The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


11    Jenny Diver the Big-bellied Woman


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.






Picking pockets was less of an opportunistic crime than stealing pewter or silver tankards from public houses or bedding sheets from lodging houses. A file usually went out to pick pockets in company with others, and always in an area having the greatest potential for success. Pickpockets were especially noted in the Strand, the Exchange, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Theatres were targeted, particularly the gallery stairs which were thronged with playgoers during intervals and just before and after the play – so much so, that in 1773 theatre managers had to appoint constables to keep an eye on the stairs. Any area, fashionable or otherwise, with a crowd of people milling about was likely to have a good share of pickpockets. Fairs were popular, but so also were funerals. At the funeral of the Earl of Selkirk in April 1739, the man who carried the cornet and cushion in the procession had his gold watch stolen out of his pocket. The Regulator: or, A Discovery of the Thieves, Thief-Takers, and Locks, alias Receivers of Stolen Goods in and about the City of London (1718) noted that pickpockets frequented public lectures given at Salter’s Hall and Pinner’s Hall, and the great concourse of people who went to see His Majesty attend Parliament. In the counties, they were especially active during Parliamentary elections and when the assize courts were opened by the circuit judges. Holidays such as the King’s Birthday and other public festivities were a good time for pickpockets. For example, at the Lord Mayor’s Show on 29 October 1750 one pickpocket recognized a mate in Cheapside, but kept quiet lest he spoil the other’s plans. James Welch recognized John Waller in the crowd, but ‘before I spoke to him, he gave me the wink, not to take any notice’, and Waller then proceeded to remove a watch from a gentleman’s pocket. Later that evening they met up again at Cripplegate, and shared a room for the night, then next day they spent 11 shillings of the money Waller got from selling the watch. Welch subsequently turned King’s evidence, and Waller was sentenced to death.

            Pickpockets also frequented the crowds who gathered to watch men being hanged at Tyburn or being exhibited in the pillory. On 26 October 1733 when Mr Faulkner was standing in the pillory at the corner of Exchange Alley for having ‘uttered bad money’, the youth William Canimell was observed taking a watch out of a man’s pocket. A cry was raised and he dropped it, but John Hooper the Executioner picked the watch up from the ground and gave it to the constable at the Cross Keys tavern, where the owner identified it; Canimell was apprehended, and later convicted.


Drawing showing pickpockets at work during a hanging


            Pickpockets who worked the crowds at horse races were usually adult pickpockets – the swell mob – who dressed more elegantly so as not to stand out from the crowd. William Elby (who was hanged in 1707 for breaking into a house and killing a servant) would wear a fashionable embroidered coat and a long wig and get admittance to York Buildings for a musical entertainment, and go among the Quality, lifting a dozen gold watches, then go off before the end of the concert. Another well-dressed pickpocket was George Barrington, who worked the fashionable churches and the visitors’ gallery in the Houses of Parliament. For stealing a watch from a lady in a theatre he was sentenced to three years’ labour in one of the hulks on the Thames. After a year he was released for good behaviour, but only a few days after release, he was apprehended diving into a lady’s pocket in St Sepulchre’s Church. At the watchhouse a gold watch concealed in his wig fell out as he removed his hat; he was searched and found to be wearing three pairs of trousers, in which were hidden many stolen articles. They were advertised in the newspapers and people came forward to identify their property. He was again convicted and sentenced to five years’ hard labour in the hulks. He had been trained as a surgeon, and his fine appearance gained him ready admission to respectable assemblies. ‘He seems to have had a natural taste for dress, in which particular he was never beneath gentility, but frequently bordering upon elegance.’ Churches were nearly as popular with pickpockets as theatres, though they had to be more inventive in exploiting such sites. In autumn 1735 a gang of pickpockets went to a funeral service at Whitechapel Church and during the sermon shouted ‘Fire!’, then proceeded to pick everyone’s pockets during the ensuing turmoil.

