Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - An Evening with Forty Thieves

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AN EVENING WITH FORTY THIEVES

IT is a singular and startling fact that at the present writing there are thousands of young gentlemen varying in years from ten to eighteen, and born and bred in and about the most enlightened city in the world, who in the secrecy of their hearts hold it to be true that Jack Sheppard, house-breaker, prison-breaker, thief, and murderer, was the most splendid fellow the sun ever shone on, and who find their beau ideal of a hero, not in Lord Nelson or the Duke of Wellington, but in "Blueskin," Claude Duval, or some similar ruffian, whose brilliant career was in due course extinguished by the common hangman before the debtors' door at Newgate.
    What is the depth of their admiration for their darlings may be gauged by the amount of pecuniary sacrifice they are constantly prepared to make for their sakes. They may buy that large, well-conducted, and at least harmless periodical, the Family Herald for a penny or, if their literary palates are tough, and require more vigorous tickling, there is the Metropolitan Journal with Piercy Gander the Younger, and raw-head and bloody bones held well in leash ; or there is the London Reeler, only a penny, and large enough to cover the floor of a room, and occasionally unclean enough to stain the floor-boards indelibly. Besides, there is an unclean and abominable class of weekly prints, for such as like their mental food extremely high-flavoured, to be procured at the rate of two sheets a penny; 

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[-247-] but the real admirer of Blueskin will have nothing to do with any of these. Blueskin's is the shrine at which he worships (he worshipped "Bludjon the Burglar," whose shrine was erected at the same temple through one hundred and eighty-four weeks and at a cost of fifteen-and-fourpence), and thither he carries his hard-earned penny and receives in exchange a half-sheet of rubbishing paper impressed with eight small and dirty pages of battered print descriptive of his hero's delectable history - of how he set the old woman on the fire, how he cut the miser s throat to possess himself of several hundredweights of his gold, but happening just as he was packing up the booty to catch sight of and fall madly in love with the miser's beautiful daughter, is overwhelmed with remorse, and gallantly offers to settle a fair half of the miser's ill-gotten hoard on her if she will consent to fly with him; of how she shrieked, and he implored, expostulated, and finally smote her off the head with the end of his loaded riding-whip; of how he carried her through the garden to where his horse was waiting, and, vaulting into the saddle with the insensible damsel still pressed in his arms rode away with the speed of the wind towards Wimbledon, pursued by eleven Bow Street officers; of how, hotly pressed, he shot the leading officer through the head, and the noise rousing the miser's daughter, she at once espouses Blueskin's cause and plucking a couple of spare pistols from the robber's belt, turns about, and while the horse is still pursuing its mad career, steadies herself by resting her lovely rounded chin on her lovers shoulder, and lets fly at the two foremost mounted police, bowling them over; of how - to be continued in our next.
    I know all about it, you see, ye patrons of gallows literature. What is more, I know Blueskin personally. I met him only last Saturday in Fleet Street, coming out of the shop of the news-vending vampire in whose employ he is. Had you met him after leaving him last week only ill a velvet coat and lace ruffles, flinging about his gold like a lord, and drinking mulled [-248-] claret with his two sweethearts, you certainly would not have recognized him. Mr. Haddick is the name of the vampire who keeps Blueskin's pen w'agging, and when I met Blueskin, although his shabby hat was pulled well down over his eyes, an alarming length of visage remained uncovered. He appeared so deeply absorbed in thought that I at once made up my mind not to disturb him ; but he saw me, and, corning after me, laid a shaky hand on my shoulder. "Hallo, how do you do?" I asked him. "Well," said he, "a man that is done can hardly be said to be doing at all; I'm done. I've been working like a horse to get two numbers of 'Skin done this week for the sake of the couple of pounds, and now Haddick's out, and I'm booked till Monday. I'm dying for a drop of rum - that's a fact; haven't had a drop since I got out of bed. Lend me a shilling, that's a good fellow, and soon as I get that tin on Monday I'll remit the amount in postage-stamps, 'pon honour." It was impossible to resist the poor beggar's appeal. He was pale, he was haggard, and his eyes were the dull eyes of a dead man. He had better have been a dead man than have emitted from his mouth (I found it out when he approached his face to mine to whisper) such a rum-bred pestilence of breath. His faded thread-bare coat was buttoned high at the throat, either to conceal the dirtiness of his linen or the naked fact that his solitary possession in that material was at that moment undergoing the process of washing ; the knees of his trousers shone, as did not his boots, which were patched at the sides and aslant at the heels. This is Blueskin. He is a worthy young man at bottom, I'll be bound, and would be still if he had abstained from scavengering for Haddick and Co., and indulged less in rum. But I've heard Blueskin say that he can't get on without rum - that all his inspiration arises from that and the bowl of a dirty pipe ; and really I see no reason to doubt his assertion.
