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The Criminal Gangs of 19th Century Britain

Published on 13 Jul 2015 12:29 : 0 comments : 13901 views

The 19th century was a time of enormous change in Britain. Technological advancements made during the industrial revolution led to massive urbanization, completely transforming the structure of British society. Millions of working class people, who for centuries had lived in agricultural communities, were forced to relocate to the booming cities of the industrial north and the arrival of the steam engine meant that increasing numbers of immigrants were also flocking to these cities. Slums expanded rapidly, becoming tense and overcrowded melting pots where different social, religious, ethnic and political groups were forced to fight for their place in the new world.

Meanwhile, individuals of a more predatory nature were quickly realizing that crime was much easier and more profitable than hard work, and had a higher chance of success with the help of like-minded people. Street gangs began to emerge in cities across the country and violent turf wars erupted as they sough to carve out their territories.

Do you have any incorrigible ancestors? Find out if they made the headlines in the British Newspaper Archive!

London – The Forty Elephants

The Forty Elephants, also known as the Forty Thieves, were a 19th-century all-female crime syndicate who were based in the Elephant and Castle area of the city. They specialized in shoplifting and smash and grab raids, and were first mentioned in newspapers in 1873 although they are believed to have existed since the late 1700s. They worked alongside the notorious Elephant and Castle gang, a sprawling, powerful army of  hardened male criminals  who effectively ran the south London underworld.  The Elephants were tightly run and neatly organised, operating a collection of cells whose activities extended across London and into other cities. They mounted carefully executed raids on London’s West End shops, wearing specially tailored coats, cummerbunds, muffs, skirts, bloomers and hats sewn with hidden pockets, which they would use to plunder thousands of pounds worth of goods in a matter of minutes. In the 20th century, they began using high-powered cars to outrun the police and would use the rail network to launch raids in other towns.

Their most well-known leader was the notorious Diamond Annie. Annie was born in Southwark in 1896 and was the gangs undisputed queen by the time she was 20. Annie proved to be a highly effective leader, dividing the gang into cells that simultaneously ransacked multiple shops across London. To the police, she was “the cleverest of thieves”. Her nickname came from the powerful punches she delivered with her diamond ring studded fists.  The gang was also capable of shocking violence, and guarded their territory ferociously. Any thieves found to be operating on their turf were forced to pay a percentage of their takings, and those who refused were often kidnapped and badly beaten.

 Western Morning News - Friday 14 January 1927

The arrest of 40 Elephants members Mary Gibbs and Maud Seymour reported in Western Morning News – Friday 14 January 1927

Mary Gibbs

Mary Gibbs appearing in an 1928 Register of Habitual Criminals


Manchester – The Scuttlers

The Scuttlers were not a single organised group but rather a collection of neighbourhood-based youth gangs formed in working class areas of Manchester, Salford, and the surrounding townships during the late 19th century. They rose to fame following the shockingly violent Scuttller turf wars that erupted in Manchester in the early 1870s and continued for the next thirty years. Scuttlers could be identified by their distinctive dress as most wore a kind of uniform consisting of brass-tipped pointed clogs, bell-bottomed trousers, colorful silk scarves, flat caps and shot hair with long fringes.

Members regularly fought in pitched battles involving a variety of weapons.  Nearly all Scuttlers carried knives and wore heavy buckled belts, often decorated with pictures such as snakes, scorpions, and hearts pierced with arrows. Their thick leather belts were their most frequently used weapons and buckles were often sharpened to create a flail capable of inflicting horrific injuries. Clashes between rival Scuttler groups could involved large numbers of youths. Local newspapers described one such instance in May 1879 as involving more than 500 people. Scuttler membership reached a peak in the early 1890’s and it was said that at that time, more youths were held in Strangeways Prison for scuttling than for any other offence.

Leeds Times - 21st May 1892

16 year old Peter Kennedy was stabbed to death by rival Scuttlers in 1892 – Leeds Times, 21st May

William Widdan

Kennedy’s Killer, William Widdan, appearing in 1892 Calendar of Prisoners taken at Her Majesty’s Prison Strangeways, Manchester

Liverpool – The High Rip Gang

As a major port city, Liverpool was home to a number of criminal gangs during the 18th century. The most feared of these groups was the High Rip Gang. The High Rippers became infamous following the shocking 1884 Blackstone Street Murder, in which a Spanish Sailor was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in a mugging gone wrong. The gang became renowned their extreme violence, vicious street robberies and carefully planned revenge attacks. They were locked in bitter turf war with their arch rivals, the Logwood Gang, but were perhaps the most feared group within this list thanks to their tendency to engage in totally indiscriminate acts of random violence. They mainly operated in the dock area of the city and were known to target lone docker workers on their way home from work. They became so bold in their activities that many within the city feared they were untouchable and those unfortunate to live within their territory (the area around Portland Street) lived in constant fear of their attacks. After a series of sickening killings, a number of members were executed.

Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette - Monday 14 February 1887

High Ripp gang member George Whitehead stabbing a witness at Aintree Racecourse in 1887-Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette – Monday 14 February

George Whitehead

George Whitehead in an 1891 Habitual Criminal Register. He is listed as having 7 previous convictions

Birmingham – The Peaky Blinders

Recently the subject of a popular BBC drama, the Peaky Blinders were perhaps the most prominent criminal group in  late 19th century Birmingham. The gang  ruled the industrialised areas of Bordesley and Small Heath from the 1880s through to the early 1900’s, when the city was one of the world’s most important manufacturing hubs and allegedly earned their name through the practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps. They were originally little more than a loosely organised groups of thugs and petty thieves living within the worst slum areas of the city but, over time, the Blinders evolved into a sophisticated organisation that ran an extensive criminal empire based around illegal betting, protection rackets and the cities black market. Members could be identifies by their sartorial style, wearing uniforms consisting of donkey jackets, silk scarfs, bell-bottom trousers, steel-capped boots and their distinctive weaponized flat caps.

Cheltenham Chronicle - 12 January 1901

Peaky Blinder Thomas Walters stabbed a police constable in 1901 – Cheltenham Chronicle

Thomas Walters  appearing in a register of habitual criminals after stabbing PC  Bennet

Thomas Walters appearing in a register of habitual criminals after stabbing PC Bennet

West Country– The Cock Road Gang

Not all criminal gangs of the 19th century operated out of London or the industrial cities of the North, many rural communities were also plagued by bands of criminals who had grouped together in hope of greater profits. The Cock Road Gang of Gloucestershire were a criminal family who specialized in highway robbery, burglary and horse theft. They primarily operated around the parish of Kingswood but were also known to target travelers on lonely stretches of the roads that lead in and out of Bristol, Bath and Gloucester. Taking their name from the small hamlet in which many of the members lived, the gang was made up of half a dozen or so inter-married families – the Caines, Baker’s, Brain’s, Bryant’s and Fry’s. They were so well established and feared within the area that they would rob travellers in broad daylight and ran a structured protection racket, where farmers paid due the size of their estate. After a series of murders and the slaying of a police officer, the Bristol authorities called together watchmen, city guards and local constables and sent them out in force to arrest the entire gang in a night time raid. Generations of the same families were hung, transported, and imprisoned.

Morning Post - Monday 28 January 1850

The arrest of multiple members of the Cock Road gang was reported Morning Post on Monday 28 January 1850


William Gunning & Samuel Bryant appearing in an 1850 register taken at Milbank prison after being sentenced to life for assault and robbery

Gang members William Gunning & Samuel Bryant appearing in an 1850 register taken at Milbank prison after being sentenced to life for assault and