The Kray Twins: Brothers in Arms
The Krays were an old-fashioned East End family: self sufficient, very clannish and devoted to each other. Their ancestors had arrived in Britain from Austria, and the twins had Irish, Jewish and Romany (gypsy) blood in their veins.
Early in their lives, the twins were taken ill, having caught diphtheria. Reggie recovered quickly, but Ronnie almost died of the infection.
In 1939, the year that World War Two began, the family migrated from Shoreditch, one of the most overcrowded areas in London, and moved about one mile east down the road to settle in Bethnal Green at 178 Vallance Road. It was a small, row house with no bathroom, and the toilet was located in the back yard.
In those days, Vallance Road was part of a ghetto. There were many gambling dens, seedy pubs, billiard halls and brothels dotted across the blighted landscape. It was an area of hardened drinkers and boxing enthusiasts. It was renowned for its slum housing and high crime levels, and had some of the highest unemployment levels in Britain. The district was badly bombed during the War; before that it was one of the poorest parts of the entire East End and a breeding ground for criminals. It was the home of Bill Sykes, and Jack the Ripper murdered one of his victims here in Hanbury Street.
The Krays became very much a part of this vanishing Dickensian world. The older family members were well-known and distinctive local characters. "Mad" Jimmy Kray, the paternal grandfather, was a stallholder in Petticoat Lane, renowned for both his drinking prowess and his ability as a bar-fighter.
The maternal grandfather, Jimmy Lee the "Southpaw Cannonball," had in his youth, been a bare-knuckle boxer, and then a music hall entertainer. He was a rarity in the family as he was a non-drinker. He and his son-in-law Charles, the twins' father, clashed frequently over the subject of booze. Granddad Lee was famous for his many talents and party tricks, which included stroking a white hot poker over his tongue, walking on bottle tops, tap dancing and singing and playing musical instruments.
In his younger days he had been a great athlete, and on one occasion when his son Johnny drove a group of friends in a hired bus to Southend-on-Sea, a distance of forty-two miles, Granddad Lee turned up on his bicycle, having ridden to the venue just for the fun. His son was hard pressed to persuade him to make the return journey on the bus. Granddad was seventy-five at the time!
Young Charlie David Kray, the twins' brother, had been born in 1927 at the first family home in Gorusch Street in Hackney, the northern point of a triangle that included Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. His father, Charlie senior, had a great passion for boxing and passed this on to his three sons. Young Charlie often dreamed of winning the Lonsdale Belt as boxing champion of the world. He was seven when the twins were born and would often wheel them around the neighborhood in their pram.
Violet's husband was a "pesterer," a traveling trader, who would go on the "knocker," roaming the country buying and selling silver, gold and clothing. He became a familiar sight in the provinces with his old clothes bag and a pair of gold scales. He earned good money and his family lived well above the standard of most others in Bethnal Green. A spendthrift, gambler and "serious" drinking man who was friendly with many of the better known East End villains of his day, he was something of an absentee father as his twin sons were growing up.
As Charlie roamed the country buying and selling, Violet worked hard at holding the family together. She was a warm, generous woman, softly spoken, but with great will power and perseverance. As a girl, Violet had been something of a local beauty. She was strong-willed, romantic and possessive. With her husband away from home so much, she built her life around her three sons. She was endowed with a great singing voice and had a wonderful sanguine personality, never seeming to criticize or complain about anything. She always kept the twins well dressed, and taught them the values of respect and the need to treat people less fortunate than themselves with consideration and understanding.
Like most Cockney matriarchs, she understood the importance of family values and the strength and support they create in times of stress and adversity. Her sisters Rose and May, lived either side of her in Vallance Road; her brother Jimmy shared her home and slept at nights in the living room of the small terraced house, while Granddad Lee, his wife and son John, lived across the road above the café they operated.
Aunty Rose was the twins' favorite. When Ronnie was teased in school about his eyebrows being too close, she told him that it was an omen — that he was "born to be hanged." Her death in later years was the catalyst that finally tipped Ronnie over the edge into the madness that had been waiting to claim him for most of his adult life.
Charles David was a gentle, easygoing sort of child. As a young man he worked as a messenger for Lloyds of London in the City. He became more and more involved in boxing, training in the local gym. His Granddad Lee set up a punch bag and a small gym in a spare room in the Vallance Road house. Charles carried out his National Service in the Royal Navy, where he boxed as a welterweight, winning many fights. He was eventually discharged, medically unfit, because of severe migraine attacks.
