyond the ring as well, with the twins developing a reputation for troublemaking, only escaping criminal conviction narrowly on a number of occasions. In March 1952, they were called up for National Service; following their father’s example, they deserted a number of times, and landed in military prison as a result, earning a dishonourable discharge. This criminal record ended any hopes of careers in professional boxing, and the twins parleyed their “hard man” reputations into a criminal enterprise that included racketeering, hijacking, armed robbery and arson. Police were aware of their activities, but their merciless reputations made it impossible for police forces to persuade witnesses to bring evidence against the twins.
Born 24 October 1933The Victims 9 March 1966 - George Cornell 29 October 1967 - Jack McVitieArrested 9 May 1968Trial January 1969Convicted 8 March 1969Died Ronnie Kray 17 March 1995 Reggie Kray 1 October 2000
Although the Krays were aware of the progress being made by the police, they continued their criminal activities until finally, on 8 May 1968, Read had all the information he felt necessary to proceed with arrests.Recognising the threat of intimidation posed to witnesses by any member of “The Firm”, a major operation was mounted, that resulted in the dawn arrest of both Kray twins at the Shoreditch home of their parents, as well as twenty four other principal “Firm” members in other parts of London, during the course of 9 May 1968.
Making of the "Firm"
Ronnie was the organisational force behind “The Firm”, as they called their gang, developing a network of informants and showing an attention to detail and discipline that earned him the nickname “The Colonel”. He also developed a love of flash “gangster” clothes, and his homosexuality was an open secret in the East End underworld. As their reputation spread, Ronnie became more concerned with their position within the London criminal hierarchy, and “The Firm” gradually positioned itself as the dominant force within the London criminal network.The beginning of a rift between the twins occurred in 1956, when Ronnie, obsessed with firearms, shot a man during the commission of their protection racket business. Reggie was appalled at the risk Ronnie had taken, given the rarity of shootings at the time, but Ronnie was boastful after the event, and began to regard himself as invincible. This rift widened when, some months later, Ronnie alone was convicted of an assault that had involved both brothers, serving a three-year prison sentence as a result. Such was the reputation of the Krays that incarceration hardly interrupted their criminal activities, but Reggie used his time as sole head of “The Firm” to steer it towards more legitimate enterprises, developing a string of profitable nightclubs and gambling dens, that attracted celebrities such as Joan Collins and Barbara Windsor.
Ronnie, meanwhile, was moved to a prison on the Isle of Wight, where his influence over both inmates and outside events was greatly reduced. His mental health suffered as a result and, following the death of his beloved Aunt Rose on Christmas Day, 1957, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and returned to a secure mental facility on the mainland. He was eventually released in April 1959, and gradually began to reassert his authority over Reggie in “The Firm”, with the delusion of uniting the various London criminal factions into one organisation under his authority. Later that same year, Reggie’s 18-month conviction for extortion enabled Ronnie to cement his grip over the business again.The acquisition of a nightclub in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge area proved a turning point for the brothers’ prospects; the sheer volume of income generated by the business earned the Krays an entrée into the glamorous “Swinging 60s” set, enabling them to leave their East End roots behind them. Ronnie revelled in his role as gay playboy gangster, moving to fashionable Chelsea, and his celebrity contacts gave him access to the most influential people in the country.Despite this elevation of social status, his excessive drinking and drug taking gradually took the shine off his dream until, disillusioned, and suffering increasingly from deteriorating mental health, he moved back to the East End, to live in a caravan on a vacant lot.His business interest moved overseas, and increasingly grandiose schemes saw him involved in shady development deals in Africa. In July 1964 his friendship with a Conservative peer, Lord Boothby, led to a tabloid expose of their homosexual relationship in the Daily Mirror, which again catapulted the Krays into the public eye. Boothby denied any association with the Krays, and won substantial libel damages from the newspaper, although Ronnie Kray received nothing when he tried the same tactic. As a result of this affair, however, newspapers were more cautious about printing anything about the Krays in the future.In 1964, around the time of the Boothby affair, the newly promoted Scotland Yard detective, Chief Inspector Leonard Read, also known as ‘Nipper’, was charged with bringing the Krays to justice. Despite the concerted efforts of a dedicated task force, and a vast amount of circumstantial evidence, the Krays' ruthless reputation ensured that witnesses to their numerous crimes remained silent, and “Nipper” Read made little headway. An abortive attempt at bringing them up on extortion charges failed in 1965, and it wasn’t until late in 1967 that he made the breakthrough that saw the eventual collapse of the Kray criminal empire.During 1967 the Krays had become increasingly concerned that a close associate, Lesley Payne, was going to expose them, in exchange for clemency on various charges that the police had brought against him. Determined to silence him, they instructed one of their associates, Jack “The Hat” McVitie, to assassinate Payne. McVitie failed, and refused to return the fee he had been paid. Ronnie, incensed by this behaviour, goaded Reggie into murdering McVitie; Reggie stabbed him to death in front of witnesses at a home in South London, on 29 October 1967. The Krays' elder brother, Charlie, was persuaded to assist with the concealment of McVitie’s body; a task he performed so successfully that McVitie’s body was never found. Later Charlie served a 10-year prison sentence, as an accessory to the murder, for his trouble.Payne, meanwhile, made aware of this failed attempt on his life, decided that his best chance of survival was to confess all to the police. Unfortunately for the Krays, his knowledge of all elements of their business activities was voluminous, and he provided over 200 pages of damning testimony.
The Prison Years
Initially incarcerated separately, their mother petitioned to have them reunited, and Ronnie joined Reggie at the maximum security Parkhurst Prison, on the Isle of Wight, early in 1972. Ronnie’s deteriorating mental health forced their separation some years later, when he was transferred to Broadmoor Prison. Whilst there he married twice, despite his life-long homosexuality: in 1985 to Elaine Mildener, and in 1989 to Kate Howard.The mythology of the Kray twins continued to grow, despite their long incarceration, and a film made of their lives in 1990 netted the brothers substantial royalties.
Despite a number of campaigns to free the Kray twins, including a 10,000 signature petition sent to Downing Street in 1993, the establishment seemed determined to make an example of them, and attempts to have their sentences reduced, to reflect the actual crimes of which they had been committed, proved fruitless.Ronnie Kray died of a heart attack on 17 March 1995, the result of a chronic nicotine addiction. Reggie was temporarily released to attend his funeral, which attracted thousands of onlookers, and was visibly devastated at his loss. Family claim he never completely recovered.On 3 August 2000, Reggie Kray was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the bladder, and given just weeks to live. Then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, approved his release on compassionate grounds and, finally free after 32 years in prison, he died on 1 October 2000.His funeral cortege attracted even more onlookers than his brother’s had, with up to one hundred thousand people lining the East London route. In accordance with his wishes, Reggie was laid to rest in the same grave as his brother, Ronnie.
Prison for the playboys
The twins were arraigned for trial in July 1968, and their trials proceeded in January 1969, lasting many weeks as a parade of informants, now safe from intimidation, gave their testimony. Despite their wide-reaching criminal empire, the brothers were tried only for the murders of Jack “The Hat” McVitie and George Cornell, who had been shot by Ronnie in the notorious Blind Beggar pub on 9 March 1966, in front of numerous witnesses.
On 8 March 1969, the jury found the brothers guilty of the murders, and the judge passed life sentences on each of them, ordering that a minimum sentence of 30 years be served. This was far in excess of the 10–12 years that would normally be served for similar crimes.