Authors: Jacky Hyams
he was beautiful, intelligent and innocent. Yet while growing up in the fifties in London’s East End, neither she nor Frances Shea’s family could ever have imagined that her entire life would be tragically destroyed because she caught Reggie Kray’s eye when she was just a teenager…
At the time, the Kray twins were already notorious around the East End, poised to kill men and laugh in the face of the law for years to come. The ‘Two Ones’ wanted fame, celebrity above all else and, in the end, they got it, twin souls locked into an obsessive and eerie relationship with each other. Cockney gangsters from London’s East End, with all its traditional associations with crime, poverty, dark deeds and extreme violence, they garnered a huge reputation as crime lords of their era – the iconic fifties and sixties.
Reggie Kray died, in a blaze of ghoulish publicity, his second wife Roberta at his side, in the year 2000. His twin, Ronnie, died in Broadmoor hospital, a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane, in 1995.
Yet their mythical status is, if anything, more powerful than it ever was when they were alive.
A huge part of that myth is the imagery that lives on, the photos they gleefully commissioned, posed for, used as tools in their thirst for fame. Criminals were supposed to live in the shadows, weren’t they? Not the twins. They used extreme violence to intimidate and extort, stuck two fingers up at authority – and turned it all into celebrity gangster dollars.
There they were, glamour boys, dripping cashmere and gold, at a time when most Brits could just about afford the hire-purchase repayment on a telly, rubbing shoulders with sleek, good-looking movie stars, wayward politicians, sporting heroes of the time. Big fluffy hairdos. Nightclubs. Movie premieres. Slick, beautifully cut suits. And, of course, very public good deeds, craftily engineered into the pages of the newspapers, all geared towards showing their warmly philanthropic side. Generous, big-hearted East Enders – who happened to kill people, too – but only ‘their own’. It was a compelling story. Yet it was a pack of lies. The reality, as Frances Shea discovered, was quite different – and unbelievably terrifying.
Back in 2013, while pondering some of those iconic images taken so long ago, one big question struck me: Why, with so much already said, written, scripted, documented and delivered to the public gaze about the Kray twins, had so little been told or revealed about Frances Shea, briefly at the centre of it all, the beautiful young girl whose image literally shimmers off the page or screen in the midst of this oft-repeated history?
In 1965, Frances had married Reggie Kray in a blaze of tabloid publicity, left him after a matter of weeks – and killed herself just over two years after the marriage.
Even close to half a century on from her suicide at the age of twenty-three, total strangers flock to her grave, place flowers and ponder the power of her beauty. Mostly, though, they wonder about the tragedy of her short existence.
Who was Frances Shea and why did she die? This became, for me, a compelling question. Many theories abounded, naturally, because this story was about the Kray twins and the tales told about them are legion, especially those concerning the crimes they are rumoured to have committed yet never stood trial for.
Many of the people in their story are no longer around, of course. Both sets of parents, the Krays and the Sheas, are long gone. Yet it seemed to me that despite the complexities of revisiting the past, going back over Frances Shea’s brief lifetime, here was a significant story. Her acknowledged status, as ‘arm candy’ for Reggie in his bid for gangster power, wasn’t really good enough. There had to be more.
I had one very small, personal advantage, in that the more I researched her story, the more I understood that my own world, growing up in the murky, battered streets of fifties Dalston within two miles of the Hoxton home of Frances and her family, might, superficially at least, offer an insider’s perspective. Her father, Frank, worked for a time as a street bookie after World War Two, when street betting was illegal. So did my dad, Ginger. I’m younger than Frances but she grew up surrounded by the scars of the war in London’s East End, as I did.
However, there were big disparities in our respective day-to-day lives and I was not personally familiar with the world she was to briefly inhabit as Reggie Kray’s girlfriend and wife. This was mostly because even though, during the 1960s, I ventured forth into the West End of London and a life beyond the East End as soon as I could, that life had been virtually handed to me in my teens, through working each day as an office girl in the centre of Swinging London.
Frances Shea also started out that way, having an office job as a bookkeeper in London’s legal district, the Strand, months before her sixteenth birthday. But beyond that, she never really had much of a working life, thanks to Reggie Kray’s intense possessiveness: he couldn’t tolerate the idea of Frances being exposed to any other influence, especially that of the opposite sex. And while I was certainly aware of the associations with crime in my dad’s East-End betting world, I was an overprotected only child in a somewhat solitary world. Few people visited our home. I never witnessed or met anyone from my father’s shady working environment; I just heard the stories.
At this point, I must say that despite this childhood, and even having written about it in an earlier book,
(2011), I am not especially sentimental about the old East End and its traditions in the way that history often portrays the area. The wave of nostalgia that has swamped the twentieth-century history of London’s East End, the tales of the Cockney survivors, triumphant amidst the dust and heartache, has now emerged as a permanent part of the city’s World War Two history.
There is truth in some of this, certainly. But I hope the reader will forgive me if I find it impossible to share the belief in that misty, rose-coloured glow that has somehow taken precedence over reality. As a child, I saw the post-war East End as a dark, dirty and immensely scary place.
Yet the link to the Kray twins in my childhood is worth recording, though many former East Enders of the time are likely to offer a similar story, such was the Kray legend as we all grew up.
