Based on the popular podcast, Bad Gays seeks to excavate the buried history of queer lives. In this exclusive extract authors Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller dive into the twists and turns of the life of notorious gangster and homosexual, Ronnie Kray.

Based on the popular podcast, Bad Gays seeks to excavate the buried history of queer lives. In this exclusive extract authors Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller dive into the twists and turns of the life of notorious gangster and homosexual, Ronnie Kray.

The story of the Kray twins is, like most British stories, one of class, and it begins in the grinding poverty of 1930s England, still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. They were born in 1933 in the heart of London’s East End, a historically impoverished neighbourhood still suffering from appalling deprivation.

The Kray family were part of the busy working-class, multi-ethnic culture. Their mother, whom they idolised throughout their lives, was descended from Irish and Jewish migrants. The twins were born in Stean Street, Haggerston, but by the time they were five or six she’d moved the family closer to her family in Bethnal Green. Their new home, at 178 Vallance Road, was only half an hour’s walk from their old home in Hoxton; the area would become the boy’s manor, their spiritual territory, for the rest of their lives.dc

Charles, their father, was frequently absent for much of their childhood; working in the ‘rag trade’, the second-hand clothes industry, he frequently travelled for long stretches buying up goods, and then, when the Second World War began in 1939, he was a deserter. Their mother Violet took on most of the responsibility of raising the children and running the home, and by all accounts regarded her sons as angels, despite Reggie later admitting that ‘we were wicked little bastards really’.

It is unsurprising that the lads turned to crime, given both the poverty of the area and the example they were set. Life in London, particularly in working-class and immigrant communities, was marked by the presence of organised crime gangs. They operated on various levels of sophistication, taking part in everything from pickpocketing rackets to gambling, extortion, prostitution, and blackmail. Fergus Linnane, in his history London’s Underworld, describes gangs arranged around both ethnic identities and local loyalties, and spread across most of the capital in the 1930s and ’40s. There were East End Jewish streets gangs like ‘The Yiddishers’, the Aldgate Mob, the Bessarabian Tigers, who often took part in street fights with fascist organisations. In Clerkenwell there was a mob led by the Italian Charles Sabini that ran lucrative protection rackets at racecourses, a territory they fought for against the McDonald brothers, who ran the Elephant and Castle Gang and who went into alliance with the Brummagems, a Birmingham gang. There were the Titanics in Hoxton, the Hoxton Mob, the Kings Cross Gang, the Odessians, the West End Boys, and the Whitechapel Mob: an endless array of gangland groups that emerged, some surviving longer than others, before being amalgamated, sup- pressed by police, or broken up by rivals.

Within working-class London in the interwar period, there was also an independent homosexual culture of sorts that was distinct from that of the guardsmen and middle-class johns of Hyde Park and St James’s Park, or the various more bourgeois gay scenes of Piccadilly, the Haymarket, and Soho. Pubs that were congregated around the docks and industrial areas often developed a distinct homosexual or queer clientele, including establishments like the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping and Charlie Brown’s on West India Dock Road, both little more than half an hour’s walk from the Kray’s manor. According to the noted historian of queer life in interwar London Matt Houlbrook, ‘Dock laborers, sailors from across the world, and families mingled freely with flamboyant local queans and slumming gentlemen in a protean milieu where queer men and casual homosexual encounters were an accepted part of everyday life.’

Given the twin temptations of gang warfare and illicit, criminal sex that existed right on Ronnie Kray’s own doorstep, it is perhaps surprising that the Kray twins’ first major clash with the law was not a result of either, but rather during their enlistment into the British army. From the end of the war until 1960, nearly all British men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one were required to serve in the armed forces for eighteen months, and then remain as reservists for a number of years afterwards. In 1952, the twins were called up. Their schooling had, says their biographer John Pearson, already been interrupted by the closure of schools during the Blitz, then by their evacuation with their mum, to Hadleigh in Suffolk. At fifteen they had left school altogether, trying to find odd jobs working with their grandfather on his rags stall, selling firewood, or working in the market, but their real passion was boxing, which they had took up in a local club when they were just twelve. Between their fists, pellet guns, and street fighting, they had been in and out of contact with the police, including getting probation for assault, but never any more serious punishments. When they turned up at the Tower of London, conscription papers in hand, in 1952, they were about to be prepared for a level of discipline they had hitherto never experienced. They did not fancy it much, and were leaving the barracks when a corporal demanded to know where they were going. ‘We’re off home to see our mum,’ they replied, and Ron knocked him out with a punch. After visiting Mum and then going out on the town, they were arrested the next day back at Vallance Road, where they were court-martialed and imprisoned for a week.  As soon as they were released from their cells, they went on the run. For the next two years they played a cat-and-mouse game with the army and police, finding support while on the run from friends and well-wishers within a community that had little time for the authorities.

After assaulting a police officer who came to nick them, they served a short period in Wormwood Scrubs jail, before being taken back to barracks and escaping again. Their time in the army was marked by an increasing level of violence and aggression. In Ron’s words, this was the point at which he ‘started to go a bit mad’. He regarded himself as having psychic powers, allowing him to read people’s auras to determine their motives. This, combined with his supposed shit list of enemies, must have been concerning for people; when he started to use the nickname ‘The Colonel’, everyone obliged him.

