Queen of the Forty Thieves
Alice Diamond was the Queen of the Forty Thieves, the all female shoplifting gang of 1920s London.
Life in the slums of the industrial cities of the 19th century and early 20th was often brutal and short. Before the welfare state, the family unit gave a support network that could mean the difference between surviving, and not. Parents had many children because statistically, they knew only a few would make adulthood.Poverty didn’t mean not going on holiday. It meant living with diseases like rickets and syphilis, or dying from others like tuberculosis or cholera.
IT’S A MAN’S WORLD
It was also a very male world. Women were mothers, cleaners and cooks for the family. One of the few economically independent professions they could enter was the oldest of them all, prostitution. Industrialisation, especially the factory system, had brought women into the modern workplace for the first time. But it was only after the First World War had wiped out a generation of men that women were first given the vote in 1918.
THE ELEPHANT BOYS
And the criminal world largely reflected this gender divide. The Elephant and Castle Gang, formed in 1820, were smash and grab artists, burglars, fences and thugs. They were criminal specialists offering a range of services, from hired in muscle and warehouse thieving to bookmaking bankrolling and pitch selling.Their members were regarded with a grudging respect by the police. George Cornish, a detective at the time, described the Elephant and Castle gang as smart, well dressed, well educated, ‘dapper’ aristocrats of crime.And as their nickname – The Elephant Boys – denotes, they were all male. It was a close-knit, family orientated unit. Fathers often apprenticed their sons into the criminal enterprise.
QUEEN OF THE FORTY THIEVES
Author Brian McDonald had family members who were gang leaders in the ‘Elephants’ around the 1920s. It was this connection that helped him a reveal a hidden chapter of gang history. He found that there was another branch of the Elephant Gang – comprised of wives, daughters and girlfriends.This female branch had been in existence since 1865. And police records suggest evidence of female only gangs operating as far back as the late 1700s.These females weren’t pock marked prostitutes who had branched out into pick-pocketing and stealing to supplement their income. These were the trophy wives, daughters and girlfriends of the Elephant Boys. And photos of female gang members show them to have been extremely pretty young women. Some look very innocent. Only their criminal convictions convince otherwise.
And it was the fact that they didn’t look criminal that enabled them to ply their main ‘trade’ – shoplifting.“...many an old lag was propped up by a tireless shoplifting spouse. Some of these terrors were as tough as the men they worked for and protected." - Brian McDonald, ‘Gangs of London’
Shoplifting didn’t just support the husband at home or keep the family from the workhouse. It gave the women economic independence and the ability to buy into the aspirational lifestyles of that era. For the first time, Hollywood films were shaping style and culture in England. American film stars of that period radiated glamour and sophistication.
At home, Britain’s young aristocrats were the celebs of their day. Their decadent lifestyles captured daily in the newspapers. Many wanted to live like them. Most female gang members tried to look like them.
“They read of the outrageous behaviour of rich, bright young things and wanted to emulate them” - Brian McDonald
It’s noteworthy that the shoplifting women were said never to wear the clothes they stole. This may have simply been to avoid being arrested for being in possession of stolen goods. But some have suggested that it was more than that. They wanted to show they could afford the fashion on the high street: For as they had proved, anyone could shoplift from it.
Under the guidance of one woman, their ‘Queen’, Alice Diamond, a girl gang of ‘forty thieves’ ran the biggest shoplifting network ever seen in Britain. But it wouldn’t be shoplifting that would cause its downfall.
With her gang largely gone, the ageing Alice Diamond focused on teaching the next generation of shoplifters. She passed on her skills to Shirley Pitts. Diamond hoped that Shirley would take her crown and become a new Queen of a new gang of Forty Thieves. And under Diamond’s tutelage, Shirley was able to largely replicate her success during the 1950s.Diamond herself went from being a ‘Queen’ to a broken down, crippled old lady. All her life she had fought against the role prescribed to her by society. She wasn’t going to be a mother or a wife. But in the end, she became a carer to her sister who was dying from Multiple Sclerosis. It exhausted her. And then, in a cruel twist of fate for a shoplifting legend, Diamond lost the use of her arms. She died in Lambeth in around 1952.QUEEN OF THE SHOPLIFTERS Her skills, however, lived on in the work of Shirley Pitts. Pitts started off by playing the part of an innocent schoolgirl. Dressed in the perfect private school uniform, the pretty and quiet girl would let her ‘mother’ and ‘aunt’ try on dresses against her. With the hanger and outfit concealing her hands, Pitts would stuff merchandise into her school bag.“I used to love Harrods' fur department. I think it was me hoisting, not the vegetarians, that led to it being closed down." Shirley PittsA great actress and a great leader, Pitts would go onto inherit Diamond’s title and be dubbed by the newspapers, the ‘Queen of the Shoplifters’. She even brought some new techniques to the shoplifting manual. She used tin foil to stop the new security buzzers installed at the entrance/exit of shops. To avoid being recognised like Diamond was she donned over 30 wigs. Once, she posed as a mannequin in a shop window to escape store detectives. And rather than be limited like Diamond to London and England, Pitts went European and shoplifted from Geneva to Berlin.The seven year old who had started out nicking milk bottles from doorsteps, spent the sixties drinking champagne with the Krays. She enjoyed the same criminal connections as Diamond - her father died in jail and her brother was a bank robber - so she was able to fence all her gear easily through the underworld.Her other sidelines included fraud, bank robbery and an escort business specialising in S&M prostitutes. When she was inevitably jailed, despite being pregnant, she broke out. She didn’t want her first child to be born in prison.When in 1992, Shirley Pitts, mother of seven, died from cancer, she was broke. But the royalty of the criminal underworld turned out in full to mark the 57 year olds passing. And fittingly, she was buried in a £5,000 frock said to be stolen from Harrods. Numerous Daimler cars drove her wreaths and floral tribute. And the flowers that went by on the side of the hearse spelt out her catchphrase:“GONE SHOPPING”
With so much money flowing her way, Diamond led a lavish lifestyle, spending her ill gotten gains freely. Her forty thieves also indulged to excess. They were all aware that the freedom to do so could end at any moment. Jail was an occupational hazard. The women faced between 12 months and three years hard labour if caught. One professional thief, Ada Wellman, was convicted of shoplifting from an Army and Navy store in Victoria in 1921. She was still one of the Forty Thieves when she was jailed again 18 years later. But it would be because of a revenge attack and rioting, and not shoplifting, that the gang would eventually be broken.Diamond used violence as a means of control. If your face was on the receiving end of one of her hard diamond punches, it was because you’d either refused an offer or because you hadn’t paid up. But in 1925, she took part in a brutal attack that had no monetary motive. It would be a catastrophic miscalculation.It was the evening of the 19 December 1925. The air of the old Canterbury Social Club was thick with tobacco smoke. The innumerable empty glasses testified to just how many its customers had drunk. Two of Diamond’s Forty Thieves, Maria Jackson and Bertha Tappenden started drunkenly throwing insults at one another. Then Jackson attacked Tappenden with a broken wine glass. It cut her face. Jackson’s father, Bill Britten joined in. He first threw a glass of stout over her. Next, he punched Bertha. A cat fight quickly escalated into a vicious bar-room brawl. Britten eventually dragged his daughter away and the fight petered out. But the scene had stirred the remaining drinkers. They were now ready for a fight.A few nights later, at the same club, the only talk was of Jackson and how she and her father hadn’t gotten their just deserts. Everyone, including Diamond, and especially Maggie Hughes drank heavily until midnight. They decided to head to Jackson’s home. As they departed, some of the men gathered up bottles and glasses and anything else they could lay their hands on.DIAMOND’S DRUNKEN DOZEN Alice Diamond led about a dozen people to attack Jackson’s house. Inside, there was Maria, her father Bill, and her mother, Mary. When the rabble arrived, others from the surrounding streets soon swelled their ranks. Alice knocked on the door. In answer, she had a jug full of water chucked in her face. She ordered the door broken in.By the time they decide to attack the two story house, there were about 30 to 40 people all crowded outside. They were all armed with bottles and bricks. Some had guns.It was the sound of pistol shots that woke Maria. Then the mob smashed in her windows. Next they went to smash in the door. Bill and his wife were now up and trying to desperately hold the door shut. Outnumbered, the door gave way. The mob swarmed in. Those who couldn't fit in through the hallway pelted the house with bricks and bottles. Bill ran upstairs. He was chased from room to room. As he tried to flee, he was slashed at with knives and razors. His face was badly cut.Bill’s fifteen year old son tried to intervene. He was knocked down. He was badly beaten with ‘life preservers’. These curiously named weapons were often rubber coshes. Their name came from the fact that no matter how enraged the perpetrator, the victim usually just received bruises and broken bones. They didn't kill.What saved everybody’s life was the arrival of the police. They arrested two and the rest, including Diamond, fled. Bill’s bloodied face required 25 stitches. Maria, frightened and with her family threatened, broke the gang code and gave names to the police. They arrested two of the most important members of the ‘Forty Thieves’, their ‘queen’, Alice Diamond, and her second in command, Maggie Hughes.
