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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor