Oxford Street, pictured in 1923, was the perfect target for The Forty Thieves
Dressers clad in striking fur coats and glamorous hats, women peering out of their ID photos in the Police Gazette alongside a veritable gallery of hardened male criminal thugs seem distinctly out of place. But on closer inspection, there is undoubtedly something steel in their eyes, a harshness that endures almost 100 years after their arrests.
Looking insolently into the camera lens, it is far from clear whether a spell in Holloway Prison will deter them from their chosen profession.
For these are the faces of the famous and powerful girl gang, the so-called Forty Thieves, who have made rich collections by stealing luxury items such as furs, silk stockings and jewelry from prestigious London stores. in the first half of the twentieth century. .
The Forty Thieves dressed the room, posing as wealthy, bored housewives lazily walking the store’s rails. In fact, they came from some of South London’s worst slums and were a highly organized and sophisticated gang.
Working in teams of three or four, they would ‘weave’ – as shoplifting was then called – three times a week, steaming through the shops before collecting their loot in taxis and cars waiting in. outside. Under their clothes, they wore specially adapted petticoats with hidden pockets or loose bloomers with elastic at the knee, called “hoister drawers”.
The furs were rolled up on the hanger and pulled down from their breeches when the seller was distracted. Jewelry and watches were ripped off counters, traded for worthless fakes, and hidden under their hats or even in their hair.
The gang was so notorious that its ringleaders regularly appeared in a secret criminal register, now kept by the National Archives. This ledger and the Police Gazette existed to help officers apprehend the most persistent and cunning offenders.
But no interrogation will ever persuade them to reveal the secrets of the gang, as they adhere to a strict code of loyalty to their leader, who is named “Queen”.
The tale of their crimes reads like a female Peaky Blinders and some of these larger-than-life characters inspired my latest novel Queen Of Thieves, the first in a planned trilogy featuring strong, subversive women.
I felt it was time to reassess London gangs. It wasn’t just a man’s world, despite the countless inches of column still devoted to poring over the Kray Twins phenomenon.
The other side of the story is about these fiery women and it’s perhaps more fascinating given the limited powers these working class girls had to earn a living wage.
To be a career thief and a woman was to overturn all the social norms of the time. Their most famous queen, Alice Diamond, the daughter of a dock worker, was known for her row of diamond rings that also acted as a feather duster, and, Heated in her Bentley, she was rarely seen without a sable coat or a stole. of mink slung over the shoulder.
On their own land, in the slums of Elephant and Castle and Waterloo, Diamond ruled with such brutality that it earned him the respect of Soho crime bosses in the male-dominated underworld. Gangsters, including “Mad” Frankie Fraser – whose sister Eva was a gang member – then reverently spoke of The Forty Thieves.
The record of their crimes reads as a woman Peaky Blinders
Alice Diamond has applied a code of conduct, including never helping a police officer or informing. Members turned over anything pinched to their queen, in return for a generous weekly salary.
When the heat was in London, they made flight trips to Southend, Brighton, Liverpool and Manchester. One of their favorite tricks to escape capture was to send their loot back to London or drop a suitcase full of stolen furs into the luggage locker at the station, to be picked up later.
In their heyday, from the 1920s to the 1950s, gang members could earn ten times as much as men, which gave them the financial freedom to buy beautiful fur coats and jewelry and go out dancing in the boxes. West End night.
They behaved like high society debutantes, but their pedigree often involved at least a stay in Holloway Prison.
The granddaughter of one of the stars of The Forty Thieves, who told me the secrets of ‘lifting’, said, “My grandmother was always beautifully showcased. She and her friends looked like movie stars when they walked down the pub. Their point of view was that stores had insurance, so who were they harming by doing it?
“Many women in South London were able to buy beautiful things at a discounted price when clothing was a luxury item, especially during and after World War II.”
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1920s and 1930s newspaper clippings are replete with gang exploits, with Alice
Diamond clearly capturing the imaginations of journalists. With her pale gold hair, she cut a “tall, stately figure with a cool demeanor.” As her legend grew, so did – literally.
Police records from 1919 show her at 5ft 9in, but in the mid-1920s newspapers elevated her to 6ft on the dock, as the “Giant Queen of Terrors” while being convicted of theft. .
When she got caught, she would simply reply, “I don’t know.
Her fiery-haired, hot-tempered deputy, Maggie Hughes, was the perfect counterpoint, protesting loudly while being convicted of stealing three trays of gold rings and ermine envelopes: “Prison won’t cure me! will make me a worse villain! “
The judge intoned, “From your appearance you look like a baby, but you’re a bad thief,” and reporters lapped him up. From that point on, Maggie was known as Babyface.
In the 1930s, when she was sent to jail for assaulting a police officer with her hatpin, she flirted with the judge who called for her kidnapping, joking insolently: “You didn’t say that last night. , your Honor !
The Forty Thieves introduced themselves as rich and bored housewives
In fact, violence was never far from the gang.
After an arrest, Maggie was found with an open knife in her purse and Alice slashed a woman with a razor for offending her. She also spent time in Holloway for her role in a brutal attack on a father and son who had crossed paths with the gang.
During one arrest, it took six police officers to hold her down. The Perdrix sisters,
Madeline and Laura were among the most prolific hoists of The Forty Thieves.
Madeline, renowned for her beauty, and her sister were experts in distraction techniques. But, despite their skills, the couple were no strangers inside the spooky cells of Holloway Prison. By the early 1950s, Alice Diamond was in poor health and the community had had enough of her violence.
She eventually died of pneumonia in 1952, at the age of 55, after officially working as a flower seller (although those who knew her claim that she supplemented her income by working as a prostitute’s maid).
Spirited Maggie Hughes fell into alcohol and the gang distanced themselves from her in the 1940s when she was seen as a handicap. She relied on the protection of her brother Billy Hill, a notorious leader of the Soho gang, and died alone in an apartment he rented for her in 1949.
If anything, their muted ending was a reminder that crime doesn’t pay. Yet perhaps because they forged their own way in a world traditionally dominated by male robbers and protection racketeers, their exploits continue to fascinate.
- Queen Of Thieves by Beezy Marsh (Orion Books, £ 8.99) is out today. For free UK P&P on orders over £ 20 call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832 or visit expressbookshop.com