New York had Lucky Luciano, Chicago had Al Capone, and London had the Krays, along with a host of other East End gangsters who are nowadays idolised, with even Tony Blair commenting in 2005 that “when you watch the films back in the 1950s about this type of criminal there were certainly rules or a code that even some of those people seemed to have - it was not of the same nature as some of the really appalling ugly violent crime that you get today linked with drugs." If Mr Blair had looked beyond the movie world’s glamorous portrayal of the “honourable” gangster he would have found a deeply sadistic and premeditated underworld every bit as ugly as the crimes being committed today, regardless of how many former criminals dabble in showbiz and have offspring that are football players.
It is quite possible that the Krays as we know them would never have happened had it not been for Billy Hill’s mentoring, in fact Reggie Kray himself admitted that Hill was the man him and his brother most wanted to emulate from a young age. From the 1920s onwards, the Humphrey Bogart lookalike fleeced aristocrats, smuggled food and petrol during World War II and masterminded the Eastcastle Street Robbery, pocketing him and his gang a cool £287,000, over £6 million in today’s money. His quick thinking and plotting made him London’s top gangster; he also had a penchant for carving a ‘V’ for ‘Victory’ on the faces of his victims, although he “was always careful to draw my knife down on the face, never across or upwards. So that if the knife slips you don't cut an artery. After all, chivving is chivving, but cutting an artery is usually murder. Only mugs do murder." Hill is sometimes credited as being singlehandedly responsible for introducing knives onto the streets of London, a legacy that long outlives him.
Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini and his gang were similarly handy with sharp objects, and they became known for “razoring” their victims with barbershop blades. During the 1930s Sabini’s business was mostly gambling - he offered protection to bookmakers in exchange for large commissions, looked after illegal bookies and acted as a loan shark to gamblers with serious debts, making himself a hefty profit in the process. The Sabinis often drew comparisons to the Mafia, due to their Sicilian heritage and the fact that they were based in Clerkenwell, then known as “Little Italy”, where they aggressively protected their community against gangs from other cities. They had many scuffles with the Elephant Boys (the gang the Richardsons belonged to) and their most serious confrontation inspired a scene in Graham Greene’s underworld thriller Brighton Rock.