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


Juvenile Thieves.

The Beginning of the Downhill Journey—Candidates for New gate Honours.— Black Spots of London.—L ift from the Young Robber’s Point of View.— The Seedling Recruits the most difficult to reform—A doleful Summing-up—A Phase of the Criminal Question left unnoticed—Budding Burglars.— Streams which keep at full flood the Black Sea of Crime.--- The Promoters of “Gallows Literature. “—Another Shot at a Fortress of the Devil.— “Poison-Literature. — “Starlight Sal!.“— Panther Bill.”

    It is quite true that, counting prostitutes and receivers of stolen goods, there are twenty thousand individuals eating the daily bread of dishonesty within the city of London alone; there are many more than these. And the worst part of the business is, that those that are omitted from the batch form the most painful and repulsive feature of the complete picture. Shocking enough is it to contemplate the white-haired, tottering criminal holding on to the front of the dock because he dare not trust entirely his quaking legs, and with no more to urge in his defence than Fagin had when it came to the last—”an old man, my lord, a very old man;” and we give him our pity ungrudgingly because we are no longer troubled with fears for his hostility as regards the present or the future. It is all over with him or very nearly. The grave yawns for him and we cannot help feeling that after all he has hurt himself much more than he has hurt us, and when we reflect on the awful account he will presently be called on to answer, our animosity shrinks aside, and we would recommend him to mercy if it were possible. No, it is not those who have run the length of their tether of crime that we have to fear, but those who by reason of their tender age are as yet but feeble toddlers on the road that leads to the hulks. It would be instructive as well as of great service if reliable information could be obtained as to the beginning of the down-hill journey by our juvenile criminals. Without doubt it would be found that in a lamentably large number of cases the beginning did not rest in the present possessors at all, but that they were bred and nurtured in it, inheriting it from their parents as certain forms of physical disease are inherited.
    In very few instances are they trained to thieving by a father who possibly has gone through all the various phases of criminal punishment, from the simple local oakum shed and treadmill to the far-away stone quarry and mineral mine, and so knows all about it. The said human wolf and enemy of all law and social harmony, his progenitor, does not take his firstborn on his knee as soon as he exhibits symptoms of knowing right from wrong, and do his best to instil into his young mind what as a candidate for Newgate honours the first principles of his life should be.
    This would be bad enough, but what really happens is worse. To train one’s own child to paths of rectitude it is necessary to make him aware of the existence of paths of iniquity and wrong, that when inadvertently he approaches the latter, he may recognise and shun them. So on the other hand, if by the devil’s agency a child is to be made bold and confident in the wrong road, the right must be exhibited to him in a light so ridiculous as to make it altogether distasteful to him. Still a comparison is instituted, and matters may so come about that one day he may be brought to re-consider the judiciousness of his choice and perhaps to reverse his previous decision. But if he has received no teaching at all; if in the be­nighted den in which he is born, and in which his childish intellect dawns, no ray of right and truth ever penetrates, and he grows into the use of his limbs and as much brains as his brutish breeding affords him, and with no other occupation before him than to follow in the footsteps of his father the thief—how much more hopeless is his case?
    Does the reader ask, are there such cases? I can answer him in sorrowful confidence, that in London alone they may be reckoned in thousands. In parts of Spitalfields, in Flower and Dean Street, and in Kent Street, and many other streets that might be enumera­ted, they are the terror of small shopkeepers, and in Cow Cross, with its horrible chinks in the wall that do duty for the entrance of courts and alleys—Bit Alley, Frying Pan Alley, Turk’s Head­court, and Broad Yard, they swarm like mites in rotten cheese. As a rule, the police seldom make the acquaintance of this thievish small fry (if they did, the estimated number of London robbers would be considerably augmented); but occasionally, just as a sprat will make its appearance along with a haul of mackerel, one reads in the police reports of “Timothy Mullins, a very small boy, whose head scarcely reached the bar of the dock;” or of “John Smith, a child of such tender age that the worthy magistrate appeared greatly shocked,” charged with some one of the hundred acts of petty pilfering by means of which the poor little wretches contrive to stave off the pangs of hunger. Where is the use of reasoning with Master Mullins on his evil propensities? The one propensity of his existence is that of the dog—to provide against certain gnawing pains in his belly. If he has another propensity, it is to run away out of dread for consequences, which is dog-like too. All the argument you can array against this little human waif with one idea, will fail to convince him of his guilt; he has his private and deeply-rooted opinion on the matter, you may depend, and if he screws his fists into his eyes, and does his earnest best to make them water—if when in the magisterial presence he contorts his countenance in affected agony, it is merely because he per­ceives from his worship’s tone that he wishes to agonize him, and is shrewd enough to know that to “give in best,” as he would express it, is the way to get let off easy.
