kray twinsTraditional Organised Crime in Britain

John Lea  2005

In the previous lecture we looked at the development of forms of traditional organised crime in Sicily and in the United States up to roughly the end of the 1950s. We stressed two features of traditional organised crime illustrated by the Sicilian and American Mafia

  • It was based in and sought control over local communities. Control and status were more important in many respects than illegal trading and money making.
  • It was generally organised on a decentralised family basis

We also noted that during the Prohibition era of the 1920s Italian-American organised crime moved out of the ethnic Italian ghettos and became a nation-wide organisation oriented to illegal racketeering and money making. 

A British Mafia?

We now turn to the study of organised crime in Britain, and London in particular. The first question that it is interesting to tackle is now far these traditional forms of organised crime were to be found in this country.  The answer in brief is that some elements were found that could have developed into a sort of British Mafia or Cosa Nostra but the political and social conditions were very different from those in Sicily in the nineteenth century or New York and Chicago in the the early years of the twentieth century with the result that nothing like a British Mafia developed during the period under consideration.

London,  especially areas like the East End, contained criminal areas from earliest times. Some of the old 'rookeries' such a Clerkenwell had been hideouts for generations of professional burglars, pickpockets, forgers and the like. But was there anything approaching the continuous activity  that we associate with organised crime, and what was its relationship with the local communities from which its members came?

The character of the London criminal scene in the years just before the First World War is revealed in the life of Arthur Harding, whose memories were published by the historian Raphael Samuel. Harding described his native area of Whitechapel at the turn of the century:

"Edward Emmanuel had a group of Jewish terrors. There was Jackie Berman. He told a pack of lies against me in the vendetta case - he had me put away… Bobby Levy - he lived down Chingford way - and his brother Moey. Bobby Nark - he was a good fighting chap. In later years all the Jewish terrors worked with the Italian mob on the race course… The Narks were a famous Jewish family from out of Aldgate. Bobby was a fine big fellow though he wasn't very brainy. His team used to hang out in a pub at Aldgate on the corner of Petticoat Lane. I've seen him smash a bloke's hat over his face and knock his beer over. He belonged to the Darby Sabini gang - that was made up of Jewish chaps and Italian chaps. He married an English lady - stone rich - they said she was worth thousands and thousands of pounds. He's dead and gone now. (Samuel 1981: 133-4)

In other words the East End of London was a bit like American cities only on a smaller scale - different ethnic groups had their local gangs, sometimes they worked together and sometimes they fought each other. No group was powerful enough to dominate the scene entirely.

The Sabini Family and the racecourse gangs

brighton rockThe nearest thing to a London version of the Sicilian Mafia during this period was the Sabini family, who Arthur Harding mentions in his memoires. The Sabinis were from Irish and Sicilian heritage and their base was the Italian community in the old Clerkenwell area of London. They were: "bound together by ties of class, community, ethnicity, neighbourhood and family as much as crime. Thus the Sabini brothers and various other relatives and friends involved in violent territorial conflicts often around family-owned businesses stood dumbly in the dock at Marylebone magistrates court in 1923 when Justice Darling attempted to converse with them in Italian, describing them as direct descendants of Sicilian war-lords. (Shore 2007)

There is a biography of Darby Sabini by Edward Hart (see the booklist at the end of the lecture). What did they do, apart from fighting with other gangs, that can classify them as organised crime? Remember organised crime, as opposed to project crime, requires continuous activity. They protected the Italian community from attacks by Hackney and Birmingham gangs. They engaged in a little loansharking to people with bad gambling debts and protected illegal bookies on the horse race tracks. They worked mainly on the race courses at Epson, Brighton and Lewes. Illegal bookies (betting stalls) were out in the open air on the race course and had a lot of cash on them. They needed protection. Sabini and his gang would have fights - using in those days barber shop razors as their main weapon - with rival gangs over this lucrative protection racket. The Jewish bookmakers made an alliance with these Italian gangsters for protection. The Sabinis also formed an alliance, it is said, with the police to keep other gangs out. The racecourse protection rackets continued well into the 1930s and feature in Graham Greene's famous novel Brighton Rock (made into a film in 1947 starring Richard Attenborough - see poster on left)The East End gangs tried, without much success, to extend their protection rackets to the nightclub scene in London's West End. Just before the Second World War 1939-45 the Sabini gang was displaced by the Whites, an Islington family, as the main racecourse racketeers.

If we look back, particularly at the Sabini gang, we can see that on the one hand they had all the qualifications for being regarded as organised crime in the sense we have been using the term: they both engaged in criminal activity of a continuing nature, and at the same time provided certain protection services for members of their own (Italian) community. In this respect they were no different from the Sicilian communities developing at that time in New York and Chicago. The only difference was that in London these things were happening on a smaller scale.

