Dick Hobbs
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:39

Ron Kray was not the most successful of criminals, and he was far from the most violent. But he was a glamorous gangster who contributed to local charities, a murderer who loved his mother. He was at heart a street fighter and local hard man whose unambiguous embrace of the gangster ethic at the expense of commercial rationality now seems as dated as bubble cars and full employment.

Along with his twin brother Reg (or "Reggie"), Ron (or "Ronnie") Kray grew up in wartime east London, an area which forged their identities along with their Romany/Jewish inheritance. As their father, Charles, spent most of the war years ``on the trot'', avoiding the rigours of armed service, the twins were raised by their mother, Violet, a woman whose stoicism through year after year of prison visits was later to emerge as something approaching heroic. Violet turned the family home in Vallance Road into a safe haven from a hostile world that was always threatening to impose itself upon the self- contained, largely self-policed area that Jack London once christened ``the awful east''.

The twins however had a multitude of local heroes as role models. Street fighters and cobblestone gladiators abounded. Legendary characters such as Jimmy Spinks and Dodger Mullins and the twins' grandfathers Cannonball Lee and Jimmy Kray were hugely influential upon the twins, and they and their elder brother Charles became accomplished boxers. The twins' street reputations were the result of successful unlicensed bouts with various local rivals.

Their strengths lay in their inseparability: a fight with Reg was a fight with Ron and vice versa. Yet from early days Ron was reputedly slower and less outward-going than Reg. According to their biographer John Pearson, this was the result of a series of severe childhood illnesses, but for whatever reason Ron began to develop at an early age a fantasy world that revolved around notions of charismatic leadership that were to shape the upward trajectory of his criminal career as well as its eventual downfall.

The twins' military career ended in the Guard House after just 15 months. Direct confrontation and total disregard for military authority ensured a discharge; nothing was to get in the way of the locally based entrepreneurship that had evolved from the territorial disputes of their adolescence. By the age of 20, the Kray twins had taken over a billiard hall and entered that contentious grey zone between security and extortion.

It was at the billiard hall that Ron began to play out the dominant of his fantasies, that of the gangster. As the twins gathered a group of young and old villains around them, Ron's dreams of forming a powerful criminal ``firm'', with him and Reg at the helm, looked like becoming a reality. But it was not all talk; the violence became if anything more extreme and - most importantly - highly stylised in both form and content. The mimicry of celluloid gangsters was always backed up by action. Ron, as a result of his dedication to military operations against rivals, became known to his followers as ``the Colonel''.

The twins acted as ciphers for criminal information, and operated various scams and cons from their base at the billiard hall. However, by the mid- 1950s, the post-war criminal consensus had ended, the cessation of rationing ensured the end of the black market, the established ``guvnors'' were ageing, and it was they that talent-spotted the twin threat from the east.

The Krays flirted with the two major firms of the day but eventually allied themselves to Billy Hill, who introduced them to gambling just in time for the legalisation of the industry in 1961. The twins moved up West - and most of Ron's fantasies started to come true.

Ron eventually he came unstuck and was sentenced to three years for GBH in 1956, and two years later was certified insane. He escaped from the secure hospital after a visit from his identical twin when the brothers swapped places. But after a spell on the outside, he gave himself up and was eventually released in 1959, to find the firm thriving under the increasingly business-like Reg.

But the violence continued. Whether it was imposing order in clubland, protecting their investments or dealing with recurring feuds, the twins had reputations to protect. While Reg was serving 18 months for his alleged part in a protection racket, the businesses were severely affected as Ron's paranoid schizophrenia was free to dominate the firm's agenda.

As they bought into clubs and gambling establishments in the West and East Ends of London, they came to entertain sportsmen and showbiz personalities. Ron's homosexuality enabled the forging of some exotic alliances within the world of politics, and the twins became central to the newly democratised social lites of the 1960s.

They had criminal contacts all over Britain as well as business contacts in many police stations: as a team they appeared smart, well-connected and invulnerable. But as Reg developed as an impresario, albeit with criminal leanings, it became apparent that Ron could only thrive on conflict. Murder was inevitable. In 1966 an old enemy, George Cornell, was killed by Ron in the saloon bar of the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel. But, despite every detail of the killing entering East End folk-law, no witness could identify the assailant to the police.

As the Sixties progressed the twins, and Ron in particular, became more impudent in their confrontations with authority. They arranged the escape from Dartmoor of Frank ``Mad Axeman'' Mitchell, and were later acquitted of his murder. They flirted with the Mafia, and looked abroad to expand. But Ron's condition was deteriorating and the responsibility for the firm fell to Reg, who remained staunch in his devotion to his brother. However, after the suicide of his wife, Reg went to pieces, and eventually with Ron's encouragement murdered a troublesome fringe member of the firm.

The killing of Jack ("the Hat") McVitie was the turning-point. The twins could no longer be ignored, and under pressure the firm crumbled. Witnesses to the killings of both Cornell and McVitie were found after a police operation which initially took the Krays off the streets as the result of evidence provided by an agent provocateur working for the United States Treasury.

The Krays' trial in 1969 was a show trial for the Sixties. There was a perception in the beleaguered Establishment that the old order was disintegrating. The twins' sentences of life with a recommendation of 30 years were out of proportion even to the horrendous murders of which they were found guilty. There were frequent campaigns to get them released, numerous books, and a film of their lives. They were idolised by many as icons of safer, predictable days, exploited by hangers-on and ridiculed by a few ex-gangsters. But it was all irrelevant to Ron, who was certified a paranoid schizophrenic in 1979 and served out his sentence heavily medicated in Broadmoor.

The potent mixture of money, violence, sex, madness andnostalgia that characterised Ron Kray's life ensured that he will not be forgotten. When he was a child his aunt Rose had told Ron that he was ``born to hang'', and although this proved not to be the case his incarceration ensured that the decline of Britain's most notorious criminal was suspended in front of a voracious audience in a cruel parody of a public execution.

Dick Hobbs

Ronald Kray, gangster: born London 24 October 1933; married 1985 Elaine Mildener (marriage dissolved 1989), 1989 Kate Howard (marriage dissolved 1994); died Slough 17 March 1995.

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