            Ragamuffin small-time pickpockets worked the rookeries, where the poor stole from one another. Pickpockets often stole mere handkerchiefs, because they were easy to steal and easy to re-sell. They were of course larger than modern ‘handkerchiefs’, often being what we today would call neckerchiefs or scarves. An ordinary linen handkerchief might be worth only 16 to 18 pence, though a silk handkerchief was worth 3s. 6d., and very fine quality handkerchiefs, perhaps edged with lace or embroidered, could be worth more. Whenever a pickpocket was apprehended for stealing a single handkerchief, additional handkerchiefs were usually found on him, and a full day’s taking certainly exceeded half a dozen. Two lads, Leeman and Brown, were caught lifting a handkerchief early one morning in November 1751 at the Billingsgate fish market. They were taken to a nearby alehouse and examined; Leeman had two handkerchiefs on him, and another lay at his feet, and two dabs he had taken from a fishmonger; Brown had a pistol hidden under his greatcoat.

            Justice John Fielding committed sixteen pickpockets to New Prison during the last fortnight of January 1764. A gang of six pickpocket boys aged 11 to 15 were apprehended, together with their common receiver. The boys worked between Charing Cross and Piccadilly, and picked six to eleven pockets a night in the Haymarket. In the receiver’s possession were found 40 handkerchiefs, and a notice was placed in the Public Advertiser in the hope that the owners would go to Fielding’s office and identify their property to facilitate prosecution of the receiver. However, it usually was not worthwhile for anyone to prosecute a pickpocket, because the loss of a single handkerchief signified little. I suspect that most prosecutions were brought by people especially angered at having had their pocket picked. Some prosecutors may have subsequently repented when they realized the severity of the penalty. Thomas Newton collared Henry Hughes, a young boy in the process of picking his pocket, and took him to a public house, where a search revealed seven handkerchiefs in his pocket, and a very good one round his neck. Newton visited Hughes in prison while Hughes was awaiting trial in January 1745, and noticed that the good handkerchief was missing. ‘I asked him what he had done with his handkerchief? he said, he had sold it for bread in the prison. I asked, whether he had any money; he said, no; I gave him a shilling, he gave me a sort of a gruff for it, he did not thank me.’ Newton took pity because of Hughes’s youth, and declared his stolen handkerchief to be worth only 10d. instead of the 4s. 6d. that he paid for it, which meant that Hughes was transported rather than hanged.

            The large majority of young pickpockets were never prosecuted in court, but punished immediately if they were captured by someone giving them chase. The newspapers report numerous instances in which pickpockets are slapped about and then dunked in a pond or dragged through the gutter by the crowd and then sent packing. When a sailor’s pocket was picked at a fireworks display on 4 June 1763, and the thief was caught, the Gentleman’s Magazine observed that ‘the usual discipline of ducking’ was administered. Pickpockets being carried to be ‘pumped’ were a regular sight on the streets. In 1784 a petty thief was dragged from pump to pump for a series of duckings, until he had a heart attack and dropped down dead in Cheapside. Usually the apprehended criminal begged forgiveness. But not always. When Francis Hall caught John Sutton stealing his handkerchief as he walked down Ludgate Hill in December 1749 and grabbed hold of his collar to take him to the constable, Sutton swore at him and said ‘Damn you, if you don’t let me go, and if you do prosecute me, you shall have your brains beat out before four days are at an end.’ That threat may be why Sutton was transported for something valued by the court at only 11d.

            Pickpockets often worked in pairs, usually an older boy and a younger boy (perhaps as young as 9 or 10 years old). The older boy would pick a pocket and throw the handkerchief to his younger companion. This was a form of double insurance: if the incident was noticed, the thief was not caught red-handed, and probably could not be convicted unless the handkerchief was found; and the boy who possessed the handkerchief could not be prosecuted as the actual thief. (This technique of passing on the stolen goods was also practised by shoplifters.) British justice scrupulously required positive identification and proof of theft by each individual concerned. It was difficult to prosecute a group of persons for conspiracy to commit a theft, hence it was nearly impossible to break up pickpocket gangs. A typical case occurred in October 1752, when Matthew Kelly, an older man, and William Walker, a lad of about 15, were seen picking a man’s pocket and pursued to Chancery Lane. Walker confessed putting his hand into the gentleman’s pocket, but denied taking a handkerchief, which could not be found. He acknowledged that Kelly had seduced him from his master’s service and trained him to pick pockets, and that he always gave the handkerchiefs to Kelly straightaway, for fear of being heartily drubbed. A Constable declined to come until being summoned a third time, and a Magistrate refused to take charge of them. The victim and some watchmen then took the pickpockets to Woodstreet Compter, and the next day an alderman at the Guildhall committed Kelly to Bridewell and Walker to the London Workhouse.

