If the places of crime and punishment do not necessarily change, but leave a steady mark, there may also be continuity among the criminals of London. We read of fourteenth-century forgers and blackmailers, and the coroners’ inquests of 1340 reveal a long tally of “bawdy-house keepers, night-walkers, robbers, women of ill fame.” The city was even then so filled with thieves that in this period the right of “in-fangthief” was given to the city authorities; it permitted them “to hang thieves caught redhanded (cum manu opere)” without trial by jury.
It was not until the sixteenth century, however, that the literature of London crime becomes extensive. The works of Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker, in particular, reveal an underworld of thieves and imposters which remains as old and as new as the city itself. Certainly the argot or cant of the thieves had very ancient roots, while some of its more expressive phrases endured well into the nineteenth century. “And bing we to Rome-vill, to nip a bung” can be translated as “Now let us travel to London, to cut a purse.” How London acquired the name of “Rome-vill,” long before it was ever compared to that imperial city, is something of a mystery. “Yonder dwelleth a queer cuffin. It were beneship to mill him” (“There lives a difficult and churlish man. It would be a very good thing to rob him”).
The individuals, as well as their words, come to life in the pages of these old catalogues of crime—“John Stradling with the shaking head … Henry Smyth who drawls when he speaks … John Browne, the stammerer”—each of them engaged in some kind of fifteenth-century cheating trade. That trade, too, has survived. The game of cups, in which the spectator must choose which one conceals the ball, is still played on the streets of London in the twenty-first century; the fraud has now existed for over a thousand years in the capital.
In their record of “abraham men” (who pretended to be mad), “clapper dodgers” (who fished for goods from open windows) and “priggers of prancers” (horse thieves), Dekker and Greene may on occasions be guilty of over-emphasis; the streets of sixteenth-century London might not have been quite as violent or as perilous as they suggest. Nevertheless real criminality could be found in many specific areas. The neighbourhood of Chick Lane and Field Lane in Clerkenwell, for example, was always notorious. In Chick Lane itself there was a dwelling, once known as the Red Lion inn, which upon its demolition in the eighteenth century was discovered to be three centuries old; C.W. Heckethorn, in London Souvenirs, reveals that it contained “dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and secret recesses.” One of these trap-doors opened upon the Fleet Ditch, and “afforded easy means of getting rid of the bodies.” There was a morass of lanes off Ratcliffe Highway, with names like Hog Yard and Black Dog Alley, Money Bag Alley and Harebrain Court, which were known for “moral degradation.” There was also a dwelling near Water Lane, off Fleet Street, known as “Blood Bowl house” named “from the various scenes of blood that were almost daily exhibited, and where there seldom passed a month without the commission of a murder.”
In perhaps less sensational a context, a city recorder of the seventeenth century gave evidence of a raid upon Watton’s alehouse at Smart’s Key beside Billingsgate. The tavern was in reality a school “set upp to learne younge boys to cutt purses.” Pockets and purses were hung upon a line with “hawkes bells” or “sacring bells” attached to them; if a child could remove a coin or counter without setting off the bell “he was adjudged a judiciall Nypper.” During the following century there was another such school in Smithfield, where a tavern-keeper taught children how to pick pockets, to pilfer from shops by crawling through their wooden hatches, and to break into buildings by a simple expedient: they pretended to be asleep against the wall while all the time they were actively chipping away at the bricks and mortar until a hole had been breached.
It is curious, in this description of crime, that the criminals themselves adopted the terminology of “law.” “Cheating law” was the term for playing with false dice, “versing law” the art of passing counterfeit coin and “tigging law” that of cutting purses. It was the alternative law of “low” London.
Yet new crimes could also evolve. In the seventeenth century, for example, highway robbery became known as “high law.” The age of coaches meant also the age of coach theft, and in the last days of 1699 John Evelyn wrote: “This week robberies were committed between the many lights which were fixed between London and Kensington on both sides, and while coaches and travellers were passing.” Between flaring lights along the high road, there was at night absolute darkness where the robbers could easily strike. We may even hear them talking in the pages of The London Hanged. One drover, Edward Smith, suggested to a companion that they “go upon the Accompt” (take up highway robbery). “Let us enter into Articles to have no others than ourselves concerned for the future.” And if they were caught? There is an account of one thief taken and led back to London—“he was very unruly, pulling the horse about, making Motions with his Hands at every Body that came near him, as if he was firing a Pistol, crying Phoo!” Hounslow Heath and Turnham Green, Marylebone and Tottenham Court Road, were particular areas of danger for the unwary. These were the places for footpad robberies, known to the criminal fraternity as “low Tobies.” It became customary in the early eighteenth century for travellers into London to gather in bands for mutual protection, beginning their perilous journey only on the sounding of a bell; at night they would also be accompanied by link-boys carrying lights.
The same flaring torches were necessary for journeys within the city itself. “A gentleman was stopt in Holborn about twelve at night by two footpads, who on the gentleman’s making resistance shot him dead and then robbed him … One Richard Watson, tollman of Marybone turnpike, was found barbarously murdered in his toll-house.” A female who served in a public house in Marylebone is quoted in Charles Knight’s London as having “often wondered why I have escaped without wounds or blows from the gentlemen of the pad, who are numerous and frequent in their evening patroles through these fields; and my march extended as far as Long Acre, by which means I was obliged to pass through the thickest of them.” A commentator in the same volume has remarked that the citizens of London “looked upon the worshipful company of thieves much in the same way that settlers in a new country regard the wild beasts prowling in the forests around them.”
The “judiciall Nyppers” of one period had migrated into another, and it was reported that eighteenth-century London “swarms with pick-pockets, as daring as they are subtile and cunning.” They stole under the very gibbet from which they might one day be suspended and “there never is any execution without handkerchiefs and other articles being stolen.” If they were caught in the act, by Londoners themselves, they were dragged to the nearest well or fountain “and dipped in the water till nearly drowned.” If they were taken up by the authorities, a more severe penalty was imposed. By the middle of the eighteenth century the number of offences, for which men and women could be hanged had risen from 80 to over 350. Yet this may not have been a powerful deterrent. A few years later, in a Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, it was reported that “115,000 persons in London were regularly engaged in criminal pursuits.” This would amount to one-seventh of the population. So, in 1774, it was recorded by the Gentleman’s Magazine that “The papers are filled with robberies and breaking of houses, and with the recital of the cruelties committed by the robbers, greater than ever before.” We may surmise, therefore, that in a period of affluence and “conspicuous” wealth, crimes against property were as numerous as crimes against people—and this despite the fact that the larger the sum involved in theft or cheat, the greater the possibility of being hanged.
Peter Linebaugh has scrutinised the statistics for hanging all through the eighteenth century, and has arrived at interesting conclusions. Those born in London tended to hang in their early twenties, an earlier age than that of immigrants to the city. The main trades of those who reached the scaffold were butchers, weavers and shoe-makers. There was a pronounced association between butchers and highway robbers (Dick Turpin himself had been apprentice to a butcher). Cultural and sociological interpretations of this correspondence have been made, but, in general terms, the butchers of the city were always known for their boisterous, individualistic and sometimes violent nature. Certainly they were the most prominent of all London tradesmen, and one foreign visitor to London reported that it was “a marvel to see such quantities of butchers shops in all the parishes, the streets being full of them in every direction.” They were often the leaders of their little communities, too; those of Clare Market, for example, worked and dwelled among the patent theatres of the area and were described as “the arbiters of the galleries, the leaders of theatrical rows, the musicians at actresses’ marriages, the chief mourners at players’ funerals.” They were also leaders of the community in times of scarcity and disorder. It was reported of one violent assault, for example, that “The Buttchers have begun the way to all the rest, for within this toe days they all did rise upon the exise man.” It is not inconsistent, then, that they or their apprentices should be at the very forefront of adventurous or desperate crime.
In 1751 Henry Fielding published his Inquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, and a year later the Murder Act added a further terror to death by declaring that the bodies of the hanged should be publicly dissected by surgeons and anatomists. A measure such as this may have been prompted by a perceived increase in crime, but it was also a direct product of panic fear among the gullible and the anxious.
London has always been the centre of panic, and of rumour. At the end of the twentieth century, for example, an official survey reported that “fear of crime is a social problem in itself” with a significantly higher proportion of Londoners—as opposed to those living elsewhere—feeling unsafe both in their dwellings and in the streets. They might have been echoing the sentiments of a Londoner in 1816 who stated that “from the author’s own experience in almost every part of Europe … he can mention no place so full of peril as the environs of London.” Of course it was then still a relatively compact and enclosed city—the crucial intensity of crime has in fact diminished with London’s growth—and indeed its criminals seem to have borrowed their habits and demeanour from its earlier eighteenth-century life.
The “low Toby” or footpad was known in the early nineteenth century, for example, as a “Rampsman” but the violent assault had not changed. The house-breaker of this period was called a “Cracksman,” while a “Bug Hunter” was one who picked the pockets of drunks; a “Snoozer” was one who booked into a hotel before robbing its guests, while an “Area Sneak” called at kitchen doors in the hope of finding them open and unattended. These were the crimes typical of the city, and their perpetrators were generally thieves, pickpockets, burglars, and those fraudulent merchants and tricksters who took advantage of the gullibility or credulousness of the passing transient crowd.
