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15: The Kray Twins Part 1 - Let's Get Kray Kray

On today's episode, Cody and Greg discuss the identical twin crime bosses, Ronnie and Reggie Kray. This first part of the series covers the twin's upbringing and Ronnie Kray's descent into insanity.

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Episode Information

Identical twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray were two prolific crime lords who owned London’s East End during the 1950s and 1960s. They were known for their tempers, but also for their pride in the East End and its people. They developed a reputation as the East End’s unofficial police. However, their story also developed into one of mistrust, betrayal and murder. Today’s episode will focus a lot on the twins’ upbringing and more of Ronnie Kray’s story. That’s not to say we won’t touch on Reggie, but this will be more of a Ronnie episode. In the next episode, the story will come back together a bit more for the conclusion. We’ll basically be using both episodes to fill in the gaps of the other. 



Sources for this episode are Ronnie and Reggie’s book, “Our Story”, and their brother Charlie’s book, “Me and My Brothers”. Also, a few documentaries were used that can be found on YouTube. 

Great Depression London / Early Life

To understand the Kray twins, it’s important to understand their London upbringing and the family who brought them up. In terms of the environment, the twins were children during the Great Depression, born into a very rough part of London: The East End. This area of London had a very interesting relationship with the police. As the East End was a very poor part of London, crime was much more prevalent than other parts of the city. So, the citizens of the East End and the police obviously had experience in dealing with each other. However, they definitely didn’t see eye to eye. One particular area that East Enders and the police disagreed very strongly on was gambling; most notably horse races, because these were the most popular at the time.

 

At this particular time in history, the laws surrounding horse track betting were quite strict. If you wanted to place a bet, you had to actually be at the horse track. This was known as “On Track betting”. However, most of the people living in the East End couldn’t afford to spend their days at the track, they had 25hr work days to attend to. So, as a workaround to “on track betting”, the East Enders developed illegal gambling clubs. Basically, these clubs allowed working-class East Enders the opportunity to place a bet on the races. These clubs would then send people called “runners” to the tracks to actually place the bets. 

 

It wasn’t long before the police got wise to these illegal gambling clubs. However, it’s argued that, instead of punishing the illegal gamblers, the police began to take advantage of them. Whenever these people were caught placing bets at illegal clubs, they would be placed into custody for the evening, fined in the morning, and then just released. And that process would repeat over and over. The people of the East End took particular offence to this because they were obviously being exploited by the police; so mistrust in the police in the East End built very quickly. This particular fact will come into play during the Krays' rise to criminal power. In essence, the East End was full of crime, but everyone hated the police. It’s not necessarily true that every child raised in an environment like this becomes violent, but it’s obvious that environments such as this do have an effect on children.

 

Now that we’ve set the scene for the twins’ childhood, we’ll also need to discuss some of their more important and interesting family members. Arguably the most important person in the twins’ lives was their mother, Violet. She is described as a very mild-tempered woman. The twins claimed that she would never raise her voice to them, much less a hand. They saw her as a complete angel, and they would literally kill anyone who would speak ill of her. 

 

Their father Charles Kray was a successful market dealer. He would call at random upper-class homes to buy anything of value to resell at his family-owned street stalls. We’ll discuss this in a moment, but it was Charles who may have inadvertently caused Ronnie Kray to develop his mistrust of the police; Reggie’s mistrust came from a different childhood moment which we’ll also discuss. (As an important note, Charles Kray should not be confused with Charles Kray Jr. “Charlie”, the twins’ older brother.) 

 

Charles Kray’s father was Jimmy Kray. Both Charles and Jimmy worked for themselves in the market stalls. Now these two men shared an interest in something that would shape the Kray twins lives from a young age: boxing. In fact, it seems that everyone in this time period in the East End had an affinity for boxing. Everyone just seemed to be beating the absolute shit out of each other. However, Charles and Jimmy Kray’s interest in boxing was purely recreational. It was the twins’ grandfather on their mother’s side, Jimmy Lee, who would engrain the love of boxing into the twins (initially their brother Charlie). 