            A regular technique (still common today) was for one person to get in front of someone and ‘accidentally’ impede his or her progress, while an accomplice picked the confused victim’s pocket. Crowded bridges, and streets where travellers were slowed by being forced into a narrow file, were a favourite spot for this lay. In January 1752, as a merchant was going over London Bridge, returning to his home in Southwark, at 5 p.m., the passage was stopped by a cart unloading at a stationer’s shop, and he was obliged to wait out the delay on a doorstep. At this point a woman ‘came and jostled herself between my legs, with her back to me; she chucked me under the chin with her head; as she jostled, her hands were behind her under her cloak; I believe her backside was fixed in my crutch; I was for pressing forwards, but she still kept jostling and lugging at the waistband of my breeches.’ In short order she had conveyed his watch to her gentleman accomplice standing nearby, who ran off with it. Although she was caught, she was not caught with the stolen goods (or anything else) in her hands, so she was acquitted.

            Pickpockets did not always get what they expected. Mary Hall, alias Stanley, alias Sullivan in October 1730 was indicted for stealing a pair of diamond ear-rings from Matthias Knegg a German, and two other women were indicted for receiving and harbouring her and the goods, knowing them to be stolen. One evidence reported that Hall ‘held out her fingers, saying, had she but the money that she had div’d with them fingers, she would soon leave England; but of all the pockets that ever she had picked, she had met with none like the German’s, for he had hooks in them that had torn her fingers.’ She was caught red-handed – and bloody-fingered – but rescued by a mob of women. In Court she claimed that Knegg had given her the ear-rings, and all the women were acquitted.

            Pickpockets often swarmed in very large gangs, or ‘battalions’. In August 1763 twelve members of a gang of sixteen pickpockets operating at the Royal Exchange were apprehended and some were convicted. In August 1748 fourteen members of a gang infesting Stratford and Bow were committed to the House of Correction and Whitechapel Gaol. The lad who impeached them claimed that this gang, who were mostly sailors or former sailors, comprised fifty members altogether.

            Pickpockets often had criminal kin. A typical family unit was a woman pickpocket whose husband was a street robber. In May 1728 the infamous Moll King and Sarah Fox, who had been pickpockets for more than thirty years, were committed to Newgate for picking a gentleman’s pocket at the playhouse; three of Sarah Fox’s husbands had been hanged, the last one only six months previously, and her current husband was convicted four times though not executed. In December 1728 Judith Holloway was sentenced to death for picking a silver snuff box from the pocket of a woman while she was leaving the Evening Lecture in Bishopsgate Street. Holloway had been a noted pickpocket for the past forty years. Her husband fourteen years earlier was hanged for shooting one of the Turnkeys of Newgate while he lay in prison after being sentenced to death for highway robbery.

            Gangs of pickpockets, more so than gangs of footpads, formed a kind of extended family, and were often sisters and brothers. The gangs usually comprised three different age groups through which the skills of the trade were handed down. Though pickpockets were mostly young lads, 12 to 14 years old, the gangs usually included some stouter fellows aged 16 to 18, and the gangs were often directed by an adult leader. Luke Powell, who was nicknamed Hopp because of his trick of going with a crutch, pretending to be lame, was the ‘Captain’ of a gang of pickpockets who worked the streets near Temple Bar each night. He was caught with six handkerchiefs on him in August 1730 and committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell by Sir John Gonson. In 1752 Matthew Kelly and William Walker, an older man and a 15-year-old lad respectively, were detected picking a gentleman’s pocket in Flower-de-Luce Court off Fetter Lane. Walker claimed that Kelly had seduced him away from his apprenticeship and ‘put him on picking pockets’, and that he always passed the goods immediately to Kelly ‘on pain of being heartily drubbed’. They made a discovery of a large gang they belonged to, but the affair was not investigated closely. The constable responsible for questioning them was later reprimanded for failing in his duty. The two pickpockets were dealt with summarily, Kelly being sent to Bridewell and Walker sent to the London Workhouse.

