Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Thieves

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THIEVES.

life12.gif (48528 bytes)FULLY committed. Take him away."
    So speaks the grave magistrate; and, rising from the bench of justice, passes by obsequious officials, and rolls home in his brougham to dinner. The reporter pockets his bundle of greasy notes, and hurries out of the Court; and the "fully committed" one, a few minutes afterwards, is borne away to prison in that sombre vehicle - that hearse of the living - the van. Tell us, ye who have seen it passing through the crowded streets, is a funeral a sight half as melancholy?
    Viewing with impartiality the Thief of the present day, we are disposed to consider him, on the whole, inferior to his predecessor - a good symptom for society. The species of gentleman highwayman no longer exists to frighten the traveller, and does no greater harm than put you to sleep in the pages of a novel. A gentleman can now roll through the country in his travelling-carriage without any fear of being robbed by a gallant horseman, summoning him to surrender with the air of a courtier, and pocketing his money with a quotation from Horace. The last of these heroes long ago died on that greatest of all "trees of liberty," the tree of Tyburn; and his only representative, now-adays, is the common foot-pad - a vulgar fellow who [-93-] knocks you down and rifles you when insensible. After all, it must have been much more agreeable to be plundered like a gentleman! But the change shows that the profession is no longer worth following by men of genius; and the inferior nature of the modern members of it makes them an easy prey of the police.
    While we admit, however, that the Macheath school is completely at an end, we must recollect that late years have produced several specimens of robbers of a certain degree of cultivation. We allude to plunderers in places of trust - the absconding secretary and the fugitive clerk. A young man from the provinces gets a situation in the great house of Argent, Doubloon, and Co., the bankers. He comes up to London after an affectionate parting, and a great deal of good advice, carrying with him a five-pound note, a Bible, a watch, and a lock of hair, perhaps, which he values more than all. His father has recommended to him the study of commerce, and told him the history of Whittington. He is assured that patience and energy will make him rich in time, and he begins his career pretty contentedly, one of a population of two millions, and in the enjoyment of 90 per annum. He takes quiet lodgings, declines a latch-key, comes home to tea when office-hours are over, and, perhaps, having a proper interest in public affairs, peruses a work on the Organization of Labour, and dips into the currency - a sea of speculation where the strongest man cannot swim. Next day he propounds a question on the subject to one of his fellow-clerks, who looks at him as if he questioned his Sanity, and asks him the odds against Cock-a-whoop for the St. Leger. He is ashamed of his ignorance on such a vital point, goes to work and learns it, and a [-94-] great deal more. His lodgings now are duller than ever; somehow or other (as he says) the evenings are longer than they used to be. He then finds out that the knowledge of books is comparatively unnecessary; one should know the world, and to see it in all its phases it must be. observed occasionally at two in the morning. And then comes the dinner in the country, and the evening "on the loose;" the acquaintance of "good fellows," and the being "up to a thing or two." Our hero now begins to call his male parent "governor," to grow critical in cigars, knowing about sweeps, and inquisitive about the ballet. Debt increases, and he is fairly placed in that worst of all social positions, confirmed in expensive habits, with a limited income. At length he comes to that important crisis in a man's life, more important than his first love -  we mean his first bill. Ruin begins to stare him in the face, and the countenance of Ruin is about the ugliest we know.
    The tide of his life's folly has now reached its height. With a head weakened, and a heart corrupted by dissipation, he has to resist the tempter; and the tempter is never so dangerous as when the forbidden fruit he offers you is golden. He is doubly powerful in the garden of the Hesperides.
    Messrs. Argent and Doubloon's office is some morning observed to he in a great state of confusion. Mr Johnson is not there, and - curious coincidence - 1,500 is missing also. In two hours a detective officer in hurrying to Liverpool. Sometimes the culprit is discovered in a ship about to sail, and not unfrequently in a private room in an hotel, drowning his terror in champagne.
    [-95-] There are cases in which these unfortunates, availing themselves of their stolen wealth, rid themselves of the habits which had led them to the crime, and prosper in business; and years after their flight the firm is surprised to receive a remittance of the money that they had lost. But it is almost needless to say, that the thief is generally captured, and goes to Botany Bay, much about the time that his mother, from the same cause, is going to the grave.
    The reader will observe in our artist's engraving, that. tall figure on the nights with hat cocked knowingly, and peering small eye. He is of the swell-mob. The swell-mob man knows the world; he aims at the "gentlemanly appearance," or the "respectable look!" He is a dangerous bird of prey, but hides his talons in kid gloves. For he knows the world, and is aware than [-sic, ed.-] yon poor ill-clad wretch, through whose tattered garments the keen north wind bites, is an object of suspicion whom prudent men pass by with caution. But who suspects the "respectable look?" Men seem to argue in these cases as if everybody had their exact deserts in the world, as if no one was ill-dressed by misfortune, or well-dressed by swindling - a fallacy on which he of the swell-mob feeds. He is a public character, to be seen at political meetings, at exhibitions, at theatres, at Exeter Ball. He is the only man who makes anything by the Chartist movement; it gives him a chance of emptying a pocket. It is when. the "stormy wave of the multitude" (as Curran calls it) runs high, that he is seen hovering about it, like the stormy petrel A group of respectable men are standing together, observing something of interest. They are joined by a stranger of imposing mien, who bows, [-96-] points out objects of attention, and kindly allows a neighbour to stand before him, that he may see better. In an instant he is gone - suddenly - irrevocably. With an Englishman's instinct, the neighbour puts his hand in his pocket. Then there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. The victim cries out with the miser, in the Aulularia of Plautus-
         "Hei mihi!
        Perii hercle! aurum rapitur."
    "Who," he says, "would have suspected him? Did you see his ring?"
    Dr. Johnson said of a dabbler in letters, that he was "an author generated from the corruption of a bookseller." We may say of the swell-mob man, that he is a thief generated from the corruption of a flunkey, or a billiard-marker. It is from those mystenious classes - dishonest servants turned out of place; broker-down gamblers; adventurers who, under the vague name of "agents," have failed in a hundred schemes; billiard-markers ; jockeys turned off the turf, and thimble-rig professors - that this army is recruited. Having seen a few of the upper classes of those haunts where the fools of one order are found combined with the rogues of the other, the swell-mob man has learned to ape the manners of a gentleman to a certain extent. Imperturbable impudence does the rest. With carpetbag in hand, he walks into an hotel, dines sumptuously, sends a letter directed to some titled personage to the post, and retires. Next morning he has departed, and watches, dressing-cases, and plate, have vanished with him. We should not be surprised were we to hear that the swell-mob made a good harvest in the Drury Lane riots the other day; and so employed their [-97-] "native talent" (the first that has been displayed there for some time) to a good advantage.
    As every new discovery in science brings some degree of evil with its good, to mitigate the arrogance of' ingenuity; as chemical discoveries assist the forger, chloroform suffocates the too curious, and gun-cotton blows up the speculator - so railways have given employment to a set of ingenious Thieves who haunt the stations at the arrival of trains, on the look-out for luggage. When a train has arrived at the station, and its passengers are seen rushing out of the carriages, like bees from a hive, then the person depicted by our artist in travelling garb is busiest of the busy on the platform. He is not there to welcome a friend from the provinces, or to receive back some prodigal son recalled to his family by repentance and the second column of the Times. His object is to make himself generally useful, by removing all the luggage he can get; and he dooms many a traveller to regret in the morning the anxiety to find his friends which induced him to lose his portmanteau.