He joined up with his father, working as a dealer in second hand clothing and precious metals. On Christmas Day, 1948, he married his childhood sweetheart, a girl called Dorothy Moore and, after converting his gym back into a bedroom, they moved into Vallance Road. Charlie's wife was apparently possessive, highly-strung, moody and had a vivid imagination; in addition she did not make friends easily, and the twins didn't care for her very much. As Charlie spent more and more time with his wife, he and his brothers pulled further and further apart.
Growing up, the twins were little devils. They were identical, dark-eyed like their father, and tough little nuts. Violet and her parents doted on them, and they were indulged particularly by their Aunt Rose. Rose had been a pretty woman in her youth, but with a flaming temper, who often would fight, physically, with other women in the street. After the twins had caught diphtheria and measles, Ronnie seemed slower and more socially awkward than Reggie, who seemed to find it easier to get on with people than his brother did.
Charlie taught the twins to box and they proved so good at this that they got through to the finals of the London Schools Boxing Championship three times, and even ended up on one occasion fighting each other. In December 1951, all three brothers appeared on the same billing at a middle-weight boxing championship held at the Royal Albert Hall.
The twins were always inseparable. They would often fight each other, but would never allow a third party to come between them. Like many identical twins, they seemed "different" to the other tough little kids in the neighborhood.
Growing up during the Second World War period, the twins were basically reared by a household of women. Their father was on the run from the law, having refused to join up for military service. So Ronnie and Reggie's formative years were strongly influenced by their mother Violet, her two sisters, and their grandmother. Violet's love, almost a kind of "smother care" gave the twins a sense of almost superhuman invincibility. She accepted everything they did, destroying their ability to judge right from wrong.
Although Reggie loved the company of others, Ronnie was a bit of a loner and spent a lot of time on his own, or in the company of his Alsatian dog, Freda, roaming across the bombed out sites and blighted landscape of the East End. By the age of twelve they were both attending Daniel Street School, where Reggie excelled in English and Ronnie's forte was general knowledge. Three times a week, their father would take them to the Robert Browning Youth Club for boxing lessons.
When they reached fifteen and left school, they worked in the Billingsgate Fish Market, the biggest in Europe, for six months. This was to be the longest legitimate employment they ever had. Reggie trained as a salesman, and Ronnie worked as an "empty boy," scouring the market each day, collected empty fish boxes for his employer. They also worked on the weekends, helping out their Granddad Kray on his stall in Petticoat Lane.
On one occasion, a traveling fairground came to Bethnal Green and the twins fought each other in an exhibition match at one of the boxing booth stalls. They collected some money for their efforts, and afterwards considered themselves as professional boxers.
In 1948, Reggie was the Schoolboy Boxing Champion of Hackney and went on to become the London Schoolboy Champion, as well as getting to the finals in the Great Britain Schoolboys event. Ronnie also achieved similar accolades within junior boxing levels. Charlie, their brother recalled: "As boxers they were quite different from each other. Reggie was cool, cautious with plenty of skill; most importantly, he always listened to advice. Ronnie was quite the opposite — he would go in boots and all, and never hold back, until he dropped."
They seemed to attract trouble and, from an early age, loved to scrap and fight with anybody. It was customary for gang differences to be settled with fists, boots, knives and various other weapons. They were the toughest in any of the local teenage gangs and managed to reach the age of seventeen before they had a serious run in with the law. Then, a boy who had been badly mauled in a gang fight outside a dance hall in Hackney testified against them. But at that moment, with a foretaste of things to come, their trial was dismissed for lack of evidence. Somebody had got to the witnesses.
By this time, they were boxing professionally and were quite successful; Ronnie had six bouts arranged and won four of them, and Reggie won all of the six fights in which he competed.
On March 2nd, 1952, they were called up for National Service. This was a two-year mandatory military duty that all fit men over the age of eighteen were required to complete in Britain. They reported to Waterloo Barracks at the Tower of London and were assigned to the Royal Fusiliers
The twins did not take kindly to the military and after an altercation with one of their training sergeants, they beat him up and absconded back to Vallance Road. The police arrested them the next day and they were returned to their regiment for punishment.
For the next two years, they were either on the run from the Army or serving time in military prisons. Sentenced on one occasion to nine months at Shepton Mallet Military Prison, they met up with a whole new group of men who shared a disrespect for any kind of discipline. One of this group was a man whose path they would cross repeatedly in the years ahead; a man who would come to run his own gang in the south of London, surprisingly enough in conjunction with his own brother. In due course, into his gang would come a man who was to have a profound impact on the future of the twins.