As we edge closer to the 9th September release date of Kray’s biopic, now’s an excellent time to brush up on local knowledge of the twins’ stomping ground in London’s East End.
On a sunny July afternoon I headed to the meeting place with East End Tours at the, um, ‘picturesque’ Bethnal Green Overground station. The group meet John Bennett, our guide for the walking tour who is something of an authority on the Kray’s and, being a local lad, he knows the area like the back of his hand. “The Kray’s I think are undoubtedly the most famous underworld figures Britain’s ever chucked out,” John begins, “They spanned all different worlds, the tough heterosexual world of the East End boozer, they were in the homosexual illegal underworld of the West End, they beat people up, they did work for charity and were two quite distinct personalities. Ronnie Kray, from about 1958 was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic which changed the way he was.”
We wander around the corner, under the arches where John points out number 9 on the corner of Tapp Street. It’s a residential building now, as evidenced by someone’s washing hanging outside but an old Truman’s Brewery poster on the side of the building gives away its former life as a pub. Once called The Lion it was frequented by the twins and their gang - one of several pubs in the area that was used by them - and was referred to as ‘Madge’s’ which was the landlady’s name and ‘The Widow’s’ as she was widow. Obviously.
The real significance of The Lion however is that on 9th March 1966, Ronnie Kray was drinking in the pub when he found out that George Cornell, a member of the Richardson gang, was drinking up the road in The Blind Beggar, and Ronnie declared: “Right, I’m gonna do Cornell”. and do Cornell he did, as he marched over to The Blind Beggar and shot the hapless Cornell in the head in front of a number of witnesses. John tells us that The Lion is significant for another reason as well, in that on 8th March 1968, the gang were having a drink in there before heading to the Astor Club in the West End. At 6am they were all arrested meaning they had been in The Lion on their last night of freedom.
Another short walk and we’re at Cafe 338 on the corner of Hague Street and Bethnal Green Road. John tells us it is one of several cafes that the twins and their gang would hang around in, including the art deco E Pellicci in Bethnal Green Road which John tells us is actually used in a scene in Legend where Ronnie is having his egg and chips. Opposite is the church in which Reggie married Frances Shae. The pair began dating when Frances was 16 or 17 years old. Superstar photographer of the day, David Bailey photographed the pair on their wedding day as a gift. The marriage was not a happy one, with the rather fragile Frances left alone while her husband went out drinking and conducting his business. It only lasted three months before Frances left Ronnie and returned home to her parents. Played by Emily Browning in Legend, Frances had psychiatric treatment in 1966 for depression. Feeling as though she would never be free of Reggie, who John tells us had continued to pester her, she committed suicide in 1967.
Another church on the tour is St Matthew’s, where all the Kray family funerals began. Situated close to Vallance Road where the twins lived with their brother Charlie and their parents, it was considered the local church. According to John, Ronnie’s funeral was like a state affair with thousands lining the streets to pay their respects. All the Kray’s are buried at Chingford Mount in a plot that Reggie had bought for the family. Frances was the first to be buried there which went against her mother’s wishes. It is thought that Reggie never really recovered from her death.
In Legend, Tom Hardy plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray as two very individual men. Ronnie appears more reasonable and in command of his emotions whereas Reggie is an unpredictable character owing to his schizophrenia, thought to have been the consequence of the diphtheria he suffered from as a child. However other factors certainly had a hand in shaping their futures in the criminal underworld.
Nearby Vallance Road is around the corner but sadly the Kray’s home is no longer standing. Born on 24th October 1933, John says: “They came from two very big families, the Krays from Hoxton and the Lee’s from Bethnal Green. They had a boxing heritage, both their grandfathers were bareknuckle boxers. They weren’t really criminals but they were pretty volatile, especially their mum’s side of the family, they sorted out arguments by hitting each other. Their mum’s older sister, Aunt Rose, if she was alive today she’d have an ASBO. Anyone who upset her she’d slap them one, swear at them. Their mother doted on them, their father they didn’t have a lot to do with. He was constantly out working and apparently he’d come back on the train, sink a few pints at Liverpool Street Station, come home and beat the wife. So there was a certain amount of aggression around.” Nearby is the Repton Boxing Club where the twins both boxed. Had circumstances been different both might have turned professional.
We end at the notorious The Blind Beggar pub, the location where George Cornell lost his life. John regales us with some interesting particulars of the infamous murder that would eventually see Ronnie Kray imprisoned for life. Reggie too was imprisoned for the 1967 murder of Kray’s associate Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie. We pop into the pub for a drink and a nose around and John is happy to answer any questions about the Kray’s of which the group have plenty. Fortunately he has something of an encyclopedic knowledge of them both and the area.
A thoroughly fascinating and entertaining tour thanks to the amiable John, I head off with a desperation to investigate these most unusual of criminals further and with Legend due in cinemas on 9th September, I needn’t look further than my local fleapit now that I’ve walked in their notorious footsteps.
Legend is released in UK cinemas on 9th September and The Kray’s Tour is open to the general public all year through East End Tours. @eastendtour.