    The classes of Thieves, or rather (as it is the fashion now to give a fine name to everything) appropriators, below the swell-mob in rank, are the common professionals who can turn their hands (and very skilfully) to anything. They are the "general practitioners" of the faculty, who will take a watch if they can get it, but not disdain to stoop even to a cotton pocket-handkerchief. They are hardened offenders, and take imprisonment as a matter of course. When brought before the magistrate, and tried at the Old Bailey, they of course deny with much solemnity the charge; but when sentenced, go quietly away. They are old friends [-98-] of the jailors and police, and even on a certain footing of familiarity - a kind of nodding acquaintance (in the dock) - with the Common Sergeant. "I think we have seen each other before?" that worthy judge will say, and the prisoner will bow and acknowledge the honour. We shouldn't wonder if these fellows were to leave a card at his house on returning from Brixton, or a P. P. C. before leaving for Van Diemen's land. These are generally stolidly incorrigible; but before we express any surprise at it, let us stop and look where they come from, how they are brought up, whence springs all this crime.
    In the very heart of London-in its densest and closest parts - in long narrow lanes - in vile dark cellars - dwell, in huddled thousands, the children of the poor. Fresh air, pure water, wholesome food, come never to their dwellings. The very light of heaven struggles through filthy panes of coarse glass to reach them. The air is heavy with tainted matter. The voices of birds, the bloom of green trees, all the riches that lie in Nature's lap, exist not for them any more than for the dead; all that God has given of beautiful to the world is lost to these his children. The very sound of the church-bells suggests nothing to them but the approaching close of the gin-shop. No such state of things existed either in ancient Egypt or ancient Rome; nor does it now, even in modern Smyrna! This is "progress"- progress to the jail, the convict-hulk, and the grave; this is "liberty"- yes, what Carlyle calls "liberty to starve." A blessed privilege! Any one who goes into the haunts of the class of which we speak, will recognise what we say to be true; and of this we feel certain, any one who goes there will [-99-] leave the place one of two things - a reformer, or a fiend.
    Now, those who know anything of the evidence collected on the subject by the good and gallant Lord Ashley - the Bayard of Social Reform - who (as Mr. Shiel said, rather affectedly) "has made humanity one of Shaftesbury's Characteristics" - will recognise the intimate connexion between this state of things and the existence of Thieves, and perceive the propriety of our alluding to it here. If a man be, in the vigorous language of Churchill, 
        "To mischief trained ev'n from his mother's womb,
        Grown old in fraud, tho' yet in manhood's bloom"  - 
    if he be born, bred, and brought up in this miserable state of starvation, degradation, and indecency, a thief he must naturally be, and will be, all magistrates, vans, jailors, common-sergeants, and hangmen to the contrary notwithstanding. Ragged schools can do good, but not much; education, independent of practical assistance, is but the seed thrown on the rocky ground. A sum in arithmetic is not half so good in such a case as a loaf of bread; and to get the last for the poor must now be the object of society - if it intends to exist - which is its own affair, of course.
    The police establishments have done much to prevent the organization of Thieves in later times, and we are inclined to believe that no adventurer is now likely to fall in with such a "ken" as that whence the anomaous dandy Pelham escaped by the help of his sword. Indeed, Sir Edward Lytton (as we may remark by the way), whatever he may know of Plato, was pronounced by a great authority to be "superficial" in slang.
    [-100-] In fact, the Thieves of to-day, though numerous, mischievous, and dangerous, are common-place and unromantic people enough - not, as was once the case, thieves from taste or wantonness, but from hard necessity; becoming so, in short, just as sailors become cannibals, and eat each other, when there is no food to be got. If we may be allowed the comparison, we would say, that they no more resemble their old predecessors, than the gentlemen of the Temple do the Templars of the Crusades. A modern inquirer will meet clever men among thieves, just as he will among Chartists, or any other class; but no Jonathan Wilds - still less, any Paul Cliffords. They are even more prudent and economical than of old; the utilitarian philosophy has spread among them, as elsewhere. The painful result of this, as of every other inquiry, is, that there is much to be reformed yet; and when our reader sees the van moving along with its human luggage to Newgate, let him lay this reflection to his soul, that in all human probability there are more than one criminal in it, who, had he (the reader) and others done their duty to mankind, would have been walking in freedom, honest and useful members of the community.

JAMES HANNAY.

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]