Extract: One of the Family by Maureen Flanagan
One of the Family is the untold, intimate history of the Kray twins and the woman who raised them. Told with humour and insight, it looks back across the decades at the life of this close knit, notorious East End family.
Maureen Flanagan, a then 20-year-old hairdresser, started visiting the Kray family home in Vallance Road each week to give the twins’ mother, Violet, her weekly shampoo and set. Over the cups of tea and the rollers and hairpins, Violet began to confide in ‘Flan’ about her life, her incredible pride in her twins, the celebrities who visited her at their humble East End home – and her troubled relationship with her husband.
Read on for an extract from the book…
One of the Family
Life means life
It was Diana who now became my main link with the Kray family. She managed to see Charlie in Brixton whenever she could, then she’d phone me with reports. Charlie was excessively downbeat about their fate.
‘I knew this would happen,’ he kept telling her. But he said Ronnie was totally delusional about the severity of the situation.
‘You ought to ’ear ’im in the mornings, Di,’ he’d told her. ‘Like ’e was getting up and getting ready to go to ’is club. Everything done for ’im, bossing ’em all about, dictating what ’e wants to eat.’
Ronnie, it seemed, didn’t understand that the commands and orders he dished out to everyone on the outside didn’t necessarily apply on the inside. He couldn’t just snap his fingers and have whatever he wanted when he wanted it. Despite his older brother’s entreaties to keep quiet, calm down, stop ordering people around, Ronnie just carried on as usual: an over-indulged child for whom reality was a foreign country.
I had to laugh, though, when Diana repeated some of Ronnie’s antics. Apparently he was busy telling some of the other prisoners that when he came out he’d be employing them! This one could be his driver, that one could work at his club – or their sons or daughters could work there too. He was a one-man Job Centre in there
Obviously, he didn’t believe anyone would dare speak out against the twins, despite the gravity of the murder charges. As far as Ronnie was concerned, the entire exercise was an inconvenience, a blip: everything would continue as it had before. Fear of the mighty Kray reputation would ensure silence from anyone who might consider grassing them up.
Ron didn’t get it that those days were history. Some people were now willing to cooperate, give evidence against the twins. The police had done their homework. This time, they’d made sure that people were going to stand up in court and tell the truth about the twins. Charlie would have understood that after Ronnie Hart’s chilling confession at Bow Street Magistrates Court in October about how he had seen Reggie stab Jack McVitie to death while his twin held McVitie from behind, saying ‘Kill him, Reg.’ The wall of silence around the Krays’ ‘empire’ was now poised to come tumbling down.
As for Reggie, Di said Charlie had described him ‘like a coiled python, waiting to strike. He’s going to flip,’ Charlie told his girlfriend. ‘People are more wary of him than they are of Ronnie.’
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Violet. What a dreadful Christmas it was for her with the big Old Bailey trial hanging over all their heads. Dubbed ‘the trial of the century’, it was scheduled for January 1969. Gary was staying with Vi at Braithwaite House, some small comfort for her, though it would have been impossible to take her mind off the big trial ahead. I wondered if Gary and his little sister Nancy, who’d watched as their dad had been carted off by the police, had been told that her was away ‘painting the queen’s house’. That’s what they used to tell kids in North London when someone went to prison. ‘When dad finishes painting the house, he’ll be home,’ they’d tell the kids.
Strangely enough, both Vi and I would come to regard that Christmas as one of the worst we’d known. Secretly I had to acknowledge to myself that this was surely the last Christmas I would spend with Patrick as his wife. After that, it was just a matter of timing.
Just after New Year, as we watched the TV news reports of the start of the Old Bailey trial on 7 January, I had to admit that Patrick was right, for once, when he passed judgement on it all.
‘They’re all going away,’ he said that day. A week or so later, my brother-in-law Noel popped round to our flat, echoing Patrick.
‘Not looking good for them,’ I heard.
The rumour around North London was that the police had done deals with various ‘naughty’ people who were guilty of other crimes. They’d been promised immunity from prosecution if they’d grass on the Krays. This was all turning out to be true.
Of course, with the twins still denying everything, including the murder of McVitie, some people in the East End continued to wonder if they really had been set up by the police.
Yet as the Old Bailey trial went on – it lasted for over eight weeks – it became clear to everyone except Ronnie and his mum that this was going to be the end of the Kray Twins’ reign over London. On the outside, at least.
