The figures-mostly of men-which I have alluded to as
appearing with something of a stealthy movement, are
thieves. Not young cadgers, like him who was lately from
the workhouse, but regular thieves of the ordinary stamp
-the thieves of "Thief London" in fact, not the known
cracksman. He and his like (for they are few) take
furnished lodgings and live anywhere - Camden Town, Hackney Road, Islington, and, for aught
I know (but I
think it likely), in Kensington. Not the forgers, for they
are criminal according to circumstances, and belong to no
particular class. Not the coiners, though some of these
have been engaged in that business, and many of them
have been concerned in passing bad money; but the coiners live here, or elsewhere, according to their convenience, and seldom in any place so well known to the
police and so often visited by them. No, these are the
regular thieves - pickpockets, magsmen, sharpers, when
they can sport a respectable "get up;" - shop-lifters,
highway robbers or footpads (garotters, as it is now become customary to call them) are of a rather different
stamp, but often grow from similar materials to those
which have helped to form the casual thief whose case I
have been considering; they are stolid, bullet-headed
ruffians very often, and the women with black eyes and
sharp tongues, and ready oaths, are their women; often either regular prostitutes, or the keepers of low brothels,
to which their particular paramours act as bullies, or
help to secure the plunder of some drugged or drunken
victim. They can always have the help of counsel-these
fellows; and while her fickle attachment lasts, the woman,
who is the terror of half the screaming wild cats of the
neighbourhood, will endure blows, and cruelty, and drunken extravagance, and
will, in short, bear almost any
ill-treatment from her male "pal"; but let him "take up
with another poll," and if ho have any cause to fear, he
had better choose some fresh locality.
To go back to the regular thieves; they are so much more numerous than the rest that I have counted eleven as I stand here by the corner, and know that I am the cause of their uneasy shifting hither and thither, and that they are watching me as closely as I am looking at them.
Theirs is a poor trade. Its poverty is manifest by their threadbare or coarse and mended clothes, the superficial cleanliness of their appearance notwithstanding; by the shabby, earnest-eyed, depressed women who share their fortunes; by their own almost gloomy looks - looks sometimes so wistful and anxious, that it would be difficult to imagine them in any condition which would induce them to make merry. They are not all marked by this demeanour, but this is the prevailing expression ; and well it may be, for stealing in a "regular " way is doubtless as poor and ill-paid a business as one could enter into. Not even with habits of economy-and few London thieves can afford to be extravagant - will one in fifty succeed in saving any considerable sum. His " chances " must be good to keep him in more than the mere necessaries of life, and he has no opportunity for luxuries.
How many times do we hear of a thief (a regular professed thief) being drunk, for instance, or of wearing fine clothes, except in the way of his profession, or of smoking choice cigars, or dining off whitebait and ducks and green peas? In these latter articles I believe they are at times a little extravagant; but a first-rate dinner is a rare event with them. The lucky ones who are clever as sharpers, or the hotel swindlers - a class by themselves, who occupy quiet lodgings or furnished houses in various districts - often live luxuriously; but the ordinary thief seldom rises above very plain eating, and exceedingly moderate drinking. They are often in "trouble," and though they are generally willing to help each other, the savings of a few months may be expended in the cost of a defence, and the amount necessary to start afresh after a period of imprisonment. I have said before that there are now no "thieves' kitchens," where ruffians of more or less truculence meet and carouse as they talk over their achievements, and devise new schemes of plunder; there are, however, public-houses in Thief London. I have one in my eye at this moment; it lies in the direction of Dock-head, and a shabby, dirty, half-ruinous, ill-stocked, and melancholy-looking establishment it is; as I pass the bar, I look round for time tap-room, and not finding it, follow the eye of the landlord, who has been half-sullenly and quite silently regarding me from behind his beer-engine. His eye involuntarily directs me to a dirty door at the end of a passage -a door which leads down a step to a large room, where there is a wide kitchen range, and. a few wooden seats against the bare walls, the original colour of which is no longer distinguishable from that of the dirty tables, besmirched with stale beer, with which several flies, oppressed with some evil influence about the place, are irrigating a field of stale tobacco-ash. Sitting at a table near the grate, where a dull fire is struggling through a superstructure of cinders, sadly in need of the poker, which has been taken away, sit five young men. They have not come there to drink, for there is neither pot nor glass before one of them, and to judge from their general appearance they scarcely seem to have met with any intention of making merry, for they are leaning with their elbows