My dad, Ginger, was born and bred in Petticoat Lane: only when war and the call-up intervened did he take his place overseas with millions of others in the services. Post WWII he returned to ‘the Lane’ to work with his father Jack, a well-known local bookmaker, known as a ‘commission agent’. In the thirties, Ginger had briefly left home and worked ‘on the knocker’ with Charlie Kray, the twins’ father, travelling around the south of England, knocking on doors, buying and selling old clothes, furniture and, if they could get it, gold and jewellery. This bond – and the mutual bonding place of the Bishopsgate pub – led to my dad spending drinking hours with Charlie in those post-war years. As a consequence, sports-mad Ginger knew the twins as teenagers – ‘good little boxers’ – and, like so many in those mean streets, briefly got caught up in their endeavours.
Up in court for one of their juvenile crimes, the Kray brothers petitioned my dad, climbing the narrow stairs to my grandfather Jack’s tiny office off Middlesex Street, home to his respectable front as a legal ‘commission agent’ for his mostly illegal street-betting activity. ‘Can you write us a letter, for the court, Ginger?’ they asked. My dad had a reputation around ‘the Lane’ for being clever with the pen. He obliged, of course, lying through his teeth in his neat handwriting, pointing to their good behaviour and respectability.
And that could have been the end of it. But because the twins had phenomenal memories, much later, as they prospered, they suggested Ginger join them on their payroll. Good money. They’d keep an eye out for the missus and the little ’un. What did Ginger think?
My dad had his faults. But he was smart enough to decline – he knew all too well what lay underneath all their manipulative guile: he wasn’t interested in making a living from violence or the threat of it. He worked for his dad. Jack wouldn’t be happy if he left the business, he explained.
This, thankfully, was good enough for the twins. Family first. Yet my dad was on their list, as it were. So when the good times came, and the late fifties/early sixties parties celebrating their various club openings or successful tussles with the law came about, off they’d go, my mum and dad, all dolled up to the nines, my mum reeking of Chanel No 5, to the lavish Kray parties.
Nowadays, of course, it’s understood that these well-known parties were all part and parcel of the Kray PR machine. The bigger the bash, the more well-known they became, mixing locals like my parents with big fish, such as celebrities, lawyers, bent coppers as well as assorted lowlife. In that, at least, they were egalitarian icons, way ahead of their time: instinctively they understood that image was all. Or rather, the status the twins thirsted for was all in the perception. Underneath it all lay a grim, sordid reality no law-abiding person would even wish to contemplate. But those stories told in our living room about the fabulous, access-all-areas parties became part of my own small family history.
Curiously, though, I didn’t really follow their story very much when I left home and started the long, slow climb into journalism. Probably because I was very keen to shake off the grime of the East End with all its less-attractive associations, I more or less forgot about them at first.
Back in the seventies I’d read
The Profession of Violence
, John Pearson’s detailed and amazing history of his time with the twins just before they were imprisoned for life at the end of the sixties, and had been mightily impressed with what he’d revealed.
Pearson’s eye was forensic. He was the fly-on-the-wall observer of the Krays, the outsider scribe given a unique peek into their world in the late sixties, just months before they were sent down for good. Already a successful journalist and author, he analysed not just their propensity for violence, their twinship, their guile, but also their talent in manipulation. He also hinted at what might have been. To me, on reading it, it was a revelation that Reggie Kray had first-class skills that could have made him a highly successful businessman.
Of course, what no one could have truly predicted then was the twins’ success at reinforcing their image throughout the thirty-odd years of their incarceration. That in itself was a marvel of media manipulation and gave them the fame they craved way beyond the senseless murders and Ronnie’s mental illness. They gave the interviews. They sold the stories. They married while serving 30-year prison sentences. A feature-length movie was made while they were still around. The media attention just went on and on. Yet even now, nearly two decades after their demise, with a new, big-budget movie about them on its way, the fascination with them still remains.
For me, the Frances question around her relationship with Reggie seemed, somehow, to be at the very core of the Kray history, despite her premature death. Buried at Reggie’s insistence at Chingford Mount Cemetery, just outside London, alongside the entire Kray clan, she remains permanently linked to their myth, way beyond her own and her family’s imaginings or wishes.
This, in itself, was a terrible injustice. And what I found, slowly, as I examined her short history, revealed a strange, tangled and tragic tale of one man’s desire for total possession and a young woman’s rapid descent into unending despair.
It is also a story of an ordinary East End family finding themselves trapped fast, helpless and without the power or means to escape the consequences of their involvement with two local crime lords. Both Frances’s father, Frank, and her brother Frankie worked briefly for the Krays around the time that Reggie’s fascination with Frances started to impact on their lives.
Aware of the Krays as local post-war ‘employers’ via my dad’s association with them, I knew this was commonplace. If, like most people living around the area, you came from a household where money was always in short supply, you’d be hard pushed to refuse the offer of Kray cash to drive them around or work in one of their clubs. This was so even if you’d already heard the stories about the terrible things they did to people who crossed them. The mantra was: keep in with them, take the money, stay shtoom. That threat of what the twins could do was there all the time. It didn’t even diminish once they were locked up.