So Long Lenny Hamilton, Jewel Thief
Yesterday I received news of the death of my pal Lenny Hamilton, the Jewel Thief, on October 8th and today I publish my profile of Lenny as a tribute to one of the East End’s most celebrated rogues.
Mid-afternoon on a weekday is a good time for a discreet liaison at The Carpenters Arms – the pub that used to belong to the Krays in Cheshire St – especially if you are meeting a jewel thief. Lenny was initially averse to the location, “What do you want to go to that filthy old place for?” he complained, until I reassured him they had cleaned it up nicely, though when he told me the story of his personal experience of the Kray twins I came to understand why he might harbour an aversion.
“I used to go round to their house in Vallance Rd on and off for three years, until Ronnie burnt me with the pokers, and his mother and Charlie had a go with him over it.” revealed Lennie with a pleasant smile, introducing his testimony, before taking a slug of his double Corvoisier and lemonade. It was a story that started well enough before it all went so horribly wrong.
“I was just six weeks out of the army, doing my National Service (I used to box for the army), when I went back to work in Billingsgate Fish Market at the age of twenty-six. Georgie Cornell looked after me – he was the hardest man I ever saw on the cobbles but he had a heart of gold as well. He gave me five pounds to buy my mother some flowers and said ‘Make sure you give her the fucking change!’ He was a nice fellow. He used to line up all the tramps at the market and give them each half a crown and make sure they got a mug of tea and two slices of dripping toast. Then with the change, he’d say ‘Now go down and buy yourselves a pint.’
Leaving work, I was walking down Maidment St, and on the corner I saw this big fellow wrestling with these two little fellows. So I went to help them, they got away and I got arrested, because the guy I was wrestling with was a police officer. When I got taken down to Arber Sq police station, he said to me, ‘Do you know what you’ve done? Them two young fellows was the Kray twins and now they’ve got away. They’re on the run from the army.’ I apologised and they let me go.
Later, when the Krays got control of a snooker hall, The Regal, I was playing snooker there and they came in and this fellow put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You don’t know who I am do you? I am Reggie Kray – and this is my brother Ronnie.’ I thought I was seeing double, you couldn’t tell them apart. They took me across the road to a pub called The Wentworth to buy me a drink because I did them a favour. They liked me at first. That’s how I came to be going round their house for nearly three years.
One day, I was down the Regency Club working for Harry Abrahams, he had his own “firm” and Albert Donahue was part of it. One of the Krays’ “firm”, Pat Connolly was there and he was drinking with a young couple. Then some fellows arrived from South London and sent us all a drink over. I ordered one for myself and the young fellow, but I didn’t know what the girl was drinking, so I asked her, ‘What do you want, love?’
The fellow that was with her went to cut me with a razor! Pat Connolly said ‘You don’t do that to Lenny.’ So, the fellow asked to have a talk with me in the toilet and I thought he wanted to say sorry. As I went into the toilet, walking in front of him, someone said, ‘Watch your back!’ and he went to cut me down the back with his cut-throat razor. I dived down to the cubicle door, and ducked and dived, as he came at me with the razor. Then I got up and smashed him in the face and I didn’t realise that I broke his nose. I also didn’t realise he was Buller Ward’s son, Bonner – and Buller was friends with the Krays.
My pal Andy Paul was living with me at the time because his wife had thrown him out, and he worked with the Krays as a doorman. Once, he came home at one in the morning when I was in bed and said ‘Ronnie wants you on the phone at Esmerelda’s bar. You’d better phone him up because you know what he’s like, he’ll come round and smash the place up.’ So I got a cab all the way to Knightsbridge to Esmerelda’s in Wilton Place and asked the cab driver to wait.
I went in and walked upstairs. All the gambling tables were closed down and there were seven or eight people standing on either side. They told me to go in the kitchen and when I opened the door Ronnie Kray was standing opposite. He said, ‘Nothing to worry about, Lenny.’ He had a big armchair next to the cooker and he invited me to sit down, asking ‘What’s going on Lenny? You caused a bit of trouble in the Regal. We get protection money from them.’ I sat down.
He said, ‘Alright, you can go now.’ I stood up again and, as I turned to leave, I was wondering what was going on, when he said, ‘Get hold of him.’ Two geezers grabbed hold of me and then I saw it. I thought they were pokers but there were steels that are used to sharpen knives, Ronnie had them on the gas and they were white-hot. They had wooden handles and the first one Ronnie picked up he dropped because it was so hot, so he went and got an oven glove. Then he picked one up and came over to me, to frighten me, I imagined. He singed my black curly hair. I pissed myself. I was terrified. Next he started setting fire to my suit that I only had made two weeks before.