on the table, and speaking only at long intervals and in a weary and dissatisfied undertone, suggestive of low spirits and general dissatisfaction. They are singularly alike even in the matter of dress, though one wears a threadbare coat, a size or two too small, and buttoned up to meet a half-dirty cotton handkerchief which is wound round his neck ; and another, who is moodily scoring a table with the end of a burnt lucifer, has a horsey look, in consequence of' a flapped fustian jacket, corduroys tight in the calf, and with what a "New-Cut'' clothier advertises as artful buttons at the bottom, and a frayed seal-skin Cap. All of them are greasy at the elbows, bulgy at the knees, and exhibit a lounging hopelessness in their beetling brows, their furtive eyes, the occasional shuffling of their feet. They take no notice of me as I enter and take a seat in a corner near the door, but I can see, by that same shuffling of feet and a twitching of the shoulders which pervades the Company generally, that they are quite conscious of the presence of a stranger. A face with deeply sunken eyes and an aggressive jaw, seems somehow familiar to me ; and as he who wears the fustian raises his head with suddenly assumed indifference, I remember when and where I have seen him before. The when was one day last week, the where was a Gravesend steamer; and though on that occasion the horsey-looking individual wore a dirty-white great Coat, which looked like an enlarged flannel waistcoat, and was enveloped, as to the neck, in a yellow worsted comforter, I recognise him as one of a select party of ruffians who were seeking some convenient spot to regale themselves with a prize fight, and landed at Erith for that purpose.
"'Ow was he - why, what d'ye think he was?" says this person, in a defiant voice, in answer to a subdued question from one of the others. "I tell yer he ain't arf knocked out o'time - not up, of course, he warn't, but he ain't much wuss than Bantam."
"I dunnow about that, replies an oily looking youth, who has got up pretending to look for the poker, but in reality to look at me; "it don't seem arf square, do it?"
"What ain't square? what the (local substantive) do you know about it? Hark at Weasel," (this to time company, not including me). Public attention being thus directed to Weasel, who makes a feint of dancing a melancholy double shuffle on the hearth; time rest smile faintly, and one of them ventures to ask what the horsey one has "put upon it, as makes him so (adjective) cocky." This produces so smart a retort, seasoned with adjectives allied to such inappropriate substantives, that were it not for two of the company who never raise their eyes from the table, and express no interest whatever except by another twitch of the shoulders, I should imagine that they are quite unconcerned at the presence of a stranger; as it is, I know perfectly well that their conversation is for the time directed to me, and that they affect to be talking of sporting matters, and affect it very badly. One of the silent youths rising presently, and going out at a door opposite to that by which I entered, I see that the room opens upon a disused stable-yard, at the end of which is a tumble-down shed, leading by a wooden ladder outside to an upper room which might once have been a loft. He comes back again directly, and makes some sort of signal with his fingers which directs attention to the other door, through which come two men, one of whom I at once identify as a principal in last week's amusement. I identify him, notwithstanding the fact that his nose and mouth are swelled into one irregular contusion with a gap on one side, where a couple of teeth are missing - and that his eyes, which I remember were rather deeply sunk, are now nearly on a level with his check bones. I cannot help thinking how the characteristic expression of a face may remain even after the shape of the face has been altered, and compare him mentally to one of those toy heads made of gutta percha, which may be squeezed into a dozen shapes without altering their identity. Two or three of the party rise listlessly as the new visitor approaches ; but they give him no word of greeting, and not one of them relaxes his gloomy overhanging brows for more than a momentary expression of interest.
His least damaged eye regards me with as much indifferent and yet marked attention as he can conveniently throw into it, and he stops for an instant on his way to the table, so that I have time to notice that one arm of his rough overcoat hangs loose, while the hand belonging to it rests in a sling made of a bright silk handkerchief. With this exception he is muffled in innumerable wraps, and looks faint, his face assuming the colour of mildewed paste.
"Have you seen him?" says somebody, at last.
"Yes, I've seen him," he replies, "an' he's agoin' to get up."
Not another word is said, but by some mysterious concert they go one after another out at the back door, the disabled ruffian leading the way, accompanied by his friend and supporter. In five minutes I rise to go too by the way I came, and I only stay because one of time silent youths with the shiny elbows returns, looking straight before him, advances a pace or two, and after slowly carrying his eyes quite round time room, but not looking at me, vanishes without even time pretence of having forgotten anything.
Watts Phillips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855