Violet didn’t go to the court all the time. It would have been too exhausting for her to go every single day. She and Old Charlie turned up looking their best for the cameras, spruced up East End-style. Later Vi told me that Old Charlie became quite pally with the father of the two Lambrianou brothers, Chris and Tony, who were in the dock as part of the twins’ entourage, accessories to the murder of McVitie. Mr Lambrianou spoke very broken English. Yet the two men seemed to share an odd camaraderie.
Afterwards Violet told me Old Charlie wasn’t outwardly upset by the downfall of his sons and the hugely publicised trial. She confided that she thought he was ‘good’ in being the supportive husband, accompanying her to court ‘seeing as how he didn’t like the twins or what they did’.
Well, he wasn’t going to change his view now, was he? Though the twins would have gone mad if he hadn’t been at the side of ‘Our Mother’.
At the time, it was the longest-ever trial in British history, with noisy police vans leaving the court, racing through London’s streets Chicago-style, on the TV news every night.
How Ronnie will love all that, I thought. The twins insisted that the press should be present throughout. Every word said in court would be written down and reported. They wanted it that way. To them, the exposure sealed their celebrity, rather than shaming them as criminals brought to justice.
Being filmed in that police van night after night spelled glory to the twins. That, for them, was what counted: that the world knew that they were the country’s meanest bastards, the most notorious criminal duo. Top villains, just like in their favourite movies.
Charlie told me that it was Ronnie who was always the morale-booster during the trial, as the twins, Charlie and the other men in the dock travelled to and from court in the police van.
‘No one,’ Ronnie told them, ‘is allowed to be miserable. Or whinge. Whassamarrer with you? It’s a nice day out there,’ he’d tell them. ‘The sun’s out.’
Here was Ronnie’s fantasy world writ large: even in this situation he could be the general or the commander rallying the men before battle. No moaning about how long it was all taking or the way the case was going. The man on permanent medication for a mental disorder, whose illness had sent him into a spiral of madness resulting in murder, turned out to be the supportive leader of his brothers and their cronies. He was still making jokes about his nemesis, Nipper Read.
‘Wonder when ’e’s gonna take that awful tie off?’ he’d wisecrack.
I went to Braithwaite House to do Vi’s hair a few times during the long trial. She was determined to keep up appearances – ‘like they’ve always seen me’. She told me little bits about the court, though it seemed she had only a hazy appreciation of the judicial process, believing what the boys and her family had told her: that it was all a stitch-up and the boys would get off.
She told me about the day Reggie went crazy in court and screamed that the police were ‘scum’ for daring to turn up at Frances’s funeral. (At the time, in fact, Ronnie was in hiding and the police were there because they were looking for him.) Violet said that the judge, Melford Stevenson, seemed permanently bad-tempered.
‘That man always glares at me,’ she told me. But she’d still managed to throw a cheerful wink at the boys.
Court hours made it difficult for me to find time away from work. I couldn’t be there for most of it. I did manage to get to the Number One Court at the Old Bailey once, though, and the place was packed to the rafters.
It happened to be the day when the barmaid at the Blind Beggar gave her evidence. She looked really nervous – and who wouldn’t be? For the first ten minutes, I wondered where it would go. Then, without warning, we all saw her look across the courtroom at Ronnie, as impassive and stony-faced as ever, and she seemed to change.
Ronnie had denied even being in the pub, saying that Cornell was a friend of his. Yet, all of a sudden, the barmaid found her courage. She knew all too well that what she was going to say would be momentous. She didn’t falter: the court heard that it was definitely Ronnie Kray who had shot George Cornell.
At that point, a voice came out of the crowded courtroom.
She wasn’t perturbed or afraid any more of Kray retribution against her or her family. She felt safe. Even right in front of the men in the dock.
A series of former trusted friends gave evidence against the twins. In a way, I always felt it was the women’s evidence that carried the day. Jack McVitie’s wife wound up telling the court they were ‘murdering bastards’ who had killed her husband. The evidence of Blonde Carole, the girl who had been living in the flat where McVitie met his end, was equally compelling.
She told the court that she’d been given money to clear up her house: the blood-drenched carpet where he’d lain butchered, the ‘lost’ eiderdown his body had been wrappedin had been hers. Her kids were in the house that night. How terrified she was by what had happened in her own home. Until then there’d been nothing but denial. There was no party, the court heard. Carole’s evidence smashed the denials to smithereens.
That day I saw Billy Exley give evidence against the twins too. He arrived in a wheelchair; he’d had two heart attacks. He’d provided a safe house for the twins at one point. In court, he told how Ronnie had gone to see him after the Cornell killing. When Billy wanted to know what happened, he told the court that Ronnie said: ‘I’ve shot Cornell.’ There were gasps all round.
