Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, 1869

CHAPTER VII.

Homes and Haunts of the British Thief.

The Three Classes of Thieving Society—Popular Misapprehensions--A True Picture of the London Thief—A Fancy Sketch of the “Under-Ground Cellar. “—In Disguise at a Thieves’ Raffle—The Puzzle of “Black Maria. Mr. Mullins’s Speech and his Song.

   Although, as most people are aware, the great thief tribe reckons amongst its number an upper, and a middle, and a lower class, pretty much as corresponding grades of station are recognised amongst the honest community, it is doubtful, in the former case, if promotion from one stage to another may be gained by individ­ual enterprise and talent and industry. The literature of the country is from time to time enriched by bragging autobiographies of villains confessed, as well as by the penitent revelations of rogues reclaimed, but, according to my observation, it does not appear that perseverance in the humbler walks of crime lead invariably to the highway of infamous prosperity. It seems to be an idea too preposterous even to introduce into the pages of Newgate romance, daring in their flights of fancy as are the authors affecting that delectable line. We have no sinister antithesis of the well-known honest boy who tramped from Bristol to the metropolis with two-pence-halfpenny in his pocket, and afterwards became Lord Mayor of London. No low-browed ragged little thief, who began his career by purloining a halfpenny turnip from a costermonger’s barrow, is immortalized in the page of the Newgate Calendar, as finally arrived at the high distinction of wearing fashionable Clothes, and ranking as the first of swell-mobsmen. It is a lament­able fact, and one that should have weight with aspirants for the Convict’s mask and badge, that the poor, shabby, hard-working thief so remains, till the end of his days. There is no more chance of his carrying his shameful figure and miserable hang-dog visage into tip-top society of his order, than there is of his attaining the Summit of that treadwheel, with the ever-recurring steps of which he is so painfully familiar.
   And if there is a forlorn, abject, harassed wretch in the world it is the poor, threadbare, timid London thief. I believe the popular supposition to be that, to turn thief at least ensures for the des­perate adventurer money to squander for the time being; that however severe may be the penalty paid for the luxury, while “luck” lasts the picker of pockets and purloiner of his neighbour’s goods has ever at his command means wherewith to satisfy the cravings of his vices, however extravagant they may be—money to live on the fat of the land and get drunk and enjoy happy spells of ease and plenty. This, no doubt, is the tempting picture the devil holds up for the contemplation of heart-sick honesty, when patient integrity is growing faint with hunger and long privation; and truly it seems not an improbable picture. What inducement is there for a man to persist in a career of dishonesty with its certain and frequent penalties of prison and hard labour, unless his perilous avocation ensures him spells, albeit brief ones, of intoxi­cating enjoyment?
    No wonder that the ignorant, sorely-tempted, out-o’-work labourer should take this view of the case, when men, who by station and education—men who profess to have gone out of their highly respectable paths in life to make such inquiries as should qualify them to discuss the matter in solemn Parliamentary con­clave, declare that it is so. A curious exhibition of the lamentable credulity of our law makers occurred no longer ago than at the second reading of the Habitual Criminals Bill in the House of Lords. Naturally the subject was one concerning which their Lord-ships could know nothing, except by hearsay, and Earl Shaftesbury volunteered to put them in possession of such useful information as might guide them towards a decision as regarded the projected Bill.
    It is only fair to state, however, that his Lordship was not per­sonally responsible for his startling statements. He had them from a “practitioner,” from a thief, that is to say. His Lordship did not reveal whether it was a thief at large who was his informant: but that is scarcely likely. Doubtless it was from some weeping villain, with an eye to a remission of his sentence, who so frankly con­fided to the soft-hearted Earl the various secrets of that terrible trade it was his intention never, never to work at again! At any rate, whoever the “practitioner” was, he succeeded in his design completely, as the horror-stricken visage of his lordship, as he delivered himself of the astounding revelations, fully attested.
    They were to this effect, and the reader will please bear in mind that they were not tendered to be received at their worth, but as facts which might be relied on. Within the City of London, Lord Shaftesbury declared, “crucibles and melting-pots are kept going all day and all night. I believe that in a very large number of cases the whole of the plate is reduced within two or three hours of the robbery to ingots of silver. As for spoons, forks, and jewellery, they are not taken so readily to the melting-pot; but to well-known places where there is a pipe, similar to that which your lordships may have seen—I hope none may have seen it of neces­sity—in the shop of the pawnbroker. The thief taps, the pipe is lifted up, and in the course of a minute a hand comes out covered with a glove, takes up the jewellery, and gives out the money for it.”
    If that conscienceless “practitioner,” who so scandalously gui-led the good Earl, happened to be in enjoyment of liberty when the above quoted newspaper report was printed, how he must have grinned as he perused it? But what an unpleasant reversal of the joke it would be if the mendacious statements of the bare-faced villain lead to the passing of a bill imposing cruelly severe rules for the government of criminals, and the worthy in question should one fine day find himself groaning under the same! The most astounding part of the business however, is, that his lordship should have given credit to such a tissue of fudge. To his honour be it stated, he should know better. As an indefatigable labourer amongst the poor and afflicted, his name will be remembered and blest long after he has passed from among us. It is doubtful if any other man whose title gives him admission to the House of Lords, could have given nearly as much practical information on this painful subject, and there can be no question—and this is the most unfortunate part of the business—that all that his lordship stated was regarded as real. Every lord present to listen to and discuss the various clauses of Lord Kimberley’s Bill, probably took to his vivid imagination the appalling picture of the underground cellars (to be reached only by known members of the burglarious brotherhood who could give the sign to the guardian of the cellar-door), where certain demon-men of the Fagin type presided constantly over crucible and melting-pots, wherein bubbled and hissed the precious brew of gold and silver ornaments dissolved, the supply being constantly renewed by the bold “cracksmen” who numerously attended to bring the goods to market. Easier still even was it to conjure before the mind’s eye the peculiar operations of the “pipe” that Lord Shaftesbury so graphically described. The deserted-looking house in the gloomy back street, with the street door always ajar so that customers might slip in and out at it in an instant—before even the policeman on beat could wink his sleepy eyes in amazement at the unexpected apparition; with the sliding panel in the dimly-lighted back kitchen, and the “spout” just like a pawnbroker’s, and the “gloved hand,” the fingers of it twitching with eager greed for the gold watch, still warm from the pocket of its rightful owner! How was it possible to deal with a subject bristling so with horrors with calmness and dignity? Their lord-ships had been given to understand by the mover of the bill that there were fifteen thousand thieves constantly busy in the Metrop­olis alone, and Lord Shaftesbury had informed them that the mysterious “spout” and the melting-pot were the chief channels for converting stolen goods into ready money. At this rate, London must be almost undermined by these gold-melting cellars—the midnight traveller through the great city might plainly hear and wonder at the strange tap-tapping that met his ears—the tapping at the “spout” that notified to the owner of the gloved hand that a new customer was in attendance? It would have been not very surprising if the Chief Commissioner of Police had been instantly communicated with, and given instructions at once to arrest every man and woman of the fifteen thousand, and hold them in safe keeping until their lordships had resolved on the most efficacious, and at the same time least painful way of exterminating them.
    Seriously, it is impossible almost to exaggerate the amount of mischief likely to result from such false and inflammatory pictures of an evil that in its naked self is repulsive enough in all conscience. On the one hand, it excites amongst the people panic and unneces­sary alarm, and furnishes the undeniable excuse of “self-defence” for any excess of severity we may be led into; and on the other hand, it tends to magnify the thief’s importance in the eyes of the thief, and to invest his melancholy and everlastingly miserable avocations with precisely the same kind of gallows-glory as is preached by the authors of “Tyburn Dick” or the “Boy Highway­man.” Curiously enough at the conclusion of his long and interest­ing speech, Lord Shaftesbury went a little out of his way to make mention of the literature of the kind just quoted, to remark on its intimate bearing on the crime of the country, and to intimate that shortly the whole question would be brought under their lordships’ consideration. It is doubtful, however, and I say so with extreme regret, knowing as I well do how shocking even the suspicion of such a thing must be to Lord Shaftesbury, if in any dozen “penny numbers” of the pernicious trash in question, the young aspirant for prison fame would find as much stimulative matter as was provided in his lordship’s speech, or rather speeches on the Habitual Criminal question.
   No, the affairs of those who affect the criminal walks of life are bad enough in all conscience, but they are much less romantic than his lordship has been led to believe. Shorn of the melo­dramatic “bandit” costume with which they have been temporarily invested they lose nothing in appalling effect.
   Truly, it is hard to understand, but it is an undoubted fact, that the criminal who in police nomenclature is a “low thief” (to dis­tinguish him, it may be presumed, from “the respectable thief”) is without exception of all men the most comfortless and miser­able; and should the reader be so inquisitive as to desire to be informed of the grounds on which I arrive at this conclusion, I beg to assure him that I do not rely on hearsay, neither do I depend on what thieves incarcerated for their offences have told me, holding it to be hardly likely that a prisoner in prison would vaunt his liking for crime and his eagerness to get back to it. I have mixed with thieves at liberty, an unsuspected spy in their camp, more than once. I will quote an example.
    This was many years since, and as at the time I published a detailed account of the visit, I may be excused from more than briefly alluding to it here. It was at a thieves’ raffle, held at a public-house in one of the lowest and worst parts of Westminster. I was young in the field of exploration then, and from all that I had heard and read made up my mind for something very terrible and desperate. I pictured to myself a band of rollicking desper­adoes, swaggering and insolent, with plenty of money to pay for bottles of brandy and egg-flip unlimited, and plenty of bragging discourse of the doughty deeds of the past, and of their cold­blooded and desperate intentions for the future. Likewise, my expectations of hope and fear included a rich treat in the shape of vocalization. It was one thing to hear play-actors on the stage, in their tame and feeble delineations of the ancient game of “high Toby,” and of the redoubtable doings of the Knights of the Road, spout such soul-thrilling effusions as “Nix my Dolly Pals,” and “Claude Duval,” but what must it be to listen to the same bold staves out of the mouths of real “roaring boys,” some of them, Possibly, the descendants of the very heroes who rode “up Holborn Hill in a cart,” and who could not well hear the good words the attendant chaplain was uttering because of the noisy exchange of boisterous “chaff” taking place between the short-pipe smoking driver, whose cart-seat was the doomed man’s coffin, and the glee­ful mob that had made holiday to see the fun!
    But in all this I was dismally disappointed. I had procured a ticket for the raffle from a friendly police-inspector (goodness only knows how he came possessed of them, but he had quite a collection of similar tickets in his pocket-book), and, disguised for the occasion, I entered the dirty little dram shop, and exhibited my credential to the landlord at the bar. So far the business was promising. The said landlord was as ill-looking a villain as could be desired. He had a broken nose and a wooden leg, both of which deformities were doubtless symptomatic of the furious brawls in which he occasionally engaged with his ugly customers. As I entered he was engaged in low-whispered discourse with three ruffians who might have been brothers of his in a similar way of business, but bankrupt, and gone to the dogs. As I advanced to the bar the four cropped heads laid together in iniquity, separated suddenly, and the landlord affected a look of innocence, and hummed a harmless tune in a way that was quite melodramatic.
    I intimated my business, and he replied shortly, “Go on through,” at the same time indicating the back door by a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder. Now for it! On the other side of the back door I discovered a stone yard, at the extremity of which was dimly visible in the darkness a long, low, dilapidated building, with a light shining through the chinks. This, then was the robber’s den!—a place to which desperate men and women who made robbery and outrage the nightly business of their lives, resorted to squander in riot and debauchery their ill-gotten gains! It would not have surprised me had I found the doorkeeper armed with a pair of “trusty barkers,” and every male guest of the company with a life-preserver sticking out at the breast pocket of his coat.
    The door was opened in response to my tap at it. I gave the pot-man there stationed my ticket, and I entered. I must confess that my first sensation as I cast my eye carelessly around, was one of disgust that I should have been induced to screw up my courage with so much pains for so small an occasion. The building I found myself in was a skittle-ground, furnished with forms and tables; and there were present about thirty persons. As well as I can remember, of this number a third were women, young generally, one or two being mere girls of sixteen, or so. But Jenny Diver was not there, nor Poll Maggot, nor Edgeworth Bess. No lady with ringlets curling over her alabaster shoulders found a seat on the knee of the gallant spark of her choice. No Captain Macheath was to be seen elegantly taking snuff out of a stolen diamond snuff-box, or flinging into the pink satin lap of his lady love a handful of guineas to pay for more brandy. Poor wretches! the female shoulders there assembled spoke rather of bone than alabaster, while the washed-out and mended cotton frocks served in place of pink satin, and hair of most humble fashion surmounted faces by no means expressive either of genuine jollity, or even of a desper­ate determination towards devil-may-careness, and the drowning of care in the bowl. There were no bowls, even, as in the good old time, only vulgar pewter porter pots, out of which the company thankfully swigged its fourpenny. There was no appearance of hilarity, or joviality even; no more of brag and flourish, or of affectation of ease and freedom, than though every man and woman present were here locked up “on remand,” and any moment might be called out to face that damning piece of kept-back evidence they all along dreaded was in store for them. To be sure it was as yet early in the evening, and though the company may have assembled mainly for the purpose of drowning “dull care,” that malicious imp being but recently immersed, may have been superior at present to their machinations, and able to keep his ugly head above the liquid poured out for his destruction. Or may be, again, being a very powerful “dull care,” of sturdy and mature growth, he might be able to hold out through many hours against the weak and watery elements brought to oppose him.
    Anyhow, so far as I was able to observe, there was no fore­shadowing of the blue and brooding imp’s defeat. His baneful wings seemed spread from one end of the skittle-alley to the other, and to embrace even the chairman, who being a Jew, and merely a receiver of stolen goods, might reasonably have been supposed to be less susceptible than the rest. There would seem to prevail, amongst a large and innocent section of the community, a belief that the thief is a creature distinguished no less by appearance than by character from the honest host he thrives by. I have heard it remarked more than once, by persons whose curiosity has led them to a criminal court when a trial of more than ordinary interest is proceeding, that really this prisoner or that did not look like a thief, or a forger, or stabber, as the case might be. “Lord bless us,” I once heard an elderly lady exclaim, in the case of an oft—convicted scoundrel of the ‘‘swell mob’’ tribe , over whose affecting trial she had shed many tears, “Lord bless us!” said she, as the jury found him guilty, and sentenced him to two years’ hard labour, “so thin, and genteel, and with spectacles on, too! I declare I should have passed that young man twenty times Without dreaming of calling out for the police.” On the other hand, there are very many persons less ingenuous than the old lady, who invariably regard a man through the atmosphere of Crime, real or supposed, that envelopes him, and by means of its distorting influence make out such a villain as satisfies their sagacity. Had one of this last order been favoured with a private view of the company assembled to assist at Mr. Mullins’s raffle, and have been previously informed that they were one and all thieves, in all probability they would have appeared thieves; but I am convinced that had they been shown to an unprepared and unprejudiced observer, his opinion would have been that the company gathered in the skittle-alley of the “Curly Badger” were no worse than a poor set of out-o’-work tailors, of French polishers, or weavers, or of some other craft, the members of which affect the gentility that black clothes and a tall hat is supposed to confer on the wearer; nor would an hour in their society, such as I spent, have sufficed to dissipate the innocent impression. Their expenditure was of the most modest sort, not one man in six venturing beyond the pot of beer. Their conversation, though not the most elegant, was least of all concerning the wretched trade they fol­lowed; indeed, the subject was never mentioned at all, except in melancholy allusion to Peter or Jerry, who had been recently “copped” (taken), and was expected to pass “a tail piece in the steel” (three months in prison). There was one observation solemnly addressed by one elderly man to another elderly man, the purport of which at the time puzzled me not a little. “Un­lucky! Well you may say it. Black Maria is the only one that’s doin’ a trade now. Every journey full as a tuppenny omblibus!” I listened intently as prudence would permit for further reference to the mysterious female who was doing “all the trade,” and “every journey” was “as full as a twopenny omnibus,” but nothing in the conversation transpired tending to throw a light on the dark lady; so I mentally made a note of it for reference to my friend the inspector. He laughed. “Well, she has been doing a brisk stroke of business of late, I must say,” said he. “Black Maria, sir, is our van of that colour that carries ‘em off to serve their time.”
    But, as before observed, there was nothing in the demeanour of either the men or women present at Mullins’s raffle to denote either that they revelled in the nefarious trade they followed, or that they derived even ordinary comfort and satisfaction from it. To be sure, it may have happened that the specimens of the thief class assembled before me were not of the briskest, but taking them as they were, and bearing in mind the spiritless, hang-dog, mean, and shabby set they were, the notion of bringing to bear on them such tremendous engines of repression as that suggested by the humane Commissioner of the City Police appears nothing short of ridiculous.
    At the same time, I would have it plainly understood that my pity for the thief of this class by no means induces me to advise that no more effective means than those which at present exist should be adopted for his abolition. A people’s respect for the laws of the country is its chief pillar of strength, and those who have no respect for the laws, act as so many rats undermining the said pillar, and although the rats assembled at Mullins’s raffle were not of a very formidable breed, their hatred of the law, and their malicious defiance of it, was unmistakeable. For instance, the article to be raffled was a silk pocket handkerchief, and there it was duly displayed hanging across a beam at the end of the skittle-ground. The occasion of the raffle was, that Mr. Mullins had just been released after four months’ imprisonment, and that during his compulsory absence from home matters had gone very bad, and none the less so because poor Mrs. Mullins was suffering from consumption. In alluding to these sad details of his misfortune, Mr. Mullins, in returning thanks for the charity bestowed on him, looked the picture of melancholy. “Whether she means ever to get on her legs again is more than I can say,” said he, wagging his short-cropped head dolefully, “there ain’t much chance, I reckon, when you’re discharged from Brompton incurable. Yes, my friends, it’s all agin me lately, and my luck’s regler out. But there’s one thing I must mention” (and here he lifted his head with cheer­ful satisfaction beaming in his eyes), “and I’m sure you as doesn’t know it will be very glad to hear it—the handkerchief wot’s put up to raffle here is the wery identical one that I was put away for.” And judging from the hearty applause that followed this announce­ment, there can be no doubt that Mr. Mullins’s audience were very glad indeed to hear it.
    But even after this stimulant, the spirits of the company did not rally anything to speak of. Song singing was started, but nobody sung “Nix my Dolly Pals,” or “Claude Duval.” Nobody raised a roaring chant in honour of “ruby wine,” or the flowing bowl, or even of the more humble, though no less genial, foaming can. There was a comic song or two, but the ditties in favour were those that had a deeply sentimental or even a funereal smack about them. The gentleman who had enlightened me as to Black Maria sang the Sexton, the chorus to which lively stave, “I’ll pro­vide you such a lodging as you never had before,” was taken up with much heartiness by all present. Mullins himself, who posses­sed a fair alto voice, slightly damaged perhaps by a four months’ Sojourn in the bleak atmosphere of Cold Bath Fields, sang “My Pretty Jane,” and a very odd sight it was to observe that dogged, jail-stamped countenance of his set, as accurately as Mullins could set it, to an expression matching the bewitching simplicity of the words of the song. I was glad to observe that his endeavours were appreciated and an encore demanded.
    Decidedly the songs, taken as a whole, that the thieves sang that evening in the Skittle Saloon of the “Curly Badger” were much less objectionable than those that may be heard any evening at any of our London music halls, and everything was quiet and orderly. Of course I cannot say to what extent this may have been due to certain rules and regulations enforced by the determined looking gentleman who served behind the bar. There was one thing, how­ever, that he could not enforce, and that was the kindliness that had induced them to meet together that evening. I had before heard, as everybody has, of “honour amongst thieves,” but I must confess that I had never suspected that compassion and charity were amongst the links that bound them together; and when I heard the statement from the chair of the amount subscribed (the “raffle” was a matter of form, and the silk handkerchief a mere delicate concealment of the free gift of shillings), when I heard the amount and looked round and reckoned how much a head that might amount to, and further, when I made observation of the pinched and poverty-stricken aspect of the owners of the said heads, I am ashamed almost to confess that if within the next few days I had caught an investigating hand in my coat-tail pockets, I should scarcely have had the heart to resist.