Making of the "Firm"
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.