Upon their release, their criminal career really began. The Regal, a billiard hall on Eric Street in Mile End, had been experiencing a plague of nightly violence and vandalism, and the owner was at his wits’ end. The brothers made themselves available to take it over for a fiver a week; the day they took it over, the violence stopped. They turned its fortunes round, and the venue became popular with young people in the area. They began to establish a pattern: Reggie provided the brains, turning around the business, while Ronnie provided the brawn, in this instance fighting off the Maltese gangs attempting to shake the boys down for protection money. Reggie considered going straight, but for Ron, that was never an option.

Their gang began to grow, and with it, both their organisation and firepower became more serious. Ron became obsessed with weapons and firearms: beneath the floorboards of 178 Vallance Road was a veritable arsenal of weaponry, including a Mauser rifle and a Luger automatic, plus revolvers, knives, and even cavalry swords. Their protection racket was organised into two forms of payments. For smaller premises – pubs, shops, and the like – there was the ‘Nipping List’, whereby the gang was assured that if they ever needed to drop in for some goods, such as a crate or two of champagne, it would be given free of charge. Then there was the ‘Pension List’, where larger establishments like casinos or restaurants provided a regular fee for their premises to be ‘protected’ by the gang. If they refused to pay the fee, of course, they soon realised that it was necessary, as their venues were mysteriously visited by thugs, vandals, or arsonists.

Quickly, the gang started to get a serious reputation, demanding respect from all and sundry while ‘looking after their own’ who were ‘away’ in prison. Despite the fact they still lived with their mum, they were buying snappy new suits and getting home visits from the barber, a habit they picked up from watching US gangster movies. Ronnie was also gaining a reputation as a ‘hard man’. While there were guns in the London underworld, they were usually for threatening rather than firing, but Ronnie was known as a man prepared to use them, after shooting a boxer who threatened one of his protected businesses. The following year, Ronnie was involved in a gang fight with a group of rivals, the ‘Watney Streeters’, and one of them broke what was known as the ‘East End code of silence’ and shopped him; it was 1956 and he was back inside, sentenced to three years in Wandsworth Prison.

After two years in Wandsworth, where he continued his criminal activities, Ron was transferred to a lower security prison on the Isle of Wight. Despite its relative comfort, he hated it, and began to suffer again from increasingly severe mental health problems, including paranoid delusions, which he put down to being triggered by the death of his mother’s sister, Aunt Rose. He had been particularly close to her, admiring her anti-authoritarian attitude, and her death from leukaemia devastated him. He was transferred to Long Grove, a psychiatric hospital, and contrived with his brothers to escape from the institution, fearing he might be permanently incarcerated. After a few months he handed himself in, and, astonishingly, was allowed to simply serve the short remainder of his sentence before being released in 1959.

It was a fortuitous moment for the boys, to be released just as London was entering a decade in which society and culture would be radically transformed. They were twenty-seven, charming and handsome, feared and respected, rich enough to wear sharp suits and drive fancy cars, and they were looking to make a name for themselves.

While Ronnie was inside, Reggie had begun expanding the business empire with second-hand car dealerships, gambling dens, and a new club, the ‘Double R’, in tribute to his incarcerated brother.  With Ronnie out, they could do more, and in 1962 established the ‘Kentucky’ club in Mile End.

No sooner was Ronnie out of jail than Reggie was in, for a bungled attempt at extortion on behalf of a friend.  While he was locked up in 1960, Ronnie’s worst tendencies for mindless violence, self-aggrandisement, big spending, and alienating allies all ran wild. He became aware of the wealth of a notorious slum landlord, Peter Rachman, who had built up a property empire in Notting Hill by overcharging West Indian immigrants for substandard housing, enforced by rent collectors and thugs. He wanted a slice of the pie and approached Rachman at a club, driving him back to Vallance Road for a cup of tea and some ‘negotiations’. The negotiations were typical Ronnie: give me £5,000 right now (equivalent to over £100,000 today), or else. Rachman gave him £250 in cash, and cut him a cheque for another £1,000, but the cheque bounced. Fearful for his life, and aware that he didn’t want to open up a rolling financial obligation with Ronnie for ‘protection’, he cut him a deal, arranging for the twins to buy out a gambling club in swanky Knightsbridge in West London. They jumped at the chance, and soon were the proprietors of ‘Esmeralda’s Barn’, their very own West London casino. Although Ronnie proceeded to run the place into the ground, he revelled in the new-found status it bought him: he was no longer just an exotic sight for visitors to the East End, but a player in West End culture. He began hanging around with more and more important people. Ron particularly liked the powerful politicians, and the access to dinners at the House of Lords, private members clubs, and sex with young men that accompanied them.

