THE FORTY THIEVES GANG
The Forty Thieves were a real, London-based all-female gang which scandalised the nation with their criminal shoplifting antics, creating national headlines throughout the early part of the 20th century.
As an author, I have had unprecedented access to the relatives of some of the original gang, getting to know them and learning about their secretive methods which allowed girls from London slums to out earn men, ten to one. And this inside knowledge, passed to me by those close to the original gang, has informed my writing.
Queen of the Forty Thieves was a real position which was fought over and revered in equal measure on the streets of London.
The Forty Thieves/Queen trilogy (Orion Books UK and Harper Collins USA/Canada) is a fictional retelling of the gang's story, from late Victorian London of 1890 and its first leader or “Queen” Mary Carr, to its heyday under the fearsome Alice Diamond in the 1930s and 1940s, and her successor Nell Kane, who betrays her trust to steal the crown throughout the 1950s.
My books are not just about tough women of crime, although there is plenty of grit in there; it reveals how real-life working-class women fought to combine motherhood and in some cases marriage with a career on the wrong side of the law at a time when society told them to stay in the scullery. They were treated more harshly by the courts and caused sensational headlines precisely because they were women acting outside of the norm.
What’s more, they refused to bow to pressure to reform because their exclusively female business was so lucrative.
Working class communities in London of the early twentieth century - where part of my immediate family has its roots - are so often portrayed as a place where women had little to do but cook the dinner, raise the kids and be “her indoors”.
The Forty Thieves gang, which had its heyday from the 1920s and the 1960s, took that notion and threw it out onto the cobbles, challenging any bloke who dared to try to stop them.
To those who knew them, they were like film stars, who dressed glamorously, fought harder than the men and refused to bow down to the law. Yet they could be caring, standing up for wives whose husbands frittered the housekeeping on drink or who were handy with their fists behind closed doors.
The moment I got to know some of the leading lights of the original gang, their daughters and granddaughters - including one of the later “Queens” - I knew that there was more to their story than met the eye. I spent hours getting to know about their stories, carrying out painstaking genealogical research and combing through criminal records in the National Archives to unearth images of these feisty women from their police records. Since then I have spent years talking to and spending time with the families of former leading lights in the gang. One even offered to take me "shopping" with her!
In my extensive picture research, I discovered images of the leading members of the gang, taken shortly after their arrests for shoplifting and violence. They stare fiercely into the camera lens, refusing to feel remorse for their crimes. In some cases, they are still wearing the furs and hats they have no doubt bought through ill-gotten gains - because no hoister worth their salt would wear what they had stolen. Alice Diamond and her girls made regular appearances in the confidential Register of Persistent Offenders and on the front page of the Police Gazette.
Shop owners all over London were terrorised by the gang steaming through their stores and pilfering luxury items including furs, silks, and jewels, as well as all kinds of women’s clothes. Teams of “hoisters” who learned their craft in the tenement sculleries of Waterloo and the Elephant and Castle in South London, wore specially adapted bloomers with elastic at the knee to hide their haul, or coats and hats with secret pockets.
The most experienced hoisters could stuff a fur coat down each knicker leg and one down their gusset and still walk out of Selfridges without a care in the world. One liked to wear a maternity girdle to steal china, to stop it rattling, and once got away with an entire tea set. West End stores could only despair at the loss of stock, and were often powerless to stop the pilfering, which stepped up to record levels in the years immediately preceding and after the Second World War.
Teams worked in gangs of two or three and would spend at least three days a week “going shopping” up in the West End. They had male drivers to run their getaway cars and paid handsomely. The rise of the walker, or store detective, saw them travel further afield to cities including Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton in the hope of hoisting without being spotted. They used distraction techniques, confidence tricks and downright daring to get away with it, often turning violent when the need arose.
One was jailed for stabbing a policeman in the eye with her hatpin and the most notorious Queen, Alice Diamond, was known for using her sparkling row of diamond rings as a knuckleduster, sometimes on her own gang members if they transgressed. Rules included never grassing to the police and not stealing each other’s boyfriends.
Punishment beatings, shaming and social ostracising were powerful weapons to instil order in members of the all-girl gang. The code included rules to prevent hoisters wearing the clothes they had stolen; they had to be handed over the Queen to be fenced on, or there would be hell to pay. The Queen paid wages weekly, for the girls and women to buy clothes, shoes and make-up of their own, which made them look like film stars compared to the other women in the slums where they lived.
The most experienced hoisters during the late 1940s and early 1950s were said to be earning as much as a hundred pounds a week, which was ten times the average man’s weekly wage. They loved to go out to the clubs of Soho, paying for their own drinks and dinners, dressed up to the nines, to celebrate a good day’s hoisting.
Gangland men were often in awe of the Forty Thieves hoisters, but there were rivalries and relationships. Some felt the hoisters were causing too much attention from the police, which risked their own all-male gang criminal ventures while others grudgingly admired their sheer daring and skill. Some men felt emasculated by this group of women, who out earned them and refused to play by society’s norms which dictated that women had to be at home, raising the kids; or, as often was the case, toiling long hours in menial jobs to pay for their husband’s gambling and drinking.
The Forty Thieves and their Queen were bound up with London’s underworld in a way few people realise, and these women held extraordinary power in their communities. Some had reputations that would make the toughest gangsters think twice before crossing them and their influence is enough for their names to be whispered by hardened criminals, in a way which is still almost reverential.
They lived outside the law at a time when women, poor women of their class, had few opportunities other than going work at the local factory. Married women were usually expected to give up work. I knew from my own family that rationing and the long years of the Second World War had left the most decent working-class people tempted to take “a bit of crooked” to get desirable items such as a nice cut of meat, stockings or a new dress.
In this environment, the Queen of Thieves and her shoplifters, or “hoisters” flourished.
Creating a fictional world for these women in Queen of Thieves, Queen of Clubs and Queen of Diamonds is an absolute joy because their voices demand to be heard. I hope you enjoy reading my books as much as I have enjoyed creating them.