Ben is doing the rounds with one of London's most notorious criminals … and he's having a ball!
London has produced its share of infamous crime figures over the years and the names of the most notorious seem to linger. The East End's streets were very Dickensian, reeking with crime and squalor and always turbulent. The area has come a long way, but is certainly not dull. It still has a touch of rough diamond.
Jack the Ripper committed his ghastly murders in the East End, followed last century by a string of criminals, including the Kray twins and their older brother, plus the Richardsons, Ronnie Biggs and his cronies who pulled off the Great Train Robbery, and Jack "The Hat" McVitie, who was fatally stabbed by Reggie Kray. Spivvily-dressed gangs of young men ruled. They were involved in murder, extortion, thieving, money lending, prostitution and street fighting. Because it was considered to be a morally-destitute area, the Salvation Army was started in East London by William Booth and Thomas Barnado opened his first children's home there in 1870.
People endured squalid lives amongst drunkenness, immorality, crime and violence. Robbery, rape and assault were endemic and gangs reigned in the filthy, unlit thoroughfares. Docks and warehouses along the River Thames were made up of slaughterhouses, glue factories, soap-boilers, coal storage, tanning yards and other light industry which gave off fumes and a terrible stench.
Some streets have hardly changed in 300 years, with their cosmopolitan past quite evident in shops and houses. Polish, Russian and Rumanian Jews settled here, along with French Protestant Huguenots, all fleeing oppression. Conan Doyle used it as the place where Sherlock Holmes purchased his opium from Chinese traders. It was also the setting for many detective and mystery thrillers all the author had to do was add the characters.
Famous people who have lived in the area include John Merrick, who became famous as the Elephant Man, plus Michael Cain, Alfred Hitchcock and Angela Lansbury.
If the mystery, intrigue and history of the area fascinates you, you can go on a tour with genuine ex-crim Mad Frankie Fraser. Between the 1930s and '80s, Frankie was cellmate and partner in crime to racecourse swindlers, train robbers and racketeers. He has been a contract strong-arm, club owner, club minder, company director, inmate of Broadmoor, fire bomber, prison rioter and thief. He was given 26 convictions and has spent 42 years "inside".
Frankie came from a dirt-poor family and spent hardly a day at school. He was in and out of jail from the age of 12 and has been a resident of every prison in the country.
In the '60s the Krays sought his services, but he preferred to join fraudsters Charlie and Eddie Richardson and their Torture Gang. History says Frankie was known as the Dentist and conducted tooth-pulling tortures, but he denies that. Being dubbed the "most dangerous man in Britain" by two British Home Secretaries was probably looked upon by many as something to be proud of.
His tours, which can only be termed "authentic", usually take place on Saturdays. They start in Browning Street in a 16-seat minibus and take three to four hours, depending on how many questions are asked. Tours are very personal. Everyone is given the chance to chat and have a drink along the way. Running commentary provides information about court cases, crime, prison, Broadmoor, violence, the justice system and other gangsters.
First stop is Charlie and Eddie Richardson's scrap metal yard, which was a front for many shifty dealings. The Elmington Estate is where the Great Train Robbery was planned in 1963 and Turnmills is where Frankie was shot in 1991. You will see where the Krays were living when they were arrested the last time and the street where they grew up, as well as the place where Jack "The Hat" McVitie was murdered.
You will see York Hall and have a tour of the Repton Boxing Club and London Hospital on Whitechapel. Lunch is taken at the Blind Beggar and you will see the Grave Maurice where Ronnie, Reggie and Frankie met for many private chats.
It may not be the tour for everyone, but it is colourful and unlike anything else you are likely to take part in.