Britain's Most Famous Gangsters

#1 The Richardson Gang

Known as the “Torture Gang” and also primarily as rivals of the Kray Twins, the Richardson Gang were infamous particularly for their brutality. Like the Kray Twins, the gang was headed by two brothers, Charlie and Eddie Richardson, who were born to an unremarkable family in South London. Little is known of their childhood, but what is known is that their turn to the life of crime began shortly after their father abandoned their family, likely out of a necessity to survive in poverty.

Their crimes included racketeering, theft, murder, assault, prostitution. However, what set them apart from the other gangs was their sadism and reputation for carrying out brutal punishments and killings. Taking pleasure in terrorising the residents of their “territory” and in punishing those who disobeyed them, the twins would make use of mock trials that usually resulted in an extreme form of torture for the persecuted. These trials involved the persecuted being brought before the twins, interrogated for their alleged misdeeds and then their punishments would be carried out before all present. Said punishments often involved plying out teeth, cigarette burning, nailing to the floor, whipping and the removal of small limbs. The very act of torture was mockingly described as “taking a shirt from Charlie”, as it was custom for the Richardson sibling to “kindly” give away a shirt of his to the victim that had been tortured, as their own shirt was usually damaged beyond repair and stained with blood. The gang also came close to full-out war with the Kray Twins, after the shooting of a Kray associate, Richard Hart, during a brawl on Richardson Gang premises. Eventually, the Gang was destroyed through the numerous arrest of many gang members and the Richardson Siblings themselves during the late 60s and most were put away for life. However, the bloody legacy it left on the streets of London that it terrorised will not soon be forgotten.

#2 Peaky Blinders

Known most recently for the BBC television drama portraying a heavily fictionalised version of the gang, the Peaky Blinders were a very real and very notorious gang operating in Birmingham during the early 1900s. 

The distinctive name has several suggested origins, none of which have been precisely confirmed. One particularly barbaric origin story states that the name came from the gang’s practice of sewing razor blades into their hats to be used as concealed weaponry. Emerging from the poor economic conditions of Birmingham as a gang of youths that turned to thievery in order to survive the poverty and hardship of their city, it is unclear who exactly they were founded by. The name entered the press through an incident in which an article was published, noting that the men responsible for a serious assault committed upon a young man named George Eastwood introduced themselves as the ‘Peaky Blinders’, which was then confirmed by several young men writing to local newspapers and declaring themselves a gang. While they started in small-time robberies and muggings of passer-by’s, the gang and its activities were to grow exponentially, and they wielded powerful influence over Central England for the better part of a decade. They occupied favourable land throughout Birmingham and managed an extensive criminal enterprise, usually engaging in typical gang activities of the time such as racketeering, fraud. 

The gang’s decline came about abruptly, when their expansion into the extremely profitable racing rackets drew the attention and more importantly the ire of a much larger, more powerful gang: the Birmingham Boys. Sandwiched between an aggressive police force and the aforementioned gang, the Blinders retreated into the safety of the countryside, more or less peacefully retiring from their position in the underworld of Birmingham.

#3 Charles Sabini

Charles “Darby” Sabini was an Italian-English gangster and mob boss. In recent years, he has been brought to public attention by his portrayal in the popular TV series ‘Peaky Blinders’ which portrays the British underworld during the Interwar Years. 

Raised in an Anglo-Italian family from Little Italy in Clerkenwell, London, he was the illegitimate child of an Italian immigrant and English-born Eliza Handley. He attended an industrial school and had a fairly basic education. His criminal career mainly involved racecourse protection rackets, which was a particularly lucrative source of income for many of the gangsters of the early 20th and late 19th centuries. While this formed the bulk of his gang’s activity, they were also involved in a range of criminal activities such as racketeering and theft, and they ran several legitimate nightclub businesses. Sabini’s gang ran into conflict with several competing gangs, such as Billy Kimber’s Birmingham Boys, but managed to emerge victorious or mostly unscathed, with the example provided having numerous members arrested following a street fight. He was said by many to be the “Gentleman of the Mob” and was noted for his particularly courteous behaviour towards women and children. However, this is not to say that he wasn’t feared by his enemies, and “business partners” such as policemen and bookies alike. 

