Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age

Larry Holzwarth - June 30, 2021

The Victorian Age had it all: the Industrial Revolution, iconic fashion, booming progress, and… Lady Gangsters. Yes, it had some iconic female criminals. In many of the works of Charles Dickens, the author and reformer presented the seamy underworld of London in a manner never before seen. In A Christmas Carol, a woman thief and presumably a housebreaker stole the nightshirt from the dead Scrooge’s corpse, along with his linens and bedcurtains, and presented them to a fence for a price. Oliver Twist featured the violent Bill Sykes, the tragic Nancy, the amoral Fagin, and a pack of children trained to steal. Dickens described criminals and crimes, jails and courts, the affluent homes of the victims of crimes, and the sordid squalor in which the criminals lived. He described the slums of London in a manner theretofore unknown, and the level to which children and unmarried women contributed to the city’s criminal underworld.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
The reign of Queen Victoria was marked by attitudes towards women which can best be described as condescending. Wikimedia

But even he left largely untouched the tales of the criminal activities of women, beyond those of prostitution and child abandonment. London, and other big cities in both Britain and America found themselves besieged by female thieves, some in organized gangs, others working independently. The British newspapers, with Victorian prudery, referred to them as Lady Burglars, Lady Housebreakers, and Lady Thieves. The courts extended sympathy to those caught, considering them victims of their husbands or partners, and giving them typically shorter sentences than those imposed on their male counterparts. In London at least one organized gang of female thieves operated from the early 1870s until the Roaring Twenties. Both British and American authorities knew not what to do with the female criminals. Here is the story of the Lady gangsters of the Victorian and Edwardian Ages.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
The wealth accumulated through British global trade led many to adopt a life of crime in the teeming cities. Wikimedia

1. The first female criminals operated before Victoria became Queen

London, during the Regency Era, is remembered as a place of gentility, luxury, fine dining, finer manners, and elaborately dressed and coiffed ladies and gentlemen. British merchants derived large profits from goods shipped to London, Bristol, Liverpool, and other ports from across the Empire. Trade with the former colonies in North America resumed, and high-quality furs arrived from the new United States. Silks and gems entered Britain from African and Indian colonies. Those with wealth flaunted it ostentatiously. Fashion demanded by Beau Brummel and the Prince Regent ensured men dressed as flamboyantly as their women. An emerging British middle class mimicked the manners, and the dress, of their so-called betters. Those of the working class, and the poor in the tenements and rookeries of the larger cities, struggled to survive.

The poorer neighborhoods of British cities had long been havens for petty thieves, pickpockets, strong-armed robbers, and prostitutes. Many of the latter walked the streets, luring their customers into dark alleyways and abandoned buildings. There they became the victims of associates. More affluent customers avoided the streetwalkers, preferring to take their pleasures in brothels, operated under police protection. The madams running the brothels became the prototypes for criminal gangs, operated by women, sometimes in association with male criminals. Blackmail became a favorite crime, though it was soon supplemented by the crimes of housebreaking and burglary. Women informed associates of when their employers’ homes and businesses were likely to be empty, making them suitable targets for a visit by enterprising thieves.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Burglars gained a modicum of respect for their daring and athleticism, sensationalized in the press. History Today

2. Housebreaking and burglary were crimes of a different nature

Several parameters had to be met before a crime could be presented to the courts as a burglary during the early Regency. The crime had to occur in the dark of night, between 9 PM and 6 AM the following day. It had to include forcible entry, even if the miscreant used a skeleton key to open a lock. Theft had to occur, a hasty departure without loot removed the charge of burglary, and rendered it a simple trespass. The premises had to be occupied at the time of the illegal entry, by the legal tenants of the property, servants not included. The enterprising thief who stole the dead Scrooge’s nightshirt and bed curtains during his vision of the future thus did not commit burglary, since Scrooge was dead at the time. Instead, that woman committed the crime of housebreaking, as well as theft.

Housebreaking did not carry the same stigma, nor penalty, as the more dangerous burglary, since it did not endanger the lives of the tenants, at least in theory. Both crimes applied to buildings used for commercial purposes as well as private homes and boarding houses. A person who broke into a closed printer’s shop, with no one present, and stole property, committed the crime of housebreaking. Professional criminals often employed young boys to commit the illegal entry, using their agility and size to enter buildings through narrow windows, coal chutes, and even chimneys. Bill Sykes forced Oliver Twist to abet a crime in just such a manner. Detectives investigating illegal entries often concluded a boy had helped the criminal commit the break in, before steadily increasing evidence indicated that other nefarious means were involved in the crime.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Voluminous Victorian fashions allowed women to conceal large amounts of merchandise upon their persons. Wikimedia

3. Early women thieves were shoplifters and pickpockets

Besides luring potential sexual partners into harm’s way in back alleys and other out of the way locales, women in early Victorian London operated as pickpockets. The voluminous dress styles of the age provided a myriad of hiding places upon their person in which to immediately conceal an ill-gotten purse, watch fob, or expensive silk handkerchief. No self-respecting police constable, or other functionary would dare lay a hand on a woman’s person in that chivalric age and society. Women became adept at surreptitiously passing illicit loot between each other, hidden in scarves, muffs, cloaks, and other items of clothing, By the time a police “maiden” arrived to conduct a more thorough search, the evidence had vanished. Women operating as pickpockets often worked in conjunction with male companions, who provided diversionary interruptions to ease the work of their light-fingered female partner.

The same billowing clothing, with ample places to secure hidden pockets and other receptacles, provided women so inclined prolific shoplifting opportunities. Markets and shops of the day were crowded, usually with just one or two shopkeepers in attendance. All sorts of briefly unattended merchandise disappeared into the folds of women’s clothes. Snuffboxes and candlesticks, watches and chains, silk scarves and handkerchiefs, vanished from inventories into women’s hidden pockets. Again, many worked with companions, male and female, who distracted the shopkeeper long enough for two-foot long candlesticks to seemingly disappear into thin air. During the Victorian Age, several major gangs emerged, operated and staffed by women, for the purpose of achieving wealth through the art of shoplifting. One of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, operated in an area of London known as the Elephant and Castle, a relatively affluent areas when the gang reached its height.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
The venerable Selfridge’s suffered the raids of shoplifters for decades, most of them women. Selfridge’s

4. The Illustrious Criminals of the 40 Elephant Gang operated for more than 75 years

Exactly when the all-female criminal gang known as the 40 Elephants Gang formed is unknown; organized female shoplifting gangs operated in the Elephant and Castle area in the late 18th century. Associated with another gang, the Elephant and Castle Mob, the women’s gang drew increasing notoriety beginning in the Victorian Age, and operated well beyond the end of the Second World War. Initially, they concentrated in shoplifting in the high-end stores and shops in the West End. Eventually they expanded into other British cities, particularly the port cities and seaside resort areas. They often worked in teams. One of more members would deploy feminine wiles on unwary shopkeepers, distracting them as other members lifted thousands of pounds worth of goods. Organized transport systems, storage facilities, and a network of fences enhanced their criminal enterprises.

During the early Victorian Age the 40 Elephant Gang expanded their thefts into private homes. Young women were recruited to serve as cooks, maids, housekeepers, and secretaries in the homes of the affluent. This allowed the gang to obtain information as to the wealth within a particular home, the habits of its occupants, and the inquisitiveness of neighbors. It also established relationships with the constables patrolling the neighborhoods. Bright, fetching young servant girls became friendly with local merchants and policemen, establishing themselves as a harmless presence. They also entered into illicit relations with employers as a means to blackmail them for further profit. The 40 Elephant Gang’s reputation with the police did not persuade the courts to treat members appearing before them harshly. Instead, they skillfully manipulated the press to gain the court’s sympathy.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Britain’s slums provided breeding grounds for men, women, and children dedicated to a life of thievery. British Library

5. Burglars held a special place in the British public’s imagination

An old English proverb holds that “An Englishman’s home is his castle”. A basis of British (and American) common law for centuries, it provides that the home is a sanctuary, a safe haven from dangers from either the criminal or the policeman. Within the walls of his castle an Englishman can expect to be safe, secure, and allowed to defend his home and hearth against any and all intruders. Burglars and housebreakers violate this most sacred of British laws; their trespasses belie the sense of security which makes one’s home a home. Yet, a certain sense of admiration has been applied to burglary in the past, particularly those which occurred without any personal harm to the occupants of the home. Newspaper reports used words such as “daring”, “skillful”, and “ingenious”, in describing illegal entries. “Outwitting” pursuit was another frequent descriptive term.

