‘Forty Thieves’ (but no Ali Baba) in 1880s Camberwell

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Perhaps it was the proliferation of cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ or childhood retellings of the Arabian Nights that inspired Maurice Rooch and his pals. Or maybe theirs was an homage to the kings and queens of the Victorian underworld. Either way, in 1881 it landed them in court at Lambeth, and it probably wasn’t the first (or last) time. 

Rooch worked for a Mr J. N. Bate, a tobacco manufacturer at Denmark Hill in Camberwell, South London. One  day in February 1881 the company horse and trap was parked outside the premises, its precious cargo locked inside, ready to be distributed across London. 

Maurice Rooch had a key and he also some mates; a small gang of juvenile depredators – the self-styled ‘Forty Thieves’. Rooch used his key to open the back of the locked trap and help himself to several ‘packet of tobacco’. He also shared the information with his chums as to where and when the trap would be stopping to make deliveries. As a result numerous shops suffered similar losses and others of Mr Bate’s deliveries were pilfered from. 

In the end, and because Rooch was known to his employer and his companions conspicuous enough to the police, the little group of robbers was arrested and squashed into the dock at Lambeth before Mr Ellison, the sitting magistrate. 

Rooch was 15 years of age and he was joined by George Pedlingham (15), William Lloyd (14), William Lester (14), Arthur Robinson (14), William Webb (14), Joseph Davis (11), John Dye (10) and George Joseph How (14). They were all charged with ‘being concerned with others not in custody in stealing some tobacco from a traveller’s trap’. 

The name the ‘forty thieves’ is well known in the history of crime. Gangs (or networks) operating under that name are known to have existed as early at the 1700s in London. From the 1870s both male and female ‘gangs’ used that moniker alongside the ‘Forty Elephants’. They were probably inspired by the tales of Ali Baba that had been in circulation from at least the early 18th century, but also the New York City gang of the same name that existed from the 1820s. 

Maurice Rooch was remanded to the house of detention for robbing his master, there to await a possible trial once police investigations were concluded. His co-defendants were all released on bail, George Pedlingham admitting that most of them had some of the stolen tobacco in their possession.

In the following week the Standard carried an advert for the Gaiety Theatre which was staging (at 8.30 that evening) a burlesque performance in three acts of ‘Forty Thieves’ – a reminder of the power of popular culture to inspire young minds. 

Like a fleeting mirage in the desert this gang of ‘forty thieves’ disappear from the newspaper records at this point so I don’t know what happened to them. It is likely that Rooch (or Roach) lost his job and probably his liberty for a week or two. The other may well have escaped punishment on this occasion but, unless they found gainful employment or their parents intervened, were possibly destined for a life of petty or more serious crime thereafter. 

Lambeth was to become the centre of the ‘Hooligan panic’ in the following decade, again a mixture of fact and fiction as the character of ‘Alf’ a ‘Lambeth Lad’ was published as a semi-fictional biography of a young tear way. Well before then, and a year after Maurice and his pals appeared in court, the Pall Mall Gazette had run a feature on the ‘the Fighting Gangs of London’. This article cited a popular serial novel (The Wild Boys of London, or the Children of the Night) which, the paper said, ‘served as a text-book of crime for the younger generations of London roughs’.  

Not for the first time then we can observe that modern obsession with what ‘pop culture’ our young people are consuming, and the (negative) effect it has on them, is hardly ‘modern’ at all. 

[from The Standard Saturday 19 February 1881]

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