Frankie Fraser: Career criminal who spent 42 years in jail and spent much of that time violently clashing with authority


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"Mad" Frank Fraser was a Zelig-like figure in London’s underworld. His career touched every major crime figure of his generation, from the years leading up to the Second World War to the decades after it.

Born into a hard-working, law-abiding south London family, Fraser claimed that their lack of criminal connections were a major block to his aspirations. At a time when working class London was a cluster of self-contained villages, he proved to be adept in defying territorial restraints and he quickly established contacts, not only among the fighting gangs of south London’s riverside hamlets, but also across the river in Clerkenwell’s “Little Italy”.

By the age of nine he was working for underworld legend Derby Sabini, whose “family firm” dominated the extortion of bookmakers at race tracks in the south of England between the wars. Bookies were forced to pay large sums for a range of overpriced goods and services, including children such as Fraser wiping down their blackboards at the end of each race.

He was convicted for shoplifting and in 1939, after breaking into a warehouse, was sent to approved school. He escaped, and was sent to Borstal in 1941. After being shifted around the Borstal and prison system he was released, then deserted from the Army. The wartime black market touched even the most law-abiding citizen: “Everyone was crooked. Mums, they’d want to buy extra eggs for their children and a bit of extra meat… Everyone was involved. It was wonderful.” He exclaimed, in one well-rehearsed line, “I will never forgive that Hitler for surrendering when he did.”

He was first declared insane in 1945 when he tried to escape after being caught in a round-up of deserters. The convictions flowed, and he gained a reputation for violence against prison staff.  In 1945, after attacking the governor of Shrewsbury Prison while doing 20 months’ hard labour, he was moved to Liverpool and received 18 strokes of the cat o’nine tails.

The prison governor he disliked most was William Lawton. Fraser first met him in Pentonville in 1948 while serving two years for a raid on a jewellers. He had been moved from Wandsworth after a series of assaults, and Lawton put him on the punishment landing, where he cut his forearms, requiring 78 stitches. He was placed in a straitjacket; when he was released from it Fraser opened up the stitches and assaulted Lawton, covering him in blood.

After another incident, in which he covered Lawton with excrement, he was again put in a straitjacket, padded out with heavy blankets soaked in water. Fraser claimed it was a deliberate attempt to kill him. However, he survived to be transferred back to Wandsworth, where he continued to reciprocate any violence meted out by the authorities. Faking madness once more, he was transferred to the relatively liberal regime at Cane Hill psychiatric hospital.

In 1951 Fraser stalked Lawton as he walked his dog on Wandsworth Common. The governor was knocked unconscious, and along with his dog was hung by the neck from a tree limb. Lawton survived, but the dog died.

Fraser claimed to be the first robber to disguise himself with a stocking mask,– and further convictions followed. In 1953 he was sentenced to three years for emptying a cigarette factory in Edgware. While in prison he attacked the hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, in the prelude to the execution of Derek Bentley. He clashed with Lawton once more and was transferred to Durham, where his war on prison staff continued. He was sent to Broadmoor before being released in 1955.

The London crime scene was recalibrating, with new opportunities opening up as the economy gradually recovered from wartime strictures. Fraser had first met Billy Hill, self-proclaimed “Boss of Britain’s Underworld”, in Chelmsford prison, and had been sufficiently impressed to join Hill and become instrumental in the battle to control London’s West End.

Hill’s chief adversary was Jack “Spot” Comer, and in 1956 Fraser received a seven-year sentence for his part in a  vicious attack. On his release he joined the Richardson brothers in south London, an alliance described by one villain as “like China getting the atom bomb”. While Charlie Richardson became involved in fraud and mineral mining, Fraser set up a one-armed bandit company with his younger brother Eddie; anyone disrupting its smooth running was subjected to violent sanctions.

In 1966 there was a shooting at Mr Smiths Club in Catford, south London. Fraser – who was shot himself – was charged with murder. Meanwhile Charlie Richardson had taken to attacking fellow fraudsters. The resulting trial in 1967 featured a number of bizarre allegations, including some against Fraser for using pliers to remove teeth and fingernails from the aforementioned fraudsters. While he was acquitted of the Catford murder, he received five years for affray, and 10 years for his role in torture at the Richardson’s Peckham scrapyard. The judge who sent him down was Sir Frederick Lawton, the son of William Lawton.

Fraser was one of the ringleaders of the Parkhurst Prison riot in 1969, after which he was beaten by officers so badly he spent six weeks in the prison hospital. On his release in 1985 he lived in north London with Marilyn Wisbey, daughter of the Great Train Robber Tommy. In 1991 he was shot in the head at close range outside Turnmills Club in Clerkenwell.

After appearing as an articulate and authoritative guest on a TV documentary, he collaborated with James Morton on a number of books. His new-found celebrity status among the “lads’ mags” generation suited Fraser well and he became a regular guest on TV, as well as playing a gangster in the film Hard Men. He conducted guided tours of “gangland London” and toured with a one–man show.

In his dotage Fraser’s astonishing memory and gift for holding a grudge saw him conducting non-violent feuds with villains across the generations, and with his dyed jet-black hair and piercing eyes he retained his ability to intimidate. Last year he was given an Asbo after a row with a fellow resident at his care home.

He spent 42 years in prison, an unrepentant violent predator who abided to a now defunct code in which working people are mugs (he had a particular antipathy to clerks) and the greatest sin was to co-operate with the police. He died after leg surgery.

Francis Davidson Fraser, criminal: born London 13 December 1923; married (wife died 1999; four children); died London 26 November 2014.