Saturday, January 1, 2011

Female Gangs in London Not a New Phenomenon

Girl gang's grip on London underworld revealed

Girl gangs might sound like a modern British problem, but new research has revealed an all-female crime syndicate had a firm and pitiless grip on London as far back as the 18th century.

Forgotten stashes of photographs, records and letters have revealed that although the capital was carved into different fiefdoms by various male villains, one all-female gang ruled part of the gangland underworld for almost two centuries.

"Many a husband lounged at home while his missus was out at work, and many an old lag was propped up by a tireless shoplifting spouse. Some of these terrors were as tough as the men they worked for and protected," said Brian McDonald, who uncovered details of the criminals when researching for his new book, Gangs of London.

The all-female Forty Elephants – or Forty Thieves – worked alongside the notorious Elephant and Castle gang, a sprawling, powerful army of all-male smash-and-grab artists, burglars, receivers, hard men and crafty villains operating across south London. The Forty Elephants, in contrast, was a tightly run, neatly organised collection of cells, whose operations extended across London and into other cities.

Presided over by a formidable "queen", the Forty Elephants 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.

Dressed in specially tailored coats, cummerbunds, muffs, skirts, bloomers and hats sewn with hidden pockets, they mounted raids on London's West End shops, where they plundered goods worth thousands of pounds.

"The girls benefited from prudish attitudes of the time by taking shelter behind the privacy afforded to women in large stores," said McDonald.

They became so well known in London that panic erupted when they were seen near high-class shops. The gang's response was to branch out, expanding their enterprise to country and seaside towns.

In the 20th century, they used high-powered cars to outrun the police. If they were stopped, they were found to be clean: the goods were spirited away to cars driven by male members of the team. When working other towns, they would use trains, depositing empty suitcases at railway stations which they filled with booty for the return trip.

Some of the gang's crimes, however, were opportunistic: Maggie Hughes, a shoplifter with convictions going back to the age of 14, was jailed for three years in 1923 after running out of a jeweller's shop with a tray of 34 diamond rings – straight into the arms of a policeman.

The women had many sidelines, including using false references to obtain work as housemaids, before ransacking employers' homes. Blackmail was another favourite tactic: many men were forced to pay substantial sums after being seduced.

"On the plus side, they threw the liveliest of parties and spent lavishly at pubs, clubs and restaurants," said McDonald. "Their lifestyles were in pursuit of those of glamorous movie stars, combined with the decadent living of 1920s aristocratic flapper society. They read of the outrageous behaviour of rich, bright young things and wanted to emulate them.

The women's stories were discovered by McDonald scoured official birth and death records, trawled through marriage indexes, local newspaper reports and out-of-print books in the British Library archives to uncover their stories.

"Hidden in Britain's underworld are characters and little known gangsters who have received only fleeting comments on their careers," he said. "Far from being side men and women, some of these villains – especially the women – deserved starring roles."

Born in 1896 in Southwark, Annie Diamond became queen of the gang when she was 20. She ruled with military precision, dividing the gang into cells to ransack a single shop or raid a series of shops across the city simultaneously. To the police, she was "the cleverest of thieves" and called Diamond Annie, because she had a "punch to beware of", said McDonald, thanks to fists studded with diamond rings.

The women guarded their territory jealously, demanding a percentage of takings from others caught stealing from shops they considered to be on their turf. Pitiless to those who tried to resist them, they arranged beatings and even kidnappings until money was paid.

The women were playing a risky game. If caught, they could be sentenced to between three and 12 months' hard labour, or three years in prison. But despite that, the gang members were long-timers: Ada Wellman, convicted of shoplifting from the Army and Navy stores in Victoria in 1921, was still an active member of the gang 18 years later, when she was jailed for four months for another crime.

The women rarely wore what they stole, McDonald said; they preferred to dress in legitimate high fashion. Stolen goods were disposed of through a chain of fences in south and north London. Small-value items went to street market traders, jewellery to pawnbrokers, and clothes to shops that were willing to replace labels and remodel designs.

They were clever: when the police raided the house of Ada McDonald in Stead Street, Walworth in 1910, they were foxed by McDonald, a suspected fence for five notorious gangs, who produced ledgers to prove rooms full of stock had been legitimately purchased.Police were also defeated by Jane Durrell, also suspected of being a receiver of stolen goodsanother fence. After numerous failed police investigations, Durrell and her common-law husband, Jim Bullock, were taken to court in 1911 charged with receiving shoplifted goods from a slew of Wwest London shops.

Although three female members of the gang pleaded guilty to their crime and were given prison sentences, the couple lived to fight another day after a jury decided it couldn'tcould not be proved that Durrell and Bullock knew the goods, valued at hundreds of pounds, had been stolen.

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