Barely concealed references admiring the “athleticism” of burglars who gained entry to houses via upstairs windows or through attic vents pepper the newspaper reports of Victorian burglaries. They stress the requirements for physical strength, the balance and agility of circus acrobats, the ability to move with stealth and grace. Though burglars violated the inner sanctum of British society, they did so with an aplomb which rendered them a formidable adversary, particularly when they left befuddled policemen in their wake. The popularity of the Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes built, in part, on the image of burglars created by the press. In the public mind, burglars were not mere petty criminals. They were men of wit, physical strength, fearlessness, athleticism and daring. But most importantly, they were men. To the Victorian mind, women were simply too fragile and helpless to commit such daring deeds, not to mention their morality.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Although women were arrested and convicted for many types of crimes, the general public could not accept them as burglars and housebreakers. Wikimedia

6. British society refused to accept the reality of women burglars and housebreakers

Between 1860 and 1939 1,184 women appeared in British and Welsh court dockets to be tried as burglars. Justices had some judicial leeway for those convicted of the crime, anywhere from a few month’s imprisonment to penal servitude in the colonies for the remainder of one’s natural life were the perils faced by burglars. Many, many men found themselves sentenced to the latter, though once in Australia certain reforms eventually allowed them to regain partial freedom. During that same period women, convicted of the same crime, received considerably lighter sentences. Neither the public nor the courts could accept women as burglars, unless of course they were forced into the practice by their amoral male partners. During that same eight decades, one woman received a sentence which exceeded just a few years. Lydia Lloyd, after four burglary convictions, received a sentence of ten years.

Women received far harsher sentences for other crimes, including theft, prostitution, lewd conduct, fighting, vandalism, drunken behavior, assault, shoplifting, indebtedness, and so forth. The public simply could not accept women as burglars. The image violated the very core of the Victorian view of womanhood. All of the other crimes could be seen as flaws of character, exacerbated by the persuasion of exploitive and amoral men. Burglary was a crime which required skills and characteristics of which women were incapable on their own. Women charged with burglary were all too ready to exploit the public morality to their advantage. One, on trial in 1882, informed the court, “All that I have done has been under my husband’s instructions”. She was sentenced to six months upon conviction. Her husband got five years.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
The character A. J. Raffles created the genre of the gentleman thief, which continues today. Wikimedia

7. The creation of A. J. Raffles helped define the British view of burglars

In 1898 E. W. Hornung, brother-in-law to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, created the character A. J. Raffles, a gentlemen and thief. Raffles proved instantly popular, appearing in short stories, novels, and eventually plays and motion pictures. In many ways he resembled Sherlock Holmes, as a master in disguise, an adept user of the tools of crime, and as an astute judge of character. He has a male companion, who assists him in his many brilliant crimes and narrates them to the public. Raffles viewed burglary as a sport, a worthy challenge to his mental and physical abilities. As such, he steals only from the wealthy, more for the thrill of the act and the problem of eluding the police than for the money involved. Eventually their crimes are exposed. Raffles fled the police and presumably drowned while his faithful companion and chronicler, Bunny Maunders, goes to prison.

Eventually Bunny reunites with Raffles, who did not drown, and the pair embark on another crime spree. The popularity of the criminal pair, with its allusions to Robin Hood, masculine superiority, and Sherlock Holmes, continued for decades. Raffles was the first of the gentlemen thieves who appear with regularity in literature, and served as another example of why burglary remains in the realm of male pursuits. During the Victorian and subsequent Edwardian Ages, women’s issues remained at the forefront of societal and political discussion. Suffrage and equal rights arguments leapt from the front pages of newspapers. Those opposing both could not countenance the idea women were men’s equal in anything, that certain activities were solely within the purview of the male sex. Burglary appears to have been one of them.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Even the popular Sherlock Holmes, portrayed here by Basil Rathbone, could not countenance women as burglars and housebreakers. Wikimedia

8. A double standard for criminals: society accepted gentlemen as burglars, but not women

Society in the Victorian Age viewed all aspects of life as driven by their natural proclivities, rather than by education or changing circumstances. Those of low birth were by nature possessed with the characteristics of low birth. The advantages of education were wasted on those ill-equipped to apply them. Those born of the servant class may find themselves elevated above it due to good fortune, or hard work, or both. But by nature, they could never be more than the class into which they were born. Such thought applied to criminal behavior as well. People were simply born to it, unless outside forces intervened. Such outside forces included mental illness (known simply as madness for the most part), drugs, alcohol, or other factors outside of the individual’s control.