    But supposing that he were not overawed by the magisterial presence, and felt free to speak what is foremost in his mind un­reservedly as he would speak it to one of his own set. Then he would say, “It is all very fine for you to sit there, you that have not only had a jolly good breakfast, but can afford to sport a silver toothpick to pick your teeth with afterwards, it is all very fine for you to preach to me that I never shall do any good, but one of these days come to something that’s precious bad, if I don’t cut the ways of thieving, and take to honest ways. There’s so many different kinds of honest ways. Yours is a good ‘un. I ain’t such a fool as not to know that it’s better to walk in honest ways like them you’ve got into, and to wear gold chains and velvet waist­coats, than to prowl about in ragged corduroys, and dodge the pleeseman, and be a prig: but how am I to get into them sorts of honest ways? Will you give me a hist up to ‘em? Will you give me a leg-up—I’m such a little cove, you see—on to the bottom round of the ladder that leads up to ‘em? If it ain’t in your line to do so, p’raps you could recommend me to a lady or gentleman that would? No! Then, however am I to get into honest ways? Shall I make a start for ‘em soon as I leaves this ere p’lice office, from which you are so werry kind as to discharge me? Shall I let the chances of stealing a turnip off a stall, or a loaf out of a baker’s barrow, go past me, while I keep straight on, looking out for a honest way?—straight on, and straight on, till I gets the hungry Staggers (you never had the hungry staggers, Mr. Magistrate), and tumble down on the road? I am not such a fool, thank’e. I don’t See the pull of it. I can do better in dishonest ways. I’m much obliged to you. I’m sure of a crust, though a hard ‘un, while I stick to the latter, and if I break down, you’ll take care of me for a spell, and fatten me up a bit; but s’pose I go on the hunt after them honest ways you was just now preaching about, and I miss ‘em, what am I then? A casual pauper, half starved on a pint of skilly, or ‘a shocking case of destitution,’ and the leading character in a coroner’s inquest!” All this Master Timothy Mullins might urge, and beyond favouring him with an extra month for con­tempt of court, what could the magistrate do or say?
    Swelling the ranks of juvenile thieves we find in large numbers the thief-born. Writing on this subject, a reverend gentleman of wisdom and experience says, “Some are thieves from infancy. Their parents are thieves in most cases; in others, the children are orphans, or have beenforsaken by their parents, and in such cases the children generally fall into the hands of the professional thief­trainer. In every low criminal neighbourhood there are numbers of children who never knew their parents, and who are fed and clothed by the old thieves, and made to earn their wages by dis­honest practices. When the parent thieves are imprisoned or trans­ported, their children are left to shift for themselves, and so fall into the hands of the thief-trainer. Here, then, is one great source of crime. These children are nurtured in it. They come under no good moral influence; and until the ragged-schools were started, they had no idea of honesty, not to mention morality and religion. Sharpened by hunger, intimidated by severe treatment, and rendered adroit by vigilant training, this class of thieves is perhaps the most numerous, the most daring, the cleverest, and the most difficult to reform. In a moral point of view, these savages are much worse off than the savages of the wilderness, inasmuch as all the advantages of civilization are made to serve their criminal habits. The poor, helpless little children literally grow up into a criminal career, and have no means of knowing that they are wrong; they cannot help themselves, and have strong claims on the compassion of every lover of his species.”
    Truly enough these seedling recruits of the criminal population are the most difficult to reform. They are impregnable alike to persuasion and threatening. They have an ingrain conviction that it is you who are wrong, not them. That you are wrong in the first place in appropriating all the good things the world affords, leav­ing none for them but what they steal; and in the next place, they regard all your endeavours to persuade them to abandon the wretched life of a thief for the equally poor though more credit­able existence of the honest lad, as humbug and selfishness. “No good feeling is ever allowed to predominate; all their passions are distorted, all their faculties are perverted. They believe the clergy are all hypocrites, the judges and magistrates tyrants, and honest people their bitterest enemies. Believing these things sincerely, and believing nothing else, their hand is against every man, and the more they are imprisoned the more is their dishonesty strengthened.”
    This is, indeed, a doleful summing up of our present position and future prospects as regards so large a percentage of those we build prisons for. It is somewhat difficult to avoid a feeling of exasperation when, as an honest man, and one who finds it at times a sore pinch to pay rates and taxes, one contemplates the ugly, hopeless picture. Still, we should never forget that these are creatures who are criminal not by their own seeking. They are as they were born and bred and nurtured, and the only way of reliev­ing society of the pest they are against it, is to take all the care we may to guard against the ravages of those we have amongst us, and adopt measures for the prevention of their breeding a new genera­tion.
    How this may be accomplished is for legislators to decide. Hitherto it has appeared as a phase of the criminal question that has attracted very little attention on the part of our law makers. They appear, however, to be waking up to its importance at last. Recently, in the House of Lords, Lord Romilly suggested that the experiment might be tried of taking away from the home of iniquity they were reared in the children of twice or thrice convic­ted thieves above the age of ten years; taking them away for good and all and placing them under State protection; educating them, and giving them a trade. If I rightly recollect, his lordship’s sugges­tion did not meet with a particularly hearty reception. Some of his hearers were of opinion that it was setting a premium on crime, by affording the habitual thief just that amount of domestic relief he in his selfishness would be most desirous of. But Lord Romilly combatted this objection with the reasonable rejoinder, that by mere occupation the nature of the thief was not abased below that of the brute, and that it was fair to assume that so far from en­couraging him to qualify himself for State patronage, his dread of having his children taken from him might even check him in his iniquitous career.
    One thing, at least, is certain; it would come much cheaper to the country if these budding burglars and pickpockets were caught up, and caged away from the community at large, before their natures became too thoroughly pickled in the brine of rascality. Boy thieves are the most mischievous and wasteful. They will mount a house roof, and for the sake of appropriating the half-a-crown’s worth of lead that forms its gutter, cause such damage as only a builder’s bill of twenty pounds or so will set right. The other day a boy stole a family Bible valued at fifty shillings, and after wrenching off the gilt clasps, threw the book into a sewer; the clasps he sold to a marine store dealer for two pence half penny! It may be fairly assumed that in the case of boy thieves, who are so completely in the hands of others, that before they can “make” ten shillings in cash, they must as a rule steal to the value of at least four pounds, and sometimes double that sum. But let us put the loss by exchange at its lowest, and say that he gets a fourth of the value of what he steals, before he can earn eighteen-pence a day, he must rob to the amount of two guineas a week—a hundred and nine pounds a year! Whatever less sum it costs the State to educate and clothe and teach him, the nation would be in pocket.
    It would be idle to attempt to trace back to its origin the incentive to crime in the class of small criminals here treated of. Inno­cent of the meaning of the term “strict integrity,” they are al­together unconscious of offending against it. They may never repent, for they can feel no remorse for having followed the dictates of their nature. No possible good can arise from piecing and patching with creditable stuff the old cloak of sin they were clothed in at their birth, and have worn ever since, till it has become a second skin to them. Before they can be of any real service as members of an honest community, they must be re­formed in the strictest sense of the term. Their tainted morality must be laid bare to the very bones, as it were, and its rotten foundation made good from its deepest layer. The arduousness of this task it is hard to overrate; nothing, indeed, can be harder, except it be to weed out from an adult criminal the tough and gnarled roots of sin that grip and clasp about and strangle his better nature. And this should be the child criminal reformer’s comfort and encouragement.
    It must not be imagined, however, that the growth of juvenile criminality is altogether confined to those regions where it is indigenous to the soil; were it so, our prospects of relief would appear much more hopeful than at present, for, as before stated, all that is necessary would be to sow the baleful ground with the saving salt of sound and wholesome teaching, and the ugly vegeta­tion would cease.
    But there are other and more formidable sources from which flow the tributary streams that feed and keep at full flood our black sea of crime; more formidable, because they do not take the shape of irrepressible springs that make for the surface, simply because they are impelled thereto by forces they have not the strength to combat against, but rather of well planned artificial aqueducts and channels, and on the development of which much of intellect is expended. It is much harder to deal with the boy who, well knowing right from wrong, chooses the latter, than with the boy who from the beginning has been wrong from not know­ing what right is.
    Moreover, the boy who has been taught right from wrong, the boy who has been sent to school and knows how to read, has this advantage over his poor brother of the gutter—an advantage that tells with inexpressible severity against the community at large; he has trainers who, discovering his weakness, make it their profit and business to take him by the hand and bring him along in that path of life to which his dishonest inclination has called him.
    I allude to those low-minded, nasty fellows, the proprietors and promoters of what may be truthfully described as “gallows litera­ture.” As a curse of London, this one is worthy of a special niche in the temple of infamy, and to rank first and foremost. The great difficulty would be to find a sculptor of such surpassing skill as to be able to portray in one carved stone face all the hideous vices and passions that should properly belong to it. It is a stale subject, I am aware. in my humble way, I have hammered at it both in newspapers and magazines, and many better men have done the same. Therefore it is stale. For no other reason. The iniquity in itself is as vigorous and hearty as ever, and every week renews its brimstone leaves (meanwhile rooting deeper and deeper in the soil that nourishes it), but unfortunately it comes under the category of evils, the exposure of which the public “have had enough of.” It is very provoking, and not a little disheartening, that it should be so. Perhaps this complaint may be met by the answer: The public are not tired of this one amongst the many abuses that afflict its soul’s health, it is only tired of being reminded of it. Explorers in fields less difficult have better fortune. As, for instance, the fortunate discoverer of a gold field is. Everybody would be glad to shake him by the hand—the hand that had felt and lifted the weight of the nuggets and the yellow chips of dust; nay, not a few would be willing to trim his finger nails, on the chance of their discovering beneath enough of the auriferous deposit to pay them for their trouble. But, to be sure, in a city of splendid commercial enterprise such as is ours, it can scarcely be expected that that amount of honour would be conferred on the man who would remove a plague from its midst as on the one whose magnificent genius tended to fatten the money-bags in the Bank cellars.
    At the risk, however, of being stigmatized as a man with a weak­ness for butting against stone walls, I cannot let this opportunity slip, or refrain from firing yet once again my small pop-gun against this fortress of the devil. The reader may have heard enough of the abomination to suit his taste, and let him rest assured that the writer has written more than enough to suit his; but if every man set up his “taste” as the goal and summit of his striving, any tall fellow a tip-toe might, after all, see over the heads of most of us. The main difficulty is that the tens and hundreds of thousands of boys who stint a penny from its more legitimate use to purchase a dole of the pernicious trash in question, have not “had enough of it.” Nothing can be worse than this, except it is the purveyors of letter-press offal have not had enough of it either, but, grown prosperous and muscular on the good feeding their monstrous profits have ensured them, they are continually opening up fresh ground, each patch fouler and more pestilent than the last.
    At the present writing I have before me half-a-dozen of these penny weekly numbers of “thrilling romance,” addressed to boys, and circulated entirely among them—and girls. It was by no means because the number of these poison pen’orths on sale is small that a greater variety was not procured. A year or so since, wishing to write a letter on the subject to a daily newspaper, I fished out of one little newsvendor’s shop, situated in the nice convenient neigh­bourhood of Clerkenwell, which, more than any other quarter of the metropolis, is crowded with working children of both sexes, the considerable number of twenty-three samples of this gallows literature. But if I had not before suspected it, my experience on that occasion convinced me that to buy more than a third of that number would be a sheer waste of pence. To be sure, to expect honest dealing on the part of such fellows as can dabble in “property” of the kind in question, is in the last degree absurd, but one would think that they would, for “business” reasons, maintain some show of giving a pen’orth for a penny. Such is not the case, however. In three instances in my twenty-three numbers, I found the self-same story published twice under a different title, while for at least half the remainder the variance from their brethren is so very slight that nobody but a close reader would dis­cover it.
