It was 9 years ago today that legendary gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser passed away at the age of 90.
When “Mad” Frankie Fraser used to be transported in handcuffs from prison to prison, he had a little game he liked to play. As the car in which he was being moved slowed down at traffic lights he would glance out of the window and, if there was a car next to his driven by a couple of young men, he would gesture at them and mouth the words “not yet, not yet” – starting a panic among his escorts.
Panic was what Fraser could cause all too easily. He was one of the orginal razor-slashing hardmen, both feared and fearless. When, in the 1960s, he threw in his lot with the Richardson gang in south London, one fellow villain remarked that it was like China getting the atom bomb. Fraser himself made his choice of gang for very pragmatic reasons. Interviewed for the BBC’s Underworld series in 1994, he said: “Using racing terms there would be no race, comparing the Richardsons and the Krays. The Richardsons were miles in front, brain power, everything.”
He was the Little Big Man – all five 5ft 5in of him – of the London underworld. He had seen crime move from the race tracks of Brighton to the bloody Soho feuds of Billy Hill and Jack “Spot” Comer to the present day when, until his health failed over the past few years, he was taking tourists on visits to famous gangland sites and entertaining guests with after-dinner jests about his dark past.
He used to complain that he started life at a great disadvantage because his parents were both honest and hardworking so he had to make his way as a career criminal entirely under his own steam. As he put it: “My mother and father were dead straight so I had to make my own way. If you’ve got parents who have been to prison they can help you considerably with their contacts.”
He started young. As an eight-year-old, without his parents’ knowledge, he was working for a gang “on the bucket” at the race tracks, which meant he offered to sponge down the boards for the bookies – a veiled protection racket which made him 7s and 6d a day at a time when his honest dad was making £2.10s a week. “I thought to myself – this is the game to be in,” he said later. And that was the game he stayed in until almost his dying day. He was even back in the news in 2013 for having received an asbo. According to one version of the story he had threatened a fellow resident of his south London care home for sitting in his favourite seat. It got him a mention in a House of Commons debate.
Fraser achieved his “mad” soubriquet during the second world war when he managed to get himself out of military service by pretending to be two mailbags short of a heist: to prove his unsuitability he assaulted a doctor and jumped out of the window at the Bradford assessment centre where he had been sent. Crime is one of the few careers where being known as mad is an advantage and over the next 40 years or so Fraser played it to the hilt.
He did well in the war, profiting from the lack of able-bodied policemen and the temptations of loot from the blitz. In 1956 he took part in an assault on Comer, one of the would-be kings of Soho, setting about him with a shillelagh. He said afterwards that he would cheerfully have killed him and would have liked to have carved noughts and crosses on his face with a razor to humiliate him. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t that amount of time,” he remarked later.
Fraser was jailed for seven years for this assault despite his counsel’s plea that he was “a weaker vessel of mankind who has been used for a foul purpose”. The judge was unimpressed. He was to spend a total of more than 40 years of his life behind bars, in different stretches, often for violence committed in prison. He was a rebel in jail, taking part in whatever riots presented themselves, most notably in the 1969 Parkhurst riot that added more years to his time inside. Jail did not bother him, he said, because he was familiar with it from Jimmy Cagney films and it seemed “quite comfy”.
In 1966 he was in court following the murder of Dickie Hart in Mr Smiths’ club in south London, but it was the so-called “torture trial” in 1967 when grim tales of violence meted out to those who had fallen foul of the Richardsons emerged. Fraser was accused of pulling out the teeth of his victims with pliers. He joked later that “he gave me good due as a dentist, said it was absolutely painless”. Fraser was jailed for 10 years and it was only when he finally emerged that he decided he could spend a bit more time with his family. Even then, trouble seemed to follow him. He was shot in the head outside Turnmills nightclub in Clerkenwell, central London, in 1992. He survived and the apocryphal tale at the time was that the police had asked him what his name was and he replied: “Tutenkham – I’m keeping mum.
Frankie passed away at King’s College Hospital, London on this day in 2014. He had been on a life-support machine, in an induced coma in intensive care, after problems during an operation on a fractured hip sustained after a fall.
A true gangland legend and a really nice fella.
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