Who needs knuckledusters, when you have diamond rings.
Alice 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.
Possibly 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.
All 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.
“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