            Although the picking of pockets is mentioned often enough in the trial records, usually by the time the person was prosecuted he or she has gone on to more significant – though still ‘petty’ – thefts, or was a well-known repeat offender. In January 1764 Sir John Fielding’s mounted patrols caught nine pickpockets who were preparing to work the crowds coming out of the theatres in Covent Garden, and another twelve were apprehended working in St James’s Park. A gang of sixteen young boys lead by an adult man was reported that year. They were a brazen lot. When the Lord Mayor was examining two of these pickpockets in September 1764, one was discovered with his hand in the pockets of one of the witnesses. Even King George III was robbed of his money, watch and shoe buckles as he strolled one evening through the gardens of Kensington Palace.

            The German traveller Archenholz said that in the 1770s a public house in St Giles’s was celebrated as the rendezvous of pickpockets, ‘where they sell or exchange the handkerchiefs, snuff-boxes, and other articles which they have filched in the course of the day’, but that in the late 1780s this house was occupied by an honest brewer. However, the character of the area had not changed much, for ‘The knives and forks were chained to the table, and the cloth nailed to it.’ Not far away from this pub was a famous gin shop, over the door of which was the sign Here you may get drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two-pence, and have straw for nothing.




Most shoplifters were individuals seizing an opportunity. However, there were also many shoplifters who practised this trade regularly, perhaps as many as 20 per cent of those convicted at the Old Bailey. Though shoplifting was often a family affair, it was also part of a wider network of criminals including receivers of stolen goods. As noted in The Regulator (1718), Mary Arnold, ‘reputed to be the most expert shoplift now living’, was the wife of, first, Benjamin Arnold, who was hanged for theft, and, second, Henry Andrewson, who kept a case or safe house for thieves at the Green Man in Drury Lane, and who was himself a thief who once turned King’s evidence to hang the housebreaker Thomas Beales.

            Shops were open from 8 in the morning to 10 o’clock at night. Young men often stole from shop windows, either because they were open to the street or because it was easy to break the panes of glass to get at the goods. Stealing while actually inside the shops (shoplifting proper) was a crime committed mostly by women. Men convicted of theft from shops, all of which was technically defined as ‘shoplifting’, were more likely to have broken into a shop while it was unattended, usually during night-time. For example, Thomas Dobbs and Isaac Goldbourne, nicknamed Dumb Paw because he had a lame hand, broke into John Abell’s butcher’s shop in Spitalfields Market in April 1744 and made off with twenty-six pounds of fat, a shoulder of mutton, a shoulder of veal, a brisket of beef, a chuck rib, a middle rib, a rump, and two legs of mutton. Men in particular often ‘shoplifted’ quite large quantities of goods, rather than just a loaf of bread or meat pudding to sustain them for another day. Women could manage to conceal twenty yards of silk under their skirts. Women thieves regularly concealed the stolen goods between their legs, in their ‘oven’. The Court was frequently regaled with stories of such discoveries. In October 1752 Mary Boyle, a widow, was convicted for stealing a silver spoon from the Baptist Head in the Old Bailey. When a constable grabbed her and shook her, the spoon fell down from between her legs, ‘in a very indecent condition’.

            Women shoplifters were much more likely to surreptitiously steal small quantities of cloth from under the eyes of the shopkeeper attending them. Men also stole from shops during the day-time, usually by creating a diversion at the counter while their accomplices nipped in and stole goods from the shop window. Another technique used by men was to tie a ball of lead to the end of a string, with a fish-hook attached to it, and to fling this into the open window of an unguarded shop, and then draw out a piece of cloth or clothing caught up by the hook. Women had the clear advantage of voluminous gowns and cloaks under which they concealed the stolen goods. Their standard technique was to inspect so many pieces of material that the sales clerk wouldn’t notice them slip one piece under their dress while pretending to agonize over the difficulty of making a decision. Or they developed other techniques to distract the sales clerk’s eye. In 1755 a hosier at Holborn Bridge described how Susannah Stafford came into his shop and asked for a pair of worsted stockings. She examined some and, finding them unsuitable, tossed them so they fell on the floor. Then ‘She sat down and shew’d me her leg, and said I must have a large stocking, for I have a large leg; . . . Then she took off her garter and measured the calf of her leg, then measured a pair of stockings on the counter, and said these are not big enough. Then as she went to tie her stocking, I saw her stoop very low with her right hand, and she brought the pair of stockings upon the ground under her petticoats.’ She said the price he demanded was too high, and went out of the shop. The hosier leaped over the counter and gave chase, and in due course she was transported for seven years.


