We’ve all heard of the Kray twins – recognise their faces instantly, know their legendary status as terrifying East End hardmen. But do you know what crimes they were guilty of?
Terrible twins from the start
The Kray twins were tough from the off! Bare knuckle fighting ran in their family and, aged 9, Reggie – who was 10 minutes older than Ronnie – almost killed his little brother in a fist fight. Undeterred, they both pursued boxing and became amateur schoolboy champions. It was during these early boxing bouts the differences in their characters became clear. While Reggie was a cooler, more disciplined fighter, Ronnie was fearless, stubborn, and determined to win no matter what.
Soon, the twins were intimidating people outside the ring too. At 12 they were both put on probation for firing an air rifle in public, and by 16 Ronnie and Reggie headed up their own gang. It wasn’t long before they were arrested and charged with GBH for a fight with a rival gang. A character reference from the local vicar got them off, but for the rest of their teenage years Ron and Reg were in trouble with the law for everything from fighting, assaulting a policeman, and skipping their national service.
A turning point in the Kray’s career came when they bought an infamously rough snooker club in Bethnal Green. Despite, their reputation as hard men, the club turned around, and was soon respectable.
But their shady ways continued. Involved in everything from protection rackets, black market cigarettes, and forging documents, to men wanting to dodge national service, the Krays kept themselves busy. Ron actually got jailed for three years in 1957, for GBH and possessing a firearm. While his brother was banged up, Reg kept building their empire, and by the time Ron got out the twins had a stake in more than 30 bars and clubs.
Always the more volatile twin, Ronnie was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was also openly gay – quite a brave feat in the 1960s. But not only was Ronnie secure in his sexuality, he also knew it was unlikely anyone would dare give him grief about it.
Glitzy nightclubs and celebrity friends
By the mid 1960s the Krays were living the high life. Ronnie was attending gay parties with the likes of Lord Boothby – a British tory politician, and both were regularly photographed with the celebrities of the day, including Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Barbara Windsor.
Soon the Krays were in cahoots with the American mafia, and shared control of London with their rivals the Richardson Gang, who were based in south London. The Richardson Gang was also comprised of two brothers, as well as Mad Frankie Fraser and George Cornell.
The Krays’ first murder
In March 1966, the Richardson Gang started a gun battle which saw Dickie Hart – one of the Krays’ gang shot dead. Rumour had it George Cornell fired the lethal shot. So, a month later, Ronnie walked into the Blind Beggar pub, in London’s Whitechapel, and shot George Cornell in the head.
Now, the Krays were real gangsters with a killing under their belt. Despite the public nature of George Cornell’s killing, no-one was prepared to testify against Ronnie, so he was released without charge.
The brutal slaying of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie
In 1967, Reggie joined his brother in becoming a killer. His beloved wife, who suffered mental health problems, had committed suicide, leaving Ronnie desolate with grief. It’s thought this is one of the reasons the normally more controlled of the twins murdered Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie – after he’d failed to fulfil a contract to kill Leslie Payne – the Kray’s financial advisor.
The idea was never to kill McVitie. He was lured to a flat in Stoke Newington, London, with the idea of giving him a bit of a talking to, roughing him up, and showing him the Krays weren’t to be messed with. But while Ronnie was arguing with McVitie, the normally calm Reggie lost it, pulled out a gun, and attempted to shoot McVitie in the head.
When the gun failed to fire, Reggie stabbed McVitie in the face, stomach, and neck in such a frenzy his fellow gangsters were shocked. McVitie died in a pool of blood. His body was then bound up with chicken wire and dumped in the sea.
This murder was the turning point for the Krays. With many in gangland feeling the death was unjustified, some came forward ready to testify against them.
The Kray Twins – bang to rights
The Krays were arrested and, in January 1969, jailed for 30 years for the killings of George Cornell and Jack McVitie.
Ronnie Kray died of a heart attack in March 1995, aged 61. By now he’d been certified as ‘insane’, and was a patient at Broadmoor. Reggie died five years later from bladder cancer, aged 66. He was buried beside his brother, the gravestone bearing images of their infamous faces.
Though the brothers have been dead and buried a long time, their notoriety remains. In 2015, the film Legend starring Tom Hardy was a box office hit, and countless books have been written over the years. Despite the brutal nature of their crimes, it seems the fascination with these terrible twins isn’t going away any time soon.