Women could easily be viewed as criminals capable of theft, of deception, of violence, even of cold and calculating murder. None of those activities violated the Victorian’s image of the natural role of women. To them, women were imbued with the innate need to nurture, to create and protect the home. Female robins built nests, and protected the young within. Female humans did the same, and for them to violate the sanctity of the home violated the natural tendencies and traits of their gender. It was only possible for them to do so through nefarious means, led into actions they did not understand by ruthless men. Courts routinely applied such standards when considering the cases of women accused of burglary and housebreaking, even those of the most hardened recidivists. Many women recognized the relatively free ride offered by the justices, using it to their advantage.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
The sensationalist press of the day depicted crimes in lurid detail, though they avoided pictures of burglaries. British Library

9. Criminals like Minnie Pheby committed several burglaries with relative impunity

In February, 1896, a London detective on routine patrol observed a light moving about within an otherwise darkened house. After first positioning to constables to observe the exits in front and back of the house the detective knocked on the door, awakening the tenant, and discovering the presence of a young woman, of about 20 years of age. The woman was well-dressed and according to the tenant, had no business being in the home. Arrested for burglary, the woman was identified as Minnie Pheby. A London newspaper dutifully reported the crime, dedicating more space to the manner of the lady’s dress (black cashmere and boots, the loot from the burglary she was caught in the act of committing). Pheby, later established as being an accomplished burglar, chose to run from the police.

She raced out of the house carrying a bundle of the property she had stolen, only to be accosted by one of the constables the detective had had the foresight to position nearby. Further investigation revealed it was the second burglary of the night for the young woman, who had accomplished an earlier robbery by crawling through a small, second-floor, window. Pheby entered a plea of guilty when she appeared before the court, charged with both burglaries. She had, after all, been caught with the goods from the first, in the act of committing the second. A male suspect could expect a minimum sentence of five years hard labor, and possible transportation for the same crimes. Pheby received nine months. Within a year she appeared in the same court, facing a similar charge for another burglary, and received another sentence amounting to a slap on the wrist.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Laundry hung out to dry provided tempting targets for thieves in slums and better neighborhoods alike. History Today

10. Women committed many other crimes besides burglary

Although burglary occupied a strangely exalted place as a crime, many other transgressions in Victorian Britain took place, which did not. Thefts occurred at all times of the day, and though strong-armed robberies were common, they were usually committed by men. Besides shoplifting, purse-snatching, and smash and grab robberies, women committed many other types of thefts. One common in the slums of British cities became known as clothes harvesting. Laundry was commonly left to dry on lines strung in the mews and alleyways behind laundries and private homes. Snatching them proved simple, especially when the backs of the launderers were turned. Again, women proved particularly adept at the practice, since stolen clothes could easily be hidden beneath the thief’s own garments. Stolen clothes rapidly made their way to a fence, often still damp from washing.

Thieves of all sorts seldom kept items stolen by whatever means, since doing so unnecessarily burdened themselves with evidence. Stolen items were meant for sale, conversion to hard currency as quickly as possible. The fences established the means to resell the items. Often stolen goods were sold to the very merchant, laborer, or manufacturer from whom they were stolen in the first place. Although laws existed prohibiting the purchase of stolen goods, they were often unenforceable. It was usually a matter of one person’s word against another, and magistrates had little means of establishing whether a fence or jeweler knew of the provenance of a particular item. Items stolen in burglaries were usually described in exacting detail by the press, especially jewelry. However, most jewelry was quickly broken down into its constituent parts, the metals melted down, and the jewels sold separately.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Sophie Lyons lengthy career included an autobiograhy in which she claimed crime does not pay. Smithsonian Institution

11. America had its share of women burglars and thieves as well

Great Britain did not hold a monopoly on notorious female thieves and criminals during the so-called Gilded Age. North America produced some of the most infamous of the age, some of them after they fled Britain to Canada, eventually finding their way south to the United States. Among these was a pickpocket, shoplifter, con artist, and burglar named Sophie Lyons. Married at least four times, mother of seven, she once prosecuted her own son for being incorrigible. In court, the son announced his accuser was a notorious thief, under another name, and an escapee from New York’s Sing Sing prison. Originally from Germany, Sophie lived a life so littered with abandoned husbands, abandoned children, arrests, and scam victims she is almost impossible to trace with accuracy.

