Victorian London - Words and Expressions - Criminal Slang

     'Well,  Bill Bolter, here you are at last,' cried the new-comer. 'If you hadn't sent me that message t'other day by the area-sneak 1 what got his discharge out of Coldbath Jug 2 , I should ha'come all the same. I remembered that you was sentenced to six months on it; and I'd calkilated days and weeks right enough.'
    'Sit down, Dick, and blow a cloud. Wot news since I see you last?'
    'None. You know that Cranky Jem is nabbed. He and the Resurrection Man did a pannie 3 up Soho way. They got off safe with the swag; and the Resurrection Man went on to the Mint. Jem took to the Old House in Chick Lane 4 and let me in for my reglars 5. But after a week or ten days the Resurrection Man nosed 6 upon him, and will turn King's Evidence afore the beaks. So Jem was handed over to the dubsman 7 and this time he'll get lagged for life.'
    'In course he will. He has been twice to the floating academy. 8 There ain't no chance this time.'
    'But as for business,' said Dick Flairer, ' my gropus is empty. I have but one bob left in my cly 9 and that we'll spend in brandy. My mawleys 10 is reg'larly itching for a job.'
    'Someot must be done - and that soon too,' returned Bill Bolter. 'By-the-bye, s'pose we try that crib which we meant to crack four years ago, when you got nabbed the next mornin' for fakin' a blowen's flag from her nutty arm? 11'
    'You mean Markham's up between Kentish Town and Lower Holloway?' said Dick.
    'The same. Don't you recollect - we settled it all the night we threw that young fellow down the trap in Chick Lane? Dick - what the deuce is a matter with you?'
    'Two months ago I was up Hackney way, expecting to do business with Tom the Cracksman 12 which didn't come off; for Tom had been at the boozing-ken 13 all the night before, and had blowed his hand up in a lark with some davy's-dust 14. Well, I was coming home again, sulky at the affair breaking down, when as I got to Cambridge-Heath-gate, I heerd the gallopin of horses ...'

1. A thief who sneaks down areas to see what he can steal in kitchens. 2. Prison 3. Burglary. 5. West-street, Smithfield. 5. Gave him a share. 6. Informer 7. Turnkey. 8. The Hulks. 9. Waistcoat-pocket. 10. Hands. 11. Stealing a lady's reticule from her pretty arm. 12. The Burglar 13. Public-house 14. Gunpowder

[nb. these explanations are given as footnotes in the 1890, and presumably in the original, ed.]

 ... I never lie to a pal 1 Bill - and that you knows well enough. I seed that young man as plain as I can see you; I fell against a post in the footpath; but I took another good look. There he was - the same face - the same dress - everything the same! I couldn't be mistaken, I swear to it.'
    'And would you tell this story to the parish-prig 2 if so be as you was going to Tuck-up Fair 3 tomorrow morning?' demanded Bill.
    'I would by G-d!!' cried Dick solemnly.
    There was a long pause. Even the woman seemed impressed by the positive manner in which the man told his tale. 'Well - come, this won't do!' ejaculated Dick. 'Ghost or no ghost, we can't afford to be honest.'
    'No - we must be up to someot,' returned Bill. 'But about that Markham's place?'
    'The old fellow died a few months ago,' said Dick; 'the eldest son run away; and that brought about the father's death. As for the young'un, he was grabbed this afternoon for smashing queer screens. 4'
    'The devil he was! Well, there ain't no good to be done in that quarter, then? Do you know any other spekilation?'
    'Tom the Cracksman and me was going to do a pannie by Clapton, that time when he blowed his hand nearly off, larking with the benculls 5. I don't see why it shouldn't be done now. A young swell - fond of horses and dogs - lives quiet - never no company scarecly - but plenty of tin.'
    'That'll do,' observed the woman, approvingly.
    'Must we speak to the Cracksman first?' demanded Bill.
    'Yes - fair play's a jewel. I don't believe the Resurrection Man would ever have chirped 6 if he had been treated properly. If the thing is to be done, let it be done to-morrow night; and now let us go to the boozing-ken and speak to the Cracksman.'

