Hackney People: Maureen Flanagan
The former model talks about her friendship with notorious East End gangsters the Kray twins
"AT THE start of the 60s, I had no interest at all in being a model, and no idea who the Krays were," laughs the woman who, in the following decades, was to shoot to fame as one of the most photographed models in Britain and a close confident of the infamous East End gangsters.
Now a 74-year-old grandmother, Maureen Flanagan runs the Paragon Trust charity shop on Well Street. She says: “When my brother and I took the place over seven years ago, it was pretty run down, but we were determined to make the most of it.” Recipients of the shop’s funds include St Joseph’s Hospice and youth charity Hackney Quest.
Maureen adds: "We are flooded with donations every day. I guess I’ve got a talent for talking to people and getting them to hand over their cash!"
It’s a talent she has had many opportunities to hone, although her birth in an army barracks in Hemel Hempsted – requisitioned to house pregnant women during the war – gave few clues to the glamorous course her life would take.
At the age of 18, and working as a hairdresser, she accompanied her boss to a hair exhibition where her potential, and extremely long legs, were spotted.
"But I was so naïve, all I wanted to do was cut hair so I said I could, possibly, fit a bit of modelling in during my afternoons off," she says. In the meantime, her career was taking other unexpected turns.
She recalls: 'It was 1961 and I met a man who asked if I did home hairdressing visits. He gave me his mother’s address. I’d never been to the East End before, so I hopped into my little white mini and followed the directions he gave me till I arrived at this little row of terraced houses and found it: number 178 Vallance Road, Bethnal Green."
The man she had met was Charlie Kray, brother of the feared Kray twins, Reggie and Ronnie.
Maureen recalls: "At the door was a lovely, friendly, mother-type. Blonde, pretty. The kind you spent 10 minutes with and felt like you’d known for a lifetime."
Maureen chatted and snipped, still with no idea that Violet Kray was anything other than an ordinary housewife. "She showed me a picture of these twins, virtually identical to each other. She told me that she couldn’t bear going to a salon because people would always pester her about ‘her boys’ and I thought: how odd," Maureen says.
She fell into visiting the house to do Violet’s hair every Thursday throughout the 60s. Soon, she not only knew who the Krays were but became, she says, almost like a little sister to them.
Maureen recalls: "The first thing that struck you was their cleanliness. They smelt of soap. In those days, men were often a bit rough round the edges, but they were immaculate: their hands, hair, wardrobes and even their manners.
"Everything was glamorous. We would go to the Astor Club, in Berkeley Square, and doors would open. I didn’t see the menace, I saw respect. But I soon discovered that respect was founded on fear."
It was Ronnie who revived the idea of Maureen modelling. She says: "He said I should be on TV and when I told him I would need an Equity card, I got one overnight."
She went on to star in the ‘Benny Hill Show’, 'Only Fools and Horses’ and Monty Python’s ‘Flying Circus’. At the age of 26, her legs were insured for an unheard of £25,000, and by 1971 she had given up hairdressing almost entirely, when the editor of The Sun newspaper called her in. She became one of the first Page 3 Girls.
The Kray twins were found guilty of murder and given life sentences in 1969. When their mother died in 1982, Maureen began visiting them in prison regularly ‘and that’s when the orders started’, she said.
Ronnie’s demands from inside Broadmoor included gym equipment, smoked salmon from Harrods, and bagels from Brick Lane. Maureen was tasked with buying them all and getting them delivered to the secure hospital. She exclaims: "The look on these salesmen’s faces when I dictated the delivery address. Ronald Kray, HMP…"
Earlier this year, Maureen published a book ‘One of the Family, 40 Years with the Krays’ about her connections with the twins.
She says: "They were always gents with me, but I can’t condone those murders. It could have been my son or husband."