But on the other hand they failed to move into the West End. That is to say they failed to move out of their local community into the wider world. This is the big difference from the United States. As we know, it was Prohibition that gave the big boost to people like Al Capone. By contrast there was no such thing in Britain that would help the local gangs break out of their own territory into the 'big time'. Exactly the same was true of the Kray twins' outfit in the 1960s. Indeed the attempt to move into the West End was, as we shall see, their undoing. It is not that criminal gangs don't operate protection rackets in the West End, it is rather that where no group is sufficiently powerful either to challenge either competing criminal groups or the police, the attempt to move into a new area is precarious and usually fails.

During the period between the two world wars therefore, while in America the Mafia was becoming a national force, in Britain organised crime groups were simply one stage up from street gangs and did not manage to break out of their own neighbourhoods. Indeed, the most interesting forms of 'gangster' crime during that period concerned not the Mafia but project criminals - 'hit and run' or 'smash and grab' style bank robbers and jewel thieves. These were the sections of the criminal underworld that were the innovators. For example the first modern robbers to use a motor car in Britain were Ruby Sparks and his girlfriend driver Lillian Goldstein who were equivalents to the American bandits Bonny and Clyde. Like their American equivalents these robbers had little to do with organised crime. They would simply do a robbery somewhere where they were least expected and then lie low and sell the jewels or whatever they had stolen. Bank robbers were getting more skilled in their techniques of safebreaking, gelignite was becoming more widely used. But organised crime remained at a localised and restricted level. As far as most commentators were concerned, we simply didn't have it in Britain.

During and after the Second World War (1939-45) there was some petty corruption. War-time shortages and rationing of food after the war gave opportunities to the criminal fraternity to run the 'black market' as it was called, in illegal smuggled foodstuffs and other scarce items. As Donald Thomas documents, in his book An Underworld at War all sorts of people, and not just professional criminals, were involved in wartime racketeering.

But the opportunities presented by war-time shortages and the rationing of essential goods that continued into the post-war years was no equivalent to the Prohibition era in the United States. The criminal scene in London during the 1950s remained a mixture of small time gangs engaged in very localised protection rackets, illegal gambling clubs (mainstream gambling was legalised in 1960 which cut the ground from under the criminal element). Most of the big cities had their gangs - Glasgow, Sheffield. But they were always simply one step up from petty crime and certainly lacked any political connections with local government. There were a variety of characters involved. Many of them, in East London, connected with the Boxing scene. During the 1950s the local rackets - illegal gambling, extortion and protection, were run by the likes of Jack Spot, Billy Hill and Albert Dimes . These people had their fingers in a number of pies from the organised crime activities just mentioned to 'smash and grab raids' Armed robberies were on the increase at that time. Prostitution and vice were concentrated at that time in the hands of the Maltese family the Messina brothers

One of the more colourful characters from the East End at that time (1950s) was Shirley Pitts who was one of a rare breed of female professional criminals. She was into high class shoplifting. Shirley and her 'girls' focused their attention on big West End Stores like Harrods but made 'shopping' expeditions as far afield as Paris, Geneva and Berlin. She died in 1992, she was reportedly buried in an expensive dress, stolen for the occasion. Their were wreaths from everyone in the London criminal underworld and flowers on the hearse were made up in the shape of a Harrods bag with the words 'gone shopping'. Her life story was recently written by Lorraine Gamman (1996)

There was some, fairly low level corruption in the police particularly as regards the prostitution scene in London in the 1960s. This was recently portrayed in the TV serial 'Our Friends in the North' which you may (or may not) have seen.

The Krays

KraysThe generation after Jack Spot and Billy Hill were dominated by the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie who made the headlines during the 1960s. The third brother Charlie was only recently in prison. They were based in clubs and the Boxing world - like the Sabini's before them they were proper organised crime, that is to say they engaged in continuous activities such as extortion rackets protection , fraud, crooked share deals, organised intimidation and blackmail. They were the closest to the model of the traditional American Mafia that has been achieved in Britain. Indeed it is said that they were obsessed with becoming regarded as Mafia 'dons'. At one stage in their careers they even dressed like Americans. They lived a fantasy land of American gangster movies and saw themselves as its English counterparts. Indeed part of their expansion attempts - to move out of the East End of London into the West End night club scene involved the development of links with American Mafia groups, notably through Meyer Lansky an American who was interested in trying to get into the night-club and gambling scene in London's Mayfair district. The attempt was unsuccessful.

