diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 09, 2006

Shoot-out at the Blind Beggar: Wednesday March 9th 1966

Forty years ago tonight one of the East End's most notorious murders took place. Ronnie Kray walked into the Blind Beggar pub on the Whitechapel Road and shot dead gangland rival George Cornell, supposedly for calling him a "big fat poof". Which of course he was, although it was highly inadvisable to mention this out loud. George may have been stupid, but his cold-blooded murder shocked the East End. And you wouldn't guess from looking at the pub today, but the Blind Beggar has quite a history...
'My father,' she sayd, 'is soone to be seene;
The seely blind beggar of Bednalle-greene,
That dayle sits begging for charitie,
He is the good father of prettye Bessee'

(popular Elizabethan ballad)
Legend tells that the original 'blind beggar' was Henry de Montfort, a medieval nobleman. He was left disfigured following the battle of Evesham in 1265 and reduced to begging on the streets in this part of ye olde Whitechapel. Henry's daughter Bessee was a bit of a looker and soon attracted the attention of many noble suitors, but all were discouraged from marriage by her father's wretched appearance. That is until one gentleman finally had the courage to ask him for Bessee's hand in marriage, upon which Henry revealed that he was in fact heir to the Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, and handed over a large sum of money to pay for the wedding. That's one version of the story, anyway.
"By coach to Bednall Green, to Sir W. Rider's to dinner. A fine merry walk with the ladies alone after dinner in the garden, which is very pleasant; the greatest quantity of strawberrys I ever saw, and good, and a collation of great mirth. This very house was built by the Blind Beggar of Bednall Green, so much talked of and sang in ballads."
(Samuel Pepys diary, 26th June 1663)
In Pepys' time Whitechapel and Bethnal Green were well-to-do country villages situated in green fields outside the City walls. However, the growth of the capital over subsequent centuries brought great poverty and slum conditions to the area. In 1865 former Methodist minister William Booth arrived here from Nottingham and was shocked by what he saw. He was walking along the Whitechapel Road when he came across a religious open-air meeting taking place outside the Blind Beggar. William stepped up to preach and so impressed the organisers that they invited him to lead their small tent-based mission nearby. From this chance meeting was formed the Salvation Army, and Booth devoted the rest of his life to raising the poor of the East End out of poverty through the power of the gospel. A statue close to the pub marks the birth of this earnest international organisation (take a historical walkabout here) although I've never once seen a single tambourine waved in the vicinity.
"I went off to the Mile End Waste, where Mr Booth was preaching. Well, I think he was the most impetuous man I ever met. There he was holding forth, surrounded by the blackguards of Whitechapel, who in them days were the greatest vagabonds you could meet anywhere on God’s earth. Some were mocking, and some were laughing; but Mr. Booth he shouted at them finely, and then gave out a hymn, and led the singing till he just drowned their noises, or nearly so."
(William Booth's first convert - an Irish prize-fighter, July 1865)
100 years later, Reggie and Ronnie Kray ruled the roost in Whitechapel. They ran the underworld north of the river, while the Richardsons held sway over the south. George Cornell was a burly meathead with a sadistic reputation, originally a mate of the Krays but who later defected to work for the southern gang. George was rumoured to have been heavily involved in a fatal shootout at a club in Catford on 7th March 1966, a gun battle in which one of the Kray's cousins was fatally wounded. Two days later Ronnie heard that George had dared to go drinking in Kray territory, at the Blind Beggar, so he dashed round from a nearby pub to exact his revenge. George greeted Ronnie with a sarcastic comment, so Ronnie whipped out a pistol and shot George three times in the head. Like you do. To the police's dismay not one of the regulars drinking in the pub that night was willing to testify against Ronnie, and so his fearsome gangland career stuttered on unchallenged for another year.
(anonymous letter to Chief Inspector Thomas Butler, Scotland Yard, 4 August 1966)
The Blind Beggar today is just an ordinary East End pub with beer garden, conservatory and satellite TV. It still gets its fair share of curious visitors, popping in for a half of shandy as an excuse to hunt for evidence of bulletholes in the walls or bloodstains on the carpet. And there are still just enough Whitechapel residents to keep the business ticking over, though not as many as before because most of the locals these days don't drink alcohol. But you won't see any gangland villains hanging out on the comfy sofas today, nor disguised noblemen begging on the street outside. And, if anybody asks, I wasn't there on that dark March evening forty years ago, honest. I have an alibi - I was attending my first birthday party twenty miles away at the time.

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