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Joey Pyle: A force in London underworld
3:03pm Thursday 15th March 2007 in News
Just after 10am, on the last day of February, a dark stretch limousine glided down Lower Morden Lane, the first sign that something extraordinary was happening in the quiet back roads near Morden Park, writes Alexander Carnwath.
Soon afterwards, scores of burly security men in dark suits began to appear, loitering at the entrance to a small community car park and patrolling the pavement.
Then the mourners began to arrive in their hundreds, their dark Mercedes and Bentleys backed up down the road and past the local pub.
Their destination was an unremarkable house on a quiet street - the kind of simple, semi-detached home that epitomises the normality of life in the suburbs.
But it was behind these doors that "Big Joey" Pyle, a major player in the notorious London underworld of the 1960s, had lived until his death a fortnight ago.
And it was at this mundane-looking house that his friends, family and associates gathered to pay their respects.
They came dressed in black and carrying flowers. A carpet of tributes was laid before his house - elaborate floral creations of boxing rings for the one-time professional boxer, and others spelling out the word Joey.
Then a lorry drew up and, as rain began to spit on the gathering, the flowers were hammered to the side of its trailer, creating a bright advertising board-style sweep of colour.
"One of the old school," and "A colourful character" - the mourners paying tribute to Mr Pyle, who died of motor neurone disease at the age of 69, chose their words carefully.
This was, after all, a man who had described his line of work as car dealership or simply as business. The reality was that Joey Pyle was a professional criminal and a close associate of notorious gangsters the Krays and the Richardsons. He had been best man at Ronnie Kray's first wedding.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Mr Pyle made money from protection rackets. He would approach pub-owners after violent fights had taken place in their pubs and suggest they paid him to provide security. Few were foolish enough to turn him down and the police could never back up their suspicions that refusing Mr Pyle's offer was tantamount to wrecking a business.
In the early 1960s, he went on trial for the murder of a nightclub owner but was acquitted at a second trial after the first had collapsed because of the intimidation of jurors.
In the late 1980s, he was arrested over a £5million cannabis-smuggling scheme, but again went free after a key witness refused to testify.
The law caught up with Mr Pyle in 1992, when he was convicted of masterminding a massive drugs ring.
After leaving jail in 1997, he insisted his life of crime was behind him. But this funeral was still considered a fearsome occasion by many, and most of the pubs in the surrounding area remained conspicuously closed throughout the day.
But there was no mistaking the genuine affection in which he was held by the people who had gathered to grieve.
"He was a gentleman," said one mourner.
"What can I say about the man?" said his adopted son, Mitch, clearly moved. "He was a legend. Everybody loved him and he will be very sadly missed."
Talk among mourners, openly at least, was not of gangland exploits but of his generosity over 20 years to children's charities.
Others spoke of him as a surrogate father figure. He had two children but many more had been taken under his wing.
"He was a lovely man, just fantastic," said Josephine Carter, who Mr Pyle helped to look after when her father, one of Mr Pyle's best friends, died.
Mr Pyle's coffin was brought up to the house in a carriage drawn by four black horses before beginning the slow journey to St Theresa's Church in Bishopsford Road. The funeral cortege was led by four bikers in long leather coats from the Outlaw motorcycle gang and followed by a convoy of Mercedes carrying his family.
Some of the roads near the church had to be closed and the church and surrounding area was crowded with more than a thousand people for the ceremony.
Among the faces were some notorious figures from the 1960s underworld, though now marked with age.
Bruce Reynolds, the man behind the Great Train Robbery, was there. So too was Charlie Richardson, once the most feared gangster in London.
Not all were aging criminals however. There were also famous faces who had come to know Joey as a popular local figure. Snooker star Jimmy White, boxer Gary Mason and actor Kenny Lynch were among those paying their respects.
"He was a people's person," said Dave Courtney, a former gangster and an old friend of Mr Pyle.
"Ninety-nine per cent of the people at the Krays' funerals had not met them, but everyone here knew Joey. He connected people up."
It was testament to Mr Pyle's people skills that representatives of one-time sworn enemies the Krays and the Richardsons attended the funeral.
Later, hundreds of mourners made their way to Merton and Sutton Joint Cemetery in Garth Road, where a final ceremony was held in the chapel at the top of the hill.
A police helicopter buzzed in the sky above the cemetery to ironic smiles from the shaven-headed men: the police had always found it hard to get close to Joey.
Mr Courtney delivered a tribute to his friend: "He was a man among men and treated everybody the same. He was truly blessed and everybody that ever had the pleasure of meeting him will tell you that."
Then it was time for Joey Pyle to be laid to rest. A select few, family members and close friends, gathered round his graveside and the American soul singer Jocelyn Brown sang as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
Hundreds more hung respectfully back. And then the mourners melted away. Shaven heads ducked into cars, dark limousines pulled away and a sense of suburban normality returned to the area.
But it was a day that few of those who witnessed it would forget. Ever the colourful character, Big Joey had bowed out in style.