In the roaring twenties, a girl-gang like no other the world has seen since, lifted themselves out of a life of grim poverty south of the river with their brains, brawn and feminine wiles.
The shoplifting, blackmailing, house-breaking and fast living of the band of women known as the Forty Elephants (because members originated from around the Elephant and Castle) were masterminded by their notorious Queen.
Alice Diamond and her mob of miscreants have become the stuff of myth and legend, but a new book, Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants, has uncovered police reports, court hearing logs and reporter’s notes on the gang which reveal the extent to which the Forty Elephants operated like a business corporation with a strict code of conduct.
The extensive web of women, which numbered more like seventy in its heyday, approached criminality with a cold professionalism and ruthlessness assumed to be the preserve of their male counterparts – The Elephant & Castle Gang, formed a hundred years earlier.
The women they were related to and married to were often involved in their dirty dealings but rarely reaped the rewards. It was common for bands of mothers, sisters and daughters socialise with one another for protection and to steal to fund their enjoyment.
Around 1890 this informal activity became organised as the women broke away and formed their own gang and soon earned a surprisingly violent reputation, unafraid wield a hatpin, a razor wrapped in a handkerchief or their bare fists in their robberies and scams.
Still in her early twenties, Alice Diamond of Browning Street, Walworth, became the Queen of the Forty Elephants and with her came a greater propensity for violence. A tall and formidable woman, Alice was known as a brawler whose numerous bejewelled rings handily doubled up as knuckle-dusters.
The gang carried out industrial-scale thefts from warehouses, the seduction and subsequent blackmail of straying ‘gentlemen’ and carefully planned shoplifting scams at the West end’s finest stores – earning members hundreds of pounds a day.
Newspapers in Britain and America developed a fascination with the Forty Elephants as their crime sprees spread out of London and into seaside towns and smaller cities. 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.
In preparing his contribution Elephant & Castle Gang associate, Dan Johnston, made revealing notes on the exploits of the band of women he had such close access to. The series was pulled before publication but Johnston’s records detail the Forty’s scams and a code of conduct known as the ‘Hoister’s Code’.
This included not drinking the night before a job, not wearing the clothes you had stolen and never helping the police. Loyalty was of paramount importance as members were frequently arrested and police would try and turn tricksters into lifetime informers.
Fictional alibis would be supplied by fellow gang members and money put aside for families when members were sent to prison.
Johnston’s notes described the women as “aristocrats of crime”, dressed in their pilfered 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.
The Forty were broken down into cells of four or five and allocated a patch where they would operate for a time. Members would observe their target clothes and jewellery shops, paying attention to when staff went on breaks and when inexperienced attendants were on duty.
Trainee hoisters were used as decoys – distracting shop assistants and store detectives by acting suspiciously, like taking items close to the doorways as if they might steal them, insisting they just wanted to examine them in the light when challenged.
Well-known veteran thieves were also used for this purpose as they would be followed around by security while their lesser-known accomplices were stowing jewels and silks in hidden pockets secreted in their dresses.
This troupe of lawless women from the Elephant and Castle, though frequently arrested, successfully operated for more than twenty years to the endless frustration of the police and West end store detectives.
They earned an international reputation for their intelligence, cunning, and bizarrely, their strong work ethic. Alice Diamond and the Forty Thieves by Brian McDonald is available from Milo Books for £8.99. To order your copy visit http://www.milobooks.com or call 01772 672900.