At one point in her career, a store detective caught her in the act of shoplifting. In a masterpiece of persuasion, she convinced the detective that she suffered from kleptomania, and was unaware of the act for which she had been accosted. The detective let her go. In another, she and her then husband, fellow burglar Billy Burke, were arrested in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. She convinced the magistrate to release her and fled to New York, abandoning her husband to his fate. He served a lengthy sentence in a federal institution, she continued her criminal career until 1913, when she published her memoirs, Why Crime Does Not Pay. Eventually she owned over 40 properties in the Detroit area, and worked for prison reform. When her own home was burgled in 1922, she complained, “that men would do such a thing to an old woman…”

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Female shoplifters plagued Britain’s merchants and tradesmen for decades. Wikimedia

12. “Hoisting” became a popular crime among London women in the late 19th century

Despite the 40 Elephant Gang’s claimed hegemony over the crime of shoplifting – known as hoisting by its practitioners – it became a popular activity among women bent upon a criminal career during the Victorian Age. Hoisting allowed for the accosted female to resort to wiles when confronted by the police. A fainting spell, followed by a period of denial of responsibility, and capped with a claim of kleptomania, allowed for a successful defense before sympathetic and concerned judges. In a landmark work on criminology published in 1895, The Female Offender, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso defined shoplifting. He called it “A specially feminine offense – temptation being furnished by the immense number of articles exhibited…” Most women who participated used disguise and guile as part of the crime, rather than simply snatch the loot and escape.

For example, in 1897 two women entered a furriers, one dressed as a domestic servant, the other as her employer, bejeweled and well-coiffed. The women asked to be shown some sealskin capes. As they examined the merchandise, the shopkeeper moved on to another customer, possibly an accomplice. The women left after ordering a pair of capes in the style which they had examined. The shopkeeper received the order with gratitude before discovering two of the sample capes were missing. The police were notified. Two officers, Detective Frederick Wensley and Constable Sergeant Henry Whitbread informed the shopkeeper, based on his descriptions of the perpetrators, that they knew who the “hoisters” really were. The officers had been following their trail of thefts for some time, and moved swiftly to arrest the two women.

 

  1. The women had conducted an elaborate masquerade to victimize London merchants

The elder of the two suspects, one Sheena Suck, aged 22, called herself Madame Schnider, a dressmaker to the Court of St. James. Her accomplice, 17-year old Rose Greenbaum, appeared as her appeared as her client. Together, the two women worked their scam through the fashionable shopping district of the West End. Officers Whitbread and Wensley followed the pair’s trail from draper’s, woolen merchants, jewelers’, shoemakers’, dressmakers’ and other tradesmen and shops. Finally, armed with the description provided by the furrier, they arrested the pair in their home. There they found, in addition to the stolen capes, underclothes, shoes, petticoats and linens, bolts of cloth including fine imported silks and linens, amongst other items “hoisted” from London’s merchants and tradesmen. One could imagine the arrest ended a spree of thievery, but it only suspended it for a time.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of an organized campaign of calculated thievery, both women appeared in court, where they entered pleas of guilt. Both also claimed legitimate occupations as dressmakers and housekeepers. The court listened to their pleas and requests for leniency, based on their inability to resist the temptations placed before them in the course of their legitimate duties. Suck received 15 months, Greenbaum 9 months. To the undoubted frustration of the policemen who arrested them, both completed their sentences and returned to their occupations as both domestics and thieves. Social scientists and reformers of the time blamed the low cost paid to workers, rather than the temptation of easy money, as the root causes of their crimes. Hoisting continued to plague British merchants and the police for decades, well after the First World War, and even beyond.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Beginning in the Elephant and Castle area of London, the 40 Elephants spread throughout Britain in the 1920s. Wikimedia