At the same time the leading criminal figures in South London were Charlie and Eddie Richardson, who ran a scrap metal business. They were into protection, extortion loansharking, supplying fruit machines to clubs and casinos in London and the North of. England where they organised protection rackets. It is also alleged that they acted as agents for the South African police who were interested in keeping tabs on anti-apartheid activities in Britain. The Richardsons were also well connected to 'project criminals' professional robbers. They were active in money laundering. They reputedly laundered 2.5 million from the Great Train Robbery (1963) Money laundering will be discussed in a later lecture but it is basically the process of disguising the criminal origins of money. At that time the main source of money which needed laundering was from project crime - large robberies. Nowadays it is much more likely to be organised crime money from the drugs trade.

As with the Sabinis before them the undoing of the Krays was their attempt to move into the West End gambling and vice scene during the mid 1960s This necessitated control of Soho and Mayfair which was at that time dominated by another London gang under the Richardsons. Hence gang warfare broke out. This is a normal characteristic of organised crime as different groups compete to dominate territory or to enter new areas of activity. We have mentioned the Chicago gang wars in the 1920s through which people like Al Capone came to power. The point was that here in Britain, the organised crime groups were simply no match for the police who, relatively uncorrupted - though by no means entirely - were determined to put the Krays behind bars once they started killing people. After 6 murders the Metropolitan police CID led by the legendary Detective Superintendant 'Nipper' Read put the Krays away for a long time in 1969. At the Old Bailey, the Judge, Melford Stevenson sentenced them with the words 'society has earned a rest from your activities'.


Web links to material on the Kray twins and their various activities are numerous. Here are three for you:

The Kray official web site which aims to 'put the record straight' 

Mr Thomas L. Jones has an entire life history of the Krays

A BBC site on the life of the Krays

Wikipedia page on the Krays

Also the thriller writer Jake Arnott has evoked the period in his novels. In particular The Long Firm  which is set in1960s London


Armed Robbery

A lot of other crime was underway during the 1960s and although in the popular periodicals it was thought of as 'organised crime' it was project crime by our definition. The 1960s saw a substantial growth in armed bank robbery. Bank robbers usually consisted of a group of 'loners' who came together for a particular job and then shared the takings and went into hiding for a time. The project criminal has no desire to control territory or to be feared in a particular area. He wants the money - period. Normally the rule is that the fewer people are involved, the fewer mouths to blab. Nevertheless the 1960s saw some spectacular heists involving, as in the Great Train Robbery of 1963, up to 15 people in the gang which robbed 2.5 million from the BiggsGlasgow to Euston mail train. The driver died of wounds when he was coshed by the robbers, a fact which accounted for the long prison sentences meted out to the participants. The robbery involved a number of people. The better known names were Charlie Wilson - who was later shot in Spain in connection with other criminal activities, Buster Edwards who, after completing his prison sentence ran a flower stall outside Waterloo station where he died some years afterwards. But the best known was Ronnie Biggs (pictured left) who in 1965 escaped from Wandsworth prison and spent most of the rest of his life in Brazil 

Armed robbery wound down during the 1970s as the police made use of the 'supergrass' the criminal who would give evidence in return for a lighter sentence. The supergrass is also an important source of information and evidence in organised crime. However, armed robberies have continued to become more sophisticated and leading 'project' criminals come to enjoy a lifestyle of luxury. Large scale robberies have become more sophisticated and have involved greater amounts:

  • 1963 Great Train Robbery-about 3 million
  • 1983 Security Express-6 million
  • 1983 Heathrow Brinks-Mat-30 million
  • 1987 Knightsbridge Safe Deposit-possibly 60 million
  • 1990 City of London Bearer Bonds-about 292 million

Both the latter two were really modern with well connected international networks involved. Money was laundered around the world. In the Knightsbridge robber there were Italian, Russian and Pakistani connections in the Knightsbridge robbery.

The end of an era

All these other events notwithstanding, the Krays remain the most colourful characters in British crime from that period. Their imprisonment was the end of an era. Yet the Krays still remain a source of fascination. There are more books about them than any other group of criminals in Britain (the best remains John Pearsons - see the references at the end of the lecture). A film has been made about them. Ronnie died in 1995 and the funeral at St Matthews Church in Bethnal Green, was a media event. The service involved the Frank Sinatra song 'I did it my way' The only individual who comes anywhere near the Krays in the folklore of modern British professional crime is probably Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robbery. Reggie Kray died in 2000

The Weakness of Traditional Organised Crime in Britain 

Before moving on let us try and sum up the issue with which we began this section. We have seen that some of the ingredients were present in London much as they were in New York or Chicago that might have developed into something along the lines of the American 'Mob'. But circumstances were very different in London.