Although it would be going too far to say that “the man who knew his London—could recognise each type by his dress and manner,” as Thomas Burke puts it in The Streets of London, criminals were still a particular and distinguishable element of city life until the middle of the nineteenth century. Their language, too, like that of the “abraham men” of a previous century, was itself pronounced and peculiar—“Stow that … pottering about on the sneak, flimping or smashing a little … If I’m nailed it’s a lifer.” This existence had its own kind of music also. A villain was known as a “sharp” and his victim a “flat.”
It was reported, in 1867, that this “criminal class” amounted to 16,000. Yet the streets were by then safer than they had ever been. Five years before there had been an outbreak of “garrotting,” the popular name for violent robberies, but that had been effectively suppressed by means of equally violent floggings. It was no longer possible to claim, as the Duke of Wellington had done forty years before, that “the principal streets of London” were “in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds” as well as “organised gangs of thieves.” Where in previous periods of the city’s history the “vagabonds” and “thieves” were scattered indiscriminately in various “islands” off the main thoroughfares, they had by the middle of the nineteenth century retreated into various quarters on the fringes of the now more civilised metropolis. They were often located in the eastern suburbs or, as it soon became known, the “East End.” That area, some sixteen years before “Jack” rendered the region of Whitechapel notorious, was reputed to be a place of thieves’ kitchens and ragged public houses “charged with the unmistakable, overpowering damp and mouldy odour” attendant upon street crime. In Bethnal Green, too, there were pubs and houses which acted as “a convenient and secluded exchange and house of call” filled with “dippers” and “broads” and “welshers.” These are the words of Arthur Morrison, writing A Child of the Jago at the end of the nineteenth century when once more the slang or “patter” had changed in order ever more colourfully to depict the familiar crimes of London. A “house of call,” like “exchange,” was in fact a word used to describe a dealing room of city business. So, in mockery as well as implicit deference, the terminology of financial and commercial London was parodied by the more secretive, if more notorious, speculators in urban goods.
In Bethnal Green and its environs, Morrison noticed the presence of the most successful late nineteenth-century criminals who belonged to “the High Mobs” or, as one resident put it, “’Igh mob. ’Oohs. Toffs.” Morrison was in fact depicting a traditional London pursuit—that of an organised gang, generally of more than usually skilful or vicious practitioners of the criminal arts, with one or two leaders. The “mob” or gang controlled a certain area of the city or certain specific activities. Dick Turpin led “the Essex Gang” of thieves and smugglers in the 1730s; while a decade earlier such gifted individuals as Jonathan Wild could dominate the general course of London crime. But, as the city expanded, it became divided into separate territories controlled by specific gangs.
In the nineteenth century, rival gangs vied for territory and for influence. In the early twentieth century, east London once again became the scene of murderous conflict. The opposition of the “Harding Gang” and the “Bogard Gang” culminated in a violent confrontation in the Bluecoat Boy public house in Bishopsgate. In the 1920s and 1930s the crime families of the Sabinis and Cortesis fought against each other in the streets of Clerkenwell, over the control of clubs and racetracks, while in the next decade the White family of Islington were challenged by Billy Hill and his “heavy mob” from Seven Dials.
There were other criminal fraternities, known variously as “the Elephant Gang,” “the Angel Gang” and “the Titanic Gang.” These dealt in organised shoplifting or “smash-and-grab” raids as well as the general business of drugs, prostitution and “protection” racketeering. In the late 1950s and 1960s the Kray brothers of the East End, and the Richardsons from “over the water” in the southern suburbs, controlled their respective areas with notable success. In the Krays’ own territory, “the popular admiration for great thieves,” to use a phrase of the mid-nineteenth century, had never seriously abated. In 1995, the funeral procession for Ronnie Kray, along Bethnal Green Road and Vallance Road, was a great social event; as Iain Sinclair wrote of the East End in Lights Out for the Territory, “no other strata of society has such a sense of tradition.” The memories of grand criminality in that neighbourhood go back to Turpin’s “Essex Gang” and beyond.
It is hard to say that any aspect of crime or criminal behaviour is altogether new. “Smash and grab” became popular, for example, in the 1940s and 1950s although it did not originate then; there are records of that offence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The gangs of the Krays and the Richard-sons have now been displaced by those with other ethnic origins, the Jamaican “Yardie” and Chinese “Triad” groups, for example, working their own particular areas. In the 1990s, as the trade in drugs such as heroin, khat, crack and ecstasy became ever more lucrative, gang elements from Nigeria, Turkey and Colombia participated in the city’s new criminal activity. The “Yardies” are considered to be, in the twenty-first century, responsible for the largest proportion of killings in a city where murder is perpetual. Murder, to paraphrase Thomas de Quincey, is one of London’s fine arts.