 

Let's talk about Jimmy Lee for a moment, because he was ridiculous. Jimmy Lee was an incredibly intense athlete. He was a bare-knuckle boxer prior to the birth of the twins. He was described as an incredibly tough boxer even until his old age. Throughout his bare-knuckle boxing career, he had garnered the nickname “Southpaw Cannonball”. And as an example of his fitness, on one particular occasion, the twins’ uncle had driven a coach party 42 miles south from London for a getaway from the town. Shortly after the coach party arrived at their destination, Jimmy Lee also arrived on a bicycle. He had cycled the full 42 miles and was more than willing to complete the return journey. He was 75 years old at the time. 

 

Now all of the mentioned men in the Kray family (Jimmy Lee, Jimmy Kray, and Charles Kray) all transferred their love of boxing to the twins. Before the twins, however, was their brother, Charlie. Charlie was the real young boxer of the family. He was a bit older than the twins, I believe by about 8 years, and by the time the twins became interested in boxing, he had already become very proficient with his boxing skills. Charlie had already won boxing championships during his time in the navy when the twins were old enough to ask him for boxing lessons. Charlie agreed and introduced the twins into the world of boxing, or at least introduced them into the world of beating the shit out of other people. 

 

Reggie Kray, often seen as the more level-headed of the twins, was seen to be the more proficient boxer. He was described as cold and calculated. While Ronnie, often seen at the bat-shit crazy one of the two, was seen as more of an animal in the ring. His goal was to put each opponent on their back. Though they were developing different fighting styles, they were making themselves into forces that would prove to be incredibly difficult to control, especially by the police.

 

HATRED OF UNIFORMS

Earlier we mentioned that the twins both developed a distrust in the police at early ages. Reggie’s distrust began on an unfortunate train ride. He was on a train with his family coming back from a picnic. He had an air pistol with him, which seems like an odd thing for a child to just have. Anyway, he decided to fire this air pistol out the window of the moving train. A guard on the train saw him do this, grabbed him and locked him in a cabin. He basically placed him “under arrest”, so to speak. Now, it wasn’t actually the fact that Reggie was locked away that upset him. Instead, Reggie said that the police went overboard with their treatment of him and it upset his mother, which is likely the main reason this incident affected him so much.

 

However, this is also another moment in Reggie’s childhood that speaks to his distrust in authority in general. When he was around age of 8, Reggie was playing with a friend of his named Alf. Alf was hired by a truck driver to start his engine for him and sometimes help load the truck for deliveries. On this occasion, Alf asked Reggie if he’d like to take a ride with him, jokingly. However, Alf put the truck in gear after starting it. This caused the truck to jerk backwards and crash into something. The two boys heard a scream from the behind the truck. They both went to the back of the truck and found that a young 6 year old boy had been smashed between the truck and a concrete structure. The child’s head was crushed, and even Reggie at such a young age could see the child was dead.

 

After this incident, the truck driver came to the children and told them to lie for him or he would lose his pension. He told them to say that he never hired Alf to start his engine. When there was an inquiry into the incident, the boys admitted they had messed with the truck's gears but not that Alf had started the engine. After this incident, Reggie stated that he hated the man for putting his pension above this young child’s life. To make matters just a bit worse for Reggie, the child he had killed was also a twin. 

 

Ronnie, on the other hand, developed his hatred for uniforms in a different way. The twins’ father, Charles, was called upon at one point for military service. However, he decided to refuse this call and instead went “on the trot”. Going “on the trot” basically meant he evaded the police and military whenever they would call at the family home; which they did daily. Going “on the trot” just truly sounds exhausting. Every day these men in uniform would come, and every day the Kray family would lie to them about Charles’ whereabouts. Ronnie, as well as Reggie, were both said to be able to lie almost like they were born to do it. But the family wouldn’t just lie to the police. The twins’ aunt Rose, Violet’s sister, would sometimes scream obscenities at the cops and whoever else showed up looking for Charles. Obviously, with living in the East End and living with such a violent family, you can see where a pretty unhealthy relationship with police can begin to grow.