Illustration showing a shoplifter being captured in a shop, having hidden material under her skirt


            Many of these professional shoplifters were well organized. They usually operated in pairs inside the shop. Outside the shop, a bully would stand ready to come to their rescue if they were chased. They might even have a lawyer on call to help them if necessary. They worked with a network of receivers, and in some cases worked on commission from certain receivers desirous of receiving specific kinds of goods.

            The typical patterns of semi-professional, semi-organized shoplifting can be illustrated by focusing on prosecutions in the Old Bailey during the early 1740s. A typical male pair was William Weblin and John Pattison, who lodged at the house of Margaret Ellis in Parker’s Lane. These two young men used to go out every night with a design to see what they could get, then whatever they lifted they would bring back to the house and go up to Margaret Ellis’s room, where she bought the goods from them, knowing full well they were stolen. Sometimes they would offer their goods to Bess Cane, alias Bess Price, who also lodged in the house and was the one responsible for introducing them to Ellis. In December 1739 they joined up with James ‘Jemmy’ Styles, a big fellow and presumably older than them, who went into James Ridler’s hosier’s shop in Little Suffolk Street in the Haymarket and asked for a halfpenny worth of blue thread. As he stood blocking Mr Ridler’s vision, Pattison quickly whipped in and lifted nine pairs of worsted stockings from the window, then ran out and passed them to Weblin, who hid the bundle under the greatcoat he was wearing for the purpose. All three returned to Ellis’s house and showed her the stockings. She bid them 7s. for the lot, which Styles didn’t think was enough, and he left the room taking four pairs with him. Weblin sold his share of three pairs to Ellis for 3s., but Pattison said he would sooner pawn his share of two pairs. They got away this time, but Pattison and Weblin were apprehended for stealing twelve linen and cotton Handkerchiefs, a linen apron, two napkins and ten towels from another shop, kept by George Albright Trotshey. Pattison and Styles were convicted for shoplifting in January 1740, and Ellis was convicted for receiving stolen goods. Weblin turned King’s evidence. Pattison admitted his involvement with Weblin, and in court bragged that he often undid Ridler’s shop door and nipped things while Ridler and his wife were taking tea. He claimed that Bess Cane had offered them 9s. for all nine pairs of stockings. Ellis denied that she was directly involved even though she admitted knowing about ‘the gang’ of Weblin, Pattison and Cane. Ellis’s husband had been arrested in the affair, but he died while in gaol, and she begged mercy from the Court. Pattison, Styles and Ellis were transported.

            In another case, in December 1739 a washerwoman brought a bundle of linen into Mary Hibdin’s haberdasher’s shop in Fenchurch Street, and left it there while she went out to fetch more from another customer. John Brown went into the shop and asked for a pair of garters. The shopkeeper’s clerk asked 6d. for them but he offered only 3d., which she would not take. Then he said he would take a pennyworth of black worsted. He tossed her two halfpence coins which ‘accidentally’ landed on the floor. She stooped down to search for them behind the counter, and when she looked up, the bundle had disappeared. A total of four men were involved in the theft: two men were arrested, Harris and Proctor; Harris turned King’s evidence, on which basis Brown and a James Eakins were convicted in January 1740 and sentenced to be transported for seven years. Seven years later, Brown returned to England and took up where he left off. On 18 March 1747 Brown, together with Thomas Lane, Will Sims and William Clark, left a pub in infamous Chick Lane and headed for Hatton Garden, determined to steal some stockings. When they couldn’t come upon any, they went instead into a hat-shop in Cursitor’s Street to lift a hat each for themselves. While Brown was ‘cheapening’ a hat (i.e. bargaining to get its price down), Lane slipped his hand underneath his coat and swiped five hats from a shelf. They spent another half-minute pretending to bargain, then decided they didn’t want to buy, and went off to Mr Glover’s pawnbroker’s shop at the sign of The Ship to dispose of the hats. Glover was a special friend of Lane, and their regular fence; he declined to appear in court. Since the hats were never found and therefore the stolen goods could not be produced in court, and since Brown, who turned King’s evidence against his accomplices, was the only one to testify at the subsequent trial in April 1747, Lane and Clark were acquitted (Sims had never been captured). This trial was followed in the same Session by the trial of Charles Franklin for a robbery on the highway – for which Lane turned King’s evidence. One could continue tracing such links almost indefinitely.

