The ultimate girl gang
For two hundred years, an all-female gang terrorized London. Known as the Forty Elephants, they were master shoplifters.
While at work, each of the thieves wore a specially-tailored outfit that was riddled with hidden pockets. Many made fortunes selling the goods that they pilfered. Those ill-gotten gains were then used to throw lavish parties and to fund the ladies’ extravagant lifestyles. Off duty, they were known to dress in the very finest fashions.
Amazons and roaring girls.
Shoplifting, originally called “lifting,” is probably as old as shopping itself. The first documented shoplifting started to take place in 16th-century London, and was carried out by groups of men called lifters.
In the late 17th century, London shopkeepers began to display goods in ways designed to attract shoppers, such as in window displays and glass cases. This made the goods more accessible for shoppers to handle and examine and if you can handle the goods you can steal them.
The word shoplift or shop-lift first appeared at the end of the 17th century. Female shoplifters of this period were also called “Amazons” or “roaring girls.” Notorious female shoplifters in London included Mary Frith, the pickpocket and fence also known as Moll Cutpurse, pickpocket Moll King, Sarah McCabe, whose shoplifting career spanned twenty years, and Maria Carlston (also known as Mary Blacke), who was eventually executed for theft and who for years shoplifted clothing and household linens in London with one or more female accomplices.
Bustles and crinolines
Their clothes were designed for large-scale theft. Slits in the outer garments fed into capacious pockets cunningly sewn into the layers beneath. This was an era when bustles and acres of crinoline were still worn, and the amount of contraband a female thief could conceal beneath her dress was limited only by her daring and ambition.
The art of shoplifting has changed little over the years and still revolves around concealing items on the person or an accomplice, causing chaos or diversions or simply leaving the store without paying. By the early 19th century, shoplifting was believed to be primarily a female activity. As, perhaps, we still think of it today.
The Forty Elephants.
Girl gangs might sound very 21st century but an all-female crime syndicate had a firm and pitiless grip on London as far back as the 18th century. Forgotten stashes of photographs, records and letters have revealed that although the capital was carved into different fiefdoms by various male villains, one all-female gang ruled part of the gangland underworld for almost two centuries.
The Forty Elephants were unique in the annals of British crime. Emerging from the slums like fallen angels these glamorous, lawless, young women plundered fashion stores and jewel shops, picked their lovers from among London’s toughest gangsters and terrorised their rivals. Soon they were renowned, and feared, as the country’s first all-female crime syndicate.
Police reports describe thousands of pounds of clothing and jewellery being seized in a single swoop, to be stored away in deep pockets, muffs and the voluminous bloomers and crinolines of the period. Perhaps because of all the stowed loot, one report (in the 1925 San Jose Chronicle) reports many of the gang women as big handsome women about six feet tall.
They first rose to notoriety under Mary Carr, a beautiful artists’ model known as ‘Queen Thief’. But it was her successor, Alice Diamond, who led the Forties to their greatest infamy. Born the oldest of eight children in a Lambeth Workhouse Infirmary she was, by her teenage years, already said to be the cleverest shoplifter in London. One detective described how she and her crew would descend ‘like a gang of locusts’ in taxis and chauffeur-driven limousines, cleaning out a store inside one hour. Newspapers described her gang as ‘notorious for their good looks, fine stature, and smart clothing’ as they travelled the country, stealing the finest silks, gems and furs, hiding their plunder in specially-made skirts and knickers and spending their ill-gotten gains in a whirlwind of mad excess.
Alice ruled with military precision and expanded the enterprise out of London because the gang was becoming too well known in the West End. It was her jewel encrusted fistful of rings which prompted police to dub her Diamond Annie. It’s recorded that she had a “punch to beware of”.
They were called the Forty Elephants, partly because they all lived within half a mile of the Elephant and Castle pub in Southwark, and partly because, when they waddled out of shops laden with stolen merchandise, the women joked that they looked like elephants.
The Elephant and Castle gang
They worked alongside the notorious Elephant and Castle gang, a powerful army of all-male smash-and-grab artists, burglars, receivers, hard men and crafty villains operating across south London. The Forty Elephants, presided over by their formidable “queen”, were responsible for the largest shoplifting operation ever seen in Britain between the 1870s and 1950s. The gang was first mentioned in newspapers in 1873, but police records suggest it had existed since the late 1700s.
“Many a husband lounged at home while his missus was out at work, and 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
As well as raiding stores all over the country, they masqueraded as housemaids for wealthy families, often using false references, before ransacking their homes. Neither were they adverse to a little blackmail, many a married man was forced to pay a substantial sum of money after being seduced.
In the 20th century, they used high-powered cars to outrun the police. When they were stopped, they were found to be clean because the stolen items had already been passed on to other members of the team. Often they would use trains, depositing empty suitcases at railway stations which they then filled with their ill gotten gains for the return trip.
Blackmail, kidnapping and beatings
These women guarded their territory jealously, demanding a percentage of takings from others caught stealing from shops they considered to be on their turf. If caught working their territory, outsiders would often be beaten or kidnapped until large sums of money were handed over.
Brian MacDonald’s research has revealed that, ‘London was in the firm grip of the ruthless girl gang which, between the 1870s and the 1950s, was responsible for the biggest shoplifting racket the country has ever seen. They also dabbled in many other crimes like blackmail and kidnapping, and they thought nothing of dishing out beatings or exacting revenge on enemies with knives and metal bar.’
McDonald, writes in Gangs of London. “On the plus side, they threw the liveliest of parties and spent lavishly at pubs, clubs and restaurants. Their lifestyles were in pursuit of those of glamorous movie stars, combined with the decadent living of 1920s aristocratic flapper society. They read of the outrageous behavior of rich, bright young things and wanted to emulate them.”
Wisely, they rarely flaunted their stolen clothes or jewellery and these goods were disposed of through a chain of fences in south and north London. Small-value items went to street market traders, jewellery to pawnbrokers, and clothes to shops that were willing to replace labels and remodel designs.
Their heyday was in the1920s and 30s when the gang raided on a large scale not only in the West End of London, but also other major shopping centres across the country. They also forced smaller gangs to pay tribute on what they had stolen and would punish criminals who did not obey their rules. The gang had its own set of rules and demanded loyalty from its members and others in the supply and distribution network. Alice Diamond ruled with absolute authority, with the co-operation of Maggie Hill, Gertrude Scully and the Partridge sisters. Over seventy direct members of the gang operating in the 1920s and 1930s have been identified.
Aristocrats of crime
Dan Johnston described the women as dressed in all their finery with all the airs and graces of the upper classes needed to put sales assistants at their ease. He also uses the terms “battlefield tactics” and “military operation” to describe the level of preparation and organisation behind the gang’s activities.
Newspapers in Britain and America developed a fascination with the Forty Elephants and police urged editors not to give the criminal sorority the oxygen of publicity but despite this warning a Sunday paper called the Reynolds News planned a series of articles devoted to the dastardly dames. It has been claimed that the the police regarded them as pretty much ‘untouchable’.
Their brutal activities came to light after historian Brian MacDonald spent years examining records, newspaper reports and letters for his book, Gangs of London. He says: ‘The girls feared no one, they were all well-built and strong and could fight as well as any man. They were also very clever, well organised, devious and daring
The Female Gang That Terrorised London, by Brian McDonald
Alice Diamond and the Forty Thieves by Brian McDonald
Mother Nature network
Catherine Hokin, The history girls
Amelia Burr, Southwark News