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The Krays, Page 3, Gangland and Me: An Interview with East End Matriarch Maureen Flanagan

After the Kray twins' mother died, Maureen Flanagan became a surrogate mother to them – even campaigning for their release. She talks about her life at the centre of east London's gangland, being one of the first Page 3 models, and modern manners.

Maureen Flanagan and Charlie Kray and Ronnie Kray's wake in 1995, which she organised.

There remains enough honour among thieves that even in 2016, Maureen Flanagan still gets all her drinks for free at the Blind Beggar – the east London pub where, 50 years ago, her old pal and surrogate son Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell, bringing the curtain down on an entire era of gang violence the East End.

I stick out a £5 note for an OJ, and she waves it away from where she's sat on her bench in the corner. She's dressed all in Barbara Cartland pink, her long blonde hair still flowing loose at 73, drinking her own OJ, already holding court. "Have you got some good questions then Gavin?" she asks.


I'm here because Maureen's written a book, One Of The Family, that she reckons is probably about the twentieth in the long annals of the Krays publishing cottage industry. She's read all the other books, of course – everyone's 'My Life With The Krays' was just one of her friends reminiscing about what they all did in the 60s. "People had been asking me to do one for 10 years. But I honestly thought there'd been enough of them," she says. "'Till I started to sit down with my co-author. She said no, 'This is a different angle. This is a woman's point of view'. Nobody knew really, about their mother, who was actually the most important part of their life."

There are photos in Maureen's book of Ronnie's 26-car long funeral procession – some 29 years after that nasty incident at the Beggars, which landed him with a life sentence in Broadmoor. The picture shows an aerial view of the whole Bow flyover ground to a halt, as the traditional Cockney feathered horses pull the him to his final resting place.

Maureen arranged that funeral. She also arranged Reggie's when he died five years later, and Charlie's – the craggy, less killy elder brother to the twins, who was no one's idea of the kind of guy who'd nail you to the floor Frankie Fraser style.

Maureen buried all of these Krays because she'd become a surrogate mum to them, having made a vow to their real mum, Violet, on her deathbed in 1982. The Krays' twisted closer-than-close relationship with their mum is at the heart of their myth. Violet theorised they'd need a mother figure to imprint onto once she'd gone and that became Maureen. But at the same time as she was swimming deep with London's darkest crime family, Maureen was gadding through Swinging London living a life that was pretty extraordinary on its own. She was a model who worked in fashion in New York, then became one of the first-ever Page Three girls. By the 70s, she'd managed to wangle a range of juicy bit-parts from the great TV comedians of the day – Benny Hill ("I didn't like him. He was very mean, and you couldn't be funny in front of Benny Hill. He always had to be the funny one"), Monty Python ("Lovely. They were all mad, of course. You'd have to be to write them sketches"), and The Two Ronnies ("Such wonderful men. No egos at all").


Questions she doesn't seem to need much. So I sit back and listen as she enters a stream of reverie about an east London long since buried under Dirty Burgers and mega-mosques and PFI hospitals…

The Bow Flyover in east London brought to a halt by Ronnie Kray's funeral procession.

Your association with the family started off with you cutting Violet Kray's hair…
That's right. I started cutting her hair in the salon on Bethnal Green Road. But then Ronnie decided he wanted me to do it at home for her. He loved me to go round the house because he thought that was another bit of status – having your hair done at home. Then he got carried away. He got the barber to go and cut his hair and give him a shave, in the house. To him, it was the life of a gentlemen. You could think of a toff who maybe was schooled at Harrow or Eton or Cambridge or whatever, that is how they would live.

But your friendship with Violet continued right up till her death…
I used to go with her to the prisons every week until she died in 1982. I was with her in Barts the day before she died. She knew she would have to find someone who could really take her place. Who is that person who's going to go every week? Who wants to go and sit in Broadmoor? I used to go with her to the prisons. Because I knew Ronnie, and because I was very close to Ronnie.

