Sun 23 February 2020

Crime writer Duncan Campbell explores the societal perception of women and illegality.

It was in the Blind Beggar pub in east London that Linda Calvey launched her autobiography, The Black Widow, in July this year. 

The pub is, of course, best known as the place where Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell back in 1966; there is even a special red plaque inside to mark that event. As a result, it has now become the place of choice for the launch of many a criminal memoir.  

Linda Calvey acquired the nickname of her title because her first husband, the bank robber Mickey Calvey, was shot dead by a police marksman when fleeing after a botched armed raid. Her next partner, another blagger called Ron Cook, was also violently despatched while on day release from jail. Linda and a man called Danny Reece, whom she later married in jail, were convicted of Cook’s murder and she served 18 years for it.  

Crime is very much a male pursuit and women account for less than five per cent of the prison population in Britain. When women do feature as criminals, they tend to be placed by the media in one of four categories: Evil Incarnate (Myra Hindley, Rose West); Gangster’s Moll (the title of the memoir of Marilyn Wisbey, daughter of train robber Tommy and partner of ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser); the Queen, as in Queen of the Shoplifters or Queen of Thieves (titles held respectively by Shirley Pitts and Alice Diamond); or the Black Widow, which is how Calvey has always been described in the press.

“Very few women prisoners have ever posed a threat to society; instead most have been victims of circumstances and, in one way or another, victims of men”

Caitlin Davies

Criminal widows, as we have learned both from Lynda La Plante’s original television series and director Steve McQueen’s film of that name, are very bankable. 

What is different about Linda Calvey, now 71, is that she was – unusually – a professional armed robber before she became better known as a widow.

The early part of her memoir explains how she helped Mickey Calvey choose his  robbery targets, checking out handy escape routes, and then, after his death, how she took part in robberies both as a getaway driver and then as a shotgun-wielder – and loved it. “We wanted more than we were born to, and yet we had no way of getting it… not legally, at least,” she writes.

As a 12-year-old, she told her family that “one day I’m going to have a red Rolls Royce and a fur coat,” after spotting her first such car on a drive to see an auntie. The criminal life clearly beckoned, not least when, as a 19-year-old she was introduced to Reggie Kray and he kissed her hand “like a proper gent.”  

She fell for Mickey Calvey and recalls her excitement when he would return from a big job and throw the stolen money around “like leaves fallen from an autumn tree… He wanted to give us the high life – and he did. He did it the only way that he could, a violent and dangerous way. How else could he do it?”  

But Mickey was shot dead on a raid in 1978. Shortly afterwards, Linda embarked on what she paints as a pretty joyless relationship with another bank robber, Ron Cook, a violent and controlling man who threatened to damage her family – by now she had two children, Melanie and Neil – if she ever left him or associated with other men while he was serving time. Even when he was in custody, she claims, he dictated that she should visit him in hospital where he was under guard and wear “a basque, suspenders and stocking under a fur coat”. She agreed, on the grounds that “with any luck I’ll give him a heart attack.” 

That didn’t quite work, but Cook soon met a more traditional gangster’s end in her house in 1990. The prosecution case against Calvey at her trial in 1991 was that she had hired Danny Reece to kill Cook but that he failed to finish the job and she had then taken over, ordering the wounded Cook to kneel and finishing him off with another shot. Both she and Reece were convicted and later married in Durham prison. They have since parted.

Calvey’s version of the murder, as now explained in her book, is rather different from the official version. She claims that Reece carried out the murder on his own, that she never fired a shot and that she was calling out for her son, Neil, rather than telling Cook to kneel. However, the jury were unimpressed with her defence at the time and she was jailed for life and only released in 2009.  

As it happens, Calvey’s book is published not long after Bad Girls: the Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison, by Caitlin Davies, a history of the jail, which was closed in 2015 as part of the then chancellor George Osborne’s panic sell-off of the national criminal justice estate. One effect of the closure is that it has made it much harder for relatives and friends to visit inmates who have now been shipped out of London. In any case, Davies argues, most of the women should not have been locked up in the first place. “Very few women prisoners have ever posed a threat to society; instead most have been victims of circumstances and, in one way or another, victims of men,” she concludes in her book. 

For every Linda Calvey, Rose West or Shirley Pitts, there are hundreds of female drugs mules, lost souls and exploited sex workers behind bars. Capital punishment may have been abolished more than half a century ago, but deaths in prison are at their highest level. In 2016, 22 women died in jail, 12 by their own hand. As the Prison Reform Trust points out, although women make up less than five per cent of the prison population, they account for more than 19% of self-harm incidents.  

The former prisons minister, Rory Stewart – one of the few human beings in the party of clowns, bullies and chancers who currently make up the Government – did at least recognise the crisis within the system and pledge to reduce numbers. Whether his replacement, Lucy Frazer QC, will manage to do anything about it is probably about as likely as Linda Calvey becoming the next Met Police Commissioner.

More stories filed under Reportage