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Irish barber's bond with gangster Reggie Kray

Crime DeskBy Lynne Kelleher
James Coughlan
James Coughlan

An Irish barber has revealed for the first time how he was one of the chosen few invited to say a final goodbye to notorious gangster Reggie Kray on his deathbed.

James Coughlan forged an unlikely 10-year friendship with the infamous mob boss in the 1990s when he became involved in the boxing scene in London’s East End, shortly after emigrating from Ireland at the age of 17.

And he said he believes the new movie Legend – where Tom Hardy portrays brothers Ronald and Reggie Kray – would have met with the approval of the sharp-suited mobster who mixed with the rich and famous.

The Clare barber, who visited Reggie in prison shortly after the release of the 1990 movie, The Krays – which starred Martin and Gary Kemp – said the mobster hated the film, particularly because it featured his mother Violet swearing.

“He hated everything about the movie, but mostly because his mother swore in the movie – and his mother never swore in her life,” said James. 

“I visited him shortly after it came out and he said the Kemp brothers made them out to be some kind of clowns.

“I think he would be very impressed with Tom Hardy’s movie because you can feel the fear even seeing the clips. I think Tom Hardy will portray him the way he would want to be remembered.”

James holding a photo of Charlie Kray

“Even when I was talking to Reggie for the first time you kind of knew this man could have you killed if he wanted to. He had so much power from prison.”

The fascination with the Kray’s  glamorous East End crime empire has ramped up this year with the release of the new movie, along with two new documentaries and two new books to add to over 50 biographies on the criminals.

The barber from Ennistymon, Co. Clare, said he has decided to reveal for the first time how he became such a trusted member of the Kray’s close circle that he was asked to videotape Ronnie Kray’s wake and funeral by Reggie.

Despite having no criminal connections, ‘Jimi’, who now runs Jimi’s Barber Shop in Kilrush, was adopted into their inner circle when he met the twins’ older brother Charlie, while sparring at the famous York Hall boxing club as a young man.

“Charlie was always there and I got to know him. He always said I was one of the few people who talked to them normally. I didn’t act like a hard man.”

While doing an occasional shift in the East End Guv’nor pub owned by Kray gang member Lenny McLean – famously portrayed as Harry the Hatchet in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – he found himself first talking to Reggie Kray on the phone.

Reggie's funeral booklet

“Reggie would phone the bar from Maidstone Prison whenever he wanted. I talked to him for three or four years before I met and then he said he wanted to meet me.

“I was aware of the whole legend.   I never condoned anything he did. I wanted to meet the guy that frightened London.

“I first went down to Maidstone Prison with Shane Richie, the actor, in his Rolls Royce.

“In the visiting room, I saw this little old man taking small steps towards me. When you talked to him you could see what it was all about, the strength and power in the man.

Even in prison he had all this charisma, he was a gentleman.”

His first visit was followed by a string of visits to the Kent jail, accompanied by celebrities including footballer Ian Wright and EastEnders star Steve McFadden, all eager to meet the legendary crime figure.

He told how Reggie ended up trusting him so much that he asked him to videotape the intimate moments at his brother Ronnie’s huge London funeral in 1995 so he could view it in prison.

He said: “Reggie went to the Mass service and the funeral, but went straight back to Maidstone Prison. I had to get comments on videotape from everyone in Lenny’s bar after the funeral.

“All people talked about afterwards was Babs Windsor not turning up.

“Then I brought the tape directly to Reggie in prison. A photo ended up in the press the day afterwards of Ronnie in the coffin and he was very angry, but he never questioned me. He trusted me.”

Despite their violent and cruel reputation, James insists they had a deep sense of honour and respect, unlike today’s criminals

“In lots of ways, they were Robin Hoods. They did look after people around them and protected the whole area. There was no crime on Vallance Road where they grew up, but when the Krays were locked up everything changed.

“They never touched an ordinary person. They only time they did was for killing criminals, from everything I’ve heard.”

James said Reggie spoke to him about his famous Double R Club in London’s swinging Sixties, which attracted icons like Frank Sinatra.

The Kray twins with their mother Violet

“He talked about meeting him and said was very proud about how he gave the likes of Sinatra a start in London.”

He also told how Reggie said one of his dreams on leaving prison was to visit Ireland.

“He loved the fact that I was Irish and he said one of his dreams was to visit Ireland.”

And he said he was one of the chosen few invited to say goodbye when the 66-year-old was let out of prison in 2000 on compassionate grounds after 31 years with terminal cancer.

“People thought he would go back to the East End, but he went to stay over this pub in Norfolk. 

“When I spoke to him two days before he died I asked him about it and he said: ‘Sometimes your past should never be revisited and things should always be remembered as they were.’

“He called me ‘son’ and told me again he wanted to visit Ireland.”