Certainly, as we have seen, the family has played a role in the development of organised crime: the Sabinis, The Krays. But these families never aspired to or achieved the status of 'Godfathers'. No doubt the Kray brothers might have at times liked to think of themselves in this way.  The Sabini's protected the Italian immigrant community of Clerkenwell in East London from outside gangs. At the funerals of the Kray brothers one or two elderly residents of the area could be relied upon to remark to journalists to the effect that there was a lot less riff raff involved in petty street crime during the days when the Krays were at their peak. But there has been nothing remotely resembling the 'Godfather' situation portrayed in the previous lecture (and even in the American case it was probably an exaggeration) yet alone the situation in which the old Sicilian Mafia operated. The Krays, it is said, attempted to get the American Mafia interested in moving in to the London gambling scene in the 1960s and told the Americans an exaggerated story of how they (the Krays) ruled London. But this was pure fantasy. Even the more colourful characters we have dealt with from the period up to the end of the 1960s were very localised and never rose above the status of local gang leaders. If we were dealing with, say, Glasgow which has a very strong gang tradition, then we would be dealing with a different set of characters.

A number of writers on organised crime during that period, including leading American theorists like Donald Cressey and Joseph Albini, commented on the different scale and structure of British organised crime by comparison to its American counterpart. They agreed that traditional British organised crime exhibited a less solid structure than American. Scholars like John Mack and Hans Kerner argued that similar activities were undertaken in Britain and Europe  as in North America -- loansharking, protection rackets etc, -- but that there was a greater number of groups involved and which, with the obvious exception of the Italian Mafia, were more decentralised and more akin to project criminals. Donald Cressey argued that we had to understand the political and historical differences between Britain and America to understand the reasons behind the different organised crime structures in each country. 

The American criminologist Donald Cressy wrote a short article (during the 1960s) on the differences between traditional American and British organised crime which you can read here

Also useful is an article by Philip Jenkins and Garry Potter (1986)  here

the political system

When looking at the development of traditional organised crime in Sicily and  the United States we noted how in Sicily the Mafia colluded with, and substituted its own power for that of the state, and how in American cities like Chicago the decentralised power of local politicians provided many opportunities for relations with organised crime. By contrast, the British state is one of the most centralised and strongest in the world, certainly more centralised than the US. Britain is of course a smaller country. Political power is concentrated in London and local government in Britain does not have anything like the same powers as the separate states of the US of the Mayors of great cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. The greater concentration of power and decision making means less opportunity for corruption by organised crime. For example in the US the city police chief is appointed by the Mayor who is an elected politician. In big American cities like Chicago during the Prohibition era Mafia bosses like Al Capone were able to corrupt elected politicians including the Mayor, to ensure that the police turned a blind eye to the speakeasies and illegal drinking saloons. That is not to say that police corruption by criminal gangs does not exist in Britain: it certainly does, but it rarely extends up to the senior ranks to the Chief Constable. Local government has relatively little control over what the police does. That brings other problems, but it makes it harder for organised crime to have a serious influence over the police through the channel of corrupt local politicians.

One task you can set yourself is to think about the areas of London or any other city you are familiar with and find out whether there have been any corruption scandals in recent years. Often there are allegations that council officials are being bribed by subcontractors to secure local government building contracts. Usually however this is not a matter of organised crime but is rather 'white collar crime' in which local building contractors rather than any organised crime groups are doing the corrupting. But it might make an interesting dissertation topic to look into local scandals of this type.

Of course once organised crime is powerful it can penetrate not only local but national government. We have noted already that the growth of the Sicilian Mafia was partly a product of the weakness of the central government. Such conditions never existed in Britain, at least in the modern period. The central government in London has at least since the eighteenth century been a relatively strong institution. There has been little opportunity for the development of independent sources of power. Again, in Sicily, once the Mafia had achieved strength and control over the local community it could influence voting behaviour and so make itself indispensable to politicians seeking election to national government and they would, in return, act to protect Mafia interests. 

In Britain the strength of the state kept organised crime local and neighbourhood oriented. Criminals needed to rely on the community and family networks in which they lived to protect them from the state. Disguise and evasion rather than corruption were the main method of whereby criminal organisation attempted to neutralise the police. The provider of illegal goods and services to clients would lurk in the ‘red light’ districts of large cities behind a front of legitimate business activity. Attempts at police corruption would remain fairly low level exchanges with street detectives and partly subsumable under the normal relationships between police and criminals of turning a blind eye to certain activities in return for co-operation and information on more serious crimes. Of course, as with other types of crime a residual pathology of criminal areas temporarily resistant to, or skirted by, modernisation could continue to sustain a more traditional criminal habitus. The East End of London could sustain the Kray twins, South London the Richardsons, well into the 1960s and beyond. (Hobbs 1988: 54, Foster 1990, Robson 1997,)

the tradition of non violence

A second reason, sometimes referred to, for the relative weakness of organised crime in Britain is the lack of availability of firearms. This is really an aspect of the power of the central government. There has always been tight central control of the issue of firearms licences by central government. In America the right of citizens to bear arms is considered a constitutional right and there is a very powerful gun lobby which opposes any attempt to restrict the right to own weapons. That is not to say that firearms haven't been used throughout the history of crime in Britain, only that there have been fewer of them. This, again, is almost certainly changing at the present time. One result of the changes in Russia and Eastern Europe has been a flood of cheap automatic weapons onto the market. We shall look at this more closely later.