 

The twins’ hatred for anyone in uniform will come into play a little later, but as luck would have it, they didn’t really have another run-in with the police until they were 16. The twins got into a gang punchup with another group of young boys. However, afterwards one of the rival gang members broke a rule that no one in the East End was meant to break. Now, remember that we mentioned that the people of the East End didn’t trust the police; they didn’t speak to them. Well, one of the boys from the rival gang decided to go to the police and grass on the Krays (for my Americans, he ratted on them to the police). Even at this early age, the Krays understood the severity of this, and felt it was completely unforgivable.

 

A more severe run-in with the police came a little while later. Ronnie says in the twins’ book that he, Reggie, and some friends were together loitering outside a store when he was violently shoved from behind. When he turned to see who it was, he found it was a cop telling him and his friends to move on. Without thinking, Ronnie knocked the cop out with a single punch. The boys then scattered. A few moments later, the boys were found by two other cops who took Ronnie away. Reggie didn’t like that. So, he headed back to the shop the boys were at before, found the cop Ronnie had knocked out, and decided to knock him out himself. Reggie was then thrown in the cell with his brother. These run-ins with the police started a trend for the twins; the Krays began making headlines and they began making a name.

 

THE MILITARY

The twins were soon summoned to serve a stint in the military, as most men were at the time. The twins father was still “on the trot” at this point, so they saw how difficult it was running from the obligation and they decided they would prefer not to spend their lives running. However, they also hated uniforms, so this presented a bit of pickle when joining the military.

 

The twins discussed the option, as they did with everything, and decided that they would join the military if they were allowed to be physical fitness instructors. They felt that this would be mutually beneficial to the military and to themselves, allowing them to stay in shape and serve their time simultaneously. They went to the Tower of London and made their demand to the corporal in charge. The corporal, not too amused by the order of the twins, said “You’ll do what you’re bloody well told.” To which the twins said nothing and they turned to leave. He asked where they were going and they told him they were going home. Stupidly, the corporal grabbed ahold of Ronnie’s arm to stop him leaving, and Ronnie responded with a quick punch to the jaw, knocking the corporal out cold. Thus began the Twins’ tumultuous relationship with the military.

 

They did indeed go home, and then decided to attend a local dance. The following morning, they were picked up by the military police. They did not resist, because, as I said, they preferred to not run constantly like their father. They did, however, hope that the military had changed their minds about letting them be fitness instructors; they had not.

 

When they arrived back at the Tower of London, the twins were charged with being absent without leave and striking an officer. However, the twins’ pulled a gambit that they used quite a few times throughout their lives, they pretended that neither of them had struck the officer. And the officer couldn’t prove who had done it since they were identical. But, since they couldn’t decide who had done it, they gave them both time in the guardroom. Which I assume is something like a jail. The twins did not like this, so they decided to escape. 

 

They easily escaped and went on the run, I guess going back on their word to not run from their military obligation. This lasted for two years, and the pattern seemed to be that they would cause a lot of trouble, get caught by the police, and be returned to the army where they would escape again; and then this would just repeat. Finally, after 2 years of dealing with the Krays, the army gave up and decided to dishonorably discharge them, which the twins saw as a victory. 

 

Their discharge was around 1953, which was around the same time that Ronnie Kray believes he began to lose his mind. Three years later, he was found to be a paranoid schizophrenic, which will also come into play later. He was a very mentally sick man.

Rise to Crime

At the age of 21 in 1954, the twins were finally free of the military and the police for the first time in 2 years. It was at this point that they started to dive into business ventures. Which I think is incredible for 21 year olds. 

 

The twins found that there was a local billiards club that was being hassled by local thugs. This made it difficult for the business to have regular customers. The owner eventually got upset with the manager and fired him. The Krays approached the owner and said they’d handle the problem in exchange for the lease. The owner gave them a month as a test. The trouble stopped immediately, because, as Ronnie explains, if anyone would break anything in the club they would simply break their bones in return. So, the owner awarded the twins with a 3 year lease.

