No one apart from the gangsters portrayed here knows as much about East End criminals as James Morton. His books on London’s gangland have been ‘go to’ for true-crime readers for many years. So when Morton comes up with a new book on the Krays it’s noteworthy. Years as a defence lawyer and as a writer have been put to good use in this volume, Morton has weighed conflicting accounts and sifted legend from cold hard fact in Krays: The Final Word. The result is a down to earth portrait of two of the most notorious/iconic criminals in British history, delivered in straightforward fashion with clean unfancy prose. This book has the feel of the East End about it. The Final Word refers as much to the fact that this is an extensive account of the end of the brothers lives as much as it is definitive. Morton presents as clear a picture of events as the varying accounts from people who were there allow, bearing in mind so much relies on eye witnesses, their honesty and perspective.
The Kray twins, Ronald and Reginald, went down for two murders in 1969. George Cornell shot in the Blind Beggar pub, apparently for stepping into their ‘manor’ or maybe for something he said about Ronnie:
“George Cornell… in the pub he was so nice to me… I’ve no idea what the quarrel was about. People have said it was because he called Ronnie “a big fat poof” … Then again it has been said that Ronnie got upset because George had come on his manor. That can’t have been right. George was a regular drinker in the Beggar.” [barmaid Patricia Kelly]
And then there was Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie, stabbed in the basement of a Stoke Newington house. Morton wonders how many more killings they got away with, it’s not idle speculation, later in the book there are witness accounts of other murders that at least implicate the brothers. How seriously you take such testimony is for each reader to decide but this is where Morton gives us his own feelings for the evidence. Freddie ‘Brown Bread Fred’ Foreman claimed he and Alfie Gerard ‘did’ Frank Mitchell for the twins. Then there was ‘Mad’ Teddy Smith, a rent boy, and light heavy weight champion Freddie Mills (declared a suicide; personally I think that’s still most likely, but the botched investigation leaves plenty of room for doubt), there are other “victims” too.
The history of the Krays over the couple of decades or so, including Charlie, is one of dodging the law, brazening it out and getting away with it through fear and intimidation, that is until they were finally put away. The first case against the twins collapsed in 1950 following the beating of Roy Harvey with bike chains:
“This boy has been beaten by beasts.” [Thames Court Magistrate Herbert Malone QC]
Violet and Charles Kray senior had three boys and one short-lived daughter: Charles was born in 1926, the twins on October 24th 1933 in Hoxton. The family moved to Bethnal Green, living in the same street as the boys’ aunties Rose and May and their uncle John. Their father was a deserter and was only with the family sporadically. Their grandfather on their mother’s side, Johnny ‘Cannonball’ Lee, was a boxer.
Morton’s account of their lives at times makes you realise how much the cliché of the English gangster was borne out in these two criminals: they loved their mum, had gaudy taste in furniture and decor, loved to collect weapons, and were vain to a narcissistic degree. Maybe it’s a cliché now because of the book and film image of these two gangsters over the years have permeated so deeply into our consciousness.
As youths the twins were both boxing champions. Their coming of age as gangsters was a now legendary fight at the Coach and Horses on the Mile End Road (a tooled up encounter) with ‘Big’ Bill Donovan and a man know as Cooper. The Krays began taking over nightclubs, muscling in on criminal activities in the East End, tackling the Maltese gangs, and the criminal old order on their way up. At the height of their power Nipper Read estimated they could call on a couple of hundred followers. Ronnie was openly homosexual and into orgies, often attended by politicians (Driberg and Boothby) and other famous people. He was sent down in the late fifties and that’s where his mental health problems came to the fore. Meanwhile, Reggie opened the Double R Club. On his meds Ronnie contained his illness, off them he spiralled out of control. He escaped the Long Grove mental hospital with Reggie’s connivance (a rerun of A Tale of Two Cities), but eventually he was recaptured. When finally released he slipped back into the life but was increasingly erratic. The brothers took over a Knightsbridge club Esmeralda’s Barn and through clubs, extortion, poncing off other criminals and long firm scams the brothers made their money (lots of it). An attempt to get them for their protection racket failed in 1964 when club owners including Edmunds Ros and Danny la Rue refused to testify against the Krays. Eventually Nipper Read got a murder investigation going and the brothers were arrested and convicted. It’s a nicely rounded account so far but here’s the meat of the book. The main focus is on the period that followed until their respective deaths and the legacy.
Morton painstakingly recounts the Krays’ prison lives (Durham, Parkhurst, Broadmoor etc.), Ronnie’s mental health issues, Violet’s attempt to get her boys reunited inside, Reggie’s poetry (?), visiting bans for fear of escape. He is very good on the mythologising of the twins, the creation of the legend. A process that began almost as soon as the twins wound up in gaol. Morton calls it their beatification. It started with a wary approach to condemning the brothers even after their arrest:
“On 9 May 1968 The Times, reporting the arrests, was guarded:
‘The Kray Twins were well known in sporting circles in the East End where they have both distinguished themselves as amateur and professional boxers. With their brother they raised money for old people’s charities in the area.”
I see these two thugs as just that, low-life criminals with few redeeming features (the only mitigating factor being that they may have both been clinically insane). However, for many they are modern day heroes, not quite Robin Hood but seen as standing up to the man. Old style criminals who never hurt anyone who wasn’t in the game. Morton doesn’t embellish or take sides, this is a factual account, make your own mind up.
I’m no expert so I can’t tell you in detail what’s new about this book. I can say Morton covers the last year’s of the Krays in detail you don’t see normally, it’s half the book. Morton has clearly spent a long time tracking down relatives and associates to bring their stories up-to-date too. There are some fascinating accounts of what happened after the Kray twins wound up in gaol and there are a few photos here I haven’t seen before, intimate images, some that could have come from any family album.
Where do the Krays figure in the grand scheme of things? There were others like them before and more who came afterwards. They weren’t special, they were just vicious little thugs but something about them caught the public imagination and now like Jack the Ripper Ronnie and Reggie have been mythologised. If you want to know why they don’t deserve heroic status:
“I felt fucking marvellous. I have never felt so good, so bloody alive, before or since. Twenty years on and I can still recall every second of the killing of George Cornell. I have replayed it in my mind millions of times.” [Ronnie Kray Our Story]
But if you want to know more, Morton is your man.
Paul Burke 3/4
Krays: The Final Word by James Morton
Mirror Books 9781912624683 hbk Nov 2019