lack of opportunities for expansion

A third factor has been the relative absence of opportunities in Britain, not for the existence of organised crime as such, but for it to grow into a large and powerful organisation. Remember that the expansion of the American Mafia from localised gangs working only in the Italian ghettos of American cities into a nationally organised, powerful, wealth organisation was the Prohibition era. There has never been a comparable period in British history. (Prohibition was mentioned in Lecture 2 -  you can read the relevant section of Lecture 2 again)

Because of the lack of opportunities in things like gambling and alcohol prohibition, a relatively greater focus has been on 'project crime' activities - that is combining with others in one-off bank robberies etc. and 'white collar' crimes such as various types of business fraud. These have been more important sources of money than the more continuous activities associated with organised crime. But the latter - in particular extortion and protection rackets - have indeed been present and have been important activities. Remember also that we are talking about the period before the development of the modern drugs trade. As we shall see later the drugs trade has brought a lot of new players into the game and has 'globalised' what once were very localised forms of activity. .

A second important opportunity for organised crime in America was labour-racketeering. After the end of Prohibition the Mafia was able to penetrate trade unions and to force employers to take on only workers who had approached to Mafia for a job. This was particularly powerful in docks and port employment - the Waterfront - and was partly a reflection of the weakness of trade union organisation in America. Some labour unions became indebted to Mafia elements for helping them to 'lean on' employers who would not accept union organisation. The history of the movement in the United States had periods of great violence. Particularly during the 1920s and 1930s ruthless employers would hire thugs to prevent union organisation. Weak unions needed protection. Organised crime would offer protection because it had its eye on union pension funds as sources of money. The most famous 'Mafia' influences union leader was Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union (the truck driver's union). Much of Hoffa's union funds, it is alleged, went to finance Mafia control of gambling. Again, nothing like this occurred in Britain. The strong socialist ideology of the British labour movement and the strength of the Labour party in parliament meant that unions looked to central government to improve their position.

Gambling is another example. In Britain illegal gambling has been less large scale than in the United States. Other activities in which organised crime engages certainly go on, but they are undertaken by organisations which we would not think of as organised crime in the traditional sense. For example 'loansharking' (lending money at exorbitant interest rates to people who cannot or do not want to, borrow from banks, and using the threat of violence to collect) tends to be the preserve of dubious mortgage or finance companies rather than 'organised crime' in the Mafia sense of the term.

But what this says is that we should not become obsessed with a particular variety of organised crime. As we said in the previous lecture, if we start off with a particular definition of organised crime as the Mafia, then we will not look at other varieties. This is a complete mistake as we shall emphasise later on. If the activity takes place, then even if it takes more of a 'white collar crime' form, then we need to study it and realise that the boundaries between white collar and organised crime are very blurred indeed.

What this means is that until the development of the drugs trade in the recent period, the supply of funds at the disposal of organised crime in Britain has therefore tended to be rather restricted. Therefore many organised crime-type activities have taken the form of white collar crime or of project crime - which is directly concerned with obtaining money by robbery - while organised crime groups in the traditional sense have remained small and localised. Again, as we shall see later, this is changing.

the welfare state

A final difference between Britain on the one hand and both Italy and America on the other, has been the existence of a comprehensive welfare state. This has reduced the opportunities for the growth of organised crime in two fundamental ways: on the side of supply and on the side of demand. On the supply side, the existence of well funded unemployment benefits, and a system of free secondary and, until recently, further education, has reduced the supply of young men without work and a means of obtaining money. Of course street crime has risen continuously during the post-war period (from the 1950s onwards) even when welfare benefits were more generous than they are today. But petty crime is one thing, seeking permanent criminal employment as a hit-man or drug courier is another. Again, as unemployment has steadily risen from the mid-1970s onwards, and welfare benefits have been cut back so this factor has tended to weaken. On the side of demand for the services of organised crime, the point is that with a comprehensive system of social security, poor families did not need to look to local criminals to help them, provide them with an income or sort out their problems. The welfare state or the citizens advice bureau would do that. This is different to the fact that there will be a demand for illegal goods and services by those who are interested in drugs, pornography or other illegal goods. The point here is that there was less basis for organised crime to penetrate local communities and neighbourhoods by providing services.