14. Even the police expressed grudging admiration for some women burglars and criminals

Burglary in Victorian London imposed a different set of obstacles compared to those encountered by today’s criminals. Neighborhoods were densely packed, with housefronts near the street. Streets were patrolled by policemen on foot, walking at a pace of 2.5 miles per hour, as required by regulations. Most streets were lighted by gas lamps, today a symbol of Victorian London. Although dingy, the light did allow observation even in the worst of conditions, despite the swirling fogs depicted in film and literature. London was also a busy city, as were those of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, and others. In the ports ships arrived and departed on the tides. Many factories operated around the clock. Some tradesmen earned their living at night, and it was rare for streets to be fully abandoned, even in the earliest hours of the morning.

Ground floor doors and windows were locked and barred against illicit entry, and entering by damaging doors and window frames would easily attract the attention of the night watch or the police. Upper windows were often smaller, narrower, and more difficult to access. Gaining the second floor usually required the agility of an acrobat. Some burglars gained the upper floors by climbing flower trellises. Other shimmied up downspouts. Scaling a nearby tree, followed by a daring leap to a roof or balcony, was not unheard of. When Detective Knott encountered Minnie Pheby in the act of committing a burglary in Shepard’s Bush in 1896, he quickly learned of her dexterity and agility. Pheby had previously burgled another home nearby, and carried the loot from that theft. To acquire it, she had entered the house through a window no more than eight inches across.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
The 40 Elephants organized into one of the most successful criminal gangs of all time. Wikimedia

15. Most female criminals were recidivists

Although the intent of Victorian incarceration was to allow criminals to consider the cause of their crimes, and hopefully reform, few did. Recidivism is particularly apparent regarding women criminals, especially hoisters, shoplifters, and burglars. When the same Detective Wensley who arrested Sheena Suck and Rose Greenbaum retired in 1931 he published his reminiscences of his long career in Scotland Yard. In them he blamed the recidivism of women on the depredations of men. He suggested, based on his long experience, that women acted, for the most part, as participants in crime against their will. Their dependence on their man forced them into illegal acts for which they otherwise had no inclination, and certainly no aptitude. His judgement explains the comparatively lenient sentences often given to women.

But it doesn’t explain them entirely. Women arrested for other crimes often suffered the same harsh penalties imposed upon their male counterparts, including hanging, deportation, and lengthy prison terms. The leniency towards women seemed to be in the areas of shoplifting, hoisting, and burglary. In part they reflected the Victorian attitude of women being the weaker of the sexes, unable to resist temptation vigorously applied. The courts viewed women as being, in a manner of speaking, corollary victims of their own crimes. Stealing of dresses, furs, and expensive jewelry appeared as them succumbing to their inherent vanity. That theory did not explain why expensive and attractive loot often found itself converted to cash, yet it prevailed among social scientists and the courts throughout most of the Victorian Age.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
The Elephant and Castle area became the hotbed of Britain’s most notorious criminal gangs. Wikimedia

16. The Elephant and Castle Mob led to the creation of organized female crime

By the end of the 19th century, London found itself divided into territories dominated by criminals and gangs operated by men. Other British cities, especially heavily industrialized Manchester and the port city of Liverpool operated in the same manner. The gangs controlled their territories with iron hands, to the point they demanded tribute to small-time criminals who operated within their territory. Yet one area persisted in which the gangs failed to gain a significant foothold. Shoplifting remained the purview of women, largely because women did nearly all of the shopping. A male in working men’s clothes standing at the counter at Selfridge’s instantly drew the attention of store clerks and staff, and not in a manner aimed to please the customer. Those viewed suspiciously were not left unattended for a moment. Meanwhile, expensive goods which could bring large profits through sales to fences remained just out of reach.

