When a beautiful young woman of 23 committed suicide after marrying a hardened criminal, total strangers flocked to her grave to mourn her passing. She was intelligent, well-liked and the picture of innocence. It was precisely why Reggie Kray, the identical twin of Ronnie Kray, was drawn to her and pursued her relentlessly until she finally agreed to marry him at the age of 21. It was the biggest mistake the blushing bride would ever make.
Frances Shea was only 16 when she caught Reggie Kray’s eye. Kray was a notorious killer who was used to having what he wanted, no matter what he had to do to get it. Shea was one of his targets. Reggie saw the pretty auburn-haired teenager with the big eyes, and he experienced something of a shock. It is what the French call ‘le coup de foudre’, a bolt of lightning, which some describe as love at first sight. What he didn’t know was that his love interest was a nervous young woman who had attempted suicide at the age of 13. Very soon, he wooed the young girl into a relationship with him and introduced Frances to his family in Vallance Road. The twins’ cousin Rita liked the young girl immediately.
‘She had shorter, quite dark hair then. Very pretty girl. Big brown eyes. She was quite shy, quite an innocent really – as you are at that age. But intelligent, you could see that,‘ recalled Rita.
During their ‘honeymoon’ period in 1960, Reggie took to meeting Shea outside her office in the Strand after she’d finished work. They’d go to the movies. There were drives out to the country. On other occasions, he’d take her ‘up West’ to places like the Astor Club, a swish nightclub off Berkeley Square in Mayfair. Proudly, Reggie showed everyone the photos he’d taken with Shea in the Astor club, the first of many photos of the couple in a glamorous setting.
‘She looks like Brigitte Bardot’, said his friend Danny. Reggie was pleased. His girl looked like a French movie star yet she was from the mean streets of the East End. She was his trophy. Soon, Reggie was back in prison. While the separation from Shea turned out to be painful for him, her everyday life went on. After his release, their relationship continued. But despite plans to marry, Shea continually stalled on their wedding plans. Along with the trouble she sensed whenever Reggie was with his brother Ronnie, Shea was starting to see for herself where her place was within the twins’ world: a pampered doll, controlled by an intense, possessive man who wanted her to be influenced by only him.
Rows between the two lovers became a regular occurrence. They usually began when they were on their way home from a night out or after she’d spent an evening in the kitchen at Vallance Road, waiting for Reg to come home. That was her life: waiting for Reg to finish whatever it was that held him up. It wasn’t a life she wanted. Sometimes she’d be defiant and tell him it was over. Then there’d be a day or two’s silence and he’d turn up again, making promises and apologies with huge bouquets of flowers. Under the intensity of his persuasion, she’d relent. Shea was too young to know how to handle the situation.
In the meantime, suspicious Reg started spying on Shea, sitting in his car, watching her house. He was terrified she might go off with another man who tried to get near her. He had reason to be concerned. In May 1964, Pete Whelan, a then 21-year-old printer’s apprentice from Clerkenwell, met Shea, then 20, at a Hackney Wimpy bar. He fell for her beauty and asked her out, sparking a fun three-month relationship, which included romantic trips to the theatre or pubs. Whelan couldn’t believe his luck, that this bright, bubbly, arty girl wanted to go on dates with him.
Looking back on the period years later, Whelan knew there was an obstacle between him and Shea. Shea mentioned to him that she had problems but he had no idea whatsoever that she was being stalked at all times by Reggie Kray’s henchmen. Sometimes, when he dropped Shea off at her house he would notice an MG Midget patrolling the street, driving past the parked van, but he thought nothing of it. He added: ‘The first time it happened she sat up and tried to see the car. The next time she just slid down in the seat. She seemed a bit troubled but not enough for me to worry about.’ Then in July, when they’d arranged to go to the theatre one night, Shea’s mother came to the door and sent Whelan away, saying her daughter was not there. He left and did not speak to Shea again. Although he was very disappointed, the distance that was placed between him and Shea probably saved his life.
Reggie by now had been sent again to prison, this time Brixton. When he was released, he and Shea continued talking about marriage. Unknown to Shea, Reggie had already booked the church, St James the Great in Bethnal Green. He very much wanted the twins’ childhood friend and supporter, Father Hetherington, to marry them but Father Hetherington said he would not be prepared to marry them. ‘Because they’d simply no idea of what marriage was about,’ the priest said. ‘Not merely was there not the faintest hope of either of them finding happiness together, but I could see them causing serious harm to one another.’ Shea had no idea how accurate the prediction would prove to be but she married him in 1965.