In the end, it was no surprise that a verdict of guilty was passed on the twins for the killings of Cornell and McVitie. Sentencing came a day later. (The twins and the other men were later acquitted for Frank Mitchell’s murder, due to lack of evidence at the time.)
I didn’t go to the sentencing. Nor did Violet, as the boys didn’t want her there on sentencing day. But we were all in for a big shock.
‘REIGN OF TERROR ENDS, 30 years at least for the twins’ was the headline on the front page of the East London Advertiser on Friday, 7 March.
Life imprisonment but no less than thirty years for the twins and ten years for Charlie for helping to dispose of McVitie’s body.
Violet heard the twins’ sentence on the radio at home. She told me how she wasn’t sure if the announcer on the radio had said ‘three years’ and how she had to wait until someone turned up at the flat to finally tell her the truth.
It was the most devastating news of her life.
The twins had fully expected a life sentence for a guilty verdict, which could have meant fifteen years. Naturally, I wanted to go round and comfort Vi but there was little I could do for her at that point.
My working life had gone crazy: after New Year, the modelling work started pouring in. It meant travelling all over the country, flying up to Scotland for just a few hours’ work. There wasn’t time to stop and think – about anything. I just went for it.
That spring, I was offered a two-day modelling job in Birmingham. It meant overnighting in a hotel, something I’d never done before but a sure sign that my career was on the up.
‘No,’ thundered Patrick. I couldn’t go.
‘I’ll lose money and my agent if I don’t,’ I pleaded.
By then, Patrick had lost his job. For the last eighteen months or so we were dependent on my money to keep us going. Yet he still insisted I couldn’t go. I told him defiantly that I WAS going.
The next morning, I started pulling everything I’d need out of the bedroom cupboard: shoes, boots, outfits. I needed to get organised for the shoot the next day.
Patrick came into the bedroom and threw my precious portfolio of photos and cuttings at me. Then he started to try to rip up some of my outfits.
‘YOU ARE NOT GOING!’ he yelled at me before storming out of the house and sauntering off to play cards with his friends in Holloway Road.
That evening I made the dinner, as usual. Then he asked me if I was going to Birmingham. Just as I had done on my nights out with Vi, I told him that I’d be going with another model friend, who was also married, and that I’d pick her up first before we drove up to Birmingham.
‘OK,’ he said grudgingly. ‘But call me from the hotel.’
Off I went, my first ever night away from him in nine years.
I had a brilliant forty-eight hours. The shoot was hard work, hour after hour of posing for the camera, but who cared? I was doing what I wanted to do. And the trip itself gave me so much confidence: at twenty-nine, I was old for a model. But I didn’t look it or feel it.
A short breathing space can often get things into perspective. By the time I got back, a decision had been made. My marriage was a prison. I’d found independence, and a way of life I relished. There was no lingering guilt about the lies I’d told Patrick. If I didn’t go for it soon I knew I’d spend the rest of my life regretting it.
I didn’t get to Braithwaite House again until early that summer. Jackie Docker was happy to come with me, to try to help cheer Vi up. Things were so different now for Vi, I needed that familiar face: extra support for Vi – and me, if I’m honest.
In the lift, I warned my friend: ‘Don’t mention the sentence unless she does.’
We had to tread carefully, after all.
Mrs Kray was alone in the flat. ‘The boys are going to appeal,’ she told us as soon as we’d settled on the sofa. ‘Ronnie’s told the Old Man, “If Reggie says ’e didn’t do the McVitie murder – ’e was there, but ’e didn’t do it – it would just be down to me.”’
This sounded typically Ronnie. Get Reg off the hook and take the blame for everything, more gangster fame for Ron.
‘Reg won’t go for that,’ Charlie Senior had told his wife.
He was spot on there. Apparently Reggie’s defence lawyer, John Platts-Mills, had told Reggie that he could plead diminished responsibility for grief over the loss of his wife and the dominance of his twin. Of course, it never happened. No matter what was said, Reggie wouldn’t let his other half take the blame alone. The bond between them was far too strong.
Yet whatever her husband said, we soon realised that Violet preferred to cling to the slender hope that there would be a successful appeal – and that one of her twins would be coming home soon.
Charlie, of course, would get out at some point – in the end he served seven years – but just the thought that Reg, at least, might be around soon was something to help keep Vi going. Almost anything less than thirty years was something to hope for. After all, she was nearly sixty. Fifteen years away? Well, she might be around but certainly not for another thirty years.
