A year ago this week saw the publication of the first instalment in my Infamous Eastenders Series, 'Discovering the Kray Family Tree', an examination of the roots, genealogy and family history of two of East London’s most notorious gangland figures, Ronnie and Reggie Kray. This post explores the life of Jack 'The Hat' McVitie, one of at least two men who fell victim to the twins reign of terror over the London Underworld, and whose killings ultimately led to the arrest, imprisonment and downfall of the Kray brothers and their wider firm of criminal associates.
Jack Dennis McVitie was born on 19th April 1932 at 5 Gilbey Road, Tooting, South London, in the household of his maternal grandfather, Somerset born George Ashton Palmer, a tough Boer War veteran, and ex-Police Officer, who had served with the Met’s Brixton district for seventeen years, from 1905 to 1923.
Jack’s mother, Evelyn Zoe Beatrice Palmer, worked as a cashier in a local restaurant. Whilst pregnant with her first child, at just nineteen, she suffered tragedy when her partner was killed in a wagon shunting accident. Another child was born to a brief relationship soon after, before, fatefully, she met and fell pregnant to Henry Edward McVitie, in the winter of 1928. Soon after the birth of their first daughter, in summer 1929, they married, and Henry moved into the home Evelyn shared with her parents and siblings. Their first son was born there the following year, but sadly died in infancy. The birth of Jack came next, and was followed by a further three children, all sons, the youngest born in the spring of 1939.
By then the relationship had soured. Local newspapers report on the following incident which occurred, when their youngest child was just a few months old:
16th June 1939 - Norwood News
Labourer Had Few Words with Wife, GAVE "A NICE ONE" TO HIS MOTHER-IN-LAW
TROUBLE at Tooting on Saturday night resulted in Henry McVitie (aged 35), a labourer of Gilbey-road, being charged at the South-Western Police Court on Monday with assaulting Winifred Palmer and Ethel Maynard, both of the same address. Winifred Palmer said that McVitie was her son-in-law, "she was sorry to say," and on Saturday night he came home and began shouting. His language was so bad that she went downstairs to ask him to stop. She told him it was past one in the morning, his language was revolting, and the children in the house had been awakened. He struck her on the head. In reply to a question, witness said accused had fallen down and hit his head on the fender. He was drunk.
Mr. Mullins: Did he hit you because the fender hurt him? —I don't know, but he gave me a nice one.
Ethel Maynard said accused was a brother-in-law. She heard her mother scream and when she went to see what had happened accused punched her on the face. McVitie told the magistrate he had "a few words” with his wife that afternoon and when he came home at night, he found the door locked against him. He managed to get in and asked his wife " What the — she meant by it?''
The magistrate: That is the way you talked?
Accused said he did not shout when he came in, or hit anyone, but his relatives struck him. In his opinion they all got in with the deliberate idea of causing trouble.
Mr. Mullins found him guilty of the assault on the mother-in-law and remanded him for a week.
The couple separated as a result of this incident, but just weeks later, the same paper reports on a further instance of violent behaviour from Henry, towards his wife and family:
14th July 1939 - Norwood News
LABOURER FOUND WITH SHEATH KNIFE
HENRY MCVITIE (aged 35). labourer, Vant-road, Tooting, was charged at the South Western Police. Court on Monday, with being found on enclosed premises at Gilbey-road, Tooting, for an unlawful purpose. P.C. Cleft said that in consequence of a complaint he went to Gilbey-road at 11.30 p.m. He heard women and children screaming and saw accused in the back garden of a house at Gilbey-road. He was shouting " Let me in or I will bash in the door."
When witness approached him McVitie jumped over a seven-foot fence and ran off. After climbing three more fences witness arrested accused in another garden in Gilbey-roan. McVitie said "I will get her yet" He was searched and in his possession was a sheath knife. Accused denied that he shouted or caused a disturbance. He went to the house to see his wife, from whom he was separated, so that he could talk things over."
The magistrate: What. At 11.30 at night? Yes. Mr. Claud Mullins said he remembered granting Mrs. McVitie a separation order against her husband, who had led her a " hell of a life."
Accused would be sentenced to 14 days imprisonment unless he could find someone to stand as surety for his good behaviour in the sum of £5.
Jack McVitie was just seven years old at this traumatic time. The domestic violence he was forced to witness towards his mother, grandmother and aunt, whilst not excusing, perhaps explains the root of much of his own alleged ill behaviour towards women in later life. He had certainly not had a good role model in this regard.
As well as terrorising his family, Henry McVitie was also something of a nuisance and a bully to local businessmen, as a prior appearance in the same newspaper, a year earlier, shows:
19 August 1938 - Norwood News
In binding over Henry McVitie (aged 35), labourer. Gilbey Road. Tooting, who was charged with stealing from a counter at the Alcove cafe, High-street, Tooting, two cakes, worth 3d. He was further charged with assaulting Mr. Henry Small. Mr. Small, manager of the cafe, said that on Saturday night McVitie, whom he had ordered out of the shop on several occasions, used filthy language, took two cakes from the counter and left the shop. Witness and his wife came out, he gave the cakes back when told they were waiting for the police to arrive. He then struck him. McVitie, in the witness-box, said he told Mr. Small he would pay for the cakes if he would serve him with a packet of cigarettes. He thought he was in danger of a blow from Mr. Small.
The magistrate (Mr. Claud Mullins): Does a man usually give a blow before handing a man over to the police?
Mr. Mullins discharged McVitie on the theft charge, but found him guilty of the assault. Det. Hewitt said there was no doubt McVitie had been a great nuisance to the cafe proprietor. He knew he was not popular there, and there were several machines from which he could have obtained cigarettes.
Binding McVitie over for a year. Mr. Mullins ordered him to pay 20s. costs
The outbreak of War, just a few months after his parent’s separation, meant a continuation of tough times for the young Jack McVitie. When hostilities ceased, in May 1945, any joy for the family was short lived, when Evelyn McVitie passed away, only days later, at just thirty-nine years of age. Her five young children were thereafter cared for by her aged parents, and her sister Ethel. Despite their best efforts, like many traumatised teenagers, Jack began to drift into fights, trouble, and crime, earning his first criminal conviction, the following year, in October 1946, when, aged fourteen, he was taken to Buntingford Juvenile Court for stealing a watch and cigarettes.
Soon after this he met and fell in love with Marie Esther Marney, a pupil of the Western Road Secondary Modern School for Girls in nearby Mitcham, Surrey. The Marneys were a well-known local Romany Gypsy family, who were part of several related families who, as a result of the increasing enclosure of common land, had given up the centuries old nomadic lifestyle, at least for part of the year, and taken temporary fixed dwellings, in so-called ‘hutments’ and prefab bungalows, at Queens Road and New Close, in a part of Mitcham, thereafter dubbed the ‘Red Skin Village’ by wary outsiders.
Marie’s family strongly objected to the teenage match and attempted to end things between them, but Jack stood firm, refusing to be intimidated. Tough and stubborn, and frightened of nobody, he was a good bare-knuckle fighter, quick to take his shirt off and settle disputes man to man 'on the cobbles'. In the winter of 1949, age sixteen, Marie fell pregnant, and ran away from her family to be with Jack. The couple set up home in Forest Road, East London, and following the birth of their daughter, in September 1950, they were married. Around the same time, Jack, now eighteen, was called up for National Service, and for the first eighteen months of his daughter’s life was mostly absent from home.
When he returned, the relationship rapidly deteriorated, largely due to Jack’s excessive drinking and violent temperament. Soon after Marie and her daughter returned to her family in Mitcham. Jack followed, eager for a reconciliation, but was warned off from seeing her again in no uncertain terms, and Marie was afterwards remarried to a cousin.
