When Reggie Kray met Frances
Few romances have captured the public’s imagination more than the story of East End gangster Reggie Kray and the love of his life, Frances Shea.
More than half a century after Frances’ tragic death, people’s fascination with their brief yet passionate relationship continues.
When Reggie Kray met Frances, he was 26 and she was ten years his junior. The Kray twins were already notorious in London’s gangland, while Frances worked as a secretary. She was described by those who knew her as “shy and innocent”.
Meeting Reggie ultimately led to Frances’ untimely death, at the age of only 23, when an inquest concluded she had committed suicide. A heartbroken Reggie reportedly spent £2,000 on her funeral (the equivalent of £30,000 today) and afterwards descended into a spiral of depression and excessive drinking.
Born in Hoxton, London, in October 1933, the Kray twins both achieved some success as amateur boxers in their youth. However, after being called up for National Service in the British Army, their behaviour led to a dishonourable discharge and a jail term.
This ended their boxing careers and on being released, they were embroiled in a life of crime in the tough East End of London. While on the surface they were respectable businessmen, acquiring clubs and other properties, they were involved in various criminal activities, including protection rackets.
In the Swinging Sixties, their non-criminal public face led to their elevation into highly successful celebrities. They mingled with stars of the era on the nightclub scene including Barbara Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Diana Dors, Jayne Mansfield and other high-profile actors and singers.
Privately, the Krays were the most feared gangsters in London’s criminal underworld, but Ronnie’s reputation was worse than Reggie’s. Although identical twins, Ronnie was prone to violent outbursts, which was later blamed on a schizophrenic illness.
Reggie and Frances meet
Born to Frank and Elsie Shea in Hoxton in 1943, Frances first met Reggie when she was 16. Her older brother, Frank Jnr, was an occasional driver for the Kray twins. Her father, Frank Snr, managed the gambling at Stoke Newington’s Regency Club, where Frances met the Krays.
As a schoolgirl, she loved the arts and was highly intelligent. She was often mistaken for the beautiful French actress, Brigitte Bardot. Reggie was said to be mesmerised by Frances from the moment they first met. After leaving school, Frances took a clerical job at the Strand. It wasn’t long before Reggie began asking her for a date.
Frances felt a little concerned about the age gap but agreed to date him. They would go to the Astor Club in Berkeley Square in Mayfair. As the relationship progressed, they also went to Jersey for a holiday.
However, when Reggie proposed in 1961 after they had been dating for nearly two years, initially, she refused. He was almost 28, and at 18, she felt too young for marriage. Subsequently, their relationship faltered.
Reggie was persistent and wouldn’t give up on the relationship, rekindling the flame by whisking Frances off for romantic breaks to Milan and Barcelona. Their relationship became more serious and Reggie later said some of his fondest memories were of the nights spent with Frances.
They did ordinary things, like any other young couple, such as going to the cinema in the West End. Reggie recalled glancing at Frances’ beautiful brown eyes and seeing her smile back at him. He once said, “Little things like this are what true love is really all about,” adding she made his “heart sing”.
Wedding and marriage
Reggie proposed a second time in February 1965. This time, Frances accepted, as she finally felt ready for marriage. They tied the knot on 19th April 1965, at St James’ Church in Bethnal Green. It was described as the “East End wedding of the year”. As well as family and friends attending, crowds of people turned out to see the local celebrities.
Many stars, including actress Diana Dors, arrived in Rolls Royce cars at the church. Ronnie Kray was the best man and there was a media frenzy. Frances’ mother Elsie was said to be opposed to the wedding but attended to support her daughter.
The couple honeymooned in Athens, but their marriage was in trouble almost as soon as it had begun. Entries in Frances’ personal diary claimed Reggie was a heavy drinker who had a temper and kept an arsenal of weapons in their bedroom to protect himself. Just three months after their wedding, Frances walked out on Reggie and returned to her parents’ home.
Different pictures have been painted, both of Reggie and Frances’ relationship and of the Krays’ personalities, based on various accounts from family members, friends and former associates.
The twins’ younger cousin, Kim Peat, remembered them as being very kind to her as a child – to the point where she was spoiled. They were also very kind to their mum Violet and their grandma, Nanny Lee. However, Frances was reportedly unhappy in their marriage virtually from the outset.
Reggie was desperate for reconciliation and suggested a second honeymoon in Ibiza at the end of June 1965. Apparently, the trip was booked through a local travel agent, but they didn’t actually go. Despite being separated, they never divorced.
Mental health concerns
Frances had attempted suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates during the marriage, according to her niece, but she was revived. She always insisted afterwards she would never “do something stupid”.
However, her family said Frances changed from being someone who was “happy and singing all the time” to being “frail, quiet and delicate”. No one had realised she was “very ill”. While rumour had it that Frances’ mental health condition worsened due to Reggie’s gangland lifestyle, her niece said she wasn’t sure this was completely true. She believed Reggie really did love her and only two days before her death, he was looking through holiday brochures, as he was planning to take her “somewhere nice”.
In December 2020, in an interview with Frances’ niece, it was suggested she was mentally ill, in an era when the condition wasn’t really understood. She didn’t get the right treatment – and although Reggie’s lifestyle “didn’t help”, he didn’t necessarily drive her to suicide.
Although no one will ever know for sure the true story, Frances died on 7th June 1967, when she committed suicide at her brother Frank Shea Jnr’s flat in Wimbourne Court, Hackney. Reggie was heartbroken when he found out and arranged his wife’s funeral at St James’ Church – the same church where they were married.
She was buried in the Kray family plot at Chingford Mount Cemetery in Essex. Reggie cried throughout the service and had to be dragged away from the graveside by Ronnie. He visited her grave several times a day. It was suggested his deterioration into excessive drinking afterwards led to the murder of Jack McVitie four months later.
In March 1969, both Kray twins were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of George Cornell and McVitie. Ronnie died of a heart attack on 17th March 1995, aged 61. Reggie died of cancer in October 2000, aged 66. More than 50 years after Frances’ tragic death, the mystique surrounding her life lives on.
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