 

After winning the club lease, the twins were first introduced to the London “protection racket”. A Maltese gang soon approached the twins in their club demanding protection money. Instead, the twins responded by both pulling out knives and going for the gang, who quickly left and never returned. Now, the protection racket, in a nutshell, was a form of illegal business where gangs would provide protection to local businesses from other gangs in exchange for a share of profit. After being introduced to this form of business, the Krays saw its potential.

 

Now, the timing of this is very important. Again, no one trusted the police in the East End. But they were then left with a mix of different gangs wanting their share of profits for protection. Sometimes a business would end up paying multiple gangs a week. The Krays decided to swoop in and start policing the East End themselves. Since many businesses were already paying multiple gangs, they welcomed the idea of the Krays coming in and getting rid of the other gangs; meaning that the businesses now only had to pay the Krays. So, even though the businesses were still being shaken down by Krays, they were happy about it. 

The Firm

The twins were very successful with providing their protection. They had already built a name for themselves as fighters, and the family name already had a history in the East End. This was bolstered by the fact that they took absolutely no shit when it came to their business. If someone was causing trouble for the twins, their businesses, or the businesses under their protection, the person would be beat within an inch of their life and sent to the hospital. The Kray gang soon became known as the Firm, and they were feared.

 

The news of their strict protection spread quickly around the East End, and soon businesses were actually approaching them for their protection, offering them money for sometimes just a few minutes of their time. Some businesses would just ask Reggie and Ronnie to show up for a minute, have a drink in their bar, and that would be enough for them. After Ronnie and Reggie were seen in an establishment, it was their territory and everyone knew to not cause any trouble.

 

The Krays had certain rules that they seemed to live by throughout their entire lives, especially during their crimes. Firstly, you never grass on anyone for anything. Going to the police was seen as completely unforgivable. Secondly, they never hurt those that couldn’t defend themselves. Women, children, and the elderly were not to be harmed. And thirdly, apparently, they decided to never go on organised robberies.

 

Ratting people out to the police is pretty self-explanatory. But the issue with hurting kids is an interesting one, because it very likely plays into the previously mentioned story about Reggie and his friend Alf killing the small child with a truck. Reggie says in his book that the sight of that child haunted him into his adulthood. 

 

Now, we also mentioned that the twins would never go on organised robberies. The twins, rightfully so, were very concerned with the image of the Firm. They felt that the Firm needed to be seen as a proper organisation, and not one that dealt in petty crimes. They decided that they would never go on robberies because they considered this the work of “jailbirds” and, in turn, beneath them. However, it has been said that, even though they didn’t go on the robberies, they would still demand their cut if they knew a member of the robbery team. If they did know someone on the robbery team, they would go around asking about their share. If the person didn’t pay up, they were sent to the hospital. (This was from a documentary, not necessarily the Krays themselves, so take with a grain of salt)

 

RONNIE’S MENTAL HEALTH

One of the biggest problems that the twins dealt with was the mental issues that Ronnie was developing. We mentioned earlier that Ronnie believed he was going mad. Following a rough fight at a club in the West End, Ronnie was ratted out to the police by one of the rival gang members and he was sent to Wandsworth prison at the age of 23. He felt that he was in a great position in his life, and he was very proud of his accomplishments up to that point. He even gained a large amount of clout within the prison, but once again, he began to believe he was going mad. 

 

For the last few months of his sentence, he was sent to Camp Hill, a much more relaxed type of prison, but Ronnie felt that it was much too far from his family and friends. He became depressed and withdrawn. Soon, the twins’ aunt Rose died of leukemia, this only made Ronnie’s mental state worse. He began to suspect that people were plotting against him and anyone that he would see whispering to themselves, he would assume they were trying to kill him. He was declared insane and moved to Long Grove mental institution. Here, he went into an even worse condition. He states himself that he thought the patient in the bed opposite him was a dog, and he couldn’t recognise anyone. He was placed on strong medication and gradually began to feel normal again. However, he was still struggling inside, so Ronnie and Reggie made a ridiculous plan.