    To return, however, to the thieves. The tavern where [-249-] on the evening in question the youthful aspirants to hempen honours assembled for their orgie is situated in a narrow back street in the neighbourhood of Kingsland Road. Half a glance at the Ram and Teazle should be enough, if not to enlighten the passer-by as to the real character of the house, at least to warn him to keep on the street side of its threshold, It is a dingy-looking little "public," with a narrow doorway, and down a step to the bar. If the legend inscribed on the greasy door-posts may be relied on, there is a good dry skittle-ground in the rear. Nor, as a peep in at the bar discloses, are skittles the only amusement provided by the Ram and Teazle for its patrons. It is an old-fashioned little bar, with a wooden counter, and its interior is plentifully decorated with stuffed and celebrated dogs, from the tiny three pounds weight toy terrier to "Mr. Snape's bull-bitch Hagnail, who died in giving birth to her eleventh litter," as a neat black-bordered card tied about the hideous monster's neck declares. There are bills stuck about the bar relating to the pugilistic interest, and the pedestrian interest. Likewise there is a notification that a "free and easy takes place every Monday and Saturday at the Ram and Teazle, with Billy Rathbone in the chair, which notification taken by itself is to a person versed in vulgar jargon intelligible enough, as meaning a convivial gathering of persons of either sex, and at which every one present is expected to contribute a song, or at least to join in the chorus but the "free and easy" at which Billy Rathbone took the chair must have been somewhat different from this, for written on a card which was pinned at the bottom of the free-and-easy placard was an intimation that "rats for the pit" might be had on application to the potman. I almost wished that it had been either a Saturday or Monday, that I might have seen in what manner "rats in a pit" could be brought to enhance the ease and freedom of a party bent on merry-making.
    The attraction for the evening when I went there, however, [-250-] was of a nature so private and select that nobody but those who had "the office" (whicll in honest English means private information) was the least aware of it. I had "the office." I cannot disclose who gave it me, but I may say that I got it at the Brick Lane Dog Show, together with a ticket, and paid for the price of three pots of ale. The ticket had inscribed on it:-
    "A raffle will take place at the Ram and Teazle, for a silk handkerchief for the benefit of Plummy Jukes, who was trotted in on the 2nd of this month, and needs your kind assistance. Many can help one when one can't help himself. Tickets, one shilling."
    I further ascertained that the crime for which Plummy Jukes was "trotted in" (committed for trial and taken to the House of Detention in the police-van) was picking pockets in an omnibus, and that as he had already been twice imprisoned for the same offence, it was thought that it would go hard with him unless Plummy was provided with a legal adviser, and it was to meet this expense that Mr. Jukes's brother had got up the raffle.
    It was fixed to take place at nine o'clock, and a quarter before that hour I was standing before the Ram and Teazle's wooden bar in company of thieves. Nobody had gone upstairs yet, and the landlady, who was a strong-framed person, of bony aspect, and deficient of three of her front teeth, was evidently out of temper at the tardy arrival of the rafflers. "Cuss such raffles as this; if she'd ha' known it she'd ha' seen them - before she'd ha' had  the fire lit," and when any thief that stood there asked in the civilest manner to be served with a pint or a quartern, it was thrown down before him, and his money snatched up with a scowl instead of a thanky. "Give us a light, please, Mrs. Pratt." "What the devil next? How long have I been your slavey? Help yourself, or go without." The young fellow sniggered in a conciliatory manner, and picking up the fag of a match from the dirty floor, lit his pipe at the gas-light. Alas! my young friends, how [-251-] matters in this respect must have altered since those old-fashioned thieves and cut-throats - Richard Turpin and Thomas King - caroused in the Red Lion in Drury Lane! "'What ho there, drawer! hand me a light, you villain, or I'll slice thee to mincemeat!' exclaimed Dick, at the same time flinging at the unlucky menial about a pint of the burgundy that remained in his flagon by way of attracting his attention. With teeth chattering and shaking knees the trembling varlet obliged, quaking out an apology for not paying stricter attention to the wants of his customers. 'Tis well,' exclaimed the generous-minded Dick, 'since I have given thee a wet jerkin, here is a guinea to get thee something to wet thy inner man as well.'" - (Vide "The Knights of the Road," chap. ccclviii.)
    There were but five thieves at the bar when I went in, but in the course of ten minutes the number was increased to eleven, all young men, two mere lads of fourteen or thereabout. But where was the dash, the reckless, devil-may-care deportment that should distinguish these pinks of a fraternity whose well-known motto is, "Light come, light go!" Where the insolent cock of the hat, the boisterous mirth, and the ribald bragging talk ? Not here, certainly. A more downcast, spiritless company of young men it would be hard to find, seek London through. What conversation there was was carried on in whispers, and that with much restlessness and anxiety and evident mistrust one of another. Had Plummy Jukes been their dear brother, and they had come to his funeral, they couldn't have appeared more melancholy. "They will revive when they get upstairs," perhaps, I thought; "they don't care to give way to hilarity and free speech before that shrewish-looking landlady," and, just as I thought so, four other thieves came in in a gang, which swelled our number to fifteen - on observing which the landlady grew more gracious, and suggested that we had better go up, and not stick there blocking the gangway ; so up we went.