A third aspect of the welfare state relates back to the issue of political corruption that we mentioned above. To the extent that welfare benefits are administered by central government, rather than local authorities then they are less open to influence by organised crime groups. In the United States many saw the development of an elementary system of welfare benefits administered by the Federal government in Washington rather than by local city authorities, inaugurated just before the Second World War by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as something that would undermine the power of corrupt local city governments and their 'political machines'. Thus the sociologist Robert Merton argued:

" is a basic structural change in the form of providing services, through the rationalised procedures of what some call 'the welfare state,' that largely spelled the decline of the political machine... it was the system of 'social security' and the growth of more-or-less bureaucratically administered scholarships which, more than the direct assaults of reformers, have so greatly reduced the power of the political machine." (1957: 194)

However, the system of welfare state in the United States has been far less comprehensive than that in Britain. The point behind Merton's remarks - that centralised welfare undermines the basis for organised crime and local corruption - applies more to the British than to the American system. But again, here in Britain the welfare system is in decline and free university education has recently been abandoned. So things are changing.


A final argument, sometimes put forward, is the vastly smaller Italian immigration into the United Kingdom compared to the United States. As we noted in a previous lecture great care must be taken with this factor to avoid ending up blaming Italian immigrants for the presence of organised crime. Also, as we also noted, much of the argument in America went around in circles and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we saw in the debate between Cressey and Albini, the US government tended to the view that organised crime had been brought to the US by Italian/Sicilian immigrants, therefore it only really looked at Italian organised crime, and thus confirmed its own belief that Italians were responsible for organised crime!

Perhaps a good refutation of that type of argument is provided by the British case. There were as we have seen with the Sabini family substantial numbers of Sicilian families in Britain, concentrated in particular areas, and there was even the rudiments of Mafia-style organised crime. But it never developed into anything big precisely because of the factors we have just been discussing. It is these factors, not the presence or absence of 'aliens' which determine the differences in the structure of organised crime between Britain and the US. 

The Modernisation of British Organised Crime

We shall be dealing with the whole issue of modernisation in a later lecture but it will be useful to introduce the topic here by briefly continuing the story of British organised crime into the present period.  The main factors at work have been

the decline of traditional communities

Part of the nostalgia that surrounds the Krays is nostalgia for an era, for the decline of the old, tightly knit working class communities of the East End of London. These and similar areas had been in decline for some time, particular since the period of economic expansion after the Second World War, from the mid 1950s onwards. Writing in the mid 1970s Mary McIntosh described the tendency at work:

"Traditional criminal areas in London have declined and, increasingly, criminals live scattered about the various boroughs. The ‘underworld’ is no longer a residential area in which neighbours work together and children are brought up with a knowledge of crime and with possible criminal contacts. The underworld is now much more of a social network and if it has a geographical location it is in the centre of London and in the pubs and clubs that various sorts of criminals frequent." (McIntosh 1975: 23)

For a time modernisation skirted around certain areas, in particular the East End of London. Dick Hobbs, commenting on the culture of East London which sustained the Kray twins, argues that during the 1960s a traditional culture

"…was still intact and the internal control mechanisms that drew so much upon the rich, autonomous isolation of East London's heritage before the dissolution of dock-work and the final destruction of the ecological base, took prime responsibility for the maintenance of the indigenous social order… The Kray twins were crucial to this social order." (Hobbs 1988: 54)

Traditional organised crime has been linked to local communities. It has survived to the extent that they have survived. Economic changes in the recent period which have tended to undermine these old communities - such as the East End of London - have also been factors in the decline of traditional organised crime.

In a similar way Janet Foster, in her study of criminal families in London as late as the early 1980s comments, describes close knit family networks which have escaped modernisation and stresses that it is 

"important to emphasise that despite all the changes that have taken place around them, the lives of those described in this book remained rooted in tradition." (Foster 1990: 14).

For example in the East End of London whole communities grew up of people who worked, one generation to the next, in the docks. They formed stable communities of people who knew each other. In these communities the relationship between petty street crime and professional crime is complex. On the one hand young petty delinquents grow up with a knowledge of and respect for local villains and street crime can function as an apprenticeship for something more serious. On the other hand feared and respected local villains can act as a control on such irritating petty crime. Thus it was said, and no doubt it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, that street crime in East London was a lot less when the Kray Twins were around. Local villains would have an interest in keeping the level of petty crime, with its tendency to draw the police into the area, within certain bounds. Villains would also play a part in enforcing the moral economy of legitimate victims for lesser criminals and would themselves generally conduct their more harmful activities outside the immediate community. From time to time, like the old Sicilian Mafia on a more grand scale, they would perform acts of mediation and conflict resolution in the community. The basis of the nostalgia - part fact, part fiction, is the contrast with the newer more modern organised criminal who is rather more like the project criminal - decentralised, more interested in making money rather than in having a position of status and respect in a tightly knit local community.

canary wharfeBut these areas like East London eventually changed due to the decline of importance of the London docks in the face of the container ports which were springing up further down the river Thames. Some people moved out to work in these container ports further down the Thames - others looked for work elsewhere. Unemployment rose during the 1970s. Various government initiatives tried to attract jobs to the East End. For example many newspapers moved their printing presses from Central London (Fleet Street) to Wapping. But they were using the latest technology and didn't employ masses of people. They were interested also in smashing the old well organised trade unions of the print workers. New Office development like Canary Wharf (pictured   right) employed mainly not local people but city types and 'yuppies' who came in from outside and worked in their offices where computers linked them to Tokyo, Frankfurt and New York, they were 'closer' to these cities than to the old council estates a quarter of a mile away! What happened to the London Docks is a similar process to what has happened in many of the older working class communities based around traditional industries. These developments had a profound effect on the organisation of crime

globalisation and flexibility

As we shall see in a later lecture the other side of the coin of the decline of traditional industries and closed communities has been the massive expansion of international trade and markets and with it the mobility of individuals and groups. New immigrant groups from former colonial territories: the Caribbean, India, Pakistan settled in British cities during the 1960s and 1970s and to some extent recreated the tight-knit communities which were in decline in places like London's East End. Though in an increasingly globalised world the connections outside the locality e.g. with relatives abroad, become much more important aspects of criminal activities. Meanwhile European integration has increased the movement of people and goods. The predominant force at work is globalisation and internationalisation of crime, and this is most obviously illustrated by the drugs Hobbstrade which we will consider in more detail later. Today's organised criminal is a flexible entrepreneur, capable of moving in a number of global markets, making contact with and agreements with groups in other countries and other ethnicities. This means less importance of local territory and a local power base and family structure as the basis for operations. Dick Hobbs, one of Britain's leading experts on organised and professional crime (pictured left) described the changes

"... as locally based villains increasingly afford primacy to engagements with a multiplicity of drug markets, the territory that defined their very existence is being broken down. and the culture of serious crime becomes removed from the territory that spawned its most prominent practitioners and their elementary forms of organisation. As the globalisation of legitimate markets have contributed to the erosion of traditional cultures, so drugs and the subsequent global drugs markets that have evolved since the 1970s have contrived to erode the links between traditional criminal territories and the criminal cultures that they spawn. The contemporary illegal market mirrors its legitimate counterpart in that it is typified by the dialectic between the local and the global, and the ensuing enacted environment within which entrepreneurial personnel engage with the market in a variety of culturally specific forms is too complex for the largely tautological term 'organized crime'" (112)

In other words, rather than each locality having its 'villains' - criminal families who dominate and control the activities in their area, along Mafia type lines, there is a tendency to a plurality of more loosely organised groups involved in a variety of activities - some of them legal some of them illegal. They may be linked to activities which have a global reach, such as the importing and shipment of drugs, smuggling illegal immigrants, stealing cars to order for clients in Eastern Europe in conjunction with Russian organised crime groups (of which more in a later lecture) activities which involve crossing borders within the European Union and Eastern Europe such as for example, as well as activities which are purely localised, such as protection rackets.

Of course there still exist traditional communities and traditional forms of organised crime but they are having to adapt, In another discussion Dick Hobbs (1998) takes two areas of a British city, 'Upton' and 'Downton' - obviously fictitious names. Upton is an area which, despite the destruction of its industrial base, still retains largely

"...a static population grounded in traditional notions of family and neighbourhood, both of which remain coherent and relatively intact. The principal crime groups reflect this traditional profile by being family based and territorially oriented and are a persistent feature of the local landscape across generations. Their focus is the drugs trade and the protection business, generated by the city's highly concentrated leisure industry, and they represent in both style and content an overt, identifiable and heavily localised image of organised criminality." (1998: 410)

So the old local villains have adapted to change and learned, partly, to liase with more globally organised groups such as the Italian Mafia or the Latin American drugs groups who will be selling drugs in Europe. Local people will make the occasional trip to Amsterdam for example, to collect goods which will be sold locally. Other activities, such as protection rackets in night clubs or restaurants, will be purely a local matter. Again, it is not that traditional forms have entirely disappeared. It is

"... not a denial of the importance of families in nurturing and generating deviant collaborations, rather that the fragmentation of both the traditional working class neighbourhood and of the local labour market has made it difficult for family-based units to establish the parochial dominance previously enjoyed by the feudal warlords of the 1950s and 1960s" (1998: 409)

Downton, by contrast, is an area in which the break up of the old community has

"led to the dissolution of those traditional forms of organised crime that were so reliant upon this milieu and upon traditional family structures in particular. The new entrepreneurial based arenas are supportive of networks that function as fertile terrain for an abundance of entrepreneurial options both legal and illegal." (409).