            A typical case involving women shoplifters occurred in April 1740. Alice Bannister and Albena Towers of St Sepulchre’s went into the shop of Isaac Tarrant, and asked the shop assistant to show them pieces of printed linen. ‘I shewed them several pieces; they did not like any of them, but desired to see more. Accordingly I brought more forward, and at last Towers pitched upon one piece, and gave me six-pence earnest; telling me, she must go and fetch her mother, and if her mother liked it she would have it, but if she did not she must have her money again in a quarter of an hour.’ As the women went out, the assistant suspected by some curious actions they made that they had lifted some cloth. He went out after them and challenged them, and found a piece of stolen linen under Bannister’s cloak. Bannister tried to lay all the blame on Towers, claiming that Towers had asked her to go to the shop with her, but Bannister who had been selling herrings and radishes all morning had protested she was too dirty to go into a shop, so Towers had lent her a cloak to wear over her clothes, and that Towers had given her the piece of linen to hold, which Bannister thought she had paid for. The Court did not think this a likely story. Both women were convicted and branded in May 1740.

            Most shopkeepers were alert to the practices of women shoplifters. When Ann King and Elizabeth Arm were in the shop of Isaac Malleson, he noticed that one of them was drawing a handkerchief off the counter under her arm. ‘When she had done this, I rapp’d with the yard on the counter for one of my servants to come down, and bid him go into the back shop to tie up some Irish cloth, at the same time giving him the wink to observe the motions of the women.’ He allowed them to get outside the shop before pursuing them, and in March 1741 they were transported for stealing sixteen yards of cloth from his shop.

            In September 1742 Catherine Davis and Jane Canwell were prosecuted for shoplifting six yards of thread lace from a milliner’s shop in Whitechapel, which Davis secreted under her petticoat while Canwell argued about the cost of some lace needed for baby clothes. The shopkeeper was suspicious because they bid such a very low price for the lace, and when he checked his box of lace after they departed he realized a piece was missing. He sent his servant out to fetch the two ladies back into the shop and began to search them. Davis tried to drop or throw the lace from her, but it stuck to her dress. She was convicted and sentenced to be transported, though Canwell was acquitted because her role in the affair was not quite clear. In June earlier that year Davis had been prosecuted – under her alias of Mary Shirley – for stealing fourteen ells of cloth from a linen draper in West Smithfield. On that occasion she came into the shop dressed in a fine silk damask dress, but her strange shuffling behaviour with her dress aroused suspicion. The shopkeeper checked his goods after she left the shop and found some were missing. His shop boy ran after her, and she followed the usual routine of lifting her petticoats and dropping the cloth and trying to escape. She was brought back to the shop where she begged that she not be sent before the Lord Mayor or a magistrate, as it was the first time she had attempted such a thing and she had five children to care for. At the trial, in July, she said she had only gone outside to make water, but intended to return with the cloth and bid for it. Eight seemingly respectable witnesses appeared to testify to her good character (she apparently was a shirt-maker, and her husband was a wig-maker), and she was acquitted. But no one appeared on her behalf at the trial in September. The court reporter tellingly remarked on this discrepancy, casting doubt on the honour of the previous witnesses to her character. We may be looking at the very beginning of Davis’s shoplifting career, but it was not quite its end. She returned from transportation and in May 1744 was convicted of stealing two and a half yards of material from another linen-draper, Matthew Wealy. Wealy did not suspect her, but after she left the shop, a friend of his, Mr Wiseman a linen-draper in the Poultry, came into the shop and said that just a day or two earlier, she had stolen some printed calico from his shop. Another person had identified her as ‘one of the most notorious shop-lifters as ever was’; he had seen her at the Poultry Compter conversing with one of the prisoners, a certain Captain Saunders (who seems to have been acting as her fence). Wiseman had just tracked her down and was following her when she went into Wealy’s shop. Wealy checked his stock and realized some linen was missing, and she was captured. The men went to the Poultry Compter and found the stolen goods in a cupboard where liquor was stored. She made no defence, and ‘begged the Court to give her what punishment they pleased, and not transport her; for she would rather be hanged than transported again’. But she was transported a second time. There are many cases like this in the Old Bailey records: each case individually considered might seem to portray only the actions of an individual, opportunistic shoplifter; but once repeat offenders are noticed and recognized as associating with other offenders, a picture of the criminal underworld begins to emerge.


