How Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read did what no-one else could do – put the Kray twins behind barsApril 23, 2020
Dusk had fallen over HM Prison Brixton when a short, shy vicar passed through security and made his way to the jail chapel.
Inmates barely noticed as the dog-collared holy man, Bible in hand, shuffled past their cells.
He was, however, no priest but undercover police detective Leonard “Nipper” Read about to finally take down the most feared gang in London’s history.
While pretending to hear the confessions of a sinner, he instead took a secret statement from the Kray twins’ trusted right-hand man that would put them behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Nipper, widely regarded as the greatest policeman of post-war Britain, died last week at 95 – another victim of coronavirus.
Author James Morton, who wrote Nipper Read: The Man Who Nicked the Krays with the legendary detective, says his friend had “a good and remarkable life”.
“He did what no one else managed – to put the Krays behind bars. He was honest and trustworthy at a time when a great many in the Met were not so honest. He was a thoroughly genuine, decent man. As a crime author, I’ve spoken to a lot of criminals who knew and respected him.
“The wife of one robber he helped convict told me he was the perfect gentleman in every way.”
Nipper shouldn’t actually have been allowed to join the police at all.
Too small at 5ft 7in – hence his nickname – he failed the entrance criteria for the force in his home city of Nottingham.
He was only accepted by the Met after convincing the medical examiner he was still growing, at the age of 22, and promising to perform daily “stretching” exercises.
But his short stature proved invaluable. He admitted: “I was very small and very thin and didn’t look anything like a policeman”.
It came in useful many times as he went under cover and he was soon sent to CID.
Early attempts to put Ronnie and Reggie behind bars ended in disaster as their violent reputation made witnesses afraid to testify.
So Nipper’s new boss, Assistant Commissioner Peter Brodie, tasked him with bringing down the organised crime bosses once and for all.
Nipper later remembered being astonished at the celebrity status of the Krays in London’s East End.
He said: “If they drove down Commercial Road everyone waved.
“If somebody had a drink with them, it was like having tea with Princess Margaret.”
As an undercover officer, he first saw Ronnie Kray in 1964 at the Grave Maurice pub in Whitechapel.
He said: “There was a big American car and a guy stepped out with his hand in his pocket as though he had a gun there and sort of swept the street, making sure there was no one in sight. He gave a signal, the door opened and out stepped Ronnie.
“He was dressed like a 1930s Chicago gangster with a cashmere coat that reached to his ankles tied with a loose belt at the waist. His hair was greased and parted and he wore glasses.
“He looked like Al Capone without his fedora.”
Convinced they were untouchable, the Krays’ gang The Firm were responsible for a string of gruesome murders in 1966 and 1967.
In the first, Ronnie shot George Cornell in the head in front of locals in the Blind Beggar pub because he had referred to him as “a fat poof”.
Another victim, Jack “the Hat” McVitie, was lured to a basement where he was held down in a chair as Reggie sliced his face with broken glass before stabbing him with a carving knife in the face and neck and twisting the knife.
Nipper knew that, if he wanted to catch the biggest fish of all, he would have to do things differently, explains Mr Morton.
He says: “The Krays were getting away with it because their solicitor’s clerk knew certain people in the Met who they were paying off.
“The story was that if you went in to make a statement about the Krays, by the time you came out the brothers already had a copy.”
Nipper began approaching fringe members of The Firm, persuading them to spill the beans in exchange for immunity.
Knowing there were few officers he could trust, he revealed as little of his investigations as possible. Even so, the Krays got wind he was after them. They bought two boa constrictors and named them Read and Gerrard after Nipper and his partner Fred Gerrard.
Eventually Nipper had enough to charge the Krays with fraud
and grievous bodily harm and, in May 1968, the twins, along with brother Charlie and their lieutenant Albert Donoghue, were dragged from their beds and arrested in a dawn raid.
With the ringleaders behind bars, Nipper set to work persuading key witnesses, include the barmaid of the pub where George Cornell was shot dead and Leslie Payne, who had handled the Kray’s business affairs, to testify against them.
Mr Morton says: “The barmaid was terrified. So he played a long and patient game, taking her and her children to London airport to see the planes and slowly persuading her she did not need to be afraid.”
But at Brixton prison, the Krays were planning to pin the murders on other gang members, including Donoghue.
But he got wind of it and sent a message, via his mother, that he wanted to speak to Nipper.
This was when the detective dressed as a vicar and met Donoghue in the jail chapel.
Mr Morton says: “Donoghue said ‘I’ll tell you everything’. And he did. That was the moment the Krays’ empire came crashing down.” The following year the twins were sentenced to life with a minimum 30 years – the longest murder sentences ever handed down at the Old Bailey.
Ronnie died aged 61 in Broadmoor in 1995 and Reggie in 2000, eight weeks after being released on compassionate grounds.
Nipper retired in 1977, having received the Queen’s Police Medal the previous year, and became national security adviser to the National Museums and Galleries Commission.
A boxer all his life, he also served as vice-president of the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council.
Before retiring to his Hertfordshire home, where he lived with his wife Pat Allen, he spent some years lecturing on cruise ships.
He once said: “The label of ‘The man who brought down the Krays’ has followed me since then and will live with me for ever.”
Mr Morton adds: “He was meticulous, clever, shrewd – everything a policeman should be.”