Alan Hubbard

For centuries, London's East End has been notorious as a cesspit of crime, so it was no wonder that eyebrows were raised when the seediest part of the capital was nominated to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

From Jack the Ripper to the Kray twins and assorted cockney mobsters and murderers, it has been celebrated, if that’s the word, as high among the most dangerous habitats in the world.

Shootings, stabbings, muggings and much other assorted villainy was part of everyday life – and death.

So there was every right to fear that gangsters might try to muscle in on the biggest and richest sporting event Great Britain had ever staged. And they certainly tried, according to a fascinating new book by investigative journalist Michael Gillard. The fact that they were by and large – though not altogether – prevented from doing so, was down to first the local cops and, ultimately, Scotland Yard.

But there were flaws and some corruption by lawmen and businessmen according to Gillard.

The feared Kray twins (Ronnie, left, Reggie, right) loved boxing, pictured here with American heavyweight Joe Louis ©Getty Images
The feared Kray twins (Ronnie, left, Reggie, right) loved boxing, pictured here with American heavyweight Joe Louis ©Getty Images

Criminality within the sound of Bow Bells dates back to the 18th century. No police force operated anywhere in London before the 1750s, and it was not until 1792 that salaried police constables were introduced. By then, crime and civil disorder were rife. The Metropolitan Police force was formed in 1829, but it took until the mid-19th century to be established in the East End.

Since then it has been, often literally, a running battle to deal with an underworld almost as infamous as the Mafia which once controlled Chicago and other parts of the United States.

Among such incidents was a pitched can gun battle just over 100 years ago, deep in the East End in Sidney Street, a thoroughfare just off the Whitechapel Road. Even then, Home Secretary Winston Churchill became embroiled. Also known as the Battle of Stepney, it was Britain's version of 'The Gunfight at the OK Corral', between a combined police and army force and two Latvian revolutionaries.

The siege was the culmination of a series of events that began in December 1910, with an attempted jewellery robbery by a gang of Latvian immigrants, resulting in the murder of three policemen, the wounding of two others, and the death of the leader of the Latvian gang.

The police evacuated local residents and the siege lasted about six hours, marking the first time the police had requested military assistance in London to deal with an armed stand-off. It was also the first siege in Britain to be caught on camera, as the events were filmed by Pathé News. Some of the footage included images of Churchill, whose presence caused a political row. The events were fictionalised in film – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Siege of Sidney Street (1960) – and several novels.

Of course, Jack the Ripper is a name forever associated with the East End, his misdeeds including a number of gruesome murders of prostitutes and young women. It has fascinated generations, while much has also been said about the notoriety of Reggie and Ronnie Kray. They ran extortion rackets, with a reign of terror embracing the murders of rival gang members and small-time crooks, and are deeply embedded in criminal folklore.

It is probably fortunate they were no longer around at the time of the 2012 Olympics, which they may have seen as a valuable opportunity to cash in on 'protection'.

They had once tried to do so in boxing – both were good amateurs and down-the-bill pros for a short while – but it took the bravery of a young promoter, Mickey Duff, to keep them from exerting their ignoble influence on the noble art. He even barred them from all his shows. On one occasion, after they had been turned away from the Royal Albert Hall, where both had previously boxed, Duff's wife was to receive a box, ostensibly of flowers, the following morning. It read, "With love from Reggie and Ronnie" and contained two dead rats.

One can only imagine the reaction of Lord Sebastian Coe had he received a similar "present" at his Games HQ in Canary Wharf after declining an offer he couldn't refuse from the Krays.

Which brings us to the Olympics as a possible vehicle for crime. Author Gillard certainly needed guts to produce his account of the way East London crime lords attempted to move in on the Games. As he writes: "London 2012 was going to provide a gilded inheritance of sporting opportunity."

It was a time ripe for corruption, but London 2012 emerged relatively unscathed ©Getty Images
It was a time ripe for corruption, but London 2012 emerged relatively unscathed ©Getty Images

His hypothesis is that the masters of London's East End underworld sensed that the arrival of the Games "offered a chance to top up their pensions". He reckons they came pretty close to "filling their boots". Among the ambitious miscreants was a 6ft 5in gangland boss known as "The Long Fella", a one-time time football hooligan and West Ham fan who was, and still is, something of a criminal godfather with a reputation for extreme violence.

Gillard digs deep into the backdrop – the battle for the spoils of land being developed for the London Olympics.

Before and during the Games, police kept a strict check on the movements of "The Long Fella" and other known villains in the area. They had eyes on the possibility of exploiting the "Gangland" Games for money laundering purposes and the Olympic Park itself, so the links between business interests and criminals were the subject of detailed investigation by Scotland Yard.

The chapters on the stench of corruption emanating from the local authorities dealing with London 2012 are particularly revealing.

Alas, Gillard does not much detail specific accounts of what the criminal element was aiming to do in respect of profiting from the Games, although it was known that prostitutes were hired, some from overseas, to "entertain" certain VIPs.

There is evidence that the presence of the Olympics did help line the pockets of some elements of the underworld, but attempts at major criminal activities seem to have been thwarted. Arrests were made, though intriguingly not the "The Long Fella", who still heads a crime empire in the East End known as The Hunt Syndicate.

This was officially exposed in the summer of 2013 as being run by one David Hunt, in a judgement by Mr Justice Simon after he brought an unsuccessful libel action against The Sunday Times.

A catalogue of damning claims emerged during the trial, including allegations that Scotland Yard viewed Hunt's gang, which had operated with impunity for more than 20 years, as "too big" and "too dangerous" to take on. The gang was said to include family members and the father of a well-known reality-TV star.

Hunt was a close friend of Reggie Kray, visiting him in prison in 2000 just prior to his death. He was the owner of "Hunt's Waste Recycling" in Dagenham, which, during the nearby 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony, was the centre of the "largest fire in several years" in London, with 40 fire engines and over 200 firefighters attending the scene. It was even feared that the ceremony might have to be cancelled because of the smoke from the blaze. 

The brilliant Bob Hoskins in 1979, around the time he filmed The Long Good Friday ©Getty Images
The brilliant Bob Hoskins in 1979, around the time he filmed The Long Good Friday ©Getty Images

In 2013, Hunt unsuccessfully tried to sue The Sunday Times, who three years earlier had exposed him as a violent "underworld king", with the judge stating that it was "reasonable to describe the claimant as a violent and dangerous criminal and the head of an organised crime group implicated in murder, drug trafficking and fraud". 

His barrister, Mr Hugh Tomlinson QC, portrayed Hunt as a "rough diamond" who "was a misunderstood property tycoon whose only passions in life were his family and racing pigeons". He argued that it was not in the public interest for the newspaper to have revealed how Hunt had been embroiled in a gangland turf war over land the Government had been due to buy in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Now here’s a funny thing. Back in the late seventies, the actor Bob Hoskins portrayed a crime boss in the film The Long Good Friday. He was a violent mobster and who, as his private yacht cruised under Tower Bridge, proclaimed he was seeking to legitimise his criminal empire as London's docklands prepared for a fictional Olympic Games.

Some three decades later, life appears to have imitated art.

(Legacy: Gangsters, Corruption And The London Olympics, by Michael Gillard. Bloomsbury £18.99)