The Gang Branch out
“...they were like the first Avon ladies...they just sold crocked gear and not cosmetics...”Lorraine Gammon. Author, ‘Gone Shopping’There had been shoplifters before Diamond came on the scene. But no one had ever been as systematic as she was. Through the ‘Elephants’ gang she had a ready resource pool. So she recruited the wives, girlfriends and daughters - and probably mistresses - of gang members. Women like pretty brunette, Florrie Holmes, the girlfriend of a London villain who then followed her partner into crime.Not everybody was a volunteer. But Diamond was a forceful persuader.She targeted those already good at pick-pocketing, or those with good looks that she could train. She then organized this network of around forty females - hence the ‘forty thieves’ nickname - into a series of cells. There were four or five girls to a cell. Each cell would target one shop. They would hit the high street and turnover three or four shops at a time.SHOPLIFTING SPREEThe women wore specially tailored clothes. The coats, cummerbunds, skirts, muffs and hats had large hidden pockets sewn into them. One key innovation of Diamond’s shoplifters was their ‘oysters’. These hoisting knickers were adapted to have extra volume.All the women carried the same type of bag so they could swap empty with full ones. Even if security saw one woman place items in a bag, by the time they’d approached and apprehended her, a criminal colleague had switched with an empty one.What all their tailored tricks of the trade had in common was class. Everything they wore made them look like they were the last sort of woman likely to shoplift.Diamond, ‘like a female general’ made sure everything went to plan. She insisted all her operatives were punctual, well turned out and knew the plan. They arrived by car. The car used would have two features: A large boot into which all the stolen gear could be stuffed; and an even larger engine, so that if they needed a fast getaway, no police car could catch them.
SHOPLIFTING AT SELFRIDGESOnce inside a shop they had a number of techniques. On top of their innocent appearance, they traded on the fact that well to do women of that time were expected to be accorded a great deal of privacy. Sometimes they would create a distraction. One was to pretend to faint or pretend to be struck by illness. Another was to edge towards the exit and inspect an item in the light of a window. With eyes diverted, the many others would go to work. Their most audacious approach was to simply descend like a swarm of locusts. The whole gang of forty would run through the revolving doors of a department store and grab everything to hand. With so many different targets, security was often so shocked and overwhelmed by this ‘dash and grab’ that the women were through the exit by the time they’d reacted.The genuine distractions of the January sales and the inevitable ‘scrums’ meant rich pickings for Diamond’s forty thieves.The items they preferred to steal were small exclusive things like lingerie, silk, leather goods: The higher the value, the better. But they would take everything and anything from designer clothes to furs. Everything taken was quickly rolled, folded and compacted very small and then secreted away.As McDonald says, they could walk into a shop and ‘literally strip it’.Diamond’s crew raided some of the West End’s biggest stores – Debenham and Freebody (now known simply as Debenhams), DH Evans, Selfridges and Whiteleys.The amount they were able to steal was ‘staggering’.With the goods acquired, the ‘Elephants’ gang were a readymade distribution network. And all profits flowed back to Diamond. She sat at the top of a pyramid where a percentage of ever shop-lift was kicked back up to her. And anyone shoplifting on her patch either paid a similar percentage kick-back or they were viciously beaten. Some were even kidnapped until a suitable ransom was paid.SCAMS LTDSuch was Diamond’s success that her face and those of her forty thieves soon became well known. So they simply expanded their patch. They descended on surrounding towns and seaside resorts. An accomplice would drop off empty suitcases at left luggage office in train stations. After a successful swipe, they would return home, suitcase bursting.And they diversified. Other scams included posing as a maid or servants in country piles and grand houses. Using false references, they’d obtain work at places targeted for their valuables. As soon as the new ‘employee’ could, she’d disappear; along with the valuables.Another sideline was blackmail. The prettiest ones lured in their married marks. Once the reputable gentleman was in a disreputable situation, she’d demand payment to keep her lips sealed.
The Key Figures
Who needs knuckledusters, when you have diamond rings.
DIAMOND ALICEAlice Diamond was born in Southwark, South London, in 1886. She was the daughter of criminals. Her father was infamous. During a riot, he’d pushed the head of the Lord Mayor’s son through a plain glass window.Like many female relatives, Alice would have started out aiding and abetting in the criminal activities of the men. So women would carry the tools the men needed for a burglary. If the police stopped the men before or after a job, there would be no evidence against them. Alice would later adapt similar methods to ensure her female operatives minimised the risks of being caught red handed.Tall for her time, she was 5’8”, she developed a racy, stylish and tough reputation. The Elephant Boys marked Alice Diamond out for leadership. She was the perfect candidate to lead the ‘Elephants’ female gang. Aged 20, Diamond became its ‘Queen’.Suitably enthroned, Diamond acted the part. She wore big fur coats, big hair and big make up. She also wore a series of diamond rings. These were both pleasing to look at and served a practical purpose. Her punch was said to be harder than a man’s. She used the diamond rings as a customised knuckled duster. It was her ring filled right-hook which earned her her nickname with the police, ‘Diamond Alice’.Her first official contact with the law was aged just seventeen. She was convicted for stealing from a hat shop on Oxford Street. During World War One, she was arrested for using another girl’s card in an ammunition factory. She was possibly trying to procure explosives for use in safe-blowing. During the 1920s she would be arrested many more times ending the decade with an arrest for shoplifting on Oxford Street. Her accomplice was Maggie Hughes.
