Notorious gangsters Ronald and Reginald Kray, better known as Ronnie and Reggie or simply ‘the Krays’, ran a criminal empire in East London throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
The Krays were undoubtedly ruthless criminals, responsible for violence, coercion and a 2-decade-long reign of terror in the city’s underworld. But they were also complex, damaged and at times even charming men.
Managing a number of West End clubs, the Krays rubbed shoulders with celebrities like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. As such, they developed a unique allure not afforded many other criminals of their viciousness.
Simultaneously gangsters and socialites, the Krays are remembered as bastions of a forgotten 1960s style, of a dangerous London that has since disappeared and of a distinctly British criminality.
Here are 10 facts about infamous London gangsters the Kray twins.
1. Reggie was the oldest twin
The Kray twins were born in Hoxton, London, in 1933. Their parents were Charles Kray and Violet Lee, who were London Eastenders of Irish and Romani heritage respectively. Reggie was born 10 minutes before Ronnie, narrowly making him the older twin.
While still very young, both of the twins developed diphtheria with Ronnie suffering terribly. Sceptical of the doctors’ abilities, Violet discharged Ronnie from hospital, and he eventually recovered at home.
Though Ronnie and Reggie are undoubtedly the most notorious of the Kray clan’s members, they also had a criminal older brother, Charlie. He was known as ‘the quiet Kray’, but Charlie still had a hand in the family’s reign of terror in 1950s and 1960s East London.
2. Reggie Kray almost became a professional boxer
Both boys were strong boxers during their teenage years. The sport was popular in the East End amongst working-class men, and the Krays were encouraged to take it up by their grandfather, Jimmy ‘Cannonball’ Lee.
Reggie discovered that he had a natural talent for boxing, even receiving an opportunity to go professional. Ultimately, he was rejected by sporting officials due to his blossoming criminal enterprises.
3. Reggie had a deadly signature punch
Reggie made use of his boxing abilities in the criminal world, and he apparently developed a tried and tested method for breaking someone’s jaw with a single punch.
He would offer his target a cigarette, and as it neared their mouth, Reggie would strike. Their open, relaxed jaw would take the brunt of the impact, supposedly breaking every time.
4. The Kray twins were held in the Tower of London
In 1952, not yet at the height of their power, the Kray twins had been enrolled for National Service with the Royal Fusiliers. They refused, apparently punching a corporal in the process, and were arrested for their actions.
The Krays were held in the Tower of London, making them some of the iconic structure’s last ever prisoners. The brothers were eventually transferred to Shepton Mallet military prison.
This 1952 arrest was one of the twins’ first. As their criminal enterprise grew throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, they would suffer many more run-ins with the law.
5. Ronnie shot George Cornell dead in the Blind Beggar pub
The Kray twins swiftly transformed from teenage boxers into notorious criminals. Their gang, The Firm, operated across East London in the 1950s and ‘60s, running protection rackets, committing robberies and managing seedy clubs. With this criminal enterprise came violence.
One particularly infamous bout of violence occurred at East London’s Blind Beggar pub in 1966. There, one of the Kray’s adversaries, George Cornell, was sat having a drink when an altercation ensued.
Ronnie shot Cornell in the head.
The Blind Beggar pub is still around today, and visitors can stand in the exact spot the murder took place.
6. Judy Garland sang a song for the Kray twins’ mother, Violet
As the owners of various London clubs and establishments, the Krays met and mingled with some of the era’s biggest names.
Actors Joan Collins and George Raft are known to have frequented the Kray twins’ clubs.
Even Judy Garland ran into the twins on one occasion. The Krays invited her back to their family home, and Garland sang Somewhere over the Rainbow for their mother, Violet.
7. Reggie had a fling with actress Barbara Windsor
The Krays twins’ celebrity escapades also involved Barbara Windsor, the famed British actress behind EastEnders character Peggy Mitchell.
Reggie supposedly spent a night with Windsor, though it didn’t turn into a relationship. Windsor went on to marry the gangster Ronnie Knight, who was a friend of the Krays.
8. Ronnie Kray was openly bisexual
In 1964, rumours began to swirl around Ronnie’s sexuality. The Sunday Mirror published a story claiming that Ronnie and Conservative MP Robert Boothby were under investigation by the Met for being in a homosexual relationship, which was deemed a crime until 1967.
Later in life, Ronnie opened up about his sexuality, confessing in the late 1980s and in his 1993 autobiography My Story that he was bisexual.
Laurie O’Leary, a childhood friend of the Krays, said members of The Firm were tolerant to Ronnie’s sexuality, telling the Guardian, “Even if they objected, Ron just smiled at them and told them they didn’t know what they were missing”.
9. The Kray twins were sentenced for murder in 1969
The Kray twins’ reign of terror caught up with them in March 1969, when they were sentenced for the murders of rival gangsters George Cornell and Jack McVitie.
Jack McVitie was killed in 1967. Reggie had found McVitie at a party and attempted to shoot him, but his gun jammed. Instead, Reggie repeatedly stabbed McVitie in the chest, stomach and face. Fellow members of The Firm disposed of the body.
Ronnie and Reggie were both sentenced at London’s Old Bailey court, receiving sentences of life imprisonment with 30 years of non-parole. They were, at the time, the longest sentences ever passed at the Old Bailey.
10. When Reggie died, celebrities sent their condolences
The Krays continued to run a protection racket from prison. Their bodyguard business, Krayleigh Enterprises, supplied Frank Sinatra with 18 bodyguards in 1985.
Ronnie Kray died in Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital in 1995, from a heart attack.
Reggie passed away from cancer in 2000. He had been released from prison on compassionate grounds. Various celebrities sent wreaths and condolences upon hearing of his death, including Roger Daltry, Barbara Windsor and The Smiths singer Morrissey.
The Krays are buried in Chingford Mount Cemetery, East London.