    The six-pen’orth before me include, “The Skeleton Band,” “Tyburn Dick,”, “The Black Knight of the Road,” “Dick Turpin,” “The Boy Burglar,” and “Starlight Sall.” If I am asked, is the poison each of these papers contains so cunningly disguised and mixed with harmless-seeming ingredients, that a boy of shrewd intelligence and decent mind might be betrayed by its insidious seductiveness? I reply, no. The only subtlety employed in the precious composition is that which is employed in preserving it from offending the blunt nostrils of the law to such a degree as shall compel its interference. If it is again inquired, do I, though unwillingly, acknowledge that the artful ones, by a wonderful exercise of tact and ingenuity, place the law in such a fix that it would not be justified in interfering? I most distinctly reply, that I acknowledge nothing of the kind; but that, on the contrary, I wonder very much at the clumsiness of a legislative machine that can let so much scoundrelism slip through its cogs and snares.
    The daring lengths these open encouragers of boy highwaymen and Tyburn Dicks will occasionally go to serve their villanous ends is amazing. It is not more than two or three years since, that a prosperous member of the gang, whose business premises were in, or within a few doors of Fleet Street, by way of giving a fair start to his published account of some thief and murderer, publicly advertised that the buyers of certain numbers would be entitled to a chance of a Prize in a grand distribution of daggers. Specimens of the deadly weapons (made, it may be assumed, after the same fashion as that one with which “flash Jack,” in the romance, pinned the police officer in the small of his back) were exhibited in the publisher’s shop window, and in due course found their way into the hands of silly boys, with minds well primed for “daring exploits,” by reading “numbers 2 and 3 given away with number 1.”
    It is altogether a mistake, however, to suppose that the poison publisher’s main element of success consists in his glorification of robbers and cut-throats. To be sure he can by no means afford to dispense with the ingredients mentioned in the concoction of his vile brew, but his first and foremost reliance is on lewdness. Every­thing is subservient to this. He will picture to his youthful readers a hero of the highway, so ferocious in his nature, and so reckless of bloodshed, that he has earned among his comrades the flatter­ing nick-name of “the Panther.” He will reveal the bold panther in all his glory, cleaving the skull of the obstinate old gentleman in his travelling carriage, who will not give up his money, or setting an old woman on the kitchen fire, as a just punishment for hiding her guineas in the oven, in fishing them out of which the panther burns his fingers; he will exhibit the crafty “panther” wriggling his way through the floor boards of his cell, into a sewer beneath, and through which he is to make his escape to the river, and then by a flourish of his magic pen, he will convey the “panther” to the “boudoir” of Starlight Sall, and show you how weak a quality valour is in the presence of “those twin queens of the earth,” youth and beauty! The brave panther, when he has once crossed the threshold of that splendid damsel (who, by the way, is a thief, and addicted to drinking brandy by the “bumper”) is, vulgarly speaking, “nowhere.” The haughty curl of his lip, the glance of his eagle eye, “the graceful contour of his manly form,” a mere gesture of which is sufficient to quell rising mutiny amongst his savage crew, all fall flat and impotent before the queenly majesty of Sall. But there is no fear that the reader will lose his faith in Panther Bill, because of this weakness confessed. As drawn by the Author (does the pestiferous rascal so style himself, I wonder?) Starlight Sall is a creature of such exquisite loveliness, that Jupiter himself might have knelt before her. She is such a matchless com­bination of perfection, that it is found necessary to describe her charms separately, and at such length that the catalogue of the whole extends through at least six pages.