Jenny Diver


The most famous pickpocket of the eighteenth century was the woman who was named after ‘Jenny Diver’, the prostitute-pickpocket character in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728): ‘If any Woman hath more Art than another, to be sure, ’tis Jenny Diver. Though her Fellow be never so agreeable, she can pick his Pocket as coolly, as if money were her only Pleasure. Now that is a Command of the Passions in a Woman!’ Her real name was Mary Young, though she also used other aliases such as Murphew and Webb, depending on the men whose company she kept. The picking of pockets was known as ‘diving’, and her dexterity in this art was so great that her companions dubbed her Jenny Diver or Diving Jenny. She was born in the north of Ireland, where she acquired basic skills of reading and writing from the age of 10, and was noted as an extraordinary workwoman with her needle. At about age 15 she left for England with a spark who robbed his master of 80l. to set themselves up. He was apprehended and imprisoned and eventually transported. In London, she lodged with a countrywoman, and took up plain-work, but it didn’t go well, and her countrywoman instructed her in a new art in company with two men and a woman: their business was cheving the froe – cutting off women’s pockets as they emerged from the theatre after the play was over. Jenny’s role, as a young novice, was to stand Miss Slang all upon the Safe – to stand at a distance, pretending not to be one of the gang, in order to receive the things stolen. Her share from her first night’s work, when they stole two diamond girdle buckles and a gold watch, was ten pounds. She would follow this profession for the next fifteen years.

            The account of herself that Mary Young/Jenny Diver gave to the Ordinary of Newgate (after her conviction for robbery in 1741) is especially notable for its use of cant language. Jenny was very desirous of learning the specialized language of thieves and pickpockets, and one of her companions instructed her in it, together with the techniques of picking pockets, for two hours every day, until she mastered both the art and its jargon. One of the measures of the authenticity of this account is that, of the eighteen different cant terms it contains, eleven were published for the first time, not having appeared in previous glossaries of cant (whereas many compilers of cant dictionaries lifted terms from one another rather than direct from the criminal underworld). Though the account may not be written directly by her, it seems clear it was at least written by someone in close association with her, and it cannot be dismissed as fiction. Here is a typical passage: ‘One day when they were all out together upon business, at a noted meeting-house in the Old-Jewry, where abundance of people were crowding, in order to get in, Jenny being very genteelly dressed, she observed a gentleman who was a very rum muns, (that is, a great beau) who had a very glim star, (that is, a ring) upon his feme, (that is, hand) which she longed to make, so giving the hint to her companions to bulk the muns forward, (that is, push) they pushed him quite in.’ ‘Pushing’ is a common technique for picking pockets even today. The man was pushed into the crowd, and Jenny put out her hand for his assistance, and squeezed it while her companions confused him in the scuffle, and he failed to notice his ring was missing until too late. Another common ruse was for one of the gang to rush up to a woman on foot amidst the hurry of carts and coaches, to grab her hands and lift her up, saying ‘Have a care, Madam’, while the rest of the gang picked her pocket.

            Jenny’s greatest exploit was slanging the gentry mort rumly with a sham kinchin – that is, picking pockets while pretending to be a woman big with child. For this purpose she had two false arms and hands made, which rested upon her belly, made big with a pillow stuffed beneath her clothes, while her real arms remained hidden beneath her petticoat. Then she would go to a meeting house dressed very genteelly, and sit in a pew between two elderly ladies, and pick their pockets during the service while her false arms rested quietly upon her belly. When the elderly ladies discover that their watches are missing and raise an outcry, if others say they must have been stolen by the big-bellied woman, they could only say ‘that’s impossible, for she never moved her hands from off her lap, all the time of the service.’ She would have been previously advised by a scout about who were the likeliest targets so that her ‘footman’ could place her accordingly. At the end of the service other members of the gang would be on hand to assist Jenny’s escape if she were smoaked, i.e. discovered – and to rifle the pockets of everyone else in the crowd.