His reign came to an abrupt end when, in 1940, he was arrested for his ethnic connections to Italy which was now a wartime opponent of Britain, having allied itself with the Nazi-led Axis. However, he had no connections to his italian family and lacked any ability to speak the Italian language, so the circumstances of his arrest were questionable and more than likely motivated by his well-documented criminal history. Regardless, being incarcerated on the Isle of Man lost him his position in the criminal underworld, and to make matters worse his only son was killed during the war while he was imprisoned. Once released, he settled into a job as a small-time bookie, and lived a still relatively wealthy existence for the remainder of his life.

#4 The Forty Elephants – Alice Diamond

A particularly unique gangster in that she headed an all-female criminal syndicate that operated during the late 19th-early 20th century. Born to married couple Thomas Diamond and Mary Blake in 1896, little is known of her early childhood. However, her father was a man of several criminal convictions - some violent, which included a charge for punching the son of the Lord Mayor of London at a political meeting, severely injuring him. The beginning of her own criminal career could be marked in 1912, where she was cautioned by London police for the theft of chocolate.

 She took over leadership of the Forty Thieves (later the Forty Elephants) gang in 1915, succeeding Mary ‘Polly’ Carr. While they were not as brutal as many of London’s other gangs of the interwar period, they were certainly effective and their exploits, which mostly involved theft, were scarily efficient and robbed many people of their highly valued goods. They were known for being able to “put on the posh”, imitating the behaviour and mannerisms of upper class citizens and dressing in their typical fashion in order to carry out robberies at prestigious stores people of their financial status and social class usually wouldn’t even be able to enter. Many of their members were even known to be violent when confronted, with Alice herself being 5’8 at a time when the average man was 5’6. They were dominant, protective and territorial, forcing non-gang members who stole on their turf to pay tribute in the form of a percentage of goods stolen or profits made to the gang. When they became so prolific that the mere presence of known gang members could cause panic, thus removing the secrecy required in order for them to execute their plans, they began to target countryside and rural towns where they were less known. Shortly before and after the Second World War, they modernised their activities, purchasing fast cars in order to make quick get-aways with their goods. Eventually, with Diamond’s death in 1952, their activities and the gang itself slowly began to quieten down, and they ceased operations.

#5 The Kray Twins

What would a list of Britain’s most prolific, infamous and brutal gangsters be without mention of the Kray Twins? Ronald and Reginald (known as Reggie) were born in East London in the year 1933, shortly before the Second World War, to a Irish-Romani family of modest income.

Their life of crime began somewhere around the time that the brothers were called up for military service, where, after reporting to their station, attempted to leave after just a few minutes and assaulted the commanding officer who tried to stop them. They were arrested the next day and handed over to the army, however, and after a series of misdeeds including multiple occasions of being AWOL (Away Without Leave), they were dishonourably discharged. This brought an end to the brother’s prospects of a legitimate career, and they delved into crime full-time. They bought a run-down snooker club in London, and proceeded to open a racketeering business. They gradually expanded their business to the point that they held great influence throughout London and became very financially successful. What set them apart from many other gangsters of the time, however, was their near-celebrity status that they attained from their legitimate activities and their reputation of being charming nightclub owners. The brothers often fraternised with politicians and celebrities who visited their establishments, and were photographed in public on numerous occasions. Behind this charming public image, however, they were brutal gangsters. Their crimes included murder, racketeering, theft, and prison escape. Members of their gang who failed to live up to the Twins’ expectations were punished severely, with one contract killer, Jack McVitie, who failed to complete a murder contract, being stabbed four times for his ineptitude in carrying out his end of the bargain. Connections to major government officials like Lord Boothby ensured that they evaded capture for their crimes for many years, and their reign of terror dominated London for the better part of the 60s. In Ronnie Kray’s words, they were, for a time, “f***ing untouchable”.

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