Victorian London - Crime - Thieves - Fences


Our "official friend" having made an appointment to meet an acquaintance at a public-house in the neighbourhood of the Lane, proposes that we should accompany him. We acquiesce, and obediently follow in his footsteps.
"The house we are going to, says our Mentor, as he splashes through the mud, flinging the words carelessly over his shoulder, " is a noted one among the fences; there they pick up as much business in a day as at any other house in a week. A keen lot, there, I can tell you ; always ready for a job. Only give them 'the office,' and they'll make things snug and comfortable in less than no time. I go there sometimes myself, when -" here he wheels half round, and winks at us facetiously- "when I've got a little business up ; besides, the landlord's a friend of mine, one as I've known, on and off, this fourteen year." The term "friend" we remark to be somewhat frequent in the official's mouth, but generally with an accompaniment such as this: "What, Bates? Tom Bates? Bless you, an old friend of mine - know him as well as I do myself - had him in custody some seven year ago. Or, " Bill Simpson? Poor old Bill ! we were great cronies once ; nibbled him, though, in that affair of the stolen goods at Shadwell" -and so on; the speaker appearing, in his progress through life, to have grasped his friends-not by their hands, but their collars.
"Are there many receivers of stolen goods now?" we ask. "Lots," is the curt reply, thrown, as before, over his shoulder. "But we thought that the fence was a being almost extinct, and that the regular receiving, as a trade, was nearly done away with. Have we insulted our friend? We know not; but he halts abruptly, turns sharply round, and then, overcome by his feelings, leans for support against an adjacent wall, and gazes pityingly upon us. "Well, begging your pardon, if that's not about as foolish a remark as ever I heard. No fences! no receivers! Why, just walk down the Lane, take a turn about the neighbourhood--the alleys, courts, and all that, an' if I don't show you a dozen thieves to one fence, an' three fences to one honest man, call me a Dutchman. Bethnal-green lies over there, and, like the O'Mulligan, our guide points vaguely into the distance; "Spitalfields yonder, and Wentworth-street's close at hand - there are thieves on all sides of us. They do the work, but who gets the pull? Why, the Jews. And where do you find em? Here, of course-here, about Petticoat-lane. Having said thus much, our friend wheels round again, and with much complacency pursues the uneven tenor of his way.
The night is foggy, and the wet hangs in clustering dew drops, or drips from our hair as we walk; the night is foggy yet a brisk trade is still doing in the Lane and its neighbourhood. Lights show faintly in the shops, throwing a dim, uncertain light upon many things - chiefly upon the dirty faces of the owners, as they sit smoking among their merchandise, but failing to illumine the many recesses of their establishments, which, lost in a seemingly impenetrable darkness, lend a sinister and mysterious aspect to everything around. The banditti are still at their posts, lying in wait for you as you pass. One thrusts at us with an old saw, which, having lost its teeth from extreme old age, has assumed a formidable and sabre-like appearance, that we shudder to contemplate. Another pulls us within his doorway, and, unfolding several bandannas, of colours hard to distinguish in the sickly light and with the thick fog hanging about us, informs us, with winks and nods of much significance, that they are "very sheap." Escaping from this harpy, we stumble over a fat Jewess, who is busily engaged suckling an infant. We are confused, and stammer out an apology, but she never loses her presence of mind for a moment; snatching up a boot from a pile upon which she has been sitting-like a Suttee waiting for the fire-she dangles it before us, declaring that we shall have the pair for eight and six. We, however, declare as positively that we will not, and quickly avoid Circe and her cries.
Mentor hurries us along, and we have no time to take more than a hasty glance at the various shops as we pass- though many are well worth inspection, being as quaint in their form, and as ancient in their aspect, as that shop where our old acquaintance, Wayland Smith, bought the famous drug, which worked such wonders in the fortunes of his master. One shop, in particular, attracted our notice, or rather, its inmate ; for of the shop we could see little or nothing. Through an open doorway, about which a swarm of dirty children were clustering like fungi, we looked into a dismal sort of receptacle for lumber of all kinds, articles of old ironwork being predominant; and from that into another, or inner den, where an old man was seated, crouching over a book, which he was reading by the light of a smoky old lamp, with a dull red flame, and long ragged wick; the outer room or shop being in entire darkness. The light streamed full upon his white head and beard, which fell in masses on the book; the whole scene, with its strong light and shadows, made up a picture worth a minute's halt at least. To gain time we appeal to our guide. 
"Noble old man that!" and we point to the object in question.
"Is he?" is all we get in reply.
"Fine chance for a Rembrandt to take him off now!"
    "Could take him off whenever I please," says our friend; who, having his one idea, follows it up with much pertinacity.
    "You might fancy him some old alchemist," we continue, "bending over a treatise of the great Albertus, or decyphering the hieroglyphs of Lully."
"You might," observes Mentor, emphatically, at the same time regarding us with much anxiety of countenance.
"Some alchemist musing over his crucibles, melting down -"
    "Ah! that's it," and his mind relieved, our friend is himself again. "Melting down's what did him up; we caught him at it, and he got his seven year for it; didn't cure the old fence though. He is one of the worst of em now. A regular old sinner is Ikey, with cunning enough for a hundred. Hilloh, Ikey! how are you, old boy?"
Mr. Isaacs looks up, and discloses a very wicked-looking face, all wrinkled up and puckered into squares, like a pattern for Berlin woo1, and to which the white hair and beard seem scarcely to belong. He closes his book-a well-thumbed ledger - and approaches the door, where, after kicking spitefully at the children on the step, he greets our friend as an old acquaintance.
"How d'ye do, Misther? how d'ye do? Vant anythink in my vay? Ain't got nothin' in yourn, as I knows on." Here we laugh, and Methuselah turns upon us with the malignity of a cat. "Vant to sell the young gen'leman, p'r'aps ? - been sold often enough before, I should think I should like to puy him at my price, and sell him at his own. He! he! he! he!"
    We stay to hear no more; our romance has fled, and we leave the ill-conditioned old Jew in disgust, his cackling laugh pursuing us round the corner; nor do we open our mouth again till we arrive at the door of the house we left "the Lane" to seek.
The fog is too thick for us to see much of its outward appearance, and so we plunge into the gaping passage at once. "Well, Cheesy, how's Mike?" says our guide, with much self-possession, as he stumbles over a figure squatted on the step, and which stumbles to its feet with some alacrity.
"Oh, vell enuf'; Mike's vell enough-he's dead!"
"Died of the cholera last veek: that makes five on 'em in these parts."
"Never mind, Cheesy, my boy-never mind; matters aint so bad, as long as you can count em;" and he pushes merrily along.
    "That's a very foolish remark of yours, my friend," we mutter as we stumble slowly after him. Yet it is but an echo of an opinion in higher places. When the rain-drops fall so that we can number them with ease, it is the fool only who neglects to prepare for the coming storm.
We are in the midst of a large room, in which some twenty men are furiously smoking. The fog from without has entered with us, and, mixing with the smoke, hangs curling and wreathing itself into fantastic shapes, above heads of the smokers. Some of them seem prophetic enough. For instance, where it has wreathed itself into the forms a ring, or noose, which trembles above the head of the unprepossessing fellow by the table - how it descends, till it seems to play with the rough bristles of his hair, then, lightly sailing upwards, trembles loosely to and fro, swinging in mid-air! The man himself is ill at ease, for he glance uneasily around, and turns with a scowl at each opening of the door. "That chap's been up to something," our friend remarks, as he fills a pipe, "or he wouldn't sit so shiny in his chair-shouldn't wonder if we heard more of him tomorrow mornin'." Perceiving that his friend has not arrived, he, after handing us a pipe, proceeds to enlighten us concerning some of the people who form the "company of the room.
"This, you see, is a fence-house; and those," indicating by a scarcely perceptible motion of the finger various countenances bearing the impress of their several degrees of villainy, "are what we call Petticoat-lane fencers; they're Jews, every one of them. You know the old saving, that there was never roguery yet but a Jew or a woman was at the bottom of it. The Jews are downy customers, I confess, and plaguey hard to catch.
"And the women?" we ask.
"Oh, the women ! Bless you, if it wasn't for them we shouldn't catch half we do. There's not one among them all as doesn't sooner or later sell her man. As to honour among thieves, that's a regular lie !"-this with much emphasis. "I never knew them show any."
"But as regards the women, you are surely too severe," -and we proceed to quote numerous instances of self-denial and devotion.
"Ah, I dare say; but they're all nobs. What I say is this, that where Poll or Sarah loves Tom, either Poll or Sarah will sell him sure enough when his time comes. Every woman has her weakness-jealousy, vanity, or what not. Their weak side's our strong one. We go in for that, and trusts to human nature."
Having delivered himself thus, our friend resumes his pipe, with the self-approval of a philanthropist, and the placidity of a philosopher.
"That, pointing to a little old man, warming his shrivelled hands by the fire, "that's Solomon Hart,-a regular Californy, they say. Ah, his father was the rummest old codger I ever knew. He'd read somewhere in the Scriptures that David was laid on a bed of gold. Now, that's my ambition," says he; "and he got. it too ; for though he died in a garret close by here, it was on a mattress stuffed with suv'rins."
No easy bed to lie on, we should think. For ourselves, we would rather be the beggar crouching in lair of straw, than the miserable miser, palsied with fear, shaking upon his bed of gold.
A tall fellow, with his hat pulled down over his eyes, and his face ornamented with a beard of a week's growth, now enters the room. He sends a sharp glance round, and beckons to a distant corner. A thin visage peers out through the smoke, and answers the signal with a nod; then a queer-looking mummy of a man limps out from the obscurity, and joins the fellow, and together they leave the apartment. "That's a stroke of business for Lame Lipey.; he's in luck tonight;. that's his third job. Wonder what Ned's been up to; some of. his pals have made a crack (burglary), no doubt. Here, Cheesy, give us some winkles." Cheesy shuffles across the floor, and deposits his basket on the table. "Well, Cheesy, has Frank been here to-night'? Cheesy replies, in a voice thickened by fog and odoriferous with drama, that "he hasn't seed him;" but while he is speaking the door opens, and the person inquired after enters and greets our friend.
He has come for business, and business is at once gone into. They are quickly enveloped in a cloud of smoke and mystery. The room begins to assume a still more vapoury look. One by one the faces of the company disappear in the fog, as the pipe drops from our hands, and we fall asleep in a corner ; and so for the present we will shut our eyes and our mouths upon the doings of Petticoat-lane.

Watts Phillips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855