The Kray twins: Britain’s most infamous gangsters with a weird cult following and a load of celebrity friends. The pair ruled the streets of 1960s’ London with a network of fear and violence. Their gang business (“the Firm”) included assaults, firebombing, armed robberies and murders, hidden behind the ritzy, showbiz nightclubs the twins ran in the West End.
Today the twins seem to be not just infamous but widely admired. Perhaps their most recent reincarnation as Tom Hardy in the 2015 film Legend has something to do with it. A search for #kraytwins on Instagram brings up a load of glamorous shots of Hardy smoking, or tattoos of the twins’ faces plastered over people’s forearms.
It’s easy to walk around the small circuit of Ronnie and Reggie’s home turf in Bethnal Green, East London – their primary school and the church their funerals were held at are across street from each other. It’s less easy to understand the admiration for a pair of dangerous and disturbed men who have been raised to almost mythical status in East End history.
Wood Close School
The twins’ primary school, now called William Davis Primary School. They grew up at nearby 178 Vallance Road (now demolished).
Repton Boys Club
The boxing club where the twins trained as lightweight boxers, just a bit further down Cheshire Street from their primary school. They’d turned professional by the time they were teenagers, but this career path came to an abrupt end when they were dishonourably discharged from National Service. After punching a corporal they spent the next six months in prison instead, assaulting guards and meeting new criminal contacts. They were also some of the last people to be held in the Tower of London.
The Carpenters Arms
On the corner of Cheshire Street next to their old primary school. The twins bought this pub for their beloved mum Violet in 1967. Rumour has it that when the Krays were in charge they had the bar counter made from a coffin lid.
This Italian cafe on Bethnal Green Road was one of the twins’ favourite meeting places, and they’d been going there since they were kids. It also appears in Legend.
The Blind Beggar
The pub where Ronnie killed George Cornell in 1966, a member of the rival Richardson Gang (their gang activities included nailing people to the floor). Apparently George’s last words were “well, look what the dog’s brought in”, before Ronnie shot him in the head at close range. Despite the amount of people who saw it happen no one was willing to testify against him. Ronnie eventually received life imprisonment for the murder, while Reggie went down for stabbing Jack McVitie to death in 1967.
Naturally being behind bars wasn’t going to stop the Kray empire – despite being in different prisons the twins began running a celebrity bodyguard business (Frank Sinatra hired 18 men from them).
St. Matthew’s Church
Ronnie died in prison in 1995, and Reggie was released just before he died of cancer in 2000. Both their funerals were held in this church opposite their primary school. Barbara Windsor and Morrissey are said to have sent wreaths.
Chingford Mount Cemetery
The twins’ graves can be found at this suburban East London cemetery. Whilst we visited three other groups of people turned up, some taking drive-by shots from their cars, others attempting to explain the legend of the Krays to their baffled kids.
Reggie’s first wife Frances Kray is buried here too; after an abusive relationship and eight months of marriage to Reggie she committed suicide when she was 23. Her family tried to have her re-buried under her maiden name Shea (which she’d reverted back to) but Reggie wasn’t having any of it. She lies there in the Kray family plot, a truer symbol of the Krays’ legacy than anything you’ll see on Instagram.
How to get there
- The nearest tube station is Bethnal Green – exit and walk up Bethnal Green Road
- The first location you’ll see is Pellicci’s cafe on the left. From there carry on up the road and take a left St. Matthew’s Row to see St. Matthew’s Church
- Further down on the corner of St. Matthew’s Row you’ll find The Carpenters Arms
- Take another left at The Carpenters Arms towards William Davis Primary School and Repton Boys Club
- The Blind Beggar pub is less than 15 minutes’ walk from Repton Boys Club, close to Whitechapel tube station
Walking tours around Bethnal Green/Whitechapel are available but you’ll have to make a separate trip to Chingford Mount Cemetery to see the graves. Both Chingford and Highams Park overground stations are about half an hour’s walk from the cemetery.