Headmaster's Thoughts: July 2021

This is my second major pandemic experience. My first was in the great flu pandemic (the Hong Kong Flu) of the winter of 1968-69. Then, like now, the vaccine was in short supply, and initially, was only given to priority groups.  Fortunately, I got the vaccine early because I was in the middle of the Kray trial, a historic one by any measure, not least in that it was the longest murder trial ever in Britain.

53 years ago, in May of 1968, I was awakened at about 7:00 am by a telephone call from the managing clerk of Sampsons, a well-known (and, perhaps, slightly shady) set of solicitors located near the Old Bailey. His name was Ralph Haeems, and he worked for Manny Fryde, the qualified solicitor of the firm. Ralph had not yet taken his final exams to qualify as a practicing solicitor, but he seemed, to me at any rate, to run the office.
Ralph and I had worked together on a number of defense cases, and sometimes, against the evidence, been successful. He was a gregarious young Indian man who was Jewish, and thought more highly of me than I deserved. His call was one that would change my life. The Kray gang had been picked up that morning by a large police force lead by Detective Chief Superintendent “Nipper” Read, and they were now in custody for a variety of crimes from murder downwards. Ralph asked me to go to the Magistrates Court that morning, and get them bail.
The Kray gang was, by far, the most important protection and extortion enterprise in London. They had been in conflict with another gang, the Richardson gang, who had all gone, in 1967, to prison after their trial, nicknamed the “torture” trial by the press. Prior to that, the Richardsons had controlled South London, and the Krays, the North. But, after 1967, the Krays effectively ruled London’s underworld. And they did it in a flamboyant way, attracting attention to themselves by being photographed with aristocrats and celebrities, and boasting to all about their “untouchable” status. They called themselves “the firm” after the Royal family, who similarly referred to themselves. In 1968, most Londoners had heard of the Krays. At the time of the phone call, I was 24, having been a barrister for just under 3 years.
When I arrived at the Magistrates Court, I noticed a large police presence. The Krays had been brought there by a convoy of police cars and motorcyclists, all with guns-something rare in London in those days. There were over 50 policemen and nothing that I had ever seen before.
I went to see the 18 accused, and I think they were amused that I was so young. None of them expected to get bail because they had been charged with several murders, and bail was extremely difficult to get for murder. Even someone so charged who had no previous run-ins with the law, would be extremely unlikely to be granted bail. This was not a group of first-time offenders. I remember that Ronnie Kray, a known paranoid schizophrenic who was openly gay, called me “young squire”. Ronnie was the twin brother of Reggie, and the other Kray was their older brother, Charles. I have to say that considering my inexperience, they were remarkably nice to me. Not surprisingly, I did not succeed in getting them bail.
You might be wondering at this point in the narrative, where a pandemic fits in? The Krays were committed to trial at the Old Bailey. Several of the 18 cut deals with the police to give testimony against their fellow gang members. The trial itself lasted 39 days; the record still stands. Charles Kray (with Ralph probably advising) chose me to be his junior counsel. In the middle of that winter, the Hong Kong flu spread around the world. In Britain, the vaccine against the flu was in extremely short supply. Since many of the gang were defended by eminent barristers (under no circumstances could I be considered “eminent”,) and the government was footing the bill for both prosecution and defense, an Act of Parliament was passed that ordered the participants in the trial to get the vaccine. The government in power wanted to eliminate any chance that a re-trial or expensive delay would be necessary if a participant got the flu.  One day, in the middle of the trial, we all lined up. Barristers and Judge (a pro-prosecution judge if ever there was one, called Melford Stevenson, whose country house he named “Truncheons”), policemen and the accused criminals, witnesses and jurors, and we rolled up our sleeves and got jabbed with the precious vaccine. I cannot remember, because I never looked, but, in hindsight, I hope they used a separate needle for each of us. I doubt it. This was 1968-69. Oh, and the Krays were found guilty.
So, if you see the excellent film “Legend” with Tom Hardy playing both twins, or “the Kray Twins”, or even the low budget, and mediocre, “The Rise of the Krays” and “The Fall of the Krays”, you might remember that this writer experienced his first pandemic in that trial. I give you some of the names because these were very real people to me (and they have all passed away), and I still remember them. I also realized, during the Kray case, that defending and prosecuting criminals was a depressing way to spend one’s life. And so I came to New York and, with Jayme, started York Prep. Now, 53 years later, I am experiencing my second pandemic.  In both cases, I got a preference in getting the vaccination. In the first, because I was in a lengthy and expensive trial, and in the second because I was a member of the staff of a school. Both pandemics were terrible in their impact on the lives and deaths of those who got the disease, and their caregivers. Both were stressful with fear for everyone. But, at least in this second of my pandemic experiences, I am with students and teachers; far better company than the first.

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep