Move over, Mafia! For over one hundred years, an all-female gang named the ‘Forty Thieves’ terrorised London.
Robbing from high-end stores and their wealthy patrons, they also enforced their rules on smaller gangs. Also known as the Elephant gang, they operated out of the Elephant and Castle district in South London, hence the name.
They first rose to notoriety under Mary Carr, a beautiful artists’ model known as ‘Queen Thief’. But it was her successor, Alice Diamond, who led the Forty Thieves to their greatest notoriety. Born the oldest of eight children in a Lambeth workhouse, she was, by her teenage years, already said to be the cleverest shoplifter in London. One detective described how she and her crew would descend, like a gang of locusts in taxis and chauffeur-driven limousines, cleaning out a store inside one hour.
The gang held their own against the men. Besides being able to enforce authority over their turf, anyone else caught stealing in London’s West End, had to give the Forty Thieves gang a cut.
They were a well-disciplined operation. For example, they didn’t wear the clothes they stole. And the stores they sold them to, removed the tags, and made alterations. They even sold them as fakes, despite being the real thing.
The all-female gang worked alongside the infamous Elephant and Castle mob, a powerful army of all-male smash-and-grab gangs, burglars, receivers, working across South London. The Forty Thieves were a tightly run, organised collection of cells, whose operations extended not only across London but into other cities.
Emerging from the slums like fallen angels, these stylish young women pillaged fashion stores and jewel shops, picked their lovers from among London’s toughest gangsters and terrorised their rivals. Soon they were renowned, and feared, as the country’s first all-female crime syndicate.
Headed over by a formidable woman, the Forty Thieves were responsible for the largest shoplifting operation ever seen in Britain between the 1870s and 1950s. The gang was first mentioned in newspapers in 1873, but police records suggest it had existed since the late 1700s.
Male criminals admired the gang for their organisation and proficiency. They kept fake books good enough to convince the authorities their income was legitimate. Even when they were caught, sentences for women were light in those days, so gang members often served one to three years and went straight back to work.
This was an era when bustles and acres of crinoline were still worn, and their daring and ambition limited the amount of contraband a female thief could conceal beneath her dress. While at work, each of the thieves wore a specially tailored outfit that was peppered with concealed pockets. They made fortunes selling the goods they pilfered. Their ill-gotten gains were then used to throw extravagant parties and to fund their excessive lifestyles. Off duty, they were known to dress in the very finest fashions.
As well as raiding stores all over the country, they masqueraded as housemaids for wealthy families, often using false references, before ransacking their homes. Neither were they averse to a little blackmail, many a married man was forced to pay a substantial sum of money after being seduced.
Shoplifting, originally called lifting, is probably as old as shopping itself. The first documented shoplifting started to take place in 16th-century London and was carried out by groups of men called lifters.
In the late 17th century, London shopkeepers displayed goods in ways designed to attract shoppers, such as in window displays and glass cases. This made the goods more accessible for shoppers to handle and examine and if you can handle the goods, you can steal them.
The art of shoplifting has changed little over the years and still revolves around concealing items on the person or an accomplice, causing chaos or diversions or leaving the store without paying. By the early 19th century, shoplifting was believed to be primarily a female activity. As, perhaps, we still think of it today.
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