Then he went back and got another hot poker, and dabbed it on my cheeks and held it across my eyebrows and burnt my eyebrows off. I’m half-blind in this eye because of it. Then he went back and got another poker and, as he came back, he said, ‘Now I’m going to burn your eyes out.’ and he really meant it. As he came towards me, Limehouse Willy called out from the crowd, ‘No Ron, don’t do that!’ (A nice fellow he was.) Ronnie switched, he turned and walked away.
They let me go and I hurried out, and the cab driver was still waiting outside. When he saw the state of me, he wanted to take me to Scotland Yard but I said, ‘No mate, don’t do that, just take me home.’ Then as we were driving along, he said, ‘I think there’s a car following us,’ and it was one of the Krays’ cars. They were following to see where I as going, so I went round to my friend Harry Abrahams’ house. When he came home with his friend Albert Donahue, he said, ‘There’s only one person who would do that.’ So he and Albert went round the twins home with guns next morning, and the twins told him they did it because I got too flash – too big for my boots.
About two days later, my protector from Billingsgate, Georgie Cornell, came round and gave Harry Abrahams’ wife two hundred pounds with instructions to take care of me, “Look after Lenny, take the expenses out of that.’ A day later, a big surprise, Charlie Kray came round and gave her a hundred pounds and said, ‘Don’t let my brothers know.’ Finally, Dr Blaskar, the Krays’ doctor came round – he liked to drink and gamble – he treated me, gave me stuff for the burns.
But then in 1967, when the police were after the Krays, I was in Wandsworth Prison and they got a message smuggled in to me. I was in a single cell and when I returned from the doctor one day there was an envelope on the table. (It’s in the Black Museum at Scotland Yard now) The note read, ‘If the Old Bill comes round, keep your mouth shut or we are going to shoot your kids.’ My children were six and seven years old and living with their mother in Poplar. I’m not a grass but I couldn’t risk my kids being shot, so I went to see the governor and gave him the letter. Within two hours, the police were round, they said, ‘Look Lenny, if you help us, we’ll help you. We’ll give your children twenty-four hour police protection.’ which they did. They moved me to Eastchurch prison on the Isle of Sheppey and then to Bow St to give evidence against Ronnie Kray. On my evidence, he got committed to the Old Bailey.”
We were all alone in the empty barroom and, when Lenny told the part about the poker, he fixed me eye to eye and, extending a single finger, pushed his fingertip into my face. I was speechless. It was extraordinary to hear a first hand account of the reality of characters that have become mythical. I think it is easier to accept the East End’s history of violence as mere fiction, even when you know the truth. Ironically, Lenny’s volatile experiences fused his emotional story into a powerful narrative with an effective literary structure.
Lenny had no patience with those who seek to romanticise the Krays as working class heroes,“They were scum. The lowest of the low. You never robbed or hurt your own people, that was the old East End code. The Krays controlled people through fear. They hurt so many people. I’ve been in a saloon bar when they were there and people would arrive, order a drink, then go out to the toilet and walk straight out the back door to escape.”
After plastic surgery, and many years on the straight and narrow since doing time, Lenny was a different man. Even walking with a stick, he retained a powerful physical presence as a legacy of his boxing years, yet behind this assured facade, I sensed something else, an intensity in his eyes, his “snake eyes” he called them, that indicated a spirit forged in a dark world of violence.
Lenny didn’t pretend to be a saint. “I’m not proud of what I done,” he admitted openly, speaking of his days blowing safes and thieving jewels. “I used to have a friend in Hatton Garden who bought all the gear off me and gave me good deal. I took him a £680,000 job one day and, after he’d melted down the gold and recut the diamonds, I got £100,000. He asked me to push my finger through a card, and then he made me this,” revealed Lenny with relish, displaying the dazzling ring upon his finger with its single glittering diamond. Always keen to emphasise that he only stole from those with insurance, Lenny even managed to make it sound like he was doing a favour for people sometimes. “There was a man whose business was going under. He came to me and said ‘There’s nothing in the safe but if you blow it up, I can claim there was.’ I felt sorry for him so I blew the safe while he was away for the weekend. Then he took the insurance payment and moved to Brighton.”
Lenny could have talked all day but, after three double Corvoisiers and lemonade, I called a taxi to take him on to a pub in the Roman Rd where his pals were waiting to continue the long afternoon of storytelling. When I enquired about some recent scars on his head, he explained that he had been beaten up on the street by muggers, but he shrugged it off lightly. You had to credit Lenny for his resilience, he still possessed undaunted enthusiasm and appetite for life.
Standing up to leave, Lenny caught sight for the first time of the painting of Ronnie and Reggie Kray that hangs on the barroom wall in The Carpenters and brandished his stick in a flash of emotion. For a moment, I was expecting the sound of broken glass, but Lenny quickly relented, turning away with a grin and a wave to me, because the taxi was waiting outside and he had better things to do.
You may also like to read my other interview at The Carpenters’ Arms