Soon, Shea was no longer the starry-eyed young girl. She was Reggie’s missus, his property. Socially, she’d clammed up. ‘She was in a situation she couldn’t handle,’ recalled Freddie Foreman, the ‘Godfather of crime’ who served ten years in prison for his role in the disposal of the boy of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie, and who met Shea. ‘She used to sit there like a pretty little thing. She did not talk or converse with anyone, it was a different world to what she was used to.”
The rows between them became hideously abusive. One night, knowing she hated the sight of blood, Reggie deliberately cut his hand and tormented her by letting her by letting the blood drip onto her. It was terrifying emotional abuse for an already nervous and edgy girl. There were also allegations that Reggie had sex with a prostitute while Shea lay asleep next to them. The shocking incident could have been the trigger that made Shea pack her bags and return to her family that summer. Once safely back with her family, Shea recounted some of what had been going on. She felt ashamed and degraded; she believed no other man would want her now.Once safely back with her family, Frances recounted some of what had been going on but if she did leave him permanently there was the threat that the Kray family would find her, bringing harm to her and her family.
That summer, Shea received shock treatment, commonly used to treat depression. She was still trapped in the Kray web, shunned by many out of ignorance or fear. Whatever Shea was hearing or being told about Reggie via the local whispers would only have served to exacerbate her fears. She embarked on a perilous road towards self-destruction. At the time, Shea began buying street drugs. She was admitted to hospital as a result of an overdose of barbiturates. More suicide attempts followed. Reggie suggested a second honeymoon at the end of June in Ibiza. She agreed. On 5 June, Shea went for an appointment at Hackney Hospital and seemed a bit brighter. The following day, she saw Reggie and they booked the tickets at a local travel agent. They said farewell to each other at her brother’s flat and Reggie went home. Shea was bubbly again, happy that soon she would be released from her personal hell.
Two days later, her brother Frankie found her. That morning of June 7, he took his sister a cup of tea, as he usually did, carefully placing it on the bedside table. She seemed to be still sleeping peacefully, so he went out to work. Yet something, he couldn’t quite explain what, sent him back to check on his sister around lunchtime. She was just as he’d left her earlier. The tea was stone cold. Maybe it was an accident, and she took one pill too many? She couldn’t have planned it, many argued. They were looking forward to going away, weren’t they? These were false hopes. Shea had been merely biding her time, pretending to Reggie about the holding, knowing full well she’d never be going anywhere with him again.
Shea’s funeral was as ostentatious as Reggie wished. At the time, the story went round that the funeral cost ran to £2,000, the equivalent of around £30,000 today. Reggie ordered huge floral wreaths, one in a heart shape with red roses and white carnations going through the middle, the biggest one being a six-foot tall wreath spelling out her name. Yet, with a few months, as the Shea family struggled with their loss, the grief-stricken husband would be finding comfort in the arms of a 23-year-old woman. If only Shea had known that Kray could easily replace her, she might have left him and led a happy life without him.
Of the two siblings, Ronnie was the more dangerous. He was imprisoned in 1957 for GBH. While locked up, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which partly explained his violent tendencies. Unusually for that time, Ronnie was also publicly bisexual, which Reggie found difficult to accept. Eventually Ronnie was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane, living out his life there until he died at the age of 61.
Despite Reggie also being jailed in 1959, the Krays’ ‘business’ activities went from strength to strength, and by the sixties they were hobnobbing with stars such as Barbara Windsor, and eminent politicians such as Lord Boothby, with whom Ronnie was likely to have had an affair. Ronnie remained unmarried, and Reggie’s marriage to Frances Shea in 1965 only lasted for eight months.
In the middle of 1968, the twins’ older brother Charlie were arrested for murder. Ronnie had shot a rival gang member called George Cornell in the face when he was drinking in a pub, and Reggie, normally the ‘gentle’ one, had repeatedly stabbed gang member Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie in the face and neck for not following orders. Both men were given life sentences, with a recommendation that they should serve at least 30 years. Charlie was sent down for ten years, for being an accessory to the murder of McVitie. Reggie died in prison in 2000 aged 66.
A film about the Krays titled Legend was written by Brian Helgeland in 2014. It is due for a 2015 release. Tom Hardy stars as both Reggie and Ronnie Kray. The Kray family were furious about what they alleged were the scandalous and erroneous plot developments in the script:
- Reggie would be portrayed as a homosexual and his marriage to Shea as a sham
- Reggie never consummated his marriage to Shea
- Ronnie would be portrayed as a pedophile
- Shea was a virgin when she died
- Ronnie gave Shea the fatal sleeping pills over his jealousy that Reggie was married to Shea
The relatives of the Kray brothers do not appear to be distraught over the Kray brothers’ life of crime or the abusive treatment of Frances Shea. It would seem these matters are not on their list of priorities.