Hard men with a soft spot for Suffolk
Ronnie and Reggie - the East End hard-nuts who developed a love for the Suffolk countryside - might be dead but their legend endures. Few of us have heard their voices, though.
Ronnie and Reggie - the East End hard-nuts who developed a love for the Suffolk countryside - might be dead but their legend endures. Few of us have heard their voices, though. Now we can. Steven Russell listens to The Kray Tapes
THE Krays' love of East Anglia was well known, but it's something else entirely hearing memories slip from their own lips.
Twenty years after being jailed for at least 30 years, Ronnie Kray sat in the crowded visiting hall at Broadmoor, the hospital in Berkshire for the criminally insane. Virtually chain-smoking, and drinking alcohol-free lager, he turned his mind back to carefree childhood days in Suffolk: tobogganing at Hadleigh, scrumping for apples, and playing cowboys and Indians.
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He also recalled the country mansion at Bildeston the twins later bought for £11,000 - reflecting that it would now be worth £1million-plus, if only they could have held on to it - and explained how they'd go on antique-buying trips while up in East Anglia.
“It all adds up to a picture of the Kray twins no-one has ever seen,” says Robin McGibbon, the journalist who talked to the brothers in the 1980s and '90s and committed their memories to tape.
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Captured on tape, Ronnie Kray's soft and gentle voice is a surprise. It's an older London accent - different to the harsh Estuary whine we hear today on EastEnders - and doesn't fit the pre-conceived image of a 1960s hardman whose whispered name had petty crooks quaking in their boots.
“If you expect to hear a brash, arrogant loudmouth boasting of his violent exploits, be prepared to be shocked. While smoking his John Player Specials, and drinking cans of alcohol-free Barbican, Ron talks fondly, in quiet, almost shy terms, about his love of the English countryside, why he and Reggie got immersed in violence, why celebrities were drawn to them, and why he's so sorry for the anguish he and Reg caused their mother,” says Robin.
A sub-editor with the Daily Express who pursued other writing projects before going in to work in the evenings, he'd met Ronnie in 1985, four months after the murderer, racketeer and paranoid schizophrenic married for the first time.
Robin hoped Woman's Own magazine would be interested in an article. That didn't come off, but Ron saw him as someone he could trust to get stories in the papers and they struck up a friendly and businesslike relationship.
In 1989, Robin was developing the idea of a TV programme about the twins. Ron was particularly enthusiastic and, although he hated hearing his voice on tape, he agreed to talk about some of his memories so the journalist could put together an outline for a producer.
The Krays lost their hearts to Suffolk during the war, when they left the precarious East End - threatened by the airborne might of Hitler - for the relative safety of rural East Anglia. They were billeted at East House Lodge, Hadleigh, and placed on the roll of local schools.
“When we was little kids we got evacuated to Suffolk, near Ipswich,” confirmed Ronnie among the hubbub of one of those Broadmoor taping sessions. “We went to a Mrs Styles's place in Suffolk - she had a mansion there - and we stayed with her. It was the first time we ever went to the county and we got to like the country.”
What appealed was “the quietness, the peacefulness of it, the fresh air, nice scenery, nice countryside - different from London. We used to go to a big 'ill called Constitution Hill and used to go sledging there in the winter-time. We had a good time there, you know.”
The twins relished the kind of boyish pursuits that were harder to enjoy in the city.
“We used to go apple-scrumping and all that, you know. Very nice there. We used to play cowboys and Indians, yeah.” Ron remembers shooting someone in the eye with a slug-gun - accidentally!
Suffolk would prove a temporary home for a couple of years. They missed the East End. The boys' mum, Violet, took them back to Vallance Road in Bethnal Green to be nearer their grandmother, Aunt Rose, Aunt May and other relatives.
Later, they got to know coastal Essex. Both the twins, older brother Charlie and their mum had caravans at Steeple Bay, by River Blackwater, near Southminster. “We used to go there weekends, sometimes a weekday. Very nice down there.”
Suffolk had captured their hearts, however. Ron confirms the twins always said they'd always get a place in the country once they'd made enough money. Beginning with a down-at-heel snooker club in Bethnal Green, they're understood to have built an empire of more than 30 bars and clubs.
And then there was the highly illegal stuff: stealing lorry-loads of goods such as cigarettes, selling on dockers' permits that could get men highly-paid work, and operating extortion rackets.
Ronnie recalls a time when they were making £1,000 a week. “We had nice cars, nice clothes, jewelley.” He had a Jaguar and a swanky Ford Fairlane car. Life was a whirl of pubs, clubs and parties, and they rubbed shoulders with celebrities such as Joe Louis and Judy Garland.
“Later on we was able to buy the mansion and the cottage for 11,000 grand,” Ron wheezes into the tape-recorder. “And when was that?” asks Robin. The answer is perfectly timed and - probably unintentionally - comic. “Just before we was arrested . . .
“It would be worth a million pound today. We had to have it all decorated and redone up.”
That was 1967, when the twins were at the height of their infamy in the East End and looking both for a rural bolthole for themselves and a country home for parents Violet and Charlie.
Naturally enough, bearing in mind their wartime memories, they looked to Hadleigh - finally settling on nearby Bildeston. They bought a pink country cottage near the post office for mum and dad and a large house - The Brooks - for themselves.
For the brothers, it provided regular weekends away from high-octane London life. Ron found the countryside “very peaceful”; Reggie “also liked it a lot”.
There was apparently no hint in Suffolk of what the twins got up to in The Smoke. The EADT has carried stories about how the Krays would give donkey rides to local children on a field near The Brooks, and give the youngsters money to buy ice-cream.
Their dad, meanwhile, forged a reputation among some Bildeston folk as a cheery “true Cockney diamond”.
Ronnie confirms on the tape that they didn't get involved in any villainy while in East Anglia.
How did you get on with the locals? asks Robin, during one of the Broadmoor interviews.
“Very well. We used to go to the local inns there and have a drink; have a sandwich. I can't remember any names. Quiet country inns, we used to go to.”
He drank gin and tonic, and brown ale; Reggie favoured G&Ts or light ale.
How did the locals react?
“They was very nice; friendly, kind, nice people. Very genuine people.” Did the Suffolk villagers know about the Krays' reputation as East End hard men?
“Some of them did. People recognised us from photographs in the paper. Some of them; not all of them. It didn't seem to make any difference to them, anyway. They still liked us. We got on well with them.”
Ronnie and Reggie were drinking with friend Charlie Betts, whom they'd met in Hadleigh when they were evacuated, in The Crown pub in Bildeston on the weekend before their arrest in 1968. They faced a string of charges.
Regional crime squad officers arrived at The Brooks, searching buildings and digging up part of the garden.
Ron told journalist Robin McGibbon the brothers later sold the house - for £14,000, he thinks. And why did they sell? Again, the answer comes with unintentional wryness. “'Cos we was inside and there was no point keeping it on.”
He denies the Krays had stacks of money salted away. “We spent all our money . . . or give it away. Charities, and give it away to people.”
The EADT has reported in the past how in early 1970 - when they would have been in jail for about a year - the twins wrote to their father and asked him to donate a collection of gym equipment to Hadleigh's youth club.
It was installed in the local community centre. By coincidence, this was now in East House - the place where the boys had spent part of the war as evacuees.
The recordings of Ronnie's memories and views touch on many subjects, including his sexuality. Reports claimed he was gay, but during one conversation with Robin he puts the record straight.
Talking about his overseas trips, Ron explains how he once went to an Istanbul brothel. The journalist asks why.
“To have a bird; to have a girl. What do you think?” laughs the surprised ex-gangland boss. “What do you think I went in there for? Supper?!”
What does he say to those who claimed in the papers that he was homosexual?
“I'm bisexual, not gay.” Always has been, though up until he was about 25 he kept it a secret, even from his twin. He wasn't worried or ashamed; “I just think it was a private thing to keep to meself.”
What did Reggie have to say when the truth emerged?
“Nothing. Nothing at all. It was up to me.”
Ronnie also had interesting views on the Kray involvement with violence.
“We didn't look for trouble. We didn't look for trouble . . . it just come to us.” The interviewee raises an eyebrow. “It just seemed to find us. I don't know how it always come to us; it just seemed to find us.”
Here's a theory, suggests Robin: it's because you took on a few people early on . . .
“We had a reputation. Some people used to try to get the better of us; so they'd have a reputation as well. That's how it was. Similar to the cowboy days, you see.”
What does he mean?
“If you had a reputation, someone would try to knock you over so they'd have a bigger reputation.” What, like the fastest gun in the west? “Something like that, yeah.”
Ronnie's voice is level during most of his talks with Robin, but an edge of anger appears when his mind turns to those who testified against him at his murder trial. Ronnie was convicted of the fatal shooting of George Cornell, a member of a rival gang, in The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel Road.
“I just despise them, that's all,” he says, adding that ratting is never a nice trait.
In hindsight, would he have changed anything - such as not killing Cornell?
“Well, it's part of me life and I did do him and that's all there is to it. It's too late to change. (I don't) moan about it.”
Does he think the Krays could have gone on forever if he'd escaped the charge - and if his brother had also evaded the law?
“No, they'd have probably done us for tax evasion.” Was he dodging it? “We never paid no tax; I suppose you could put it that way!”
And is it true Cornell's calling him a fat poof triggered the murderous attack?
“He never called me a poof in his life, 'cos if he had done I would have killed him there and then. He never called me a poof; it's all lies and rubbish.”
So, why do it?
“Because he issued threats against me. Said he was going to kill me. So I thought I'd do him first. Best way, isn't it? He tread on my toes too much.”
One of Britain's most infamous gangsters adds: “We never wanted to be violent. We had to be. We lived in a violent world . . . violent people around us. We ran clubs and pubs . . . . very violent times.”
The Kray Tapes, actually a three-hour-plus talking book in CD form in which brothers Ronnie, Reggie and Charlie speak to journalist Robin McGibbon, are released by Right Recordings on May 5, priced £14.99. Me and My Brothers, by Charlie Kray with Robin McGibbon, is published by HarperPerennial at £7.99 and is out on the same date. In this updated edition of his autobiography, Charlie reveals what he really thought about the twins and why he feels they treated him badly.
CHARLIE Kray, the twins' older brother, also has his memories of Suffolk.
Journalist Robin McGibbon has just updated Charlie's autobiography. They met when Robin was running a publishing company and the oldest Kray boy, just out of prison in the summer of 1975, wanted to write his life story.
“Charlie remembers being in Hadleigh - and getting a job as tea boy in a factory making mattresses - in the early war years, but Ronnie says on tape that he wasn't there!”
Nevertheless Charlie, about seven years older than his kid brothers, painted vivid pictures of the East Anglia they found at the end of their trip from Bethnal Green. After the cramped terraced house in Vallance Road, Mrs Styles's huge Victorian building was a palace.
“I quickly got a job in the local fish-and-chip shop and later worked full-time as a tea boy in a factory making mattresses,” he wrote. “The people there were friendly, but we didn't have much in common and I missed the East End, particularly my football and boxing. The twins, though, were happier than ever. In fine weather they would spend hours scouring the fields and woods for miles around, revelling in the fresh air and boundless freedom of country life.
“When the snow came, Mrs Styles's nephew lent me his sledge and I'd take the twins to the nearest hill. I'd lay full-length on the sledge with the twins on my back and push off. We nearly always ended up in a heap of tangled arms and legs, laughing. It was great fun.”
Mum, though she never complained, missed her friends and family back in the East End, however.
“We'd been in Hadleigh for about a year when rumours of a German invasion on the east coast started sweeping the village. Mum got more and more worried until one day she announced that she was taking us back to London.
“Mrs Styles tried to dissuade her, but Mum said she had given it a lot of thought and her mind was made up. Later, it was found that the rumours were unfounded, but by then it was too late: Mum and I and the twins were back in Vallance Road.
“I was pleased; I couldn't wait to see my mates and take up boxing again. But the twins were not. They had fallen in love with the countryside and preferred green fields and animals to teeming streets and noisy traffic.”
THERE'S much more of a latent air of menace about Reggie Kray than his twin brother. Taped conversations expose
a forceful personality used to controlling people and getting his own way. It's clear he was able to shape his affairs despite being behind bars.
You wouldn't have wanted to cross Reggie.
Again, it was the hope of making some money by collaborating on writing projects that brought together journalist Robin McGibbon and the Kray twin who spent the final part of his sentence in Suffolk and died in Norwich. They first met in Parkhurst prison in May 1985 - 16 years after Reg's conviction - and had many phone conversations. The differences between the brothers was immediately clear to Robin.
“While Reg had almost bounded into Parkhurst's relartively small visiting room - dressed casually, bursting with nervous energy - Ron wore an expensively-tailored suit, crisply-ironed shirt and tie, and was quiet and relaxed as though he hadn't a care in the world.”
Reg was always the same, a coiled spring one wasn't quite sure of, “whereas Ron sauntered through the crowded visiting hall at Broadmoor with the aloof air of a toff gracing the Ritz with his presence for afternoon tea”. Ronnie he always found warm, welcoming and courteous - “Never once swore, slagged anyone off or bragged about how tough he was”.
While he grew to respect Reg for getting on with his sentence without whingeing, and for raising money for sick children, the writer acknowledges he and the gangster could never have become true friends. “Unlike Ron, he wasn't an easy man to like. You couldn't tell him anything, and he knew it all.”