This gives rise to a much more fluid form of organisation:

"There are no key players in this network, no ring leaders, bosses or godfathers. It is a co-operative, a series of temporary social arrangements that enables a constantly changing group of actors to make money from predominantly criminal opportunities." (413)

So the newer types of organised crime exhibit two main characteristics:

  • An orientation to profit. There is little interest in dominating an area or sorting out its problems. None of these gangs want local people to come to them for assistance or give them respect, except in the sense of fearing them and not 'messing with them'. Their main interest is keeping competitors (and of course the police) at bay.

  • Flexibility and mobility. They combine for particular purposes and then recombine for others. Whereas in traditional organised crime the family would remain as the core unit and engage in a variety of activities from time to time, the new organisation consists of people who combine together for shorter periods of time to do particular activities which happen to be profitable - drugs of course - cocaine, heroin, amphetamines etc., then maybe importing illegal pornography, smuggling alcohol and tobacco into the country or stolen cars out to Eastern Europe or whatever is profitable

We can conclude with an extract from a recent article in the Economist magazine (September 18th 2003) Called "Colourblind crooks: Organised crime is a model of ethnic harmony"  The article concerns a forthcoming trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court in East London of a remarkably ethnically mixed group of drug traffickers

"British society as a whole has become more ethnically integrated over the past three decades, while business has expanded its global reach. But nowhere have these changes been embraced more enthusiastically than among organised criminals...

"...This is especially true of drug traffickers. Heroin may be brought in to the country by West African drug mules or English lorry drivers working for Turkish or South Asian contractors; it is then distributed to middlemen and street dealers from Albania, Jamaica, Pakistan and Scotland. As Dave King, a National Crime Squad adviser, says, 'these people will deal with anybody. They take very little account of ethnic differences.'

"....The increasingly rainbow-coloured character of organised crime is a clue to its maturity. As businesses, all criminal enterprises suffer from what economists call high transaction costs. Because they have no recourse to law, and cannot create binding contracts, they are liable to spend enormous amounts of time and money making sure that individual members (who are, after all, crooks) fulfil their obligations. This is why many start out as family or ethnic outfits. It is easier to obtain reliable recruits and then keep them in line if, as in the old New York Mafia, criminal hierarchies mirror social ones.

"... a gang that is reluctant to deal with outsiders will be unable to diversify its operations, or secure a broad market for its products. Most organised crime groups become more accepting of outsiders as they grow in size and ambition. The benefits that accrue from networking and increased openness more than compensate for the extra dangers.

"... Where does all this leave the old-fashioned British firm? Certainly not out in the cold. London police say that native crooks are heavily involved behind the scenes—facilitating trades, laundering money, and procuring firearms. At least, that is what the relatively small British-based criminals do. The big players have moved their offices to Spain and the Netherlands."


John Mack and Hans Kerner (1975) The Crime Industry . Aldershot: Saxon House

Robert Merton, (1957) Social Theory and Social Structure . New York: Free Press

Raphael Samuel (1981) The East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding. London: Routledge

Edward Hart (1993) Britain's Godfather  London: Forum Press

Jack Arnott (2000) The Long Firm. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Janet Foster (1990) Villains: crime and community in the inner city, London: Routledge

Dick Hobbs, (1988), Doing The Business: Entrepreneurship, the Working Class and Detectives in the East End of London, (Clarendon Press)

Dick Hobbs (1994) 'Professional and Organized Crime in Britain' in Mike Maguire, Robert Morgan & Robert Reiner, (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology Oxford: Clarendon Press

Dick Hobbs, (1995) Bad Business: Professional Crime in Modern Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dick Hobbs  (1998) 'Going down the Glocal: The Local Context of Organised Crime'. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 37:4 pp 407-422.

Lorraine Gamman (1996). Gone Shopping: the story of Shirley Pitts, Queen of Thieves. (Signet Books)

Robson, Garry (1997) 'Class, criminality and embodied consciousness: Charlie Richardson and a South East London HABITUS' Critical Urban Studies: Occasional Papers. London: University of London, Goldsmiths College, Centre for Urban and Community Research.