In the custom of the day, patrons determined to be desirable, such as women of means, were allowed to browse about the counters without being importuned by overeager salesclerks. If such a customer desired assistance she simply asked for it, and a clerk was assigned to help her. Women of apparent means, as displayed by their dress and appearance, simply wandered the store unattended, allowing them to conceal in voluminous skirts merchandise of diverse types and values. At the turn of the 20th century, one of London’s most notorious male gangs, the Elephant and Castle Mob, allied itself with what remained of the 40 Elephants female gang. The latter became more formally organized and active in the West End, concentrating their efforts on shoplifting. They sold their take through fences controlled by the Elephant and Castle Mob. Female organized crime in London soon reached new heights.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
By the early 1900s British gangs robbed trains, payrolls, fixed horse races, and provided fences for the women’s gangs and their loot. Wikimedia

17. The early 20th century provided a heyday for organized female crime in Britain

On January 22, 1901, Queen Victoria died, bringing an end to the Victorian Age. But Victorian mores and prudery did not immediately die, indeed, in many ways the prim snobbery of the upper classes increased during the Edwardian Age which ensued. Social reformers began to study the problem of crime endemic in the slums and rookeries of British cities, expressing the view that those stricken with abject poverty were forced into life as criminals. Dickens and other popular writers had left vivid descriptions of Britain’s criminal justice system, in many ways romanticizing its victims. The poor were seen as victimized by professional criminals, as had been Oliver Twist and Jack Dawkins, turned into thieves by Fagin and Bill Sykes. Increasing cries for reform, and for cleaning up the slums, appeared in British newspapers and in public discussions.

With that moralizing backdrop, organized criminal gangs carved out territories in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, and other British communities. Each ruled its own turf, often ruthlessly, using the time-honored methods of bribery and extortion to keep the police at bay. Charles McDonald, known as Wag, and his brother Wal ran the Elephant and Castle Gang in London, which controlled bookmakers, burglars, extortion rackets, payroll robberies, and other similar pursuits in London. Allied with a like gang in Birmingham, the Elephant and Castle Gang grew throughout the region prior to World War I, and continued to grow during the interwar years. Another brother, Bert McDonald, took part in some gang activities, but concentrated his efforts working with his girlfriend, Alice Diamond, who gained control of the 40 Elephants. Alice brought the activities of the 40 Elephants to new levels of crime, an all-female gang of fearsome dimensions.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Looking like the epitome of a 1920s flapper, Alice Diamond ran the 40 Elephants gang for several years. Wikimedia

18. The 40 Elephants flaunted their criminal activities through Britain

Under Alice Diamond, known to the press as Diamond Annie, the all-female 40 Elephants criminals exhibited the success of their activities with unabashed fervor. They concentrated on two main areas of crime, burglaries and shoplifting. To accomplish the former, they recruited domestic servants to infiltrate the homes and businesses of their victims. The information they acquired allowed burglars to enter and rob homes at the most opportune times, ensuring success. Often the domestics were recruited with an eye to their physical attractiveness. Affairs with their employers afforded the opportunity for blackmail, particularly if said employer enjoyed social prominence. Though Victoria was dead, the moral strictures of her reign were not. Scandal easily destroyed social standing and careers, making blackmail a lucrative pursuit.

But the true bread and butter for the 40 Elephants was, as it had been for decades, shoplifting. Gang members arrived in upscale shopping districts, often in expensive motorcars provided by allied gangs. Women swarmed the shops, wearing expensive clothes, jewelry, and furs. Merchants resorted to closing their shops and calling for police at the mere sight of the gangs. By the 1920s gang members followed their fellow British citizens to seaside resorts and vacation sites to continued their raids. As of the early 21st century, criminologists continued to scour police records in Britain and Wales, identifying gang members a century after their crimes were committed. Nearly all of the items they stole were sold to fences, and often the latter ended up selling the items through the black market back to their original owners. With even the victims willingly participating in criminal activity, the police were stymied.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Planting domestic servants in unsuspecting households aided burglars, and often led to blackmail opportunities. Wikimedia

19. The 40 Elephants criminals developed a modern inventory distribution system

By the early 1920s the 40 Elephants, working in conjunction with the Elephant and Castle Gang and others throughout Britain, developed a system of acquiring and shipping stolen goods to order. Warehouses nearing distribution centers held goods, delivered by trains and trucks, to fences who needed them to satisfy customer’s needs. Expensive goods stolen from Selfridge’s in London appeared in shops in Liverpool or Brighton, filled in accordance with the vendor’s requests. Gang members often traveled carrying empty steamer trunks, depositing them at railroad stations where they were filled by local members with the required goods. They then traveled to assigned destinations, carrying their goods to their customers. Merchants and vendors in smaller towns received items stolen from high-end shops, and sold them to their customers at discounts.

