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Obituaries: Notorious London gangster Frankie Fraser

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HITMAN: ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, pictured here in 1997, died in hospital. He was certified insane on three separate occasions and spent 42 years in prison

HITMAN: ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, pictured here in 1997, died in hospital. He was certified insane on three separate occasions and spent 42 years in prison

PA

HITMAN: ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, pictured here in 1997, died in hospital. He was certified insane on three separate occasions and spent 42 years in prison

FRANKIE FRASER, who died last Wednesday aged 90, was a notorious torturer and hitman for the Richardson gang of south London criminals in the 1960s. He spent 42 years behind bars before achieving a certain cult status in later life as an author, after-dinner speaker, television pundit and tour guide.

His enduring nickname 'Mad Frank' derived from his violent temperament which caused him to attempt to hang the governor of Wandsworth Prison (and the governor's dog) from a tree, and to be certified insane on three separate occasions.

At least two home secretaries considered Fraser the most dangerous man in Britain, an image which, in old age, he only half-heartedly sought to dispel. Although he was never convicted of murder, police reportedly held him responsible for 40 killings, but the bluster and bravado of a media-savvy gangland relic almost certainly inflated this tally, the actual scale of which remains unfathomable.

Physically slight at only 5ft 4in, and invariably wearing a smile and - in retirement - a sharp Savile Row suit, Frankie Fraser was nevertheless a ferocious and brutal hatchet man. His gangster boss Charles Richardson remembered him as "one of the most polite, mild-mannered men I've met but he has a bad temper on him sometimes".

Tony Lambrianou, a one-time henchman of the rival Kray brothers, was also a fan. Fraser, he recalled, "was more than capable of doing what he threatened".

What Fraser invariably threatened was violence. Indeed, his criminality was closely bound up with what one criminologist described as an overt - almost Samurai - vindication of violent action in pursuit of inverted honour. He shot, slashed, stabbed and axed. An early nickname - Razor Fraser - reflected his penchant for "shivving" his enemies' faces with a cut-throat blade.

An unregenerate villain of the deepest dye, Fraser satisfied the public appetite for vicarious thrill-seeking with a series of self-exculpatory memoirs in the 1990s that launched him on a twilight career as a celebrity criminal. But his greatest moment of notoriety came a quarter of a century earlier, during what the media billed as the Torture Trial (in fact a series of trials) in 1967 that became one of the longest in British criminal history.

The two Richardson brothers were convicted, and the elder, Charles, sentenced to 25 years. Fraser, tried separately, was jailed for 10.

Charles Richardson was a criminal businessman who reputedly specialised in various tortures administered at secret 'courts' at which he presided, sometimes robed like a judge, a knife or a gun to hand. Those who had incurred Richardson's displeasure were wired up to a sinister black box with a wind-up handle that administered severe electric shocks to the genitals. Then they were turned over to Fraser.

So it was in January 1965, when a club owner called Benny Coulston was hauled before Richardson for swindling him out of £600 over a consignment of cigarettes. The Old Bailey jury heard how Frankie Fraser tried to pull Coulston's teeth out one by one with a pair of pliers.

Shortly afterwards, Fraser kidnapped Eric Mason, a Kray gang member, with even direr consequences. When Mason demurred, Fraser buried a hatchet in his skull, pinning his hand to his head. Mason was found, barely alive, wearing only his underpants and wrapped in a blanket, on the steps of the London Hospital in Whitechapel.

"Eric wasn't a bad fellow," Fraser later explained, "but that particular night he was bang out of order."

Fraser spent practically half his life behind bars. He was moved from prison to prison more than 100 times because he was virtually impossible to control. In 1945, when he was 21, he assaulted the governor at Shrewsbury prison with an ebony ruler snatched from the governor's desk, for which he received 18 strokes of the 'cat'.

On the morning of Derek Bentley's execution at Wandsworth in 1953, he spat at the executioner and tried to attack him.

Fraser saw himself as an innovator, claiming to have invented the "Friday gang", robbing wages clerks carrying money from banks. He would use a starting handle to beat his victims and to deter any watching "have-a-go heroes" in the street. He also claimed to have been the first bandit to wear a stocking mask.

He was so attired when, in 1951, he attacked the governor of Wandsworth Prison, William Lawton, as he walked his pet terrier on Wandsworth Common. Fraser considered that Lawton had meted out cruel and vindictive punishment to him at Pentonville in 1948, and to avenge himself Fraser assumed the role of hangman. "I just waited, caught up with him, knocked him about and strung him up with his dog," Fraser remembered. "What saved him I think was the branch; it was supple and it bent." Although Lawton survived, the dog died.

