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Tracing an East London dynasty: The Kray family through the records

Find my past author
28 July 2016

"They were the best years of our lives. They called them the swinging Sixties. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were the rulers of pop music, Carnaby Street ruled the fashion world... and me and my brother ruled London. We were ******* untouchable..." - Ronnie Kray

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Ronnie and Reggie Kray are two of the most infamous criminals in British history. And if ever there were proof to support the theory that habit and personality can be passed down genetically, the Krays were a near-perfect example. The family had moved to the East End from Tower Hill in the 1800s, and once settled, each generation tended to gain notoriety in its own right, fostering associations with disorder, organised crime, bodysnatching, and murder.

We've taken a look at the Kray line in our records, which traces a deliberate path across East London, scarecly straying more than a stroll from their beloved stomping grounds for nearly 200 years.

The Krays in the 1939 Register

You can find the Kray twins at 6 years old living on Hackney Road in Bethnal Green in the 1939 Register:

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The twins' grandfather "Mad Jimmy Kray" had already set a solid precedent for ruling the East End through terror and intimidation. As a second hand clothes seller he strongarmed people in the Whitechapel and Bethnal Green area into buying clothes from his shop, which he stocked by going around to people's houses just after someone had died, and purchasing the deceased's wardrobe for a knockdown price. Family members were usually desperate for money to cover funeral expenses, and easily cowed by Jimmy, who had a violent reputation.

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His entry in the 1939 Register looks rather innocuous, in light of these activities.

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As this modern-day version of the map shows, Jimmy lived just north of Shoreditch, towards Dalston. Today, this area is highly-sought after, attracting wealthy city types looking for their first flat.

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In Jimmy's time it was rough and overcrowded, with a 1930s survey reporting that over 10 per cent of people lived more than three to a room. Just a few decades previously, Charles Dickens had often walked around Shoreditch searching for inspiration for his novels' impoverished stars – Oliver Twist and Mr Micawber both lived in Shoreditch.

Jimmy's own childhood had been short. He'd married aged just 16, to an older woman - a docker's daughter - Louisa Eliza Turner, who was five years his senior. It became why just a year later, when their first son, James Frederick John Kray, was born.

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James and

Jimmy didn't have much luck professionally however and he struggled for a couple of years, first losing his job at the Cable Makers, and then doing various forms of manual labour, before becoming a flower hawker.

As World War 1 loomed, he, Louisa, and their family of seven children (including the Kray twins' father Charles David) lived in a single room in the East End. It's little wonder under the circumstances that Jimmy was willing to put life and limb at risk for a regular source of income, and he joined the King's Royal Rifle Company on 14 September 1914.

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Jimmy received a Blighty wound in short order. He was issued an honourable discharge and shipped back home bearing a Silver War Badge to ensure that he didn't fall victim to beatings from East End men under the impression he was shirking his duty.

When the war ended, he started to go around the new housing estates springing up around the neighbourhood, swapping china sets for clothes in good condition. Thus, the business he ran for the rest of his life was born.

Besides his time in the army, Jimmy never strayed far from his roots. His birth record from 1884 shows he started life in Bethnal Green.

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His parents, James and Jane Sarah Wood, were married in Bethnal Green, the same year he was born. It has been claimed anecdotally that this generation of Krays' territorial and aggressive attitude to foreigners amplified in the wake of the Ripper killings in 1888 – but there isn't substantiated proof for this.

John Kray the lamplighter

James's father, John, was the exception to the rule that the Kray family were criminals and rogues. As a community lamplighter, John's work put him at the heart of the community as a force against crime and disorder. Well-lit streets were an antidote to the dealings which took place in the shadows, and though villainy was still rife, people felt a little safer when they didn't have to walk home in the dark.

John wasn't only a pillar of the community by profession, however. He was lauded by the Lord Mayor of London in 1860 for risking his life to save someone from a fourth-storey fire on Lime Street, doubtless aided by his ladder-climbing skills as a lighter.

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The Evening Standard, Saturday June 23, 1860

Possibly John dodged a few Kray family traits as he was raised by George and Caroline Goulborn at 25 Coleharbour Street, after his own father died early and his family unit collapsed. Here's the Goulborn family with their Kray lodgers in the 1861 cenus:

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married Elizabeth Nurton in 1851. They went on to have nine children, who must have been proud of their father's bravery.

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Are you curious to discover whether your family tree is made up of villains, or heroes, or both? Register at Findmypast today, and you could soon be playing detective in your own real-lif story.

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For more on the fascinating history of the Krays, head over to Time Detective, from which elements of this research were derived.