The Kray twins have become mythic figures in London and beyond. The notorious pair began their dealings, however, with a very modest billiard hall.
The Krays were an old-fashioned East End family: self sufficient, very clannish and devoted to each other. Their ancestors had arrived in Britain from Austria, and the twins had Irish, Jewish and Romany (gypsy) blood in their veins.
The twins, Ronnie and Reggie, would get their start in the criminal underworld with a loan from their elder brother Charlie, which they used to assume the title to a lease on a fourteen-table billiard hall. This had been converted from an old movie theatre called The Regal in Eric Street, off the Mile End Road in Bethnal Green.
The hall was open day and nights, and soon became a regular meeting haunt for a disparate group of people. Men fresh out of prison, old friends the twins had known in the Army, some of the local criminals and tough teenage boys from the Mile End looking for some excitement.
Ronnie began to develop an image he had dreamed of over the years. He started to dress gangster-style, double-breasted, wide shouldered suits, large rings and heavy bracelet watches. He had his own chair and liked to sit, facing the door, watching the arrivals. He loved the atmosphere, and as the table lights flickered on he would hand out cigarettes to people and say, “Smoke up. There’s not enough smoke in here.”
By 1956, their twenty-second year, the twins were a formidable pair. Ronnie would garnish their reputation for violence and Reggie would promote it for all it was worth. But at the end of the day, they both were there if a serious fight presented itself.
Soon, the twins were generating cash by “poncing” off local villains. “Poncing” in the East End vernacular, was extorting a share of illegal profits resulting from thieving and robbery committed on their patch.
Illegal bookmaking and gambling dens also became a major potential source of corruption. Thieves, anxious to off-load their spoils, would make the twins their first contact point. There were also the old-fashioned cockney con tricks to be worked. They became experts at working the “tweedle” and “jargon” scams which involved manipulating paste rings and jewelery and screwing victims out of their money before they discovered their mistakes. But the twins were after more than the small time stuff. At some stage in this period of their lives, they both agreed that they were hungering for something else. They wanted to be the barons of crime, rather than the serfs.
Your turn: Do you know about what came next? Tell us what notorious stories you’ve heard about the Krays.