Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Hooligan Nights, by Clarence Rook, 1899 - Chapter 13 - Playing for the Pocket

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Playing for the Pocket

     It is not to be supposed that young Alf, having successfully nicked a purse in a fog outside Waterloo Station, as I have already related, did not follow up a branch of his profession which promised large profits and quick returns.
     We were making our way together to the pleasant room of which I have spoken before. It was a dark night, and especially dark in the small streets which run behind the place where the Archbishop of Canterbury gives garden-parties.
     'Supposing you wanted to pick my pocket, how would you set to work?' I asked young Alf.
     The question produced a most disconcerting answer.
     I had not walked two paces farther when young Alf had me helpless. He had seized the lapels of my unbuttoned overcoat, one in either hand, and with a swift jerk pushed the garment back as far as my elbows. My arms were pinioned.
     'That's one way,' said young Alf, as his eyes gleamed in my lace.
     'But I could kick,' I said.
     'Not fore I'd got yer ticker.'
     'But I should chase you.'
     'You wouldn't see me. I should be be'ind, an' me pal'd go froo the pockets.'
     'But you haven't got a pal.'
     'I shouldn't work wivout a pal, p'r'aps two, where there wasn't a crowd,' said young Alf, releasing my arms.
     I shuffled back into my coat.
     'Quarter to ten,' said young Alf, looking at something in his hand, as we came under a lamp-post.
     I stopped short.
     'I got the ticker,' said young Alf, handing it back to me. His cheeks were puffing convulsively. He was mightily amused.
     Replacing the watch in my pocket - though my claim to its possession seemed a poor one - I buttoned up my coat, and walked on, somewhat crestfallen.
     'It seems very simple,' I said presently, as we proceeded along the gloomy street. 'But it takes two to do it properly?'
     'Free's best,' said young Alf, politely ignoring the success of one. 'Say you was comin' along 'ere, you bein' alone.'
     We stood where the street twists into Hercules Buildings, runs into Church Street and the Lambeth Road, and plunges into the limbo beyond.
     'Me an' my two pals comes along that way,' continued young Alf, jerking his head towards the Buildings, 'an' one of us steps up an' says, "Got a light, guv'nor." Say it's me. See? Well, as you're feelin' in your pocket an' lookin' at me, anuvver boy whips your coat back, an' the uvver runs froo your pockets. See?'
     'But,' I said, 'I could see the boy that went through my pockets, and follow him up.'
     Young Alf spat contemptuously.
     'Don't you unnerstand?' he said. 'I got you tight all the time, like what I 'ad jest now. The boy what you see runs froo your pockets an' passes the stuff to anuvver boy, an' then they scoot different ways. An' then I drops your coat an' does a scoot anuvver way. See? Cause, you unnerstand, we don't get to work cept there's more'n one way we can scoot.'
     'Then you don't work alone at pocket-picking,' I said.
     'Sometimes I done it,' said young Alf. 'Like the time I told you, outside Waterloo Station. Well not a week ago nor more there was a toff in the bar at the "Feavers," an' I see 'im put 'is change into the little pocket side of his coat. Full up to the knocker, 'e was; an' I see where 'e put 'is change, you unnerstand. So when 'e goes out, I nips after 'im. Outside there was a bit of a crowd - man sellin' beeloons - corner of Paradise Street, you know; and I tumbled against the toff, accidental, an' ketched 'im round the waist.
     ' "Beggin' your pardon, guv'nor, for fallin'," I says.
     ' "Granted, I'm sure," he says.
     'An' fore we parted I'd got me 'ooks on to a tanner an' a couple of browns. Most pelite, 'e was.
     'There's anuvver way - wiv a sack,' continued young Alf presently. 'One boy can work that, if e's got the street to imself; on'y two's better. You just drop a sack over the 'ead of a toff, comin' up be'ind him, an' pull it down over is shoulders an' as far as 'is knees, an' you can tip 'im up an' run froo 'im proper. Fore he can get out of the sack you're round the corner. See?'