 

THE GREAT ESCAPE

Reggie decided to visit Ronnie with their brother Charlie. Their visit was actually quite pleasant and Reggie and Charlie left. Once in the car it was revealed that Reggie hadn’t actually left. The twins had switched clothes and Ronnie had left with Charlie. Soon after, Reggie approached a guard, showed him his ID, and said that he was going home. 

 

The idea of this plan was that, if Ronnie could do well outside the mental institution, then the government would need to review his admission and release him. Oddly enough, it actually worked. He voluntarily returned to the hospital after a few months, and then was released a few months later. But his mental health was still as severe as ever.

 

RONNIE’S SEXUALITY

We’ll unfortunately need to yada yada yada a bit over the next few years mainly to save time, but we’ll try to summarise a bit. Unbeknownst to quite a few people (mainly everyone), Ronnie was actually homosexual. It has been claimed that he was also a pedophile, but we cannot substantiate those claims. We do know that he was at least homosexual. This news came out due to a story in the Daily Mirror that stated that Ronnie was in a homosexual relationship with a member of the House of Lords. Ronnie denied that this relationship had occurred, but he never denied that he was homosexual. Ronnie was actually quite pleased that the news had been broken. He was happy that he could actually be himself now. But some people didn’t quite like it, and they made it known; which was not a smart thing to do especially with Ronnie’s mental issues. 

Murder of George Cornell

The Kray Twins and The Firm had one particular rival gang that was known as the Richardson Gang. The Richardsons were actually a very sadistic gang. The Krays dealt relatively tamely with people unless it was otherwise necessary. The Richardsons, however, were known for their use of torture and sadism to control their territory. The gangs obviously didn’t get along and they had a long-running feud. Even so, the Krays tried their best to live in, somewhat, harmony. They felt that uncontrollable gang warfare would not only be a waste of time, but it would damage their public image. 

 

Well, the Krays had decided that they were going to expand to working with the American mafia in hopes that they would sponsor casinos in London, making the gang an enormous profit. The Krays even decided to let the Richardsons in on this deal. A meeting was set up with all the parties present to discuss the deal. One member of the Richardsons gang caused a bit of a scene at the meeting: George Cornell. This meeting took place soon after the news of Ronnie’s homosexuality had come out. Cornell decided to speak up during the meeting and ended up calling Ronnie a “big, fat poof.” Ronnie describes that moment as the moment he decided that Cornell would die.

 

Soon after that meeting, the Richardsons launched an attack on the Krays at a local pub thinking that the Krays would be inside. Unluckily for the Richardsons, there was only one member of the Firm in the pub, and the rest were hardened gangsters ready to fight. A huge fight broke out and all of the Richardsons gang was arrested or killed except for that son of a bitch, George Cornell.

 

Unfortunately for Cornell, they had killed the one member of the Firm in the pub that night. So, Ronnie decided that they needed revenge and Cornell would be the target. The night following the attack, Ronnie found out that Cornell was drinking at the Blind Beggar. This was a brazen move on Cornell’s part because this pub was on Kray territory. So, Ronnie headed over with his 9mm pistol.

 

There are conflicting accounts on what occurred in the Blind Beggar on March 9th, 1966. Some say that the pub was packed with 33 people, including one barmaid and Cornell. However, Ronnie’s account is a bit different; he stated that there were only a handful of people. 

 

The first account also states that George was sitting in the corner facing the door, and Ronnie’s account has George with his back to him. Either way, when Ronnie strolled into the bar. He walked straight towards Cornell. Cornell noticed Ronnie, smirked and sneered at him, and said, “Well, look who’s here.” Without a word, Ronnie brought out his pistol and fired a single shot straight between Cornell’s eyes, Cornell fell to the bar, and every dispersed from the bar.

 

Ronnie was taken into custody shortly after, but not one 33 or 9 people from the bar talked and they were forced to release Ronnie on lack of evidence. This was the first time a Kray twin had killed a man, but it would not be last murder the Krays would commit. 

 

And that’s where we’ll pick up on next week’s episode, the conclusion of the Kray Twins!

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