Charlie Richardson was among the shrewdest of the serious crime figures who populated London's post war underworld. "He was a genius, not like a professor who might know about art and paintings, but as a money maker," Frank Fraser said of him.
He was born in Camberwell, south-east London in 1934; his brother Eddie was born in 1936, the youngest sibling Alan in 1940. Charlie and Eddie were brought up in a traditional south London working-class family, and like their east London counterparts, the Kray twins, they endured a wartime childhood, enjoyed the vibrant street life of working-class London and developed as talented young boxers and prominent street fighters.
According to folklore, the Richardsons were the south London nemesis of the Krays. However, unlike the twins, Charlie and Eddie had a penchant for hard work, and made good money from the post-war scrap metal trade, plundering the remnants of abandoned wartime airfields.
With a merchant seaman father who was often missing from home, the teenage Charlie exhibited an entrepreneurial zeal. He moved into a number of areas, including wholesale chemists and mineral mining, as well as extortion and, notably, long firm fraud. This involved an apparently legitimate wholesaling business being set up, initially paying for goods on time. When their credit limit was reached, they sold up and disappeared.
Richardson surrounded himself with long firm specialists, men described to me by Eddie Richardson as "plausible rogues", and a number were sent to Milan to place orders with manufacturers for stockings on behalf of a company called Central Supplies. On arrival in London the stockings were sold by mail order, but with money and goods leaking from the business, and with the Italians pressing, Central Supplies burnt down. Richardson then set up a new company, LR Gray, based in Mitre St in the City. A number of Richardson associates were beaten for stealing from the long firms, before LR Grey also "had a fire".
Charlie Richardson had first encountered the Kray twins in Shepton Mallet military prison, where all were awaiting a dishonorable discharge from National Service. The honeypot of the West End brought them back into contact, and though the east London firm claimed to be preparing for warfare, there is little to suggest the Richardson firm took them seriously. The Richardsons could boast among their associates some of London's most feared men, including one of the "Chainsaw Robbers" Jimmy Moody, as well as George Cornell, an East Ender who had clashed with the youthful Krays, and Frank Fraser, whose affiliation to the Richardsons was described by Mickey Bloom, an associate of the Nash Brothers, as "like China getting the atom bomb."
Fraser summed up the firm's attitude to the Krays: "Using racing terms, there would be no race... The Richardsons were miles in front, brain power, everything." In their dotage Charlie and Eddie expressed contempt for the Kray firm, and although skirmishes and casualties were not unknown while the Krays, in particular Ronnie, fantasised over Chicago-style gang wars, the Richardons diversified into long firms, gaming machines, pornography, scrap metal yards, a perlite mine in South Africa, control over car parking at Heathrow, and more.
Charlie had become increasingly fascinated by South Africa, in particular the opportunities in the country's mineral industry. He became embroiled with the South African security services, who dangled the carrot of mining licences in front of him in exchange for Charlie arranging to have the telephones tapped of Amnesty International and Harold Wilson.
In 1966, in a shooting at Mr Smiths Club in Catford, an associate of the Krays was killed and five men were wounded. Eddie Richardson and Frank Fraser were arrested, Fraser for murder. The following night Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell.
Richardson's penchant for attacking fellow fraudsters who he suspected of stealing from his long firms resulted in the infamous "torture trial" in 1967, which featured allegations of the use of pliers to remove teeth and fingernails, and the attachment of electrodes to genitals. Alleged victims of the Richardsons were granted immunity from prosecution if they "turned Queen's Evidence", and a distinct lack of physical evidence did not deter the judge, Mr Justice Lawton. Eddie was sentenced to 10 years with another five for the Mr Smith incident, and Frank Fraser received five years for affray and 10 years for some deviant dental practices at the Richardsons' Peckham scrapyard. Charlie received 25 years: "I was charged with a bit of long firm fraud and five counts of grievous bodily harm. Nobody was dead, maimed or even bloody scarred."
The sentencing policy was undoubtably savage, and whether this was due to a fear of American-style "organised crime" or was linked to Richardson's relationship with the South African Secret Service remains, over 40 years later, difficult to unpack. Files have been sunk deep into the long grass of British officialdom. Charlie Richardson was arrested on 30 July 1966; in 1980 he escaped from an open prison and remained free for just under a year. In 1984 he was finally released.
Charlie Richardson was the epitome of the tough working class self-made man who cut corners, and while violence was at the core of his success, his relationship with corrupt police officers was probably more significant. He did not play at being a gangster, and in his prime he was the real deal, shrewd and manipulative and quick to dole out violence to fellow underworld residents. But he was also well-read, articulate, extremely funny, and addicted to business. One of his last ventures was a scheme to take some control over the "true crime" genre, and to the end he loved doing deals, with film-makers, writers and a range of disparate individuals. However, along with his wife Veronica and his familyy, mining was his passion.
Nobody could swear quite like Charlie Richardson, and he reserved his most heartfelt oaths for the ex-business associates and members of the Establishment who, he insisted to his death (of complications from peritonitis), had conspired to deprive him of his liberty for 18 years.
Charles Richardson, businessman and criminal: born Camberwell, London 1934; married Veronica (six children); died 19 September 2012.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies