Life in the slums of the industrial cities of the 19th century and early 20th was often brutal and short. Before the welfare state, the family unit gave a support network that could mean the difference between surviving, and not. Parents had many children because statistically, they knew only a few would make adulthood. Poverty didn’t mean not going on holiday. It meant living with diseases like rickets and syphilis, or dying from others like tuberculosis or cholera.
IT’S A MAN’S WORLD
It was also a very male world. Women were mothers, cleaners and cooks for the family. One of the few economically independent professions they could enter was the oldest of them all, prostitution. Industrialisation, especially the factory system, had brought women into the modern workplace for the first time. But it was only after the First World War had wiped out a generation of men that women were first given the vote in 1918.
THE ELEPHANT BOYS
And the criminal world largely reflected this gender divide. The Elephant and Castle Gang, formed in 1820, were smash and grab artists, burglars, fences and thugs. They were criminal specialists offering a range of services, from hired in muscle and warehouse thieving to bookmaking bankrolling and pitch selling. Their members were regarded with a grudging respect by the police. George Cornish, a detective at the time, described the Elephant and Castle gang as smart, well dressed, well educated, ‘dapper’ aristocrats of crime.
And as their nickname – The Elephant Boys – denotes, they were all male. It was a close-knit, family orientated unit. Fathers often apprenticed their sons into the criminal enterprise.
QUEEN OF THE FORTY THIEVES
Author Brian McDonald had family members who were gang leaders in the ‘Elephants’ around the 1920s. It was this connection that helped him a reveal a hidden chapter of gang history. He found that there was another branch of the Elephant Gang – comprised of wives, daughters and girlfriends. This female branch had been in existence since 1865. And police records suggest evidence of female only gangs operating as far back as the late 1700s.
These females weren’t pock marked prostitutes who had branched out into pick-pocketing and stealing to supplement their income. These were the trophy wives, daughters and girlfriends of the Elephant Boys. And photos of female gang members show them to have been extremely pretty young women. Some look very innocent. Only their criminal convictions convince otherwise.
And it was the fact that they didn’t look criminal that enabled them to ply their main ‘trade’ – shoplifting.
“...many an old lag was propped up by a tireless shoplifting spouse. Some of these terrors were as tough as the men they worked for and protected."
Brian McDonald, ‘Gangs of London’
Shoplifting didn’t just support the husband at home or keep the family from the workhouse. It gave the women economic independence and the ability to buy into the aspirational lifestyles of that era. For the first time, Hollywood films were shaping style and culture in England. American film stars of that period radiated glamour and sophistication. At home, Britain’s young aristocrats were the celebs of their day. Their decadent lifestyles captured daily in the newspapers. Many wanted to live like them. Most female gang members tried to look like them.
“They read of the outrageous behaviour of rich, bright young things and wanted to emulate them”
It’s noteworthy that the shoplifting women were said never to wear the clothes they stole. This may have simply been to avoid being arrested for being in possession of stolen goods. But some have suggested that it was more than that. They wanted to show they could afford the fashion on the high street: For as they had proved, anyone could shoplift from it.
Under the guidance of one woman, their ‘Queen’, Alice Diamond, a girl gang of ‘forty thieves’ ran the biggest shoplifting network ever seen in Britain. But it wouldn’t be shoplifting that would cause its downfall.