Travel UK: Where rivals feared to tread

Trails of the unexpected: through the old-east London stamping- grounds of Ronnie and Reggie Kray. By Ed Glinert
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On 8 March 1969 the Kray twins, Reggie and Ronnie, were sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering fellow gangsters, George Cornell and Jack "The Hat" McVitie. Justice Stevenson recommended that the twins serve "not less than 30 years", a term that ends on Monday. Ronnie won't be coming out. The younger of the two died of a heart attack in Broadmoor four years ago. Reggie, who has since got married and found God, and dreams of settling down as a country gentleman in Suffolk, is still inside.

A mile and a half east of the Old Bailey, where they were sentenced, lies the Krays' main stamping-ground, Bethnal Green, now home to London's biggest Bangladeshi community. Brick Lane, with its scores of curry houses and famous Sunday flea market, is a major London attraction but the streets running off to the east are less inviting.

One of these is Cheshire Street, its ugly Victorian terraces converted to shops at ground level. Here, just before St Matthew's Row, stands a grim-looking pub, the Carpenters Arms. This was the last establishment the twins owned and was where Reggie had a few stiff drinks to get his nerve up the night he murdered Jack "The Hat" in 1966. St Matthew's Row leads to St Matthew's Church, site of Ronnie Kray's funeral. When Frank Sinatra's "My Way" was played during the service, Reggie broke down in tears.

Outside vast crowds gathered to watch the cortege, drawn by two plumed black horses, as it made its way through the East End, on to Chingford, where Kray was buried. Further along Cheshire Street, at the corner with Hereford Street, stands the now-disused Repton Boxing Club where the Krays learnt their southpaw grammar in the Forties. The twins became two of the most fearsome schoolboy boxers on the circuit, following in the steps of their grandfather, John Lee, himself known as "The Southpaw Cannonball".

Before long Cheshire Street meets Vallance Road, the Krays' main manor. They were raised at number 178, "Fort Vallance", where they kept a Luger automatic, revolvers, sawn-off shotguns and a Mauser beneath the floorboards. A sword was always to hand. This was the twins' gangland headquarters until 1966 when the council slapped a compulsory purchase order on the row and pulled it down. A housing association property now stands on the site.

Vallance Road is cut in two by a huge railway viaduct, its arches filled with scrap-metal merchants and car dealers. During the Second World War the houses, including No 178, were known as "Deserters' Corner". The Krays' father Charles spent the war on the run, once hiding in the coal cellar while an official searched the house. When the official went to open the door to the cellar Ronnie Kray interjected: "Do you think my old man would be daft enough to hide anywhere as obvious as that?" The ruse worked.

At the height of the Krays' power their East End fiefdom was challenged by the Richardsons from south London. A parley was held in the Grave Maurice, a dark boozer at 269 Whitechapel Road, next to the Tube station. Ronnie Kray acted as "peacemaker" (his own word) in an argument between a Richardson acolyte, George Cornell, whom he was later to shoot dead, and a car dealer, Thomas "Ginger" Marks, whom Cornell later killed. The attempt to make peace was doomed to failure.

On the morning of March 8 1966 there was a shoot-out at a club in Catford. A Kray ally, Richard Hart, was killed and, in revenge, the Krays decided to take out a Richardson. Only Cornell was out of jail. Cornell, who had angered Ronnie Kray by calling him a "fat poof", was in the Blind Beggar pub, a few hundred yards east of the Grave Maurice at 337 Whitechapel Road, sitting on a stool beside the small, U-shaped bar and supping a light ale. When Ronnie Kray and an accomplice, Ian Barrie, walked in, the jukebox was playing the Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore". Cornell turned round, saw Kray and exclaimed, "Well, look who's here then." They were his last words. Barrie fired a shot into the ceiling. Ron aimed between Cornell's eyes and shot him dead. In the commotion the needle of the jukebox stuck in the middle of the song on the word "anymore... anymore... anymore..."

The Blind Beggar is owned by a Japanese company these days. According to the manager, "at least one person a day wants to know where George Cornell was shot and look at the bullet-hole, but it's all been completely changed and the hole is no longer there."

The other place where the Krays were involved in murder was a basement flat at 97 Evering Road, Stoke Newington, two miles north of Bethnal Green. Once Ronnie Kray had shot Cornell, Reggie needed to equal the score. A likely target was Jack "The Hat" McVitie, a villain with whom the twins had fallen out. McVitie was lured to the flat on the night of October 28 1967 on the pretext of a party. When McVitie asked "Where's all the birds, all the booze?", Reggie replied by pointing a gun at his head and firing. The gun jammed. As McVitie tried to escape through the window his hat fell off; he couldn't get away and so Reggie picked up a carving knife and pushed it into his face.

The murder done, Reggie Kray drove back to the East End and stopped beside the humped-back bridge over the Regent's Canal, Suicide Bridge, to throw the guns and murder knife into the water. Iain Sinclair named his 1978 collections of poems about East London myths "Suicide Bridge", in honour of the spot.

Back to Whitechapel, from the Blind Beggar it's a short walk up the A11 to the Perfect Fried Chicken and Ribs take-away at 106 Mile End Road. The Kentucky Club was upstairs in the Sixties, one of the many nightclubs the Krays opened. The Kentucky's biggest night was the March 1962 party held to celebrate the premiere of the cockney comedy film Sparrers Can't Sing, starring Barbara Windsor, no less, which had been held opposite in the Empire Cinema (now disused).

South of Mile End Tube station is the site of the billiard hall on Eric Street, the Krays' first commercial venture in the Fifties. It gave them a foothold and made money by being used as a storehouse for other criminals' knock-off gear and weapons. The hall has long since been demolished and an old people's home now stands peacefully on the site.