    It is in this branch of his devilish business that the author of “Starlight Sall” excels. It is evident that the man’s mind is in his work, and he lingers over it with a loving hand. Never was there such a tender anatomist. He begins Sall’s head, and revels in her auburn tresses, that “in silken, snaky locks wanton o’er her shoulders, white as eastern ivory.” He is not profound in fore-heads, and hers he passes over as “chaste as snow, or in noses, Sall’s being described briefly as “finely chiselled;” but he is well up in the language of eyes—the bad language. He skirmishes play­fully about those of Sall, and discourses of her eyebrows as “ebon brow,” from which she launches her excruciating shafts of love. He takes her by the eye-lashes, and describes them as the “golden fringe that screens the gates of paradise,” and finally he dips into Sall’s eyes, swimming with luscious languor, and pregnant with tender inviting to Panther Bill, who was consuming in ardent affection, as “the rippling waves of the bright blue sea to the sturdy swimmer.” It is impossible here to repeat what else is said of the eyes of Starlight Sall, or her teeth, “like rich pearls,” or of her “pouting coral lips, in which a thousand tiny imps of love are lurking.” Bear it in mind that this work of ours is designed for the perusal of thinking men and women; that it is not intended as an amusing work, but as an endeavour to pourtray to Londoners the curses of London in a plain and unvarnished way, in hope that they may be stirred to some sort of absolution from them. As need not be remarked, it would be altogether impossible to the essayer of such a task, if he were either squeamish or fastidious in the handling of the material at his disposal; but I dare not follow our author any further in his description of the personal beauties of Starlight Sall. Were I to do so, it would be the fate of this book to be flung into the fire, and every decent man who met me would regard himself justified in kicking or cursing me; and yet, good fathers and mothers of England—and yet, elder brothers and grown sisters, tons of this bird-lime of the pit is vended in London every day of the Christian year.
    Which of us can say that his children are safe from the con­tamination? Boys well-bred, as well as ill-bred, are mightily inquisi­tive about such matters, and the chances are very clear, sir, that if the said bird-lime were of a sort not more pernicious than that which sticks to the fingers, we might at this very moment find the hands of my little Tom and your little Jack besmeared with it. Granted, that it is unlikely, that it is in the last degree improbable, even; still, the remotest of probabilities have before now shown themselves grim actualities, and just consider for a moment the twinge of horror that would seize on either of us were it to so happen! Let us for a moment picture to ourselves our fright and bewilderment, if we discovered that our little boys were feasting off this deadly fruit in the secrecy of their chambers! Would it then appear to us that it was a subject the discussion of which we had “had enough of”? Should we be content, then, to shrug our shoulders after the old style, and exclaim impatiently against the barbarous taste of writers who were so tiresomely meddlesome? Not likely. The pretty consternation that would ensue on the appalling discovery!—the ransacking of boxes and cupboards, to make quite sure that no dreg of the poison, in the shape of an odd page or so, were hidden away! ~the painful examination of the culprit, who never till now dreamt of the enormity of the thing he had been doing!—the reviling and threatening that would be direc­ted against the unscrupulous news-agent who had supplied the pernicious pen’orth! Good heavens! the tremendous rumpus there would be! But, thank God, there is no fear of that happening.
    Is there not? What are the assured grounds of safety? Is it because it stands to reason that all such coarse and vulgar trash finds its level amongst the coarse and vulgar, and could gain no footing above its own elevation? It may so stand in reason, but Unfortunately it is the unreasonable fact that this same pen poison finds customers at heights above its natural low and foul water­line almost inconceivable. How otherwise is it accountable that at least a quarter of a million of these penny numbers are sold weekly? How is it that in quiet suburban neighbourhoods, far removed from the stews of London, and the pernicious atmosphere they engender; in serene and peaceful semi-country towns where genteel boarding schools flourish, there may almost invariably be found some small shopkeeper who accommodatingly receives consignments of “Blue-skin,” and the “Mysteries of London,” and unobtrusively supplies his well-dressed little customer with these full-flavoured articles? Granted, my dear sir, that your young Jack, or my twelve years old Robert, have minds too pure either to seek out or crave after literature of the sort in question, but not Un-frequently it is found without seeking. It is a contagious disease, just as cholera and typhus and the plague are contagious, and, as everybody is aware, it needs not personal contact with a body stricken to convey either of these frightful maladies to the hale and hearty. A tainted scrap of rag has been known to spread plague and death through an entire village, just as a stray leaf of “Panther Bill,” or “Tyburn Tree” may sow the seeds of immorality amongst as many boys as a town can produce.