1. A companion 2. Chaplain 3. The Gallows 4. Passing forged notes 5. Friends 6. Informed 

    'So far so good,' said Dick Flairer. 'I've got a darkey 1 but we want the kifers 2 and tools.'
    'And a sack,' added Bill.
    'We must get all these things of old Moses Hart, the fence 3 and give him a share of the swag,' exclaimed the Cracksman.
    'Well, now that's settled,' said Dick. 'I've got a bob in my pocket, and we'll have a rinse of the bingo.'

1. Dark lantern 2. Implements used by burglars 3. Receiver of stolen goods.

    'Crankey Jem has done it brown, has'nt he?' said policeman Crisp.
    'He has indeed,' replied the inspector. 'But what could he have done with all the swag?' 1
    'Oh! he's fadded2 that safe enough,' observed the officer. 'My eye! What a slap-up lily benjamin3 he had on when he was nabbed.'
    'Yes - and sich a swell bandanna fogle4 in the gropus.'5
    'He hadn't any ready tin though; for he wanted to peel,6 and put the white-poodle up the spout7 for a drop of max.'8
    'And because you wouldn't let him he doubled you up with a wallop in your dumpling-depot,9 didn't he?'
    'Yes - but I bruised his cannister10 for him though.'
    'This'll be the third time he's been afore the beaks11 at the Old Bailey.'
    'Consequently he's sartain sure to be lagged.'12
    'Ah! it must be a clever nob in the fur trade13 who'll get him off.'
    'Well - talking makes me thirsty,' said Crisp, 'I wish I'd some'ot to sluice my ivories14 with.'

1. Booty, plunder. 2. Secured. 3. White Upper Coat : synonymous with 'White Poodle.' 4. Handkerchief. 5. Pocket. 6. Strip. 7. Pawn the coat. 9. Gin. 9. Stomach. 10. Head. 11. Judges. 12. Transported. 13. Barrister 14. Teeth.

George Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, [1890s abridged edition]

for more slang in the Mysteries of London - click here

 At this moment a boy about 13 years of age, in rags and tatters, with his hands full of halfpence, entered the room. There was a cunning about his expression that half told his calling. "What's he been at?" said our guide, "'spouting a fogle' think you? At this there was a loud laugh all through the company. "He's been on the monkey, sir." I requested an explanation, and was informed that he had been begging. 

Henry Mayhew, Letter IV, Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 30, 1849

[click here for full text]

 The general feeling of the kitchen - excepting with four or five individuals - is to encourage theft. The encouragement to the "gonoff (a Hebrew word signifying a young thief, probably learnt from the Jew "fences" in the neighbourhood), consists in laughing at and applauding his dexterity in thieving; and whenever anything is brought in, the "gonoff"  is greeted for his good luck, and a general rush is made towards him to see the produce of his thievery. The "gonoffs" are generally young boys; about 20 out of 30 of these lads are under 21 years of age. 

Henry Mayhew, Letter V, Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 30, 1849

[click here for full text]


(Being an Epistle from TOBY CRACKSMAN, in Newgate, to BILL SYKES.)

 DEAR BILL, this stone-jug,1 at which flats dare to rail,
(From which till the next Central sittings I hail)
Is still the same snug, free-and-easy old hole,
Where MACHEATH met his blowens,2 and WYLDE floor'd his bowl.
In a ward with one's pals,3 not locked up in a cell,
To an old hand like me it s a  fam'ly 4-hotel.

 In the day-rooms the cuffins5 queer at our ease,
And at Darkman's6 we run the rig just as we please;
There s your peck7 and your lush, hot and reg'lar, each day,
All the same If you work, all the same if you play.
But the lark's when a goney8 up with us they shut,
As ain't up to our lurks,9 our flash-patter,10 and smut;

But soon in his eye nothing green will remain,
He knows what's o'clock when he comes out again.
And the next time he s quodded,11 so downy and snug,
He may thank us for making him fly to the jug 12
But here comes a cuffin - which cuts short my tale.
It s agin rules is screevin' 13 to pals out o' gaol. 

(The following postscript seems to have been added when the Warder passed)

For them coves in Guildhall and that blessed LORD MAYOR,
Brigs on their four bones should chop whiners,
14 I swear:
That long over Newgit their Worships may rule,
As the High-toby, mob, crack and screeve 15 model-school;
For if Guv'ment was here, not the Aldermen's Bench,
Newgit soon 'ud be bad as "the Pent" or "the Tench." 16

 Note.-We subjoin a Glossary of MR. CRACKSMANS lingo

1. Prison. 2.  Ladies of a certain description. 3. Comrades or fast friends. 4. Thieves speak of themselves as family-men. 5. Warders. 6. Night. 7. Meat and drink. 8. A greenhorn. 9. Tricks of the trade 10 Talking slang. 11 1mprisoned. 12. Up to prison ways. 13. Writing. 14 Thieves should pray on their knees. 15. Highway-robbers, swell-mobsmen, burglars, and forgers 16. Slang names for Pentonvillle Model Prison and Milbank Penitentiary.

Punch, January 31, 1857

see also Henry Mayhew in The Criminal Prisons of London (1) - click here

see also Henry Mayhew in The Criminal Prisons of London (2) - click here

see also Henry Mayhew in The Criminal Prisons of London (3) - click here

    There is a language current amongst them that is to be met with in no dictionary with which I am acquainted. I doubt if even the “slang dictionary” contains more than a few of the following instances that may be accepted as genuine. It will be seen that the prime essential of “thieves’ latin” is brevity. By its use, much may in one or two words be conveyed to a comrade while rapidly passing him in the street, or, should opportunity serve, during a visit to him while in prison.

    To erase the original name or number from a stolen watch, and substitute one that is fictitious—christening Jack.
To take the works from one watch, and case them in another— churching Jack.
Poultry stealing— beak hunting.
One who steals from the shopkeeper while pretending to effect an honest purchase— a bouncer.
One who entices another to play at a game at which cheating rules, such as card or skittle sharping— a buttoner.
The treadmill, shin scraper (arising, it may be assumed, on account of the operator’s liability, if he is not careful, to get his shins scraped by the ever-revolving wheel).
    To commit burglary— crack a case, or break a drum.
The van that conveys prisoners to gaol— Black Maria.
A thief who robs cabs or carriages by climbing up behind, and cutting the straps that secure the luggage on the roof— a dragsman.
Breaking a square of glass— starring the glaze.
Training young thieves— kidsman.
To be transported or sent to penal servitude— lagged.
Three years’ imprisonment— a stretch.
Six months— half stretch.
   Three months’ imprisonment— a tail piece.
To rob a till— pinch a bob.
A confederate in the practice of thimble rigging— a nobbler.
One who assists at a sham street row for the purpose of creating a mob, and promoting robbery from the person— a jolly.
A thief who secretes goods in a shop while a confederate dis­tracts the attention of the shopkeeper is— a palmer.
A person marked for plunder— a plant.
Going out to steal linen in process of drying in gardens— going snowing.
Bad money— sinker.
Passer of counterfeit coins— smasher.
Stolen property generally— swag.
To go about half-naked to excite compassion— on the shallow.
Stealing lead from the roof of houses— flying the blue pigeon.
Coiners of bad money— bit fakers.
Midnight prowlers who rob drunken men— bug hunters.   
   Entering a dwelling house while the family have gone to church — a dead lurk.
Convicted of thieving— in for a vamp.
A city missionary or scripture reader— gospel grinder.
Shop-lifting— hoisting.
Hidden from the police— in lavender.
    Forged bank notes— queer screens.
    Whipping while in prison— scroby or claws for breakfast.
Long-fingered thieves expert in emptying ladies’ pockets— fine wirers.
The condemned call— the salt box.
The prison chaplain— Lady Green.
A boy thief, lithe and thin and daring, such a one as house­breakers hire for the purpose of entering a small window at the rear of a dwelling house— a little snakesman.

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

     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.”

[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

click here for Henry Mayhew on costermongers slang in
London Labour and the London Poor

The prisons and sessions houses of London are known by the following cant names: Central Criminal Court as “The Start” the Old Bailey as “The Gate” Sessions House, Clerkenwell, as “X’s Hall”; House of Correction, Clerkenwell, as “The Steel”, House of Detention, Clerkenwell as “The Tench;” Surrey Sessions House as “The Slaughter House.” The convict and other prisons commonly called “Jugs.”

Charles Dickens (Jr.) Dickens's Dictionary, 1879

Balmy: barmy, stupid
Bang-up: very fine
Barney: lark, spree, quarrel
Benjamin: coat
Benjy: waistcoat
Break: collection made for someone recently out of prison
Boat, in the: sentenced to penal servitude
Broads: playing cards
Buster: burglar
Chancery, in: in an awkward situation
Chat, to screw a: to break into a house
Chiv(e): (v) to cut, stab (n) knife
Claim: to steal
Click: robbery, theft
Clock, red: gold watch
Cop: to steal
Croak: to die
Daisies: boots (rhyming slang—daisy roots)
Davy: affidavit
Dipper: pick-pocket
Fag: pick-pocket
Fall: to be arrested
Fence: receiver of stolen goods
Flimp: to rob
Friendly lead: subscription by whip-round usually held in a pub
Fully: to commit a person for trial
Gilt: money
Gonoph: thief esp. skilled pick-pocket
Go out: to follow the profession of thieving
Hook: pick-pocket
Ikey: Jew esp. receiver of stolen goods
James (jemmy): iron crow-bar
Kicksies: trousers
Lag: to sentence to penal servitude
Lagging dues: liable to be sentenced to penal servitude
Lob-crawling: till-robbing
Lucky, to cut one's: to make a getaway
Mace: (n) swindler (v)
To work the Mace: to swindle by obtaining goods on false pretences
Mag, on the: engaged in swindling esp. as confidence trickster
Magsman: swell confidence trickster
Mazzard: head, face Milling: boxing
Moke: donkey
Nark: (v) to inform (n) informer
Narking dues: arrested because of information provided by a nark
Neddy: loaded bludgeon or stick
Nick: to steal
Nobby: smart, stylish
Oof: money
Pecker, to keep one's pecker up: to remain cheerful
Peter: bag, box, trunk
Pogue: purse
Prop: tie-pin, brooch
Quid: pound
Quod: (v) to serve time (n) prison
Rorty: dashing, lively
Rum: odd
Screw: to break into
Slang: watch chain
Smug: to arrest
Sneak: to steal, pilfer
: counterfeit
Snidesman: coiner of counterfeit
Sparks: diamonds
Split: (v) to inform (n) 1. informer, 2. detective
Stall-farming: prob. helping pick-pockets
Stir: prison
Stramash: rough-and-tumble
Stretch: one year esp. prison sentence
Swag: stolen goods
Toke: bread
Topper: something of outstanding quality
Toy: watch
Toy getter: watch stealer
Toy and tackle: watch and chain
Turn over: to search/rob someone
Twirl: skeleton key
Uxter: money
Weed: to take, steal
Welsh: to inform
Welsher: informer
Yannups: money

from appendix to Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago, 1896

Barker –gun
Beano – rowdy entertainment, festivities, fun
Boko – nose
Brass – money
Bull-dog with six teeth – gun
Bung – landlord
Can – barman
Chivvy – face
Class, to be; doing something class - being or doing something impressive, admirable amongst criminals
Cocker – mate, pal
Cop – policeman
Crack a crib – burglary
Dabbed about – thrown
Dial - face
Fanlight jumping – burglary by breaking in through fanlight
Full up to the knocker – thoroughly drunk
Gargler ­– throat
Glim – candle, light
Hooks ­– hands
Kip – somewhere to sleep
Lagged – imprisoned
Lam – beat up, thrash
Lamps – eyes
Lever – lever-watch
Mug – idiot
His number’s up – he’s finished
Napper – head
Nipper – child
Off your rocker - mad
Prig – thief
Put someone’s lights out – kill them
Ready – ready money, money
Quiff – dodge, trick, ploy
Raws – bare fists
Razzo – nose, esp. a red nose
Row – fight
Do a scoot – flee; do a runner
Shut your head! – shut up
Slavey – (female) servant, maid of all work
Slop - policeman
Snide coin – counterfeit; planting snide coin
Snuff (someone) – kill, harm
Split – informer/detective/policeman
Sticker – knife
Step short – hurry up
Swag – ill-gotten gains
Swank – behave ostentatiously, swagger
Tea-leafing – petty opportune theft
Throttle – throat
Ticker – watch
Trotter cases – boots
Wet – beer/drink
Wobbler - egg

a list compiled from Clarence Rook Hooligan Nights (1899)