11 London Gangsters

1. Jonathan Wild

In another era Jonathan Wild’s entrepreneurial skills would probably have made him a captain of industry but, in the early eighteenth century, his opportunity to make his fortune came through crime. Working as a fence, Wild hit upon the brilliant idea that it was easier and less risky to sell the stolen property he received back to its owners rather than try to get rid of it on the open market. From there it was only a short step to commissioning thieves to steal goods to order which he could then return, for a price, to those who had been robbed. Soon he controlled a vast, London-wide organisation of thieves who worked by his rules. Any villain who stepped out of line was instantly shopped to the authorities for a reward. Meanwhile Wild could pose as a virtuous citizen, the ‘Thief-Taker General’ who caught criminals and returned stolen property. However, his monopoly on crime in the capital could not last. He made too many enemies on both sides of the law. In 1725, he was imprisoned for attempting to spring one of his supporters from Newgate. Sensing that his time was up, many of his associates turned against him and, convicted on their evidence, he was hanged at Tyburn. After his death his body was sold for dissection and his skeleton can still be seen in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

2. Joseph Merceron

In the early nineteenth century Joseph Merceron ruled the roost in Bethnal Green. Outwardly a respectable JP, Merceron was spectacularly corrupt. He courted popularity by keeping the pubs open and providing entertainment in the form of dog-fights and bull-baiting but, meanwhile, he was busy feathering his own nest and finding his own uses for parish money. Merceron was eventually prosecuted for pocketing public funds in 1818 but he received only an eighteen-month prison sentence and, emerging from jail, resumed most of his activities in the East End. He died, full of years, in 1839. Merceron Street, El, is named after him.

3. Adam Worth

Known as the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Adam Worth is said to have been the model for the master criminal Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. A German whose family emigrated to America, Worth fought in the American Civil War, began his criminal career in New York and arrived in London in the 1870s. Financed by the proceeds from a string of robberies, he was soon living in style in a flat in Piccadilly and, in 1876, he carried out his most daring theft, removing Gainsborough’s famous painting of the Duchess of Devonshire from a gallery in Bond Street. Worth was infatuated by the portrait and never attempted to sell it. Imprisoned in the 1890s, after an associate betrayed him, he died in 1902 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery under a tombstone bearing the name of one of his aliases, Henry J. Raymond.

4. Ikey Bogard

A gangster of the Edwardian era, Bogard dressed as a cowboy and openly carried a gun. Although he was Jewish, not black, he was also known as Darky the Coon, presumably because he had a particularly dark complexion. Rivalry between his gang and the ‘Harding Gang’ culminated in violent confrontations at the Bluecoat Boy pub in Bishopsgate and outside the Old Street Magistrates’ Court, where a pitched battle was fought until police, emerging from the courtroom, intervened. In World War I, Bogard was forced to leave the East End for the battlefields of Flanders and was decorated for bravery.

5.Charles ‘Darby1 Sabini

The model for the gangster Colleoni in Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, Darby Sabini was born in Saffron Hill in 1889 in an area known as Little Italy and, in the 1920s and 1930s, he and his brothers became leaders of one of the most vicious of the gangs that travelled out from London to the racecourses of southern England. Criminals like the Sabinis were known in the press as ‘razor gangs’ but were not averse to using other means of persuasion if necessary. One senior police officer recalled that, when they were at the racecourses, ‘Darby Sabini and his thugs used to stand sideways to let the bookmakers see the hammers in their pockets.’ During one court appearance, the judge, seeking to impress onlookers with his skills as a linguist, addressed Sabini in Italian. Sabini, who travelled outside London only to intimidate people at racecourses and had never left Britain, merely looked baffled. Interned or imprisoned during World War II, the Sabinis lost control of their gangster empire and other, younger men like Jack Spot and Billy Hill took over their territory.

6.Jack ‘Spot1 Comer

Born in Whitechapel in 1912, Jack Spot (as he was usually known) became a local hero in the East End because of his willingness to confront Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts in the 1930s, but he was also a vicious gangster who took control of many of the racecourse protection rackets when the Sabini family was interned during the war. Spot’s rivalry with Billy Hill (see below) came to a head in 1956 when he was attacked outside his flat at Hyde Park Mansions by a band of Hill’s men, including a shillelagh-wielding ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. Beaten and scarred by razors from the attack, Jack Spot announced his retirement from thuggery and moved to Ireland. He returned to London as an old man and died in 1996.

7.Billy Hill

Jack Spot’s great rival was born in Seven Dials in 1911. Beginning his criminal career as a teenage burglar, he went on to become both the mastermind behind a series of spectacular robberies and post office raids and a major racketeer, running many of the gambling joints and shady nightclubs of the West End. He died in 1984 when, according to Jack Spot, he became ‘the richest man in the graveyard’.

8.& 9. Charlie and Eddie Richardson

While the Kray Twins were terrorising the East End, another pair of brothers was doing the same south of the river living in various central London apartments. Scrap-metal dealers, who moved into the management of drinking clubs and the perpetration of insurance frauds, the Richardson brothers were just as prepared to use violence to get their own way as the more infamous Krays. ‘I was a businessman who had to protect his interests’, Charlie Richardson once reminisced but not every businessman felt that this self-protection should include running an electric current through the genitals of those who crossed him. On 30 July 1966, both brothers and several members of their gang were arrested, thus preventing them from watching England’s World Cup final with West Germany which took place later that day. In the ensuing trial, the torture employed by the Richardsons to enforce their rule was clearly revealed and both brothers were sentenced to long periods in jail.

10 & 11. Ronnie and Reggie Kray

The most famous of all London gangsters were born in Shoreditch in 1933. The family moved to Bethnal Green six years later and 178 Vallance Road, El, was their de facto headquarters for much of their criminal career. Promising amateur boxers in their youth, the twins decided that the protection racket offered greater opportunities than the ring and, by the early sixties, they had built up a small empire of nightclubs and other properties, financed by their criminal activities. They became East End celebrities, photographed by David Bailey and hobnobbing with people as diverse as Barbara Windsor and Lord Boothby, but the violence on which their reputation was built was escalating. On 9 March 1966 Ronnie Kray walked into The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel High Street and shot a man named George Cornell in the face. Not only was Cornell associated with the rival gangster family the Richardsons, he had also made the fatal mistake of calling Ronnie ‘a fat poof’. (For the ex-boxer, perhaps the description of him as ‘fat’ rankled as much as the comment on his sexuality.) The murder of George Cornell marked the beginning of the end for the Krays, although it took the police another two years to bring them to trial. During that time, Reggie committed his own murder, stabbing a small-time crook named Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie repeatedly at a basement flat in Stoke Newington. The twins were arrested in 1968, tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Ronnie died in custody in 1995; Reggie, suffering from inoperable cancer, was released on compassionate grounds in 2000 but died soon afterwards. The funeral services of both twins were held at St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green Road. Ronnie’s funeral procession, said to be London’s biggest since the death of Churchill, consisted of a horse-drawn hearse, followed by a thirty-car cortege and watched by tens of thousands of people. Outside the church gangs of young men gathered who, in the memorable words of the journalist Duncan Campbell, ‘looked uncertain whether they were auditioning for Pulp Fiction or The Lavender Hill Mob’.