Francis Davidson Fraser was born on December 13, 1923, in Cornwall Road, a slum area of south London. The youngest of five children, he grew up in poverty in the Elephant and Castle and Borough, areas teeming with moneylenders, prostitutes and backstreet abortionists.

His parents were honest and hard-working, but Frankie and his big sister Eva, to whom he was closest, soon turned to crime. When he was 10, the pair stole a cigarette machine from a local pub, hauled it to some waste ground and jemmied it open.

Fraser was just 13 when he was sent to an approved school for stealing 40 cigarettes. While still a teenager he took part in a daring raid to free an Army deserter from a squad sent to collect him from Wandsworth Prison. Two people were left dead.

He built a reputation as an enforcer and strongman for various gang leaders, including Billy Hill, self-styled "King of Britain's Underworld" in the 1940s and 1950s and, in the 1960s, the Richardson brothers. At the same time Fraser was concerned to protect his West End "business interests", chiefly the installation and operation in the clubs of Soho of one-armed bandits, or fruit machines, then growing in popularity.

Handing down a seven-year sentence to Fraser and another gang member, Mr Justice Donovan said: "It sounds like the worst days of Prohibition in Chicago rather than London in 1956."

"Nothing ever got to Frankie," wrote Charlie Richardson. "He was a rock."

On his release, Fraser joined Richardson's brother Eddie in a company called Atlantic Machines, installing fruit machines at some of Soho's most profitable sites, with Sir Noel Dryden recruited as the respectable frontman. A machine costing £400 could quickly recoup its cost if well sited, and Fraser's company offered club owners 40pc of the take rather than the standard 35pc as an inducement to install their machines. Fraser had no problem dealing with rival operators whose business was dented as a result.

In August 1963, invited to take part in the Great Train Robbery, Fraser pulled out because he was on the run from the police.

On the night of March 7, 1966, Fraser and Eddie Richardson were badly hurt in a brawl at Mr Smith's club in Catford, the incident that broke the Richardson family's grip on south London. Fraser was seen kicking Richard Hart, a Kray associate, as he lay on the pavement outside. When the police arrived, they found Hart lying under a lilac tree in a nearby garden. He had been shot in the face.

Hart's killing was avenged within 24 hours when Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell, the Richardsons' chief lieutenant.

Fraser was tried at the Old Bailey for Hart's murder, while six others, including Eddie Richardson, faced lesser charges. The judge complained of attempts to nobble one of the jurors, but in the case of Fraser, who was tried separately, he directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. There was no evidence that Fraser had fired the fatal shots, and although he claimed to have been "fitted up" for the killing, he was convicted of affray and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. He was still serving his sentence for the Catford affray when he was handed a further 10 years for his part in the Richardson torture case.

In 1969 Fraser led the Parkhurst prison riot on the Isle of Wight and found himself back in court charged with incitement to murder. Although he was acquitted, a further five years were added to his sentence. Fraser was defended by a young solicitor called James Morton, who later wrote a history of London's gangland in 1992.

The book upset some of those mentioned in it, and Morton was dismayed to arrive home one evening to find a message from Fraser on his answering machine, demanding to speak to him urgently. Morton was relieved that, rather than remonstrating, Fraser wanted him to write his life story.

Mad Frank: Memoirs of a Life of Crime appeared in 1994, with two further volumes following in 1998 and 2001. He appeared on pop records and in television documentaries, toured his one-man show of criminal reminiscences (flexing a pair of gilded pliers), and found himself invited into bookshops to sign copies of his memoirs. He regularly led conducted tours of East End crime scenes.

Fraser treated his various brushes with death as an occupational hazard: his thigh bone was shattered by a bullet fired during the melee in Catford, and part of his mouth was shot away in an incident in May 1991 when someone botched an attempt to assassinate him.

In the summer of 2013 it emerged that, at the age of 89, Fraser had been served with an Asbo after another "incident", this time at his care home.

He claimed to have no regrets about his criminal life, apart from being caught. "Because of the type of person I am," he wrote, "in the life I led, you learn to shrug off adversity better than people who've worked hard all their lives."

Frankie Fraser's wife Doreen, with whom he had four sons, died in 1999. For a time he was engaged to Marilyn Wisbey, daughter of the Great Train robber Tommy Wisbey, with whom he briefly ran a massage parlour in Islington, in which Fraser made the tea.

Sunday Independent