Two young chaps ‘go snowing’ in Southwark.

July - Dog Days

One of my favorite possessions is a 1961 edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) that has the wonderful subtitle:

 Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals  Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Trade, The White Slave Traffic,  and Spivs.

It catalogues both British and American slang terms for all sorts of criminal activities from an A C coat (one that has many pockets to hide stuff in) to ‘zombie’ (a less than affectionate term for police women, which arose in the 1950s).

One phrase I’ve always liked is ‘going snowing’, which refers to the deliberate theft of linen from a washing line. In December 1870 that is what brought two teenagers before the magistrate at Southwark Police court, who sentenced them spend Christmas and the New Year behind bars.

PC George Stent (186M) was on duty in Rockingham Street at about 10 in the evening of the 14 December when he heard a noise. It seemed to have come from an entrance which led to Messrs. Ned and Hunter’s workshop so the alert constable went off to investigate.  As he walked through the gateway he saw a wagon and a young lad balancing himself of the wheel. Underneath he noticed another boy who was now trying to hide.

The bobby tugged the lad down and hauled the other one from under the vehicle. There had been a spate of robberies in the vicinity and he suspected he might have discovered the cause. A quick look under the wagon revealed a stash of linen that the lads had been stowing away having filched it from a nearby garden.

Using the powers he had under the Vagrancy Act (1824) he arrested them both on suspicion and took them into custody to be questioned further.  While the boys were locked up at the police station he returned to the scene with a pair of their boots and compared it to footprints in the garden where washing had been drying. They fitted exactly and the two were formally charged with theft.

Their final examination before the courts took place on the 23 December 1870 and Mr Partridge (the ‘beak’) decided against letting them take their chances with a jury. He used the vagrancy act to send John Turner and John Smith (both lads of 17 years) to prison with hard labour for three months.

Happy Christmas!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, 24 December, 1870]

Two thieves ‘going snowing’ are caught by the peeled eyes of a child detective.

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I have a dictionary of underworld slang on my shelves. It is a fascinating compendium of words associated with crime, criminals and punishment. There are dozens of words for policeman for example, very few of them nice ones! Much of it is thieves ‘cant’; slant – such as cockney rhyming slang – used to conceal meaning and confound attempts at arrest or prosecution. So we get slang words or phrases for certain sorts of offences, many of them to do with different kinds of theft.

One of these is ‘going snowing’. Nothing to do with the inclement weather we are currently experiencing but instead a reference to stealing clothes or linen from washing lines.

Ruth Williams and Catherine Conway usually earned their living by selling (or ‘hawking’) lace on the streets. I rather suspect that they weren’t always absolutely honest in revealing the sources of the materials they sold on, and in December 1849 a sharp-eyed young girl landed them in court.

Williams and Conway entered the garden of house in Chelsea and knocked on the door, offering to sell some of their lace. As Williams discussed her goods with the woman at the door Conway stayed close to a line of washing drying nearby. When she was quite sure she wasn’t being watched she must have snatched a few items from the line and concealed them about her person. The pair then made off, no doubt to try the scam elsewhere.

However, this time they had been observed. The house belonged to the Walbedge family and their 11 year-old daughter had been carefully watching the two strangers from the moment they arrived. As soon as they left through the gates the girl ran to tell her mother that she thought she’d seen them steal some linen.

Mrs Walbedge quickly despatched the child to follow the women at a  distance, to see where they went. Meanwhile she checked, and discovered that they had indeed been robbed. The little girl stuck to her task and followed the thieves for ‘some considerable distance’ before she met a policeman, ‘quietly’ told him what she’d seen and had the pair arrested.

Back at the police station the women were searched and the missing linen found on them. When they appeared at Westminster Police Court they were committed for trial on the child’s evidence. Shaw Taylor would be have been proud – ‘keep ’em peeled’ as he used to say on Junior Police Five.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 14, 1849]

The pair don’t seem to have made it to the Old Bailey on this occasion but just two years later a Catherine Conway was acquitted of a very similar theft (of a shirt that was wet, suggesting it had come from a line), in a location not that far from this one.