The Forty Elephants
Forty Elephants: The original Bling Ring but better.
They had layabout husbands, no income, and plenty of creativity, charm, and daring. They were skilled at operating in high end/wealthy areas and avoiding police detection. They modified their clothes to fit their needs. They demanded tribute and allegiance from smaller gangs. And they stole an untold amount of goods from noble houses, expensive shops, and more, starting in London and expanding out throughout England.
They're a fascinating part of London's history, which is a past that is already full of wild stories, gang violence, rampant poverty, and child thieves.
Victorian London: A Story of Poverty, Desperation, and Crime
Industrialization brought about the modern era, but at an incredibly steep cost. As factories were built, bigger and better machines for textiles and other goods installed, and the demand for such goods skyrocketed with the press of new and old money, Victorian London dramatically changed by the mid 1800s. Early on in the 19th century, both the rural and urban landscapes were dealing with similar issues around sanitation, overcrowded housing, poor diet, and low income. But by 1851, the English census showed urban populations growing; an advent of industrialization and a need for workers. But work didn't mean learning skills, so many casual/everyday workers remained on the brink of starvation and homelessness, one accident away from the "sunken sixth", the workforce that eventually led people into the criminal underworld.
"The Victorian period was a miserable time to be poor. Assistance was only awarded to people who could earn a living, however meagre that living might be. Those who would not or could not work were treated as an 'underclass' whose impoverished state was akin to a criminal offence. Individuals who found themselves on the bottom rung of the social ladder had very few options available to them. They could subject themselves to the inhuman conditions of the local workhouse or they could take their chances on the streets, finding shelter in slum housing."
There were few public support systems, and the ones that did exist began to quickly buckle under the strain of an exploding population in London. Inflation raised food and housing prices, as did the lack of scruples in landlords and business owners, who comfortably sat in the middle class of the day. And by the mid 1830s, lawmakers in London realized something needed to be done.
Their solution was to set up a Royal Commission to look into the "mismanagement and inefficiency" of the old Poor Law, which had been enacted in 1601. Also known as the Elizabethan Poor Law, it sought to deal with "settled" poor people who found themselves out of work due to harvest seasons, layoffs, etc. The act was also supposed to deal with beggars who were seen as a "threat to civil order".
"Relief under the Old Poor Law could take on one of two forms- indoor relief, relief inside a workhouse, or outdoor relief, relief in a form outside a workhouse. This could come in the form of money, food or even clothing. As the cost of building the different workhouses was great, outdoor relief continued to be the main form of relief in this period.
Relief for those too ill or old to work, the so-called "impotent poor", was in the form of a payment or items of food ("the parish loaf") or clothing also known as outdoor relief. Some aged people might be accommodated in parish alms houses, though these were usually private charitable institutions. Meanwhile, able-bodied beggars who had refused work were often placed in houses of correction (indoor relief). However, provision for the many able-bodied poor in the workhouse, which provided accommodation at the same time as work, was relatively unusual, and most workhouses developed later. The 1601 Law said that poor parents and children were responsible for each other - elderly parents would live with their children."
It was assumed that only fear of poverty made people work, so the law sought to help those already in poverty. And since it wasn't reassessed until 1832, you can imagine how mismanaged the law and its suppositories were. An amendment to the Poor Law was made in 1834, driving by the idea that the parishes set up under the 1601 Act needed to be under centralized control. But even more important was the impression of poverty this amendment made on society at large in London and England - that those in poverty didn't have enough self-restraint and work ethic. This idea that the poverty stricken were selfish layabouts with no mooring in life is an attitude we see even today. It also brought about the image and impression of the workhouse that we see in art and books from that time period, including the works of Charles Dickens.
This is the Charles Booth poverty map, which had a massive influence on politics and society in the late 19th century in London. Booth was a businessman deeply concerned by social problems; he also "recognized the limitations of philanthropy and conditional charity in addressing the poverty which scarred British society. Without any commission other than his own he devised, organised, and funded one of the most comprehensive and scientific social survey sof London life that had then been undertaken." His maps were coloured street by street to indicate the levels of poverty and wealth. These maps were made in 1889 and you can see that not much - if anything - improved since the 1834 amendment to the Poor Law. But Booth's maps did have a positive effect on the way poverty was viewed; more financial support was given to businesses to hire more workers, children from impoverished families were offered free school meals (child labor wasn't made illegal in England until 1933, but an 1833 act made it illegal for children under 9 years old to work). Things got a little better, but those already suffering were largely left to their own devices. Crime flourished, and if you didn't go to the workhouse, you likely found your way on your own or joined a gang. This included women.
Workhouses in Victorian London were as bad as you might imagine. Crowded, unsanitary, with little to separate transient workers from families that became permanent residents. Transient workers were also thought to be a bad influence on more "stable" workers, bringing in a violent criminal element and potentially "corrupting the deserving poor". But something quite clear in records from the time is that more and more women were forced to go to workhouses to keep from living on the street. A lot of these women were "deserted wives, widows with young children, and unemployed servants". So with no good choices, many women began stealing.
Enter the Forty Elephants.
The Forty Elephants
The Forty Elephants was a gang of female shoplifters that operated from at least 1873 to the 1950s, passing down their secrets to younger family and gang members, allowing them to "keep it in the family" and keep the gang going. There isn't an exact start date that's been found in records, though 1873 comes up quite a bit. But even police records suggest they were operating in some way even back through the late 1700s.
