Today (August 11) in London History – “icons of a very British form of criminality”

August 11th (1982) is an important date in the story of the infamous Kray twins, the feral, celebrity East End gangsters who terrorised and ruled the East End of London for two decades in the second half of the 20th century. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Bit of a smorgasbord, August 11th.

A range of – for lack of a better word – travel stories. Two of them near disasters that turned out ok. August 11th, 1957 a BOAC – that’s pre-British Airways – A BOAC Constellation airliner – a propeller plane – had to make a belly landing at London Airport. A belly landing Complete with foam. 

Well, a belly landing on one undercarriage. The other one wouldn’t go down. The plane had come from Frankfurt on the last leg of a long-haul flight from Singapore. 17 passengers. Nobody injured. There probably will have been at least a handful of Londoners that week to whom Shakespeare’s famous line will have come almost unbidden. The line, When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. Because the very next day saw the worst airline disaster in Canadian history.

Moving on, On August 11th, 1960 a central Line train on the London underground caught fire in the morning rush hour. Carriages filled with smoke. A there-but-for-the- grace-of-God moment for millions of Londoners. Fortunately, everybody survived, though 39 people were hospitalised.

And I suppose the third one is a travel story of sorts – on August 11th 1958 Commander Anderson, captain of the U.S. submarine Nautilus which crossed the North Pole beneath the ice-cap arrived in London. All three of those tales will have been of at least passing interest to Londoners of that era.

But I’m going to plump for something that happened on August 11th, 1982. 

The infamous Kray twins – serving life sentences for gangland murders – were given permission to attend their mother’s funeral. Their mother, Violet, was described as the only person able to throw a scare into the feral celebrity criminals who terrorised and ruled the East End of London for two decades. 

The twins had been behind bars since 1969. They weren’t yet 50 years old but, looking slightly gaunt, greying, hairlines receding and conspicuously handcuffed to brawny young plainclothes prison officers who towered above them, they seemed like, well, old men, yesterday’s men.

I’m going to quote liberally here from Richard Hobbs’ short biographical study. But I should mention at least in passing the definitive work on the twins, John Pearson’s Profession of Violence. Published 27 years ago, it is still the most frequently borrowed book in British prisons. How’s that for a literary battle flag!

But we’ll go here with just a few brushstrokes from John Hobbs’ excellent portrait. It opens very succinctly, “Kray brothers, criminals, became icons of a very British form of criminality inextricably linked with memories of the 1960s.”

The twins were born in 1933 in Hoxton. Extraordinary to think they’d be 90 next year. Their father, Charles,  was a hawker and wardrobe dealer, a door-to-door dealer in second-hand clothing and jewellery, who was seldom at home. 

Their father’s frequent absences were of little or no moment. Their mother doted on the twins. And there were any number of male role models in the neighbourhood and the extended Kray family. Legendary local underworld characters such as Jimmy Spinks, Dodger Mullins, and the twins’ grandfathers, Cannonball Lee and Mad Jimmy Kray, were hugely influential. Aside here – aren’t those names wonderful? They challenge comparison with the creations of the master of the genre, the American newspaperman and short story writer Damon Runyon: “Nathan Detroit”, “Benny Southstreet”, “Big Jule”, “Harry the Horse”, “Good Time Charley”, “Dave the Dude”, “The Seldom Seen Kid” – as brilliant, as “street” as those American names are they don’t have much on Cannonball Lee and Mad Jimmy. 

Famously the twins took up boxing when they were teenagers. And they were pretty good at it. But sod padded gloves and referees and Queensberry rules, the twins were primarily street fighters and their reputations for sheer viciousness and ferocity ensured that by the time they left school as fourteen-year-olds they readily adapted to the opportunities offered by the vibrant street life of the East End of London.

Final point about their mostly absentee father, Charles Kray. Papa Kray spent most of the Second World War avoiding military service. Like father like sons. The twins were called up for national service in 1952 but their total disregard for military authority ensured that they spent most of their service time in military prisons, and they were both dishonourably discharged after fifteen months in 1954. Total disregard for military authority is putting it mildly. The twins threw tantrums, they emptied a latrine bucket over a sergeant, they dumped a canteen full of hot tea on another guard, they handcuffed a guard to their prison bars with a pair of stolen cuffs and set their bedding on fire. They didn’t show a lot of promise as fledgling British soldiers. 

The army got shot of them as soon as it could.

Having parted company with the British army, the twins took over a billiard hall on the Mile End Road and began a career in extortion.

It’s so often the case, timing is everything. 

The end of rationing and the ageing of the underworld establishment created an opening for enterprising newcomers and the Krays seized the opportunity. 

The twins attracted a potent collection of established criminals, crooked businessmen, and aspiring young villains. With that supporting cast Ron was able to live out his military and gangster fantasies to the full. Including acquiring the nickname, The Colonel. The Kray firm used the billiard hall as a base for various scams and low-level extortion enterprises, all accompanied by their characteristic stylised violence. 

Well, let’s call that a taster. Cut from the same cloth as Stephen King letting people have a free read of a chapter in his latest novel.

The Kray story is of course all over the internet – and one of the brightest stars in the London Walks constellation, Guide Adam – I’m tempted to call him the Colonel – Adam, the only human being I know who talks like a well-written magazine article, Adam guides a Krays’ London walk. So that – it surely goes without saying, this – would be the Today in London recommendation for this podcast. The walk comes up a couple of times a year. Just go to the search engine on, type in Kray – K R A Y – and hit return. It’ll bring up any future dates for Adam’s Krays’ London Walk. I’ll leave it to Adam to take you to the Blind Beggar crime scene and walk you through the serious mistake George Cornell made there. And the rest of it, Frank – Mad Axeman –Mitchell of course. And Nipper Read – the detective who was the twins’ nemesis and who finally did for them. It’s a great story. And a great read – so by all means, join those hundreds of guests of her majesty in their literary endeavours – get yourself a copy of John Pearson’s Profession of Violence. It’s a very good read. .

There is just one other thing about the tale – and indeed about the date, August 11th – that haunts me. August 11th, 1965 was the first day of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Thinking about that major event – the scale of it – and that it took place four years before the Krays were put away, well, I’d say the Krays’ sell-by date had passed them even when they were in their prime, in their heyday. Or thought they were in their heyday. Compared to the bigger world, those two East End low lifes – a couple of posturing crummy punks – and the losers they surrounded themselves with – well, they were about as cutting edge as Al Capone. Whom they greatly admired, incidentally. Imagine being a grown man in the 1960s and having Al Capone as the main video loop in what passes for your mind. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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