His friendships amongst the rich and famous were starting  to pay off. In 1963 he was introduced by his friend, the Labour MP Tom Driberg (who, ever the adventurer, had turned up at the Kentucky for a drink), to the powerful bisexual Conservative peer Lord Boothby.  Boothby had been dating a young cat burglar from Shoreditch called Leslie Holt, whom he employed as his driver. Holt had a flat in an art deco apartment block in Stoke Newington called Cedra Court; his neighbours were the Kray twins, who each owned a place there.

Boothby wined and dined Ronnie in his West London clubs, such as White’s; in return, Ronnie organised ‘sex shows’ and orgies with young men in East London.Politicians were useful: they were some of the few in society who could put pressure on the police and prosecutors who were increasingly sniffing around the Kray’s empire. Driberg, and most likely Boothby too, were invited to parties at Cedra Court where, in the words of Francis Wheen, ‘rough but compliant East End lads were served like so many canapés’.

In July of 1964, the friendship hit a crisis. The Sunday Mirror published an exclusive, claiming that Scotland Yard had begun an investigation into the relationship between an unnamed peer and an underworld kingpin. Under the headline ‘Peer and a Gangster: Yard Inquiry’, it claimed to possess photographic evidence of a lord sat with a mobster who was running London’s largest protection racket. When a German magazine published Boothby and Kray’s names, Boothby called the Sunday Mirror’s bluff, outing himself in a letter to the Times as the subject around whom so many rumours had been flying. What’s more, he denied all charges, claiming he’d only met Kray three times on business matters.

With his high-powered lawyers behind him, the Mirror capitulated to Boothby, and settled with a huge fee and unreserved apology. The fact was that, although he and Kray were not lovers (they shared tastes in younger men instead), the allegations were largely true. Both Boothby and Driberg had intervened on behalf of the Krays behind the scenes in the past, and what’s more, there was a police investigation into the twins. The Sunday Mirror’s reporter had got his lead from his informants in Scotland Yard’s criminal investigation department, C11, that Cedra Court was under observation and an investigation into the Krays’ protection racketeering, fraud, and blackmail was underway.

Yet Driberg had persuaded the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, that Boothby had been libelled, and deserved his support. In reality, the calculation was political: it had barely been a year since the Profumo Affair, another sex scandal, had brought down the Conservative government and brought him to power. But their majority was slim, and another scandal, this time involving Driberg, would have been as damaging to him as the Tories. Driberg was such an inveterate and prolific cocksucker that any cub reporter would have been able to dig up a raft of men he had blown. Better for everyone, it was decided, if the papers, and the police, back away. As the Met Commissioner had lied and publicly denied there was any investigation into the twins, evidence gathered up to that point had to be discarded.

It was only ever going to be a temporary reprieve, however. Ronnie was becoming increasingly out of control. The twins were becoming increasingly concerned with the activities of their rivals, the Richardson Gang, who controlled territory in South London. At Christmas 1965, Ronnie heard that one of its members, George Cornell, a nasty piece of work who worked as a torturer for the gang, had called him a ‘fat poof’. Trouble was brewing, and in February of 1966 a gang war erupted. There was a series of tit-for-tat attacks, and Ronnie was in his element, coordinating his troops as ‘The Colonel’ he had always dreamed of being. In March, a Kray ally, although not a member of the gang, was killed in a mass shootout at a club in Catford. Major figures in the Richardson Gang had been shot, and the police had swooped down on it. It looked like victory for the twins was on hand as their main rivals went to ground.

The next day, however, Ronnie heard that Cornell was drinking in the Blind Beggar pub, on their turf. Ronnie holstered his Mauser pistol and got his driver to take him to the public house opposite Whitechapel Hospital. Entering the bar, Cornell was said to have greeted him by saying, ‘Well look who’s here.’ Ronnie put a bullet straight through his head, and left.

Of course, nobody saw anything, but after his brother Reggie went on to kill Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie the following year, the pressure was on. Police detective Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read had been foiled in his investigations once following the Boothby incident, but now he went after the twins with renewed vigour, and finally managed to track down the barmaid of the Blind Beggar. She was the crack in the East End code of silence; given a new identity, she testified against Ronnie, and alongside his brother he was sentenced to at least thirty years in prison in 1969.

Ronnie was eventually, after ten years in prison, moved to the high-security psychiatric hospital at Broadmoor after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He would live there for the rest of his life. He never denied his homosexuality, although sometimes qualified himself as a bisexual. For Ronnie, his homosexuality was a natural part of his personality, something he was born with, and as long as he retained his masculine virtues, he was fine with being seen as a homosexual. What he hated was being regarded as weak; ‘I’m a not a poof, I’m homosexual,’ he would claim, and loved to identify with icons of British imperialism, such as Lawrence of Arabia, in whom he saw a model of masculinity that accommodated violence and bravado as well as desire. Referring to the imperialist hero Gordon of Khartoum, he said, ‘Gordon was like me, homosexual, and he met his death like a man. When it’s time for me to go, I hope I do the same.’ He died in 1995, his ‘reputation’ seemingly intact: alongside Reggie, he remains something of a folk hero for many, and an unironic icon of masculinity for many young men.

Bad Gays: A Homosexual History is out now on Verso Books.

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