Each member of the gang assumed a relatively small role in the overall scheme of things, meaning that when they were caught the charges the police could bring were relatively minor. Arrests, when they occurred, usually carried penalties upon conviction of just a few months, up to about three years. Few served their full sentence, with reformers arguing vehemently against the incarceration of women for minor offenses. The gang hired legal representation for their members, and welcomed them back into the fold upon their release. Frustrated police and merchants found little they could do to prevent the female gangs from continuing their activities. By 1939, when Britain went to war with Germany, about 70 members of the 40 Elephants operated in Great Britain. Wartime security and efforts to quash the black market which arose from rationing finally brought the gang to an end.

Meet the Lady Gangsters and Criminals of the Victorian Age
Though many of the female offenders served time in British prisons, they were usually for shorter sentences than their male counterparts, Wikimedia

20. Alice Diamond and Lillian Kendall were two infamous criminals/leaders of the 40 Elephants

Alice Diamond ruled the female 40 Elephants gang in the early 1920s. Likely her name was an alias, based on her penchant for wearing prominent diamond rings. The gems were for more than show. The 5’8″ Alice used the rings as brass knuckles on more than one occasion, defending her turf against usurpers, as well as against policemen who attempted to arrest her on several occasions. In late 1925 Alice led an attack against a former member of her gang who had shown the temerity to join a rival gang. Arrested and convicted for inciting a riot, Alice served a prison sentence of 18 months. Upon her release she discovered her position as “Queen” of the 40 Elephants had been taken by a former comrade, Lillian Kendall. Alice resumed her career as a hoister, but allowed leadership of the gang to remain in Kendall’s hands.

Kendall became known as the “bobbed-haired bandit”. Bobbed hair was a fashion among the youth and flappers of the 1920s, scorned by upper-society. Kendall flaunted hers during a series of smash and grab robberies. In some of her robberies she drove her car into a storefront window, grabbed those items which struck her fancy, and fled. In one such event she crashed through the storefront of Cartier’s in London’s fashionable Bond Street. The press made much of her brash robberies and daring escapes. Eventually, in the days following World War II, retail outlets developed better security, and the police and courts applied less chivalry to their regard for female criminals. Equal rights did not always benefit the formerly downtrodden. By the early 1950s the 40 Elephants were no more. Crime experts continue to debate the amounts of money they stole over the seventy or so years of their existence.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“To Catch a Lady Burglar”. Eloise Moss, History Today. July 4, 2019

“Housebreakers and Burglars”. Article, Dictionary of Victorian London. Online

“Dark Secrets of the Victorian Underworld”. Article, BBC History Extra. February 21, 2019. Online

“Thieves”. Article, Victorian Crime and Punishment. Online

“Victorian Crime”. Article, The History Press. Online

“Women, Crime, and Penal Responses”. Lucia Zedner, Crime and Justice, Volume 14. 1991

“The Lady is a Detective”. Olivia Rutigliano, Lapham’s Quarterly. December 10, 2018.

“The Victorian Underworld’s Most Unusual Crimes”. Article, Crime Reads. Online

“Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968”. Eloise Moss. 2019

“Juvenile Crime in the 19th Century”. Matthew White, British Library Online. May 15, 2014

“The Ultimate Girl Gang”. Kirsten Miller, Old Police Cells Museum. Online

“Damaging Females: Representations of women as victims and perpetrators of crime in the mid nineteenth century”. Doctoral thesis, Radojka Startup. February, 2000. Online

“Alice Diamond and the 40 Elephants”. Brian McDonald. 2015

“Gangs of London”. Brian McDonald. 2010

“Alice Diamond and the 40 Elephants”. Article, Southwark News. November 5, 2015

“Women, Work, and Shoplifting in London, 1890-1940”. William M. Meier. Pdf, Online

“Girl gang’s grip on London underworld revealed”. Amelia Hill, The Guardian. December 27, 2010

“Hoodlums in bloomers: The female army of shoplifters that ransacked West End shops and hid loot in their knickerbockers”. Guy Walters, Daily Mail. January 20, 2011

“Criminal Secret Society: The Story of 40 Elephants”. Richard B. Spence, Great Courses Daily. October 4, 2020. Online

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