Vi didn’t show, outwardly, any sign of distress. She was her usual self, neat and clean in her kitchen gear, pinny and slippers. She was in the mood for chatting so to switch things away from her dreadful situation I told her about my decision to leave Patrick.
‘I’ve got no babies, Vi, and if I have to leave my nice flat with just a suitcase, that’s what I’m going to do,’ I told her simply.
I didn’t expect to hear what came next.
‘I should’ve gone years ago, Maureen. And taken the boys with me,’ said Violet sadly. ‘Don’t stay there if you’re not happy. Go and do your modelling work and enjoy your life,’ she finished.
This was the first time Violet ever admitted to me that her marriage was so unhappy that she believed she should have left her husband.
She’d had plenty of time to think, of course. Maybe she was blaming herself in some way for the way things had turned out, done the ‘what-if’ thing and comforted herself that it might all have been so different if she’d got away from her husband when she was younger.
‘Where will you go to? Your mum’s?’ Vi asked.
‘No. He’d only come to get me there,’ I told her. Vi was from an older generation and in her day, of course, women had little alternative but to run back to their parents’ home. And all too often, if they did, after a couple of days the husband would come round and they’d go back.
I was determined that wouldn’t happen to me. I didn’t know yet where I’d go but I was working on it.
I didn’t understand it all then but I was on the cusp of freedom at just the right time. My marriage had lasted more than nine years but in those days everything around us was changing, whichever way you looked. Women now had the contraceptive pill, the abortion laws had changed, and there were more opportunities for women to work and have financial independence.
Even the divorce laws, so hard on women before, with private detectives hanging around the streets or hotels, trying to ‘prove’ adultery, were about to change. The stigma surrounding divorce was about to dissolve. It would be much easier now for me to divorce Patrick even if he was dead set against it.
Yet for Violet the word ‘freedom’ must have had a terrible resonance. Whatever she hoped for, it looked as though her twins might never experience freedom again. They’d managed to keep their worst crimes, their violent secrets away from their mum’s eyes and ears through the years in Vallance Road.
But now they could no longer protect her from their truth. They’d been charged and convicted and were being locked up for life. Violet, the most loving and caring of mothers, could now only look forward to being a prison visitor. In a way, she’d be serving that life sentence with them. But she wouldn’t look at it that way, I realised. She’d just keep hoping that somehow it would all change.
The authorities split the boys up not long after the sentencing. Reg was sent to Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight while Ron went to Durham. Charlie went to Chelmsford, Essex, initially. Me and Jackie popped in to see Vi on the spur of the moment, one afternoon that summer. We took her a nice Victoria sponge cake to go with the pink roses Jackie had chosen. It was Charlie Senior who opened the front door.
‘Yes?’ he snapped, as unwelcoming as only he could be, glaring at me as if he’d never seen me before. He didn’t look like he wanted to let us in and he looked really angry too.
Then Violet appeared, tea towel in hand. She looked upset and flustered. I’d have put money on the fact that they’d been rowing when we knocked. Of course, she was happy to see us.
I swear you could have cut the atmosphere inside that flat with a knife. As soon as she brought the tea tray in for us and sat down, she burst into tears. I hugged her, tried to comfort her, but it was of no use. She was in a state.
‘The lies,’ she said. ‘All the lies people told in court. Who’s gonna look after my Ronnie? How will he get his medicine?’
She knew very little of the prison system, especially in relation to Category ‘A’ imprisonment, the high-security prison status of all her sons.
Then Charlie Senior appeared and plonked himself down in the armchair. He obviously wanted in on this conversation.
I did my best to explain.
‘Vi, any prison has to send a doctor if someone takes a bad turn. They’ll know what tablets Ron’s on, they’ll make sure he takes them every day.’
My words fell on deaf ears.
‘I’m going to the Home Office,’ she said defiantly. ‘I can’t have my Ron in prison. I want him in a hospital,’ she insisted.
‘Vi, he can’t go into a hospital unless he’s taken ill in the prison—’ I started to say.
Then Charlie Senior joined in.
‘I KEEP TELLIN’ ’ER THAT, I TELL ’ER THAT EVERY BLEEDIN’ DAY!’ he shouted. But Vi, stubborn, wouldn’t listen to either of us. Her idea of getting Ron into hospital had taken over her thinking.
