Pickpockets and Ragamuffins

Oliver Twist (1948) - Oliver meets Fagin
Gentlemen often kept their handkerchiefs in a pocket in the tails of their coats which preserved the line of the body of the coat but made the handkerchief vulnerable. Sometimes they were deliberately displayed coming out of the back pocket to perhaps show off a fine Belcher (spotted silk handkerchief) – and that was asking for trouble. The two lads in the print by Alken seem to be stealing just such a handkerchief, one distracting the mark by begging, the other taking the handkerchief. In no time at all a stolen handkerchief would be in the hands of of a Ferret (pawnbroker) or for sale in a Bow-Wow, a secondhand clothes shop.
Rule of three
L.A. Hilden
A scene on Carlisle Bridge. Satire: an ugly poorly dressed woman seizes two elegant dandies and kisses them, having been being paid to do so by an onlooker.
Pickpockets of the Clergy, Public Domain
The newspapers the next day would often carry advertisements for rewards for the return of buckles and rings and watches,
Copyright © Rictor Norton.
‘The Prince of Pick-Pockets’: George Barrington (1755-1804). He travelled to Brighton where, in 1775, he ingratiated himself into polite society. During this time he robbed several of his high-born friends.


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.

Hunting grounds

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.

On 26 October 1733 when Mr Faulkner was standing in the pillory at the corner of Exchange Alley for having ‘uttered bad money’, the youth William Canimell was observed taking a watch out of a man’s pocket. A cry was raised and he dropped it, but John Hooper the Executioner picked the watch up from the ground and gave it to the constable at the Cross Keys tavern, where the owner identified it; Canimell was apprehended, and later convicted.    Rictor Norton

Cut Purses

 Although we call them  “pickpockets” today, in the 17th century they they were  more appropriately referred to as “cut-purses”  as pockets were not yet sewn into clothes, as they are today. Pockets were little purses that were worn close to their body. This was especially true for women, since men’s pockets were sewn “into the linings of their coats”. Women’s pockets were worn beneath a piece of clothing, as opposed to pouches or bags hanging outside their clothes. These external pockets were still in fashion until the mid 19th century.
According  to Matthew White, three in every four petty thefts of personal property recorded in the county of Middlesex in the first quarter of the 19th century were committed by people under 25 years old, the vast majority of whom were teenagers or younger boys. Between 1830 and 1860, over half of all defendants tried at the Old Bailey for picking pockets were younger than 20 years of age.

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.’

Henry Mayhew claimed in his book ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, that children, sometimes as young as five years old, were taught by older thieves. One method to train future pickpockets was to have “a coat … suspended on the wall with a bell attached to it … the boy [then] attempts to take the handkerchief from the pocket without the bell ringing. Until he is able to do this with proficiency he is not considered well trained.”    Geri Walton
Criminal bosses known as ‘lads men’  trained young boys to steal and then later sold on the stolen goods. There must have made a great deal of money because in 1855 The Times newspaper reported the activities of Charles King, a man who ran a gang of professional pick-pockets. Among King’s gang was a 13-year-old boy named John Reeves, who stole over £100 worth of property in one week alone.


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).

Flash houses

Flash-houses’  received regular attention from the police during the first half of the century. These were pubs or lodging houses where stolen property was ‘fenced’, and were considered by the police and magistrates to be ‘nurseries of crime’. One report in 1817 described flash-houses as containing ‘distinct parties or gangs’ of young boys, while later in 1837 a police witness recalled how one lodging house in London had ‘20 boys and ten girls under the age of 16’ living together, most of whom were ‘encouraged in picking pockets’ by their ‘captain’   Matthew White
The vast majority of young pickpockets were never prosecuted in court, but received summary justice from whoever gave chase.


Usually the apprehended criminal begged forgiveness. But not always. When Francis Hall caught John Sutton stealing his handkerchief as he walked down Ludgate Hill in December 1749 and grabbed hold of his collar to take him to the constable, Sutton swore at him and said ‘Damn you, if you don’t let me go, and if you do prosecute me, you shall have your brains beat out before four days are at an end.’ That threat may be why Sutton was transported for something valued by the court at only 11d.   Rictor Norton
In December 1728 Judith Holloway was sentenced to death for picking a silver snuff box from the pocket of a woman while she was leaving the Evening Lecture in Bishopsgate Street. Holloway had been a noted pickpocket for the past forty years. Her husband fourteen years earlier was hanged for shooting one of the Turnkeys of Newgate while he lay in prison after being sentenced to death for highway robbery.      Rictor Norton

Of silk handkerchiefs

Picking of pockets was clearly a major problem for the authorities, particularly the theft of silk handkerchiefs, which had a relatively high resale value and could be easily sold on.
Field Lane in London for example was the home to several notorious receivers of stolen goods, where it was believed more than 5,000 handkerchiefs were handled each week. Often these were hung on poles outside the shops for sale to passers-by, many of whom went there to buy back their own stolen property.   Geri Walton
It was recognised at the time that the recurring theme was that crime and homelessness were indelibly linked. Time and time again people were saying that, if only the destitute children could be rescued from the streets, a large part of the problem of juvenile crime would be solved.

The pickpocket

Henry Mayhew was a journalist who wrote a series of articles for a daily newspaper about the way the poor people of London lived and worked. One young pickpocket told him his story .
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’
Geri Walton


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

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