When John Kray was sixteen he heard the news that Napoleon had finally been defeated at Waterloo by the mighty Wellington, it was the dawn of a new age. Great Britain had been fighting France for the whole of John’s life, and for the whole life of his father and his father’s father. Now war was over, and the boom protectionist economy that it had driven was about to descend into the bust economy of peace and competition. No one on the streets of London could see this, and the feeling on the streets was one of elation, chests thrown out, and heads held high. But as high prices, no votes and unemployment in town and country took hold, the countryside started to rise in disorder, and in 1816 this spilled over into London.
On a cold and clear day 2nd December 1816 John Kray laid his file and hammer down to stand at the door of his master’s Brass workshop with the other apprentices to stare on in astonishment at a mass of people surging through the narrow streets. With banners flying, the mob marched on for the Tower of London. These were the “Spenceans” a radical group of what we would probably call communists, the Spenceans were ultra-radical, calling for the destruction of all machinery and the sharing of all property. Many of the unemployed and dispossessed poor had rallied to their assembly, and the hot heads amongst their leaders were leading them to the Tower to win over the garrison, seize the armoury, and light the fire of revolution in the capital.
They surged through the streets around the Tower, calling to the people to join them, one grabbed John Kray by the shoulder:
“Come on boy, join us and live free as a cat!”
“What party do you follow?” John asked.
The man laughed “Whatever the parties you may call, they’re all alike so damn them all!” he laughed louder and sprinted back up the street to join the throng.
John Kray and his fellow apprentices followed “for a laugh” seeing these wild eyed revolutionaries and angry ragged men following them would have been the most exciting thing he had ever seen. They reached the Tower and call upon the garrison to join them. To their dismay and anger, the hardnosed guardsmen, fresh back from fighting the French just laughed in their faces. This was turning into a huge anti-climax, the battle hardened garrison, were easily capable of sweeping the Spenceans away with one bayonet charge, but commonsense prevailed, and the worst the would-be revolutionaries were hit with was derision.
Faced with this one of the younger revolutionary leaders lead a group of them into the City ransacked a gun shop, and shot a customer who remonstrated with him. At this point John and his friends would have decided that they would get back to work before things got completely out of hand, and the numbers of Spenceans started to dwindle, and their resolve to waver, until they were demoralised enough for the Lord Mayor and Militia to disperse them, capturing a number of their ringleaders. Despite the civil unrest they had orchestrated, the four ringleaders walked free because of a problem with the charges brought against them, James Watson, a surgeon and a leader of the more violent faction who had shot the man in the Gunsmith’s shop eluded capture whereas a sailor who had been with him was captured and hanged. The irony would not have been lost on the Krays; if you were a big enough fish, and had the right lawyer you could walk away on a technicality, if you were a foot soldier you would go to the gallows even if you didn’t pull the trigger.
Two years later in 1818, at St James Church Clerkenwell, the nineteen year old John Kray married twenty year old Maria Etteridge. They had six children over the next twenty years, three boys and three girls. John the Brass Finisher, although not a highly skilled job, would at least provide a regular income that would keep a family together with a roof over their heads, and food on the table.
They lived in Goodmans Yard within sight of the Tower. Living conditions weren’t great, one room in the roof of the house thirteen feet by eleven feet, with a fire place, and a window. In this space lived John and Maria plus five of their children. Their only furniture was a bed, a couple of chairs and a table, with washing hanging up across the room when it was too wet to dry outside. With no running water, their room lit by candles, and a rat infested privy in the darkened basement without any other form of sanitation, they would have considered themselves lucky compared to the homeless and starving families they could see on the streets. They even had a Charity School around the corner so at least the children would be able to read, write, and do sums.
The Spenceans had one last throw of the dice two years later in 1820, George III died leaving a constitutional crisis concerning the succession of his dissolute sons, and the Government was forced to call an election. A plot was hatched by a group of Spenceans to raid a Cabinet Dinner with pistols and grenades, kill the entire cabinet, cut off their heads and stick them on spikes on Westminster Bridge, and proclaim a “People’s Parliament”. Unknown to them the conspirator who thought up the plot was actually a government secret service agent, and led them into a trap.
The conspirators were surprised in a loft in Cato Street prior to the attack by a group of Bow Street Runners, who rather than wait for a detachment of Coldstream Guards to arrive to support them, decided to attack and take all the glory for themselves. Although unprepared, the Spenceans fought with pistol and sword, and although over powered killed one of the Runners with a sword thrust.
Justice was swift and decisive, and it is most likely that John Kray would have taken half an hour out of his day to watch as four of the conspirators were publicly hanged in front of a large crowd, before their bodies were cut down from the gibbet and beheaded, the grisly heads held up to the crowd, with the old shout of “behold the head of a traitor!” Another example to John Kray and the crowd of working men and women of the futility of fighting the government when their spies were everywhere, and their vengeance swift and final.