That afternoon we were there for ages. She told us how she had visited Charlie in Chelmsford and Reggie in Parkhurst. Her family had gone with her. But she hadn’t yet visited Ron up in Durham. We tried our best to make her understand what she could and couldn’t expect from the prison system. But Vi couldn’t or wouldn’t take it in.
‘Who’s this “Hat” man they’re supposed to have killed? And why’ve they put Charlie in prison for ten years for helping get rid of someone – everyone says there’s no body. How can they sentence him for getting rid of it?’
She had a point. Charlie’s ten-year sentence was patently unfair – everyone knew he hadn’t been there at the time. But Charlie’s misfortune was to be the twins’ brother. I couldn’t explain this to Vi properly. She still believed that everyone who had stood up in court and given evidence against the twins was lying and that the twins were innocent. Round and round it went, with the conversation returning to the one topic that was obsessing Vi: getting Ron out of prison and into hospital. In fact, it would be another decade before Ron would be sent permanently to Broadmoor, a hospital for the criminally insane.
But Vi’s insistence that hospital was better than prison for Ron was about her believing that in a hospital she’d be able to visit him all the time, sit by his bedside and be his loving mum, at his beck and call as usual. It didn’t occur to her that this was a man serving a life sentence of thirty years for murder.
At one point I thought I was getting through to her, making her realise it wasn’t as simple as she believed. Charlie Senior interrupted me at one stage as I went through it all again with her, point by point.
‘I told ’er all this when the case was goin’ on. I spoke to the lawyers and barristers. Everyone knew there was no way they wasn’t gettin’ a long sentence. You won’t be able to get either of ’em out from where they’ve bin put. Not for years!’
‘Oh shut up, you!’ Violet bit back. ‘Leave us to talk. Maybe Maureen’ll help me write to the Home Office,’ she said.
That at least was something productive we could do to help the poor woman. Charlie stomped off for his coat, slamming the front door behind him. Jackie had been a secretary at one point, so the three of us sat there composing the letter.
It said: ‘Please can you consider taking my son Ron out of Durham Prison and put him into a hospital where I can look after him? No one can look after him like me. He has never been apart from me or his twin for very long.’
We sat there, crossing out lines, rewording it as best we could until it seemed readable. Of course Jackie and I knew it was hopeless: to the Home Office it was just yet another letter from a mother. They must have received thousands.
But with the draft of the letter finished by Jackie for Violet to painstakingly copy later, Vi seemed a bit brighter. She’d show it to her niece Rita, her sister May’s daughter, she said. She’d probably take someone from her family with her to the Home Office. But not her husband: ‘He’s been wasting my time, him,’ she said.
The funny thing was that in years to come I would realise that the old man had got it wrong.
In a way, you could say that Vi knew better than the authorities. Ron had been certified back in the 1950s as a paranoid schizophrenic, and it might have been better for him had he gone to Broadmoor straight away.
Violet’s efforts were not entirely in vain, especially when Ron finally went to Broadmoor and the doctors there were happy to talk – and listen – to her. A mother’s appeal, in certain circumstances, can hold sway sometimes. I’d known Mrs Flanagan do that in court when one of her sons faced a suspended prison sentence.
But Mrs Flanagan was a realistic woman. Violet couldn’t accept the truth of the situation, that the twins had been handed life sentences because they had killed people and run rings around the law for far too long. The authorities would now be making all the decisions.
Violet then announced another plan.
‘I’m going to Durham and I’m gonna talk to the Governor,’ she told us. ‘There’s certain things Ron can’t eat,’ she stated.
By then, Jackie and I were raising eyebrows at each other, wearying of Vi’s dogged determination to be all things to her son in his hour of need. Reg, funnily enough, wasn’t mentioned. Violet was consumed by her love and need to be Ron’s mother.
What made it that much more difficult for her to comprehend, of course, was the fact that when they’d been locked up on remand the rules were totally different.
On remand meant she could still do things for them as usual – deliver food to the prison, bring clean shirts to the court each day (the twins still insisted on that). Even if, for some reason, Vi couldn’t do it one day, someone else would step in for her.
Charlie Kray later told me that frequently, when they were on remand, she’d bring them so much food that there’d be too much. So one of the other accused men would sit down and tuck in to a cooked dinner, prepared by Violet’s loving hand.
But there was no cooking, washing or ironing available for the mum of Category A high-security prisoners. Violet’s main role in life had been taken away from her.
A role she desperately wanted back.
I started being more of a politician, throwing in words of hope, knowing full well that they were no more than platitudes, hot air if you will.
‘Maybe they’ll find some other evidence, Vi,’ I ventured.
She liked that idea.