There can be few people who are not aware of the exploits of Reggie and Ronnie in the 1950s and 1960s.
Recently the Film, Legend, some of which was filmed on the Trust's waterways will have re-kindled the interest of many in these most intriguing of characters who ruled London’s gangland with some degree of ruthlessness 50 or more years ago. Some would say that non-native signal and other crayfish species have wreaked an equal amount of havoc on aquatic ecosystems, but that’s a story for another day.
The beginning of the end of the Krays empire was in 1968 with their arrest. One of the four officers that arrested the younger twin was Terry Mansbridge, who featured in our angling heroes series for his national fisheries work. Terry ended up in fourth spot in that vote behind Ivan Marks, Richard Walker and Bernard Venables. I have to confess that a combination of Terry’s story and the amazing performance of Tom Hardy in Legend, where he plays both twins, wanted to make me try to find out a bit more about them; especially whether they had any links at all with canal fishing. For in the east end of London in and around the war years, I somehow imagined that most young boys would have fished.
Where better to go than the Regents, Hertford Union or Lee Navigation which are all within a short distance of Vallance Road, Hoxton where the young Krays grew up. How interested were they in fish and did they ever go fishing on the Trust's waterways as boys? That was the question I hoped to answer.
The twins’ first paid job, aged 15, was working at Billingsgate fish market. Ron was an empty fish box collector and Reg worked on the administrative side in an office based role; something of a precursor for things to come. By all accounts they were both happy there. This was at the time when they were aspiring amateur boxers. One wonders how Reg’s boxing career, in particular, might have progressed only for his dishonourable discharge from national service, leading to the withdrawal of his professional licence.
The twins’ commissioned John Pearson to write their biography prior to their arrest. There is but a single reference to angling where, on page 118, it refers to a crime being committed whilst Reg was away in Suffolk fishing with a policeman friend. With more than enough material to go, some of which had implications at the highest level that could have brought down Harold Wilson’s government, highlighting the youthful fishing exploits of the twins would hardly have been a priority for author John Pearson.
Whilst behind bars both twins enrolled in art classes and produced various sketches depicting fishing scenes on lakes. These fetch reasonable sums, as and when they come up at auction. This is more evidence of their interest in matters piscatorial, but to the best of my knowledge they never painted canal fishing scenes. I am reliably informed that Ron also had a fish tank in his prison cell for a period. I wonder what species he kept in there?
I got to know Fred French MBE in his later years when he, along with Terry Mansbridge and Mark Hatcher, was one of the driving forces behind National Association of Fisheries and Angling Consultatives (NAFAC). Fred’s contribution to fisheries and angling was immense; he could easily have made our angling heroes shortlist. Fred, like the Krays, was born within the sound of Bow Bells. On one occasion, when I was running the Water Industries Coarse Angling Championships on the Kennet & Avon Canal, Fred and I chatted briefly about the twins. Alas, I didn’t pay any particular attention to the detail. All I can vaguely recall was a reference to some of the Krays' associates requiring an insurance policy to be set up at short notice. One assumes it was an offer Fred felt somewhat reluctant to refuse. Sadly, Fred passed away a few years ago as did another great London Anglers Association (LAA) stalwart Dick Hodges. I feel sure that if the Krays had ever been members of the LAA, Dick would have known.
Not long ago I treated myself to a copy of Michael Nadell’s book, Poles apart, the history of the London roach pole. I have to say, it’s a superb read. Youngsters like me tend to assume the pole originated on the continent in the 1970s with the likes of Kevin Ashurst and Ray Mumford at the forefront of its development. Little did I know that poles were being produced in the east end of London 150 years prior to that. Michael has recently produced a blog for the Trust on this topic. I could not resist asking Michael whether, as an east end lad, he knew if the Krays fished the local canals as boys. Whilst having no information on that topic, he recalled growing up in the next street to the Krays' cousin, Ronnie Hart. They played together as kids before their careers took a different path. For Michael became an internationally renowned pastry chef, whilst the young Ronnie Hart chose to join the Firm. Hart later turned Queen’s evidence, which ultimately led to the Krays' conviction at the Old Bailey in 1969 at the most expensive trial in legal history at that time.
I approached a well-known angling club official who admitted to being a regular drinking colleague of the twins’ eldest brother, Charlie, in the 1960s, but with no recollection of ever chatting of matters piscatorial. He suggested that the Brunswick Brothers were a possible club the Krays would have joined, but as they are based a few miles away from Hoxton, Michael Nadell feels that Hackney Road and Bethnal Green angling clubs would have been much more likely choices for the twins. Terry Taylor, my Brunswick contact from the 1980s, is sadly no longer with us so that ended that particular line of enquiry.
National Angling Advisory Group member, Dick ‘the hat’ Pilkinton, worked in the east end in his early career. He recalls that the company premises, on the banks of the Hertford Union, never suffered any damage or vandalism whatsoever whilst other neighbouring properties frequently did. Dick puts this down to a pragmatic procurement policy when choosing the recommended local security firm.
Another club official knew a police officer who he felt sure would be able to help my research but then wished to remain stum. Yet another contact turned out to be the best friend of the Krays’ greyhound trainer. Now that’s a job I would have been very reluctant to apply for. Answerable to two bosses, both with short tempers who expected results, not excuses. I do wonder just how many other candidates had the courage to apply for that role.
What’s remarkable is that every single person I have approached so far has a story to tell or a Kray connection in some shape or form, all recalled with a certain level of fondness. But alas, I have not unearthed a picture of the twins fishing the canal. I have not found a club card with the name R Kray inked in it. I do not know the whereabouts of a Sowerbutts’ pole with the initials RK etched into the wood. In fact, there is still no concrete evidence that the twins actually fished on the canal network as boys. Unless that is, you know differently.
The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.See more blogs from The fisheries & angling team