    [-252-] She need not have made so much fuss about lighting the fire, for even after this lapse of time it was but a smoky, half-kindled affair, and the "club-room," with its low, black ceiling, its grimy and tattered wall-paper, and the table-tops festooned with sticky, dusty rings and patches, the results of last night's "free and easy," looked cheerless and dismal enough as we entered it. It remained dismal. The fire was roused, and the naked gas jets set at their extremest brilliance, but the company remained dull and dumpish as ever. They called for gin and rum, and it was drunk as freely as water, add water it might have been for all the effect it had on their spirits. There they sat in twos and threes, whispering their business, ever with a keen glance of suspicion for their neighbours, and evincing no more disposition for revelry than though they were a coroner's jury. I was pleased to find that I was not the only individual who sat and smoked his pipe alone ; by the time twenty of the fellows had assembled there were at least four of them in that predicament.
    By half-past nine the number of thieves increased to thirty, and it was then suggested that the raffle might begin, and the dice were brought in along with the handkerchief, which, amid a faint attempt at cheering, was tied by the corners to the gas- pipe overhead. Plummy's brother, a rat-eyed, slim-limbed thief; about eighteen years old, took scores as the dice were thrown, and collected the shillings from such as had not already paid them. To save time each raffler took but one cast of the dice, and, to my great satisfaction, I threw seven, putting my chance of winning the handkerchief out of the question.
    Sixteen won it, and then the company, by this time forty strong, showed symptoms of greater cheerfulness. Two pounds thirteen was the sum announced by Plummy's brother as the proceeds of the raffle, which left a deficiency of only seven shillings to fee a lawyer on Plummy's behalf, and this latter sum [-253-] was instantly "whipped round" for and obtained. Mr. Jukes's case was, as I understood it, desperate. It appeared that he had been caught in the act of cutting out a lady's pocket in an omnibus, and attempted to bolt out of the vehicle while it was still in motion, and that when the conductor attempted to collar him, Plummy turned round and stabbed the conductor in the face with his scissors, which unluckily he had not had time to replace in his pocket. With two previous convictions against him, the universal opinion appeared to be that Plummy would get five years.
    After a comparatively animated discussion as to Mr. Jukes's chances, it was proposed that we should have a song. Now again there seemed a likelihood that the spirit of lawlessness and bravado which must of necessity possess every robber by trade would exhibit itself. In all probability the staves of the evening would include "Nix my dolly, pals," "The Taplow Tinker," " Hurrah for the road," &c. Plummy's brother took the chair, and he was just the fellow of a cut to chant a Newgate ditty. Again, however, I was disappointed. Plummy's brother, throwing sublimity into his razor-like visage, rose to his legs, and in very fair style sang the pathetic ballad of "Why chime those bells so merrily?" which was ferociously encored, and he then obliged with " Beautiful star;" which, of the two, seemed to take better with the audience than the first song. Then a gentleman sang "Poor old Jeff!" a ballad descriptive of the trials and sufferings of an aged negro, with a touching account of his last earthly moments and his heavenly prospects. Then followed the "Ship on fire," "Mary Blane," " The Wolf," and " Take back those gems" - the last by Plummy's brother, who evidently was the crack vocalist of the party. What other songs were sung I don't remember, but I can positively say that not a single comic one was amongst them, or one in the least degree laudatory of the practice of misappropriating your neighbour's goods. For all the immorality there was in the [-254-] songs sung by my forty thieves, they might have been forty worthy young members of some newly-invented religious sect vocalising in their place of worship.
    Of course it would be quite ridiculous to suppose that this abstinence from boisterous and rude amusement arises from any lingering remnant of good originally planted in the breasts of this hand of ruffians. Take any one of the forty, and, if he could meet "poor old Jeff" carrying his passport to Paradise, he would not for a moment scruple to deprive him of it, if it could be sold for half-a-crown, and as for taking back "those gems" in real life, Plummy Jukes's brother would find himself laughed at as an idiot by his thirty-nine companions, if he even hinted at such a weakness. Why, then, are not the rogues merry in seasons of relaxation from the toils and hazards of business ? For the simple reason that it is impossible to them. They are never released from business or a dread of its consequences. The sword suspended and only held back by a hair is constantly over their heads quivering, and each nioment threatening to fall. They dare not indulge in pleasures that wait on honesty. Take five hundred professional thieves, and you won't find ten per cent. of them married to the mistresses of their home.
    Where's the use, say they, "when I'm here today and gone to-morrow ?" The thief by trade can have no real friendships; and to set his heart on any person or thing is but to lay a rod in pickle for his unfortunate shoulders, for at any hour - any minute - he may be "wanted ;" and then the solitary cell and the long, long days of bitterness.
    So it always was, my young friends. It was the same in Dick Turpin's time, and the same in Claude Duval's. The thief always was and always will be the hardest worked and most miserable of all labourers.

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874