They did “have words” on several occasions - captured for posterity. They make uncomfortable listening: Robin knowing what he needed to make a saleable newspaper or magazine article, and Reggie bent on doing things his way. He was invariably polite, but there was steel and resolve beneath the veneer.
Talking business was very tough. The prisoner had his own agenda and wasn't often swayed.
“I'd often think 'God, if this is what he's like after 20 years' incarceration, what must he have been like as a young man in the '60s? Impossible, I imagine,” reflects the journalist.
The tapes capture something of a battle of wills in 1994 as Robin tries to produce an article for which the Sunday People would pay handsomely. Lord Longford has pleaded for child-killer Myra Hindley to be given extra privileges after finding religion. Robin knew what Reg would think, and drew up a list of questions as he prepared to interview Kray.
But, dogmatic and stubborn, Reggie instead writes his own article, in letter form. Robin, impatient and agitated, is worried it won't make the right points and that the newspaper therefore won't bite; Kray insists he knows what he wants to say, that he can do it properly, and is adamant the People should publish his letter in its entirety or not at all.
“I've got me own head; I use me own brains,” he warns. (Happily, he comes up with the goods and the episode is happily resolved.)
There's another touchy phone conversation, taped from Blundeston jail near Lowestoft, in which they exchange words about Ron's funeral coverage - another mutual commercial venture. A breakdown in communication between Robin and the twins' older brother, Charlie, led to a TV crew failing to film the dead crime boss in his coffin at the chapel of rest.
“One minute I was a valued, trustworthy friend; the next we just couldn't get on,” says Robin.
He's amazed the phone relationship lasted as long as it did, but he knew he was useful to Reggie and that Reggie respected him because he wasn't a yes-man.
Even from his prison cell, this forceful personality had the power to have people running around on his behalf. Robin made it clear he wasn't going to spend lots of time on Kray errands, but admits he might not have felt so brave had he been looking Reggie in the eye, rather than talking on the phone!
And when the gangster's voice whispers “Even though we've had our differences, I value you as a friend.” It's rather more chilling than reassuring.
WITHOUT excusing the violent acts, Robin McGibbon admits to feeling some sympathy about Ronnie Kray's situation. The underworld figure had a mental illness more severe than most people seem to realise, he says.
“He suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and, like Jekyll and Hyde, was two people: one the ruthless killer who murdered in cold blood with barely a backward glance, the other the man the public didn't know - reserved, very private, unbelievably generous, and not in the least boorish or full of himself.
“Fortunately, I knew only the second Ron Kray. Not once did I see even a glimpse of the monster.
“That's why, listening to the tape, I always feel sad; for in my view, if Ron's illness had been recognised and treated when it was first diagnosed in the late '50s, everything might have been different - not only for the Krays themselves but for everyone they encountered during the ensuing years of mayhem.”
The first sign came in 1958, Robin feels, when Ron was in Wandsworth prison for three years for grievous bodily harm against a prison officer and was sent to a mental hospital in Surrey. Because of the stigma, the family refused to accept he needed treatment and helped him escape. Ron was recaptured five months later and sent back to prison, but after release he suffered a seizure and was never the same man. His speech was slower, his movements ponderous and his mind numbed, says Robin.
According to brother Charlie, Ron had been prescribed four tablets a day, and a monthly injection, to keep his paranoia and schizophrenia in check. That would have been easy to administer in a controlled environment, says Robin, but the gangster was enjoying a hard lifestyle: smoking up to 100 cigarettes a day and knocking down the brown ales in the Krays' club The Double R or in the numerous East End pubs. He probably didn't remember to take his medication regularly; and, in any case, the alcohol would probably have negated its effect.
With his violent mood swings, concludes the journalist, he was a timebomb waiting to explode.
“His insanity drove he and Reggie to think they could survive above the law and do virtually what they liked.”
The Kray twins
Ronnie and Reggie were born on October 24, 1933, in Hoxton, East London
In 1969, at the Old Bailey, they were each jailed for life with a recommendation they serve at least 30 years
Ronnie was convicted of murdering George Cornell in March, 1966
Reggie was found guilty of murdering underworld associate Jack “The Hat” McVitie - he was never seen without a trilby hiding his bald patch - in October, 1967
Ronnie died in the spring of 1995 after suffering a heart attack. He had been taken to a Berkshire hospital from Broadmoor
His twin died in Nowich in October, 2000, after losing a battle with cancer. He had been freed from jail on August 26 by Home Secretary Jack Straw because of his deteriorating health
Their brother, Charlie Kray, had died in the April of that year after heart trouble. He had been serving 12 years in Parkhurst prison when he fell ill