     But on the whole it is better to work with one or two, or even three or four other boys. So young Alf explained to me over his ginger-beer and cigar, when we reached the pleasant room. The risk is distributed.
     Besides, the presence of a crowd is favourable to the operations of a pick-pocket, and the more excited the crowd is, the greater are the chances of profit. So, when matters are quiet, it is the business of two of the party to gather a crowd and keep it interested. The simplest and commonest method is to get up a fight - a fight that is faked and friendly, be it understood, but with all the outward semblance of bitter animosity. No unnecessary punishment is inflicted, though, of course, appearances must be kept up. Nothing collects a crowd so quickly as a fight, and few things interest it more. So while the ring of spectators cheer and hoot the two lads who are rolling over one another in the gutter, two more are hovering to and fro, one of them getting his hooks on to such things as may be hooked, while the other receives and pockets them as quickly as they can be passed. It is most important to remember that no stolen article should be retained about your person an instant longer than is absolutely necessary. On one occasion, young Alf was compelled to keep the result and evidence of his misdeed for two hours in his pocket before planting it, or even passing it. But that was his record. He is not proud of it, regarding it as an error of judgement.
     Working one day on the skirts of a crowd which was watching a street-fight - a faked fight - young Alf was lucky enough to have a very smart lad associated with him, a lad who was never more than two feet from his elbow. Now young Alf, by an act of almost criminal folly, permitted an old lady to become aware of the abstraction of her purse. She at once accused him; he was seized by a bystander, and handed over to the police, protesting.
     At the station he was searched. No property of any kind whatever was found in his pockets. So he was discharged, to the consternation of the old lady. Young Alf is generous enough to give most of the credit for this escape to the boy who was working with him, and speaks in the highest terms of his admirable backing up.
     Working alone is very risky - unless, of course, you are in the dark with a drunken victim - though it is sometimes hard to resist the temptation of a chance opening. But purse-snatching should never be attempted by a boy who does not know the district he is working in and cannot outrun any probable pursuer.
     Young Alf has a vivid remembrance of an occasion on which his turn of speed served him well. Only this, with a little ready wit, brought him out of a very tight place.     
     He was strolling in the city, and looking for any stray articles that could be picked up. Walking down Leadenhall Street, in the direction of Aldgate, he noticed a lady who was looking in at a shop-window. In her hand was a purse which took Young Alf's eye.
     He snatched it, and ran off at full speed.
     'Stop thief!' shrieked the lady.
     Several other people took up the cry; and a toff, who nearly succeeded in heading him off, followed close at his heels.
     It was an exciting race, for the toff could run a bit. However, young Alf headed eastwards, and felt he was gaining. By this time, the crowd behind him had gained in numbers and in shouting power, and as he turned a corner at Aldgate he noticed that something like a hundred pursuers intervened between him and the toff.
     Now there is this curious feature about the crowd that takes part in a man-hunt: most of the pursuers do not know whom they are chasing or why they are chasing him. For the new-comers join in at the front of the mob instead of at the rear, where those who are likely to know most about the matter are falling behind. Moreover, even if the original pursuer can spring decently, he soon finds his path blocked by a mob of excited and useless runners.
     Young Alf thinks quickly in an emergency, and this was an emergency to stimulate the most sluggish intelligence. The peculiar characteristic of the crowd that chases a pick-pocket flashed across his mind as he turned the corner at Aldgate, and he concluded that since he could no longer see the toff, the toff could no longer see him.
     'Stop him!' cried the crowd behind him, and, as they swept along, others stood ready to join in the pursuit.
     Young Alf shouted with the crowd.
     'Stop 'im! Stop 'im!' he yelled, waving his arms in invitation to the waverers.
     'Stop oo?' said one and another, attracted by Young Alf's excitement, and joining him as he ran.
     ' 'im,' said young Alf. 'Jest turned the corner. I'm blowed, I am. Can't go much furver.'
     The crowd swept on, gradually engulfing young Alf.
     By this time he had reached a country that he knew. A city of refuge was at hand. There is nothing like a public-house with an entrance in one street and an exit in another.
     Young Alf slipped in, nodded to the landlord, and emerged into a quiet street, while the shouts of the crowd pursuing a phantasmal quarry died away in the distance.
     Purse-snatching, you will perceive, has its risks. You require special gifts for the pursuit.
     Before we parted that evening young Alf told me several more stories of illicit processes. One of them interested me particularly, because it concerned one of the very, few cases in which he was aided by a female accomplice. It was a mere ordinary case of theft. But young Alf seemed to enjoy the story. So it shall be given in his own words.
     'Lots of toffs bring their own loss on theirselves. It's their own fault, an' their own loss, as you might say. Like the bloke in the bar that was boasting of the brass 'e'd got. Seem to see 'im in me mind's eye now, I do; wiv 'is coat cut smart an' 'is 'at side of 'is 'ead. Gawd! Give me the fair ump, it did, hearin' 'im talk. An' I says to meself, "Brass!" I says. "Let's see some of yer brass. Let's 'andle it," I says to meself.'
     Young Alf rolled from left to right in his chair as he dug his hands, right and left, into his trouser pockets, which are, as you know, slung high.
     'It was in a pub down Battersea,' he continued, 'an' there was more'n one or two of the boys there at the time an' they'll bear me out. Well, presently I sits down beside the toff an' calls him a rare toff an' a lot of old swank of  that kind. Then I give the wheeze to a smart-lookin' woman there - Lizzie, we called 'er.'
     'You knew her?' I asked.
     'I hadn't 'ad dealin's wiv 'er, not to speak of,' said young Alf. 'On'y I knew she was straight, cause she was workin' wiv a pal of mine. See? So Lizzie come over an' I introjuiced 'er to the toff as my wife, an' I says.- "The gen'l'man will make room for you, Lizzie," I says.
     'An' wiv that he made room for Lizzie on the uvver side from what I was sittin', an' she started larkin' wiv 'im, you unnerstand. Well, sharp as I knew 'ow I goes froo his left and pockets wivout gettin' anyfink worf havin'. Then I wanted to get to the uvver side. So I told Lizzie she was in love wiv the toff, cause 'e was better-lookin' than what I was, and I says I was going to take 'er place side of my andsome rival. An' wiv that I went an' sat down right side of the toff.
    ' Course 'e eggsplained that 'e adn't meant no offence, aving treated my wife like a lidy; but I made as if I wasn't easy in me mind. An' there was Lizzie stannin' up front of 'im an' chaffin' an' tellin' 'im not to mind me, bein' only cause I was so fond of her, an' me goin' careful froo the right and pockets. See? Well, it 'curred to me that what brass he'd got was inside his coat, an' I says to meself I must 'ave that coat wevver or no. So I says to Lizzie I'd like a coat like that.
     ' "How you fink," I says, "how you fink I'd look in a coat like that?"
     ' "How can I tell wivout I see you wiv one on?" says Lizzie.
     ' "That'd be a sight too big for me," I says, looking at the toff's coat. "The gen'l'man's broader cross the chest than what I am."
     ' "Not me," he says. He wanted to get back into my good graces. See? "I bet you drinks," he says, "you fill it as well as I do."
     'An' wiv that 'e off with the coat an' I put it on; 'im elpin'.
     ' "What you fink of that?" I says, walkin' up an' down the bar.
     ' "It's a mile too big," says Lizzie. "Shouldn't ardly know you was there."
     ' "Well, I ain't there," I says, comin' to the door and doin' a scoot.'
     Young Alf's cheeks denoted intense amusement at this sally.
     ' 'Cause I was somewhere else,' he explained, on recovering his power of speech. 'An' one or two days afterwards there was a rare old liquor up at that pub wiv some of the boys that'd watched the performance. Lizzie come in for 'er share, too. Matter o' ten pounds there was in the inside pocket.'
     Young Alf sat with legs extended, his hands in his trouser pockets, and sighed at the recollection.
     'And - and about Lizzie-' I said.