MAGGIE HUGHESPossibly the most ‘brazen’ of the gang, Maggie acquired her first criminal conviction aged just 14. An alcoholic, she was said to be as addicted to the bottle as she was to men. In 1923 she was jailed. Less organized than the rest of the gang, and more opportunistic, she had ran out of a jeweler with a tray of 34 diamond rings and bumped straight into a policeman. Jailed for three years, she was out in time to take part in the Lambeth riot of Christmas 1925. For her part in what would ultimately destroy the gang, she received five months.Her crimes escalated and in 1938, she was sentenced for stabbing a policeman in the eye with a hatpin. After her release, she could only find work as a prostitute’s maid. Her other sideline, and one of the worst for a former gang member, was as a police informant. But the main people who she ‘grassed’ on were the violent pimps who abused their prostitutes. She died in the 1970s. It’s believed she committed suicide.ADA MACDONALDAll shoplifting networks are dependent on fences; people willing to buy the stolen goods and sell them on. One of the female ones was Ada Macdonald, who operated out of Walworth, South East London. Her home was said to be an ‘Aladdin’s cave of loot’. She was a suspected fence for four other gangs as well as the Forty Thieves. Despite frequent police raids, she somehow managed to persuade the police that despite her house looking like a knocked off department store, they were all legit purchases. She even produced ledgers to demonstrate her honest buying.With the police gone, she would fence small value items through street market traders, jewellery to pawnbrokers and clothes to shops willing to turn a blind eye.A rival female fence, Jane Durrell had an equally close shave with the law. She was taken to court in 1911 for receiving shoplifted goods. But the jury cleared her. They couldn’t believe she was aware that the goods, worth hundreds of pounds, were stolen. Women were mothers, lovers and carers. Few could believe them capable of being hardened criminals.SHIRLEY PITTS“Open the door in the name of the law”Shirley was raised in the family network of the Elephant and Castle gang. Her early memories were of the police shouting outside to be let in so they could ‘nick’ her dad. When she was six, he was jailed. She helped support the family by pinching milk and bread from neighbour’s doorsteps. She would always receive a cuddle from her mother for her efforts.When Shirley was twelve, her newly released criminal father bought her some clothes and outfits that she didn’t like. So in 1947, Alice took her shoplifting. Inside a shop, she asked Alice if a certain top would fit Shirley’s brother. If Shirley said yes, Alice stuffed it down Shirley’s top. Alice stole enough to clothe all of Shirley’s family.Shirley was instantly enraptured with Alice, her lifestyle, and the way she funded it. The Pitts family were long standing members of the ‘Elephant and Castle’ gang but Alice showed Shirley that women didn’t have to depend on their men to enjoy the benefits of a life of crime.According to Lorraine Gammon, author of ‘Gone Shopping’, Alice then ‘trained’ her apprentice Shirley in the ways of shoplifting. Shirley, dressed in a school girl’s outfit, with straw boater, was the perfect decoy. On one shoplifting trip to Selfridges, Shirley described how beautiful the toilets were with the mirrors, marble and beautiful soap. If Shirley couldn’t afford to shop there, she could at least shoplift from them.“One of the best”The Kray’s tribute to Pitts
I don't know what made me do it
Diamond’s shoplifters were no strangers to the courts. Veteran thief Alice Turner protested her fur stealing was a moment of madness. She also turned on the tears in court. But the sympathy of the magistrate evaporated as fast as her crocodile tears when it was revealed that when she’d been arrested, along with the fur, there were 25 other stolen items. He gave her three months.Diamond’s prolific shoplifting spree had changed the perception that women were innocents incapable of crime. When she and eight others appeared in court, they could no longer rely on their sex to escape sentencing. The prosecution went in hard. They stated that only the intervention of the police prevented the nine accused being charged with murder.They all pleaded not guilty. Diamond’s alibi was that she was with her married sister at the time of the attack. Her criminal father testified this was the case. Few believed him.Alice and many of the others were sentenced to 18 months in prison with hard labour.After prison, Diamond returned to her gang. But in her absence, many of them had fallen out with each other. Some had gone independent. And a few had gone semi-respectable. The Blitz meant a lot of the old neighbourhoods had been literally blown away. Old gang members had followed a lot of the London East End out into the new housing developments in Essex.
Shops and department stores had upped their game and trained their security. And women were no longer seen as the weaker sex. During the Second World War, with the men away fighting, mothers and daughters had largely kept the wartime economy running. If women could be workers, no doubt, they could be criminals as well. Shoplifting had become riskier.“Of course crime pays. It’s getting caught, that’s the f*****g problem.”Shirley Pitts