            Another of her sham-pregnancy tricks would be performed in St James’s Park, on a fine day when many people of fashion were out walking. She would pretend to fall, and the gentleman and ladies, seeing a pregnant woman stumble, would lend her their assistance. She would force herself to fall all the way to the ground, and would pretend she could not get up and walk without assistance because she had so hurt herself in the fright. She also arranged to fall in the middle of a narrow passage near Spring Gardens Gate, so that in the crush of the crowd her assistants could pick the pockets of all the onlookers.


Print showing Jenny Diver and her crew


            The newspapers the next day would often carry advertisements for rewards for the return of buckles and rings and watches, but Jenny always advised her companions not to hand in the objects for the rewards: ‘the parties injured will, though they ask you no questions, take particular notice of your person, and some time or other, when you are out upon business, you may be smoak’d, and then perhaps all may be blown; so my advice is, that whatever things may be got, though we can fence them but for two thirds of the value offered, yet it is much the safer way, and less dangerous.’ Most of the gang’s booty would be disposed of in Holland by Captain Johnson, who similarly acted as a fence and smuggler for Jonathan Wild.

            Eventually Jenny became the head of her gang, which consisted of three or four men and three or four women. She composed a list of articles for her organization, which every member had to sign:

  1. That no one else be admitted without the consent of the whole gang.
  2. That no one person go upon any thing by him or herself, upon pain of being entirely turned off, and left to shift.
  3. That if any new member be proposed by any of the gang, that he or she shall be a month upon trial, and all that time shall be instructed at convenient seasons in the Cant Tongue, so that they may speak intelligibly to nobody but the gang.
  4. That if any of the gang should happen to be taken upon any one action, that the rest shall stand by him or her, and swear any thing in order to get such released; and if convicted, a sufficient allowance to be given him or her in prison out of the common stock, that they may live in a gentleman or gentlewoman-like manner.

            Jenny and her gang, usually dressed genteelly so they could mingle with ladies and gentlemen, worked mostly in the Change Alley, London Bridge and St Paul’s, but they also went to Bristol for the summer fair, which also had good pickings. For several years they earned more than 300 pounds apiece, above expenses, and they lived very splendidly, like people of quality. When their booty was sold, before it was divided amongst them, one-tenth was put by to relieve the gang in time of need.

            Jenny and her supposed spouse took genteel lodgings near Covent Garden, even keeping a servant to wait upon them. This was conveniently located near the theatres so they could quickly disappear with their booty. One night when the King attended a performance at the playhouse, Jenny took a place in the middle of the front boxes, and the gang picked the pockets of the upper classes after the performance. The takings were so good that the gang retired to the country for half a year.

            Not long after their return to London, Jenny was apprehended for shoplifting (her large hoop being convenient for such trade) and convicted for transportation. She lay in Newgate for four months, during which time she acted as a fence for others, buying and fencing enough items to load a wagon. She was treated well on the transport ship, and put ashore at the first port they came to in Virginia. For a short while she lived in splendour as she disposed of her goods, but she found that she had little opportunity for practising her trade in America. She soon returned to England, and in April 1738 was tried under the name of Jane Webb for picking the pocket of a woman who was at the playhouse watching The Rehearsal. Her victim said ‘I have known her for a pick-pocket these 5 years, and saw her pick 20 pockets that day. She is so well known, that I could have brought a dozen people to have prov’d this.’ After her arrest, as she was being taken to Newgate, Jenny tried to stab the person who had apprehended her. She declared ‘if it costs Two hundred pounds she shan’t go abroad’, and her friends tried to bribe one of the prosecution witnesses. She was again sentenced to transportation, and yet again she returned to London. In January 1741 she was tried for assaulting and robbing a woman near the Mansion House, with whom she had fought while trying to pick her pocket. She was capitally convicted for this (she confessed afterwards), and was sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn on 18 March 1741. Twenty-four felons were to be hanged that same day, an unusually large number, and the procession from Newgate to Tyburn was guarded by a regiment of foot and horse soldiers. The crowds threw brickbats at the criminals all along the way. There were rumours that there would be an armed attempt to rescue some of the Irish prisoners. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that Jenny Diver ‘went to Tyburn in a mourning coach, veil’d, and strongly guarded, there being a design form’d to rescue her. . . . She appeared gaily dressed even to the last, yet deeply affected with her approaching fate. Her concern was so sensibly expressed, when she took leave of her little child [who was three years old], a few days before her execution, that it drew tears into the eyes of the Turnkey.’


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