London’s Most Dangerous Men

We take a look back at some of London's most notorious criminals.

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.

Billy Hill
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 Sabini
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.
‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser
Billy Hill’s bodyguard earned his nickname after being certified insane on three occasions due to his extremely violent temperament – on one occasion he attempted to hang a prison governor and his dog from a tree - which led to stints at Broadmoor and Cane Hill Hospitals. It was he who was in charge of the dirty deeds of recovering money via torture - he pulled teeth out with pliers, shot rivals on the say so of his bosses and was named Britain’s most violent man, although today the octogenarian is content giving gangland tours and courting celebrity. He was loosely portrayed in the 2001 British film Gangster No. 1, as influential mobster Freddy Mays.

Ronnie and Reggie Kray
Undisputedly Britain’s most famous criminals. Their thuggish behaviour landed them both criminal records while in their 20s, thereby ending promising boxing careers. In the 50s and 60s they tortured and murdered their way through the East End while attaining celebrity status; they were photographed by David Bailey and Reggie had a fling with Barbara Windsor (her Eastenders character, Peggy Mitchell, is based on the twins’ mother). Their power throughout the 60s can be gleaned from Ronnie’s autobiography: “The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were rulers of pop music, Carnaby Street ruled the fashion world... and me and my brother ruled London.” So intimidating were they that potential witnesses refused to cooperate, plus Ronnie’s alleged sexual relationships with members of both the Conservative and Labour parties meant it was in neither of their interests to pursue them. Thus their activities continued for many years, until Reggie was arrested for the gruesome stabbing of fellow criminal Jack “the Hat” McVitie - according to Kray associate Tony Lambrianou his liver popped out and had to be flushed down the toilet. The ex-boxers’ reputation for violence coupled with Ronnie’s paranoid schizophrenic behaviour made them feared and respected in equal measures – both their funerals attracted thousands of well-wishers. Charlie and Eddie Richardson
The Krays’ main rivals, the Richardsons ruled over the West End, a territory the Krays attempted to conquer unsuccessfully. Hailing from South London, they never achieved the fame of their arch enemies but they were no less notorious, one of their specialities being removing the victim’s toes with bolt cutters. Other preferred methods of punishment included nailing victims to the floor for hours on end and urinating on them, and placing them in a cold bath while administering electrical charges to their genitalia. Their nickname for torture was “taking a shirt from Charlie”, as ever the gentleman, he would lend them a clean shirt with which to go home in afterwards. Their business was fraud, racketeering and later the distribution of Class A drugs; both were eventually imprisoned for torture and affray.

Gangsters Today
Today gangsters keep a low profile – although former firefighter and 7/7 hero Simon Ford, recipient of a bravery award for his efforts during the terrorist attack was recently sentenced to 14 years in jail for masterminding one of Britain’s biggest drug operations. A more common example of gangland today is The Brick Lane Massif, an Asian teenage street gang based in Whitechapel that was formed in 1979. Gone are the smartly dressed, professional-looking criminals, instead today’s street wars are conducted by young boys and men who stay out of the limelight, avoiding the glamorisation that has elevated London’s old gangsters to semi-mythical status.


Author: Leila Hawkins

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