Was it easy to relate to him? I mean, medically, he was insane.
He was insane. He was a paranoid schizophrenic. In there, he had the treatment he probably couldn't have had on the streets. Which is probably why he did a lot of his bad deeds. He's never had proper treatment, he just had some soppy tablets from some Harley Street Doctor which didn't do anything. But he knew from the moment he entered Broadmoor, he'd never get out.


And he was resigned to that?
I used to run a parole campaign. I have letters from the Home Office after I wrote to them. Reggie made me write to the Queen. I used to collect signatures in pubs…

Sorry, to free Ronnie Kray from prison?
Every October, when I was visiting I'd say to him: "Maybe we'll have luck this time. It's the parole date coming up."

Maureen at Charlie Kray's funeral in 1983.

Yet even in prison, there was still a huge network of special favours around them. They were still "made".
Yes but you only get special favours if you're behaving in prison. And if you don't appear slovenly. He had his own room, but you do get your own room in Broadmoor. Because it's a hospital as well as a prison. So if you wanted to wear a tie, silk shirt, gold cufflinks, you could.

And he did, didn't he?
Absolutely, he used to spend hours getting ready. Everyone else would already have their visitor before, finally, you'd hear jingle jangle of the keys, and you'd hear the leather-soled shoes on the floor. Honestly, he looked so smart. God, you'd think he was the psychiatrist or the governor of the prison.

Why was he so invested in his appearance?
He wanted to never ever feel the system could bring him down or change him. They could treat him, but they could never change him. People called him "The Colonel". And he was gonna continue it. He had special shoes sent in from the West End, which were hand stitched. If the laces were even a bit worn after three months, he'd say: "Next time you come, bring me new black laces." There was this little blonde-haired boy he was interested in…


Was that his taste in men? Wispy blondes?
Sometimes they would be dark, or even dark skinned boys. He was certainly not racist. And that was in those days. He was homosexual, yes of course he was, at a time when it was still illegal, you didn't tell anyone. If anyone said anything to him: "Are you a nancy boy, are you a poof…", he'd smash them into the ground.

That must've made homophobia very difficult.
It was why he bought the club up in Knightsbridge, Esmerelda's Barn. You'd get young painters, artists, authors… Very effeminate young boys. Then he could come out as gay.

Did he ever have a great love in his life?
The mother. He could never love anybody like that. And she couldn't love anybody like him. He was her favourite.

A postcard Reggie Kray sent to Maureen in 1966 which reads: "Flanagan. Ron and I together in spirit. Back as one. God Bless. Your friend Reg Kray (1996)"

There's a pretty shocking bit in your book where you talk about how their mother would dress them up as girls. Do you think that was the start of this strange relationship? Or just a symptom of it?
Because they were so gorgeous. They were absolutely identical. She was the only one that could tell them apart. Even into their teenage years. They looked very feminine anyway. People would knit them quite girlish things – because nobody in Bethnal Green had twins in them days.

And you suggest that perhaps there was something in the fact that the twins almost died that gave her this frenzied love for the boys.
When she nearly lost him to diphtheria…Reggie was always the stronger one. But Ronnie, she thought she was gonna lose him. He was literally fading. So she just walked into the hospital and said: "I'm taking him home. The only thing he needs is me to nurse him. And he needs his twin." They said: "Well, this baby could die within the next 48 hours, but that's your responsibility." She took him home. Laid him next to Reggie. And within three or four days, he was right as rain.


Reggie proposed to you twice didn't he?
Three times.

Were you ever attracted to him? Was there something there?
You'd have to be attracted to Reggie because he was very handsome. He had a charisma around him. He was an organiser. He was quick, agile. Drew people in.

I guess with political correctness people tend to concentrate more on the evil nowadays and forget some of the sex appeal.
Of course, they were very manipulative. Even the press – if you read some of the stories, they just manipulated the press. And the police.