There were already gangs operating - even running - parts of London before The Forty Elephants became "official", including rings of shoplifters and thieves. It's very likely that some of the original members of Forty Elephants got their start earlier than 1873, on their own or as part of another gang. They sought to remove themselves from the control of male-dominated Elephant & Castle Mob. They worked as accomplices but, of course, a smaller role in any theft meant a smaller cut of the take. With the help of an expert thief named Mary Carr, The Elephant & Castle gang promised protection to the members of The Forty Elephants for a take of their earnings.
Their main source of theft was shoplifting - steal expensive items like gems, jewelry, furs, and fashion items, then resell them. Their goal was to never wear what they stole, but purchase what they wanted with their earnings. Mary Carr, the first "queen" of The Forty Elephants, was an expert in "hoisting" - stealing the goods, then fencing them. But she also encouraged her female thieves to seduce and blackmail influential men and con their way into noble household jobs to loot goods. Carr laid the groundwork for the second wave of Forty Elephants, which began around 1916 with the rise of a woman named Alice Diamond.
Alice Diamond: The Prohibition and Wartime Queen
She was 5'9" in a time when the average height of a man was 5'6". She was young, brash, and had first been arrested at the age of 17 but had been a prolific shoplifter for most of her teen years. (During her first arrest, it took 3 policemen to hold her down.) And she wore diamond rings as makeshift brass knuckles. And yes, she could throw a mean punch. She hated police and was wildly outspoken.
She reportedly once said:
"Police forces are set up by governments to stop others getting a share of what they've got!"
"Her criminal tendencies were fuelled not only by the poverty of her childhood and her father's lifetime of petty theft, but also her aspirations. Alice wanted much more than money for food and lodgings. She wanted glamour. This was the era of silent film, when the first cinema heroines, such as Pearl White in The Perils Of Pauline, were enticing young women to dream of romance and adventure."
Alice Diamond was an incredible woman: shrewd, cunning, occasionally violent, and the real leader of The Forty Elephants after Carr passed on the role. Diamond had a vision and the leadership skills to pull it off, and even the older thieves in the gang fell in line. Under Diamond's guidance, The Forty Elephants "became known for their decadent excess and trendy, expensive attire". This also drew media attention and Diamond ate it up.
"They threw the liveliest of parties and spent lavishly at pubs, clubs and restaurants," wrote McDonald. "Their lifestyles were in pursuit of those of glamorous movie stars, combined with the decadent living of 1920s aristocratic flapper society. They read of the outrageous behaviour of rich, bright young things and wanted to emulate them."
She reorganized the gang by splitting them into "cells". By doing this, they could pull off simultaneous robberies and divide police attention. She showed the women in the gang how to alter their dresses, adding in secret pockets and flaps to assist in swiping goods. They handed off their takes to accomplices and then dashed off in high speed chases with police. And by using cars, they expanded their radius to towns outside London, all the better since Diamond and other faces became too well known in certain parts of the city.
Diamond created the "Hoister's Code", which made open the democratic manner in which they operated (equal division of money from heists, caring for family members of anyone in the gang who got arrested, always providing alibis for each other). Her rules, including absolute fealty, were strictly enforced and she wasn't afraid to toss off anyone who threatened the stability and lives of those in the gang. Diamond even got rid of her most trusted accomplice, Maggie Hughes. Maggie was married to a trusted fence the gang used and she was polar opposite of Diamond - under 5 feet tall, tiny build, tattoos on both arms and a "psychotic temper", plus she was almost always drunk. She was ostentatious where Diamond was cautious.
"She [Maggie] also had a flair for the bizarre - she drove a Ford V8 car with a periscope on the roof, so she could spot police before they saw her. As the Forty Elephants became well-known in London's West End, they began to target stores across the country. In their powerful cars, it was easy to raid Bath, Brighton, Bristol and the Midlands, and get back before midnight to the South London lock-ups, where they stored their bounty."
But Maggie kept getting arrested and eventually Diamond tired of her outbursts, so she ousted Maggie from the heists and put her out of the public eye. But Diamond wasn't immune to outbursts herself, and when a young member of the gang broke one of her rules and married her lover without Diamond's permission, the gang turned violent.
"On the night of December 20, 1925, Alice, Maggie and most of the gang gathered at the Canterbury Social Club near Lambeth's New Cut market and drank themselves into a fighting mood. Armed with bottles, stones and lumps of concrete, they marched to Marie's lodgings, smashed their way in and held Marie at gunpoint while her husband was beaten senseless.
Police broke up the riot and arrested the gang. Alice was jailed for 18 months. Maggie, who had incited the riot, got 21 months."
With their leader in jail, a woman named Lilian Rose Kendall, or the Bobbed-Haired Bandit, took over. She was a smash-and-grab expert who also excelled in getaway driving, and often used her car to smash through jewelers' windows. Lilian ruled the gang for years but Alice didn't fade away. After being released from prison, she ran a brothel in Lambeth and acted as a "godmother figure to the new generation and always willin to pass on tips for shoplifters". Alice refused to evacuate London during World War II and died in 1952 at age 55 from multiple sclerosis.
The Forty Elephants fizzled out sometime in the 1950s, but their legend remained a part of London history and a testament to what people will do when forced to fend for themselves without society support. And while male led gangs rose and fell, The Forty Elephants lasted for decades and cemented themselves as both folklore and criminal royalty. They were flashy, fascinating, and let no one rule over them except the iron - or, diamond-bedecked - fist of Alice Diamond.