The loss of his first love, and his baby daughter, continued Jack’s downward spiral, and he was soon in trouble with the law again, being arrested and jailed for stealing in March 1952. Four months after this, he received further jail time for assaulting a police officer, a crime that would hardly have impressed his 74-year-old grandfather, ex-Met Policeman, George Palmer. By now it was clear to his relatives that the twenty-year-old Jack was becoming a lost cause, and was well down the road of following in the footsteps of his estranged father Henry.
In 1954, Jack began a relationship with another local girl, Sylvia Ann Mitchell, who later gave birth to his second child, a son, in 1958, while they were living in Islington. Again, any semblance of a normal and happy domestic homelife was short lived or non-existent, as Jack continued to keep bad company. He was arrested soon after and held in prison on remand, after being caught in possession of a flick knife and a four ounce slab of explosives with detonators, presumably intended to be used in a robbery
On 3rd April 1959, a fortnight before his twenty seventh birthday, he pled guilty and was convicted in crown court on this charge, receiving a hefty term of seven years’ imprisonment. His prison record describes him as 5 feet 9 inches tall, heavily built, with blue eyes. He already had numerous tattoos on his hands, arms and chest, including the name ‘ANN’ on his left wrist.
Whilst only a few months into this sentence he received the news that his father Henry had been found dead, aged fifty-five. Doubtless this brought back many painful memories of childhood for Jack, and with it the loss of any belated hope of reconciliation. Embittered he soon found himself embroiled in endless disputes and fights, including with a particularly oppressive prison officer at Exeter Gaol, who he challenged to a one on one ‘straightener’ in the prison yard, and bested, only to be put on a charge for assault. Whilst held in segregation he was mercilessly beaten, in retribution, by the officer’s colleagues. In solidarity, fellow inmates, Frankie Fraser and Jimmy Andrews, both already notorious London Gangland figures, physically attacked the Prison Governor and his Chief Officer. As a result, all three were arrested, and sentenced to be birched by the visiting magistrates, in a case widely reported in the national press:
7th December 1959 - Frankie Frazer serving seven years for his part in an attack on Jack Comer, was sentenced to the maximum of 18 strokes of the birch. Jack McVitie was sentenced to 12 strokes and James Andrews to 15.
His errant grandson’s growing notoriety, put further strain on Jack’s ailing grandfather, George, who passed away only a few months later at eighty-two years of age.
Following the assault, Jack was transferred to Lincoln Prison, where in June of the following year he escaped by scaling the wall with another prisoner, though he was later recaptured, losing all remission.
June 1961 report of McVitie's escape from Lincoln prison
Three years into the sentence Jack also suffered the premature loss of his older sister, and on his eventual release in November 1965, was in many ways a broken man. His relationship with Sylvia Mitchell was now over, tired of waiting she had taken his son, left their home, and began a new relationship. In the opinion of Frankie Fraser, at least, it was this loss that stung hardest of all. With few family ties or responsibilities left to restrain him, he resumed his old bad habits with a renewed vigour, drinking heavily most nights, womanising, brawling and in addition he began to take and peddle strong amphetamine pills. The demand for these had grown enormously as London became a Mecca for nightclubs and thrill seekers in the midst of the hip and fashionable swinging sixties. As a result, his behaviour became increasingly violent and erratic, and he soon gained a reputation as something of a nuisance.
Despite this apart from the occasional minor motoring offence, he managed to keep himself out of any more serious trouble with the law, and even found occasional straight employment as a Bookmaker's Clerk. He had also begun living with a new partner Sylvia Barnard, with whom he had his third and final child. As he entered his third decade, his youthful looks however, were fading fast, and to hide a rapidly thinning crown, he took to wearing a trilby hat at all times, even whilst bathing, earning him the nickname, Jack ‘The Hat’.
Jack with his trademark trilby hat, 1960s
Whilst serving part of his seven year sentence in Wandsworth prison, he had been introduced to another rising face in the London crime world, East End boss, Reggie Kray, by fellow inmate and South London gangster, Ray Rosa. With many local criminals wary of taking a chance working with him in his current unstable condition, in a fateful decision, Jack reached out across the water to Reggie and his twin Ronnie, in the hope of earning some extra money with their ‘firm’.
Gangsters Ray Rosa and Dickie 'Dido' Frett, close associates of Frankie Fraser. Rosa fatefully introduced Jack to East London gangster Reggie Kray, whilst all three were jailed together.
Not keen to take him on as a permanent member, aware of his growing reputation as a loose cannon on his home patch, the Krays were nevertheless impressed with his fearlessness and physical strength. Reggie in particular admired the way Jack had taken a tough stand against authority in prison, and refused to be cowered despite constant and appalling persecution and provocation from prison staff. He may also have felt a certain bond of loyalty to Jack, in view of their shared prison time, and so at Reggie's instigation the twins proceeded to use him from time to time on various jobs as a strong-arm man. As his personal recklessness and drunkenness increased, however, it was a decision they soon began to regret, as they became more and more embarrassed and dissatisfied with his unpredictable and volatile behaviour.
For his part Jack evidently felt misused, cheated, and under appreciated by the Krays, openly mocking them and making threats against them in public, usually whilst under the influence. The situation came to a head when they had him followed and discovered he had been fiddling them on various deals, and pocketing money for himself. After botching a chance to redeem himself, by leading an armed attack on their estranged business partner Leslie Payne, he was given a final warning to behave, but failed to heed it, turning up at one of their nightclubs heavily intoxicated, brandishing a shotgun, issuing further threats.
On the night of 29th October 1967, at the age of thirty-five, Jack McVitie was lured to a party at Evering Road, Stoke Newington, by two casual acquaintances, Greek Cypriot brothers Tony and Chris Lambrianou, and two associates of theirs, the Mills brothers of Birmingham. As none of these men were on the regular payroll of the Kray firm, and only Tony was very loosely associated with them, he did not suspect an ambush. On staggering into the basement room of the flat, drunk and boisterous, he found the Krays and several others, lying in wait. He muttered a suprised greeting to a seated Ronnie Kray, who rose up and rushed towards him, smashing a small cocktail glass into his face, muttering at him to ‘now f*** off’. Confused and incensed, Jack refused to comply, taking off his jacket, squaring up to fight, swearing loudly and smashing his fist through a side window in rage.
Accounts of what followed next are confused and contradictory, but it appears a short verbal exchange between those present escalated sharply, with Reggie Kray pulling out a gun and aiming it at Jack's head. When it twice failed to fire, a physical confrontation ensued, with several men, including the twin’s cousin Ronnie Hart, attacking Jack together and holding his arms behind his back. At this point Reggie Kray grabbed hold of, or was handed, a large kitchen knife, and plunged it into Jack’s face and body several times, with fatal results.
The twins and Hart immediately fled the scene, leaving Ronnie Bender, a part time driver for the firm, to clean up and dispose of the body, assisted by Chris and Tony Lambrianou. Hastily wrapped in an eiderdown, Jack was placed in the back seat of his own car, and deposited outside St Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, in the hope the police would discover him there, and assume he had been killed by fellow South London gangsters. When the twins learned of the whereabouts of the corpse, furious, they ordered it to be immediately moved, fearing the blame would fall on their South London associate Freddie Foreman, who had recently publicly threatened Jack, after he had caused damage to one of his nightclubs in a drunken fracas.
Foreman later admitted to being informed of the murder soon after, and to subsequently removing the body and disposing of it in the sea, at Newhaven, Sussex. He received ten years imprisonment for his involvement in the crime.
After a six week trial, Reggie and Ronnie Kray were convicted of Jack’s murder, in March 1969, and both received life sentences with 30-year recommendations. Their cousin Ronnie Hart secured his own freedom by turning Queen’s Evidence against them.
Ronnie Kray died in 1995, at Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, whilst a certified patient of Broadmoor High Security Hospital. Reggie Kray died of cancer in 2000, in a hotel room in Norwich, days after being released from Wayland jail on compassionate grounds.
Discovering the Kray Family Tree is available to purchase here: