Pickpockets and Ragamuffins
Pickpockets did exactly what it said on the tin, they picked pockets, usually stealing silk handkerchiefs , wallets or pocket watches. They usually worked in teams often applying distractions, such as asking a question or bumping into the victim. These distractions sometimes required sleight of hand, speed, misdirection and other types of skills. Frequently young boys and women worked together. The young boys were often called ‘natty lads.’ and were mostly between 12 to 14 years old. Children who worked in the poorest areas generally stealing from one another were known as ragamuffins.
Gangs of pickpockets formed a kind of extended family, and were often sisters and brothers. The gangs usually comprised three different age groups and the skills of the trade were handed down. Pickpocketing was one of the few types of crime committed by more women than men.
In 29 October 1750 one pickpocket recognized a mate in Cheapside, but kept quiet lest he spoil the other’s plans. James Welch recognized John Waller in the crowd, but ‘before I spoke to him, he gave me the wink, not to take any notice’, and Waller then proceeded to remove a watch from a gentleman’s pocket. Later that evening they met up again at Cripplegate, and shared a room for the night, then next day they spent 11 shillings of the money Waller got from selling the watch. Rictor Norton.
Usually children became part of large gangs controlled by adults. They were taught how to steal and bring the stolen goods back to their ‘protector’ who then sold on the stolen property. The young thief was sometimes given a small percentage of the money gained.
Pickpockets worked whoever there were large crowds. At the theatre, fairs, markets, public hangings and even funerals. They also plied their trade at racetracks, festivals, or public lectures where plenty of people were jostling about and it was easy for the thief to pass on the stolen goods and get lost in the crowd.
There was no place too sacred for pickpockets to lurk. In 1735, a large group of pickpockets (known as a battalion) burst into a Whitechapel church during a funeral service and shouted, “Fire!” The ensuing chaos of escaping mourners created a windfall for the pickpockets.
Poverty and crime
The overcrowded streets of London and the big cities were the perfect hunting grounds for pickpockets. With no free schooling, little chance of being caught and parents working long hours it’s hardly surprising that many lonely, hungry children turned to the lucrative trade of pickpocketing.
They often did not know that what they did was wrong. James Greenwood, an investigative journalist wrote, ‘…they have an ingrained conviction that it is you who are wrong, not them. That you are wrong in the first place in appropriating all the good things the world affords, leaving none for them but what they steal.’
A pickpocket was also known as a File in the language of thieves. The file was usually accompanied by two other conspirators, one called the Adam Tyler and the other called the bulker (or staller). The threesome generally worked as follows. The bulker would push up against the unsuspecting person, and the file would reach into the pocket and grab the coins, watch, or other valuables. The goods were immediately handed to the Adam Tyler, who escaped quickly. If a finger was pointed at the file or the bulker, the stolen goods would not be found on their persons. The Adam Tyler had safely made off with the stolen articles.
Another method was known as cross-fanning. This method required only one thief, who crossed his arms and pretended to look at something. While distracting his victim with the hand on the far side, the crossed arm on the near side would reach into a pocket and nab a watch or coins.
Amusers were a third sort of pick-pocket. This method required two thieves: one would carry pepper in his pocket, and throw it in the eyes of the victim. While the victim was incapacitated, the second thief would rob him blind (quite literally).
Of silk handkerchiefs
He was an orphan and was dismissed from the pottery where he worked. He could not obtain another job and after losing some of his few possessions he met up with a gang of boys in a similar circumstance to himself. He said he was a good pickpocket and that he would rather steal from the rich than the poor because ‘they miss it less’. He also said that ‘Picking pockets … is the daringest thing that a boy can do’.
The boy had been in prison thirteen times and flogged four times. However it did not teach him the error of his ways.
‘Every time I came out harder than I went in’.
Once a child had started on the criminal ladder, peer pressure kept him there. In prison there was a criminal hierarchy. The young pickpocket said that if you were in prison for begging you would be laughed at.
‘Begging! Oh, you cadger!’ so he said that ‘a boy is partly forced to steal for his character’
Child Pickpockets of the 1700 and 1800s by Geri Walton
Juvenile crime in the 19th century by Matthew White
Jenny Diver the Big-bellied Woman
Pickpockets and shoplifters by Rictor Norton
Patter Flash: The Secret Language of Thieves and Pickpockets in London by Leah Lefler