Do you miss that old Cockney East End? I didn't notice many people going "apples and pears" when I walked down Whitechapel High Street today.
I do miss it. I miss the men with the manners. I miss the old style gentlemen. [She points to a group of men at the bar] I mean that screaming swearing shouting like them fellers at the bar now, that could never happen if Ronnie was here.

In your book, you mention the reason that Ronnie never really drove had to do with personal hygiene…
That's it. "The wheel's dirty," he'd say. "It's been touched by other hands… where do you put the keys?" He didn't want them dirty keys mucking up his nice clean suit…

He was a very anxious man, deep down?
OCD we'd call it now. Like what they say David Beckham's got. They'd wash and shave in the mornings, then come home. Wash again. Shave again. Put on another suit and another shirt. Say hello to their mum, have a cup of tea with their mum, and go out again. For him to put a dirty bunch of keys, where usually you'd only put a hanky…


Maureen in her modelling days.

Were you not utterly terrified of this man? You paint him like an overgrown gangland puppy.
Yeah but don't forget we never saw any violence. You'd walk in the pub and think "Oh god, I can tell by his face, he's in one of these black moods". Then you'd see Reggie all on edge, because any minute now he'd explode. And Reggie would have to pick up the pieces. "I don't like him. He's staring at me." Or: "He's just talked loudly. Why is he talking loudly at me."

That sounds pretty terrifying…
See they didn't talk loud, they had very quiet voices. The only time Ronnie rose his voice was when he was going to do something dreadful to you. Or he was extremely angry. When he was stood at that bar drinking a beer, he couldn't bear people talking loudly. They were gentlemen. They had manners. Especially towards women. They were brought up that way. By their mum. Certainly not the father - he was seldom there.

Of course there were other celebrity criminals in Broadmoor down the years. Including Peter Sutcliffe…
That's right. One day I went down with a friend and Peter Sutcliffe was sat at the next table. Sitting with the wife, Sonia Sutcliffe read the Bible to Peter Sutcliffe. I gave her a lift back to the station in my car one day actually. Ronnie strode out. "Get up," he said. I said, "No I'm comfortable here Ron…" He said: "I don't want you sitting where that slag can see you." That was his name for the lowest of the lowest you see. He wouldn't let Sutcliffe, who killed women, look at me, a woman.


He considered himself a feminist?
People always say to me, why do I make difference between two murderers? And that's it. In the Beggars, Ronnie Kray didn't speak one word. Shot Cornell. And walked out. Because he reckoned it was an affront. He was on his manor. But this man killed 13 innocent women – ok maybe eight of them were prostitutes, but what does that matter? But Ronnie Kray finds that to be the most disgusting thing. Because it could have been his mother. His auntie. His niece.

You were also one of the first Page Three girls. What do you think of Page Three in the modern world?
Well of course it's stopped now. But that started years ago, with that Germaine Greer. She started saying it was out of date and disgusting and it degrades women. Then they came to my house, ITV and all of them. I said: "Why should it stop - what harm is it doing?"

Why so?
You've got a girl, she's got knickers on, she's not showing any full frontal. Or even a bum. Maybe a little bit of cheek. Never looked sluttish, always looks clean, nice make-up, nice hair. Where's the harm? We had barristers' daughters, a judge's daughter, and nurses doing it for a bit of pin money. The girls were putting their children through private school. Page 3 never sent anybody out to rape anybody. Not like pornography does.

You were also a Benny Hill girl. He has a strange reputation nowadays. Didn't he literally have all his cash stuffed under his mattress?
I didn't like him. He was very mean, and you couldn't be funny in front of Benny Hill. He had to be the funny one. Then I ended up working with the Monty Python boys, who were lovely. Of course they were all mad. The whole five of them was mad.

Were they?
They had to be mad to write those sketches. Absolutely fabulous time we had doing that. I also did a lot of work with The Two Ronnies. They were two lovely guys. No egos. Exactly how you'd think they'd be.

Thanks Maureen.

One of the Family: 40 Years with the Krays by Maureen Flanagan is out now on paperback, published by Arrow.

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