From Organised Crime to OBE: How London gangster Bobby Cummines became a model citizen
Bobby Cummines has seen it all. His life has been a rollercoaster of organised crime, maximum-security prisons, love, loss, education at the school of hard knocks and later at the Open University. Arguably his crowning achievement to date is an OBE. Real Crime caught up with Cummines face-to-face in a hotel in Kent to discuss the true cost of a life of organised crime, which he has manifested into an autobiography of his life. Now 66 years old, in his life Cummines has ruled the streets of London with a sawn-off shotgun named Kennedy and served time with high-profile criminals including Reggie Kray, Charlie Richardson, the Yorkshire Ripper and members of the IRA. But he has also gained degrees, received a blessing from the queen and travelled all over the world to speak to offenders on his reform and how his world of crime was a dangerous stomping ground.
You once roughed a guy up for calling you a ‘gangster’. In your eyes, what is the difference between what your firm did and what other ‘gangsters’ did?
That’s right – I put a gun in his mouth. Gangsters are people that go in a pub and are loud and aggressive and take liberties with people. I did violence for a living, but I never did bad manners. I’m not a rude person. I was brought up properly by my mum and dad to respect people. We were criminal businessmen and the business was crime. When people disrespect you, you’ve got to put them in their place. The first thing you’ve got to do is educate them, if they don’t learn from that you intimidate them, and if they don’t learn from that you eliminate them. That’s how it works – an eternal triangle of violence.
Our business was earning money and the product we sold was violence but we also used it to protect people, we policed our manor as well. Gangsters are one-man crowds that go into the pub and give it the large and are all over the place. They might as well have “Please nick me” on their foreheads, they think their cool but they ain’t. Empty vessels make the most noise, and those that want to be on display, they’re all talk and they cry like babies when you stick a gun on them. It’s the geezer sat quietly in the corner that you want to worry about.
How do you think gangs have changed since your time?
They call us ‘the old school’, because we had rules and respect for people. We used to go into the pub Sunday dinnertime, and we always bought the elderly people their first drink or a chicken each or a bit of pork from the butcher next door, and give them their Sunday dinner. When I got nicked [the police] said: “He might be a naughty boy but he’s not a bad boy.” I was never disrespectful to people. I hate people with bad manners, especially if there’s ladies involved. Young people talk about respect, “respect man, respect”; they don’t know what respect is, they know what fear is.
Making people fear you is not respect – it’s when people are pleased to see you. It’s a currency in its own. You’ve got to deal in respect and help where you can. What messed it up was when the drugs started coming in and the people started using the drugs, because then they lost morals and respect for each other. They’d rob their own grandmothers. It’s disgusting the lengths they’ll go to for some gear. In the old days you had to be really connected to get a gun because it was a rare thing. To be at the heavy game you were connected and had your firm wrapped around you and you were serious people.
You were sent to prison for manslaughter after an armed robbery went wrong. How did you feel about that?
That upset me, I felt bad about that and I have to live with that for the rest of my life. If you go on an armed robbery, the name of the game isn’t to hurt people but it’s to control the situation, and when someone chokes on their own gag… we were devastated. It wasn’t a nice bit of work, it wasn’t clean. I prided myself on clean work. I was upset about that. I didn’t mind doing it on villains but innocent people, they’re just people in the street. I didn’t understand straight-goers. I didn’t live in their world – they were just part of a crowd in Oxford Street, I never mixed with them, I didn’t know them and I didn’t want to know them. They didn’t interest me. I was more interested in the business. When I did it on villains, they knew the game and the rules so it was nothing personal, it didn’t matter whether I liked them or not. If someone paid me to shoot them I would. It was business. It was never personal.
Were you strict about your firm not taking drugs?
I’d never have someone working for me who used drugs, because if the old bill banged him up and kept him off his drugs it would go belly up. You can never trust someone on the firm if they’re off their head on drugs because one day they’re going to make slip ups because they’re not thinking right, and they’re going to get you pinched. When we did our work we would lock ourselves in the hotel room the night before, and no one was even allowed a drink. And if I had found one of them doing drugs, I would have shot them because they would have been a liability rather than an asset.
You were best friends with the late Charlie Richardson, the leader of the notorious ‘Torture Gang’, what was he like as an ally as opposed to an enemy?
Charlie Richardson saved my life. We sat there in the cell in Parkhurst and he said to me: “Bobby, you’ve got a brain, not like the rest of these people, so go into education. If you carry on the way you’re going, they’re (the police) going to shoot you, or you’ll get involved in something and get killed, or you’ll get a sentence like Reggie Kray and you’ll never be let out.”
He said I should get onto the Open University. I got onto the learning bug and it was education that was my liberation from crime. He was one of the most intelligent and most well read men I have ever met. You could talk to him on any subject and he had read about it. When people were sat in prison talking about their next job or talking about old crimes, Charlie never talked about old crimes. He was a man of the moment. He had every newspaper; you’d go in your cell and he’d leave a cutting for you from The Times or on stocks and shares or minerals, he was brilliant.
They talk about the Krays, but he was the real king of the underworld. Charlie was a thinker, a schemer who knew about money and loved money. He was a very calculated man, but a very wise person, and contrary to what they put in the newspaper about torture and all that, a very polite man unless you got on the wrong side of him. But that’s the same with all of us. I’m not saying he was an angel, but he weren’t the demon that people tried to portray him as at the trial. We had our rows as well, we’d disagree, but I won’t have anyone say a bad word about him, even now he’s dead I will respect his memory. He was a man of respect who deserved respect.
People assume that prison is ‘cushty’ and ‘easy’, is that true?
People say prison is like Butlin’s – I don’t know what fucking holiday camps they go to! The prisons I was in, people were hanging themselves and getting stabbed to death over an onion. It was Britain’s Alcatraz – we were surrounded by water and everyone you lived with was a killer. You’re dealing with people, some who are never getting out so they’ve got nothing to lose if they kill a geezer in there. You were always tooled up.
The ‘P’ in maximum-security prison stands for ‘paranoia’ because if you didn’t say ‘good morning’ to someone they’d think you’re plotting against them, so then they’d be plotting against you. So in a way Parkhust was one of the politest places you could be – everyone said good morning and no one pushed in queues. There was the top drug dealers, top fraudsters, political assassins, anyone who was top of their game ended up in Parkhurst, and that’s why you respected each other because you wouldn’t be there unless you were someone to be respected.
You went to prison with some very famous criminals including the Yorkshire Ripper and the Kray twins. Did such criminals have another side to them?
When my mum was dying of leukaemia, the Krays sent her big bouquets of flowers. They loved their mum so much, to them, mums were sacred. That was the weird thing about them, they could show so much compassion if someone’s mother was ill, but the next thing they could cut you to pieces. Reggie was forced to be psychopath but Ronnie, he was an unwell boy.
I felt really sorry for Reggie because Ronnie dominated him. If Ronnie hadn’t been in Reggie’s life, he never would have been involved in murder – it was Ronnie. Ronnie wanted to create this Mafia in England and none of us wanted that but he wanted this Mafia, he was very childish in a way. You know when you’re 14 and want to be in a gang? It was like that. The difference is they were killing people not just smacking each other with handbags, this was serious violence going on. The Yorkshire Ripper was on another wing but there was the IRA, Meserate (Gadaffi’s hit man) was in the cell between Charlie and me; we was all mates.
Gadaffi sent him everything he wanted and was paying his family wages while he was in there. He vanished one day and then we got a postcard from Lybia, the prisons had done a swap but he was a nice guy, he shared everything.
Even as a hardened criminal you’ve experienced loss. How have you dealt with that?
The biggest loss I ever experienced was my little girl (Abigail), that crippled me. That was the first time in my life I ever felt vulnerable. I weren’t afraid of anything but when that happens to you, the pain is so personal. I sat there and had a row with God and asked: “Why now?” I was doing everything right and I had one little girl alive and another in a little white coffin. It destroyed my marriage. I still think to myself if anyone had wanted to hurt me they could have never hurt me, not when I was stabbed or beaten, more than that. It was like someone had ripped my heart out.
When I sat with my dad and he was in hospital dying, that hurt. The other pain was when my mum died and I was in prison. I’ll never forget the warden came up on the landing, I was standing there with a guy called Joe and he was an armed robber, and we were just having a chat and the warden said, “Cummines you got a minute?” I said “Yeah,” he said, “Got some news. Your mum’s dead.” And I looked at him and thought, “You bastard.” He was just trying to get a reaction off me. I went, “Thanks a lot. Now fuck off.” He said I had no heart. I was ripping apart inside but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing that. I learned to never show what you really feel. Never show weakness – you show it and the wolves are on you.
How did your prison experience shape your life when you came out?
I came out and tried to get a job and couldn’t because when they asked where I’d been for the last few years I couldn’t say I’d been in maximum-security prison, it doesn’t look good on your CV. When I was applying for jobs I had to open businesses and building companies and say I’d worked for them, but I owned the companies so when they sent away for the references I was writing my own, saying what a nice guy I was and I got the jobs. So to go straight I had to be dishonest and it was hard work.
When people want to leave that life behind, you have to give them the opportunity and support. I looked at things totally different when I went into education. What really got on my nerves was that you had all these so-called experts, sociologists and criminologists – all professors – in it telling me about my life. I could go out and get their degree but unless they want my life experience they’ve got to live my life. I lived it, have they ever been shot? Have they ever held a gun? No. Have they ever gone and robbed a bank? No. They’d read about us and then become an expert on us.
How did you feel when you got your OBE?
When I got the letter I thought it was my pals on a wind up. So I phoned them up and they told me, “No it’s serious, would you accept the OBE?” You’re talking to a royalist; I love the queen. Would I accept the OBE? Of course I would. What really pleased me more than anything when I went to get it I had the queen herself. I used to have a picture of her in my cell. I chose what I did but I still have respect for my queen and country. It’s weird to think if I had told the governor at Parkhurst all those years ago, that I’d be meeting the queen, advising government, advising judges, he would have sent me to hospital and I would have been on the wally juice. But I’ve done it all, what my book is all about its showing people that no matter how bad it gets, if you mean it you can turn it around and people will respect you for that.