‘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]

A maid runs off to the theatre to see the minstrels (and we get a reminder of our racist past).

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Isabella Parker was a servant at a house in Piccadilly. White domestic service brought a level of security as well as a bed and regular meals it must also have been a life of fairly monotonous drudgery. Every day was much the same and, if your were a maid of all work or one of few or even the only servant in a household you would have had almost no time for yourself.

So we can perhaps understand why Isabella chose to escape her dull life for an evening by clambering out of a window to find some entertainment. Having climbed on the roof she headed over several adjacent ones to reach the St James’ Hall near Regent Street and Piccadilly.  

On the night of the 6 June 1870 the Christy Minstrels were performing their ‘blackface’ routine, as they had since the early 1860s. Isabella made her way through a window and either consumed drink she brought with her or was already drunk when she left home. As a consequence she was loud and kept interrupting the act until the police were called and an officer managed to pull her down and escort her outside.

This wasn’t easy as Isabella struggled with him, ‘set to screaming, became quite infuriated, said that she was a Fenian [an Irish republican] and would shoot the lot’ [of them].

It was not the first time she had got drunk and snuck into the theatre; she was a big admirer of the Minstrels and clearly a lover of drink. At Marlborough Street Police court her previous record was read out and Mr Tyrwhitt fined her 5(or four days in gaol). That may have been the least of her problems for unless she had very forgiving employers Isabella may well have lost her position as a servant.

The original Christy Minstrels were formed in the USA in 1843, at Buffalo. They had a very structured show built around white men ‘blacking up’ and performing jokes, songs and dances that downplayed the horrors of slavery for a white audience.

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The Minstrels that Isabella risked her employment to see were a British tribute act (to use a modern term), not the American originals. There were more than one troupe of minstrels touring Britain in the 1800s and the one at St James’ Hall may have originated in Dublin, perhaps explaining Isabella’s mentioning of the Fenians.  

The St James show lasted until 1904 although the group had become the ‘Moore & Burgess Minstrels’ well before then.

The Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas described minstrel shows as:

‘the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens’.

Despite this and despite abolition minstrel shows continued to exist well into the twentieth century. I can remember watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on the BBC in the 1970s with my family; it was only finally cancelled in 1978, despite being the subject of complaints and accusation that it was racist.

I think this is useful reminder of how recently our television screens used to depict Black faces for comedic value – not in some minority or niche programming but on primetime for a family audience. Now I hear discordant voices complain that ‘allowing’ Black actors (as the BBC have done) to play roles in period dramas and other programing is some sort of ‘political correctness’ and an affront to indigenous ‘White Britons’. It is the same voices that challenge the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, those that don’t believe Britain is a racist country and either deny that prejudice exists or argue that it doesn’t matter.

If racism wasn’t a problem in this country we wouldn’t need the BLM movement. The fact that it is only in the last decade that positive images of Black people have routinely appeared on our television screen (the ubiquitous form of popular entertainment in this country) when negative ones have been common currency for well over a 100 years before then, should remind us to guard against complacency.

There is no place for racism in the world. 

From Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 12 June 1870

The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .