Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Kray Twins: Brothers in Arms

East is East

In the 1960's, the British media often represented the East End of London as a somewhat glamorous and trendy area because of its underworld connotations. Images by famous photographer David Bailey showed snappily dressed young men wearing stylish suits and narrow ties, stovepipe trousers and sharply pointed shoes. TV stories and newspaper articles featured grainy images of street fights and gangland altercations. Brash, cocky young men maneuvered their way through an underworld, observed but not comprehended by a general public. You went through the East End, but did not stay to linger or browse. It was almost a world apart from the rest of London; a tight-knit community, butting onto the dockland region that stretched from Tower Bridge east up the River Thames. It was an area dominated by trade and commerce, some of which was no doubt being siphoned off into the pockets of criminal groups that operated here. Murder, extortion, thieving, money lending and prostitution were a way of life in the poverty stricken atmosphere of south and east London.

The rapid growth and industrialization of the area, from early nineteenth century onwards, created a huge working class population, that soon became jammed into overcrowded, filthy and poverty induced conditions. People lived their squalid lives against a backdrop of numbing drunkenness, immorality, crime and violence. Robbery, rape and assault were endemic, and gangs often ruled the streets. Thoroughfares were filthy and often unlit at night, and brothels and marauding prostitutes were commonplace.

American author Jack London, on a visit, described the area as "Outcast London." George Gissing, the Victorian author best remembered for his novels New Grub Street and The Nether World, and a career marked by a relentlessly prolific output and a stunning capacity for self-punishment, took one look, and thought of it as "the City of the Dead."

Inland, north from the docks and warehouses that flanked the River Thames, unpleasant, odorous and dirty trades epitomized by the building of slaughter houses, glue factories, rendering plants, soap-boilers, engineering works and coal storage, were being established. The insatiable demand for leather goods resulted in the growth of many tanning yards where the leather-workers used a substance for darkening down hides that was known as "pure" which was gathered from the streets each night by the dirtiest and lowest of the local inhabitants — "pure" being a Victorian euphemism for dog turds.

The sickly odor of hops and yeast drifted across the landscape from the chimneys of dozens of breweries. These industries were all established in the East side of London because the predominant westerly winds kept the stink away from what was to grow into the rich, fashionable and aristocratic West End. Behind the high brick walls and paling fences was a world where thousands of dockworkers built and serviced the ships of the greatest maritime nation on earth. People lived, crammed into areas between docks, factories, warehouses and the river, separated from each other by mazes of railway lines, bridges and culverts. Dock owners relied heavily on casual labor after World War One and job security was rare, but poverty was rife.

Although the destruction caused by bombing raids in the Second World War, and subsequent modern development has altered the look of much of the East End since the days of Charles Dickens, there are still streets in this area that have hardly changed in 300 years.

It is an area redolent of its historical past and cosmopolitan makeup. Jews from Poland, Russia and Rumania fleeing anti-Semitism, settled here along with French Protestant Huguenots. Minorities and oppressed people poured into the area over the years, creating a rich and diverse mixture of cultures and traditions. In the old dockside villages of Limehouse and Rotherhithe, there are still Swedish chemists, Norwegian churches and Chinese restaurants run by the descendants of the people Conan Doyle used as the contacts Sherlock Holmes visited to score his opium supplies.

The East End was also the recipient of good as well as evil. William Booth founded the Salvation Army here and opened his first house in Whitechapel, close to Christopher Wren's Trinity House. George Peabody, an American who lived most of his life in London, bequeathed his considerable fortune to a charitable trust to fund education and slum clearance. Thomas Barnado, an Irishman, became superintendent of an impoverished free school, and in 1870, opened his first Children's Home. In a lifetime of unselfish toil, he rescued and trained 60,000 destitute children and helped 250,000 more in want. The London Hospital, the largest general hospital in Britain situated in the East End, became the final home to John Merrick, famous as "The Elephant Man."

The East End was a setting for some of the most famous detective and mystery thrillers ever written. The novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace and Arthur Anthony Ward created images featuring criminal malfeasance of the deepest hues, involving the immortal characters-Sherlock Holmes and the evil genius of Fu Manchu, among others.

The East End is also famous as the stamping ground of the first world-famous serial killer: a man who subsequently became celebrated as Jack the Ripper. In 1888, between Friday 31st August and Friday 9th November, he savagely murdered and mutilated five women. All the killings involved prostitutes as victims, and all occurred in or near Whitechapel, a squalid, densely populated rabbit warren of a suburb flanking the City of London.

The Kray twins.
The Kray twins.

Just to the north in an area called Hoxton (now known as Shoreditch), in a dingy terraced house in Stene Street, lived Charlie and Violet Kray and their son Charlie Jr.

On Tuesday October 24th 1933, at 8 a.m., Violet gave birth to twins — boys who would be christened Ronnie and Reggie. Reggie came into the world first — ten minutes ahead of Ronnie. They would grow up to become, arguably, Britain's most famous and infamous gangsters. Their rise to prominence was inextricably linked to their birthplace and its legends and folklore.

In comparison to the Mafia of Sicily and the American Cosa Nostra, the criminal fiefdom that they would create in the years ahead, was more akin to a raucous bunch of "jack-the-lads" than an evil organized crime cartel. But their fame or notoriety is vested more in the manner with which they achieved their violent status as much as in the quality of their acts of violence.

Their career was marked by the sheer improbability of their success and the ease with which they achieved it. Old style cockney villains, they came close to building a criminal empire, with an effortlessness that illustrated just how out of touch the forces of law and order were in this period, and how little the British establishment comprehended the true meaning of organized crime.

They were only ever convicted of two murders (one each) and both of their victims were miserable, low-life street thugs, with little to redeem them and as about as sympathetic a duo as Goebbles and Himmler. They were never charged or convicted of drug dealing, union manipulation and corruption or terrorism of the order demonstrated by their Italian or American counterparts. And yet, when finally cornered, tried and convicted, they received the heaviest prison sentence ever handed down by a British court of law. Reggie still languishes in prison, thirty-one years after being sentenced. Ronnie died there, of a heart attack. Many people believe that the real victim in the case of Regina v Kray was the law itself.


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