"What has become of the hundreds of members of the great thief family whose snug haunts and homes have been swept from the face of the earth?" Unforeseen effects of slum clearance in St Giles's, Spitalfields, Clerkenwell Green and Bethnal Green.
Published in The Railway Review, 27 August 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.
Illustration: Views in the Rookery, St Giles, from 'Old and New London', vol.3, [1878?], by Edward Walford.
When the originators of the Artisans' Dwellings Act rejoiced at its passing, and congratulated themselves on its first fruits in the shape of the destruction of several notorious herding places for disease and squalor — in St. Giles's, Spitalfields, and many other localities within the said Act's jurisdiction — did it ever occur to them to consider the question, What must become of the criminal population thus summarily evicted? One thing is certain; it was never contemplated or desired that they should share with the honest labouring community the superior accommodation of the cleanly and commodious model lodginghouse. These were for deserving folk. It was not necessary, perhaps, that the latter should possess more furniture than sufficed for a single room. Any one was eligible to become a tenant of the great abode, with many flats, providing he came producing satisfactory evidence that he was respectable. Unless he was in a position to do so, his application was peremptorily rejected. It might occasionally happen that a black sheep succeeded in deceiving the model lodging-house keeper by means of forged credentials, but he would be sure to be found out in time, and there and then unceremoniously ejected. And very properly so would no doubt be the popular verdict. But, meanwhile, the embarrassing query remains unanswered — What has become of the hundreds of members of the great thief family whose snug haunts and homes have been swept from the face of the earth? Homes they have, these habitual plunderers, as have honest labourers; a single room, apartments, or a whole house, according to their domestic requirements. This as regards the soldiers of the regular army of rogues — the men who have abandoned all hope or desire of reforming and rejoining the ranks of respectability, and who, in consequence, are continuously and systematically at variance with the helmeted enemy.
There used to exist amongst the more credulous a vague belief that the professional thief never possessed a "home" in the generally accepted sense of the term. He and his fellows were supposed to congregate in capacious underground kitchens and cellars, secured from the interference of the police by doors bolted and barred, as well as by the vigilance of faithful sentries ever on the alert against a surprise. The notion prevailed that it was in these subterranean strongholds that, in company with the females of their kind, the great united bands of desperadoes that made prey of peaceful citizens spent their nights in riot and debauchery, sinking at length in a state of intoxication under the drinking tables, to rise refreshed the following morning, and then slip off by various and artful ways to "rifle, rob, and plunder," as their fathers had done before them since the days of Captain Macheath. All such silly romances, of course, have long been exploded. It possibly answered the purpose of the old-fashioned "detective" school, ill-organised and defective as it was, to allow such discomforting rumours to go uncontradicted; but it is tolerably well understood in modern times that there is no such thing as a great confederation of thieves — no sworn brotherhood, pledged by horrible oaths to obey an elected captain and all his rules and regulations, and to stick one to the other through thick and thin. That a kind of freemasonry exists amongst the fraternity is probable. When thief meets thief in the public streets a friendly nod or wink may pass between them. When a score or so of different families inhabit the houses of some court or alley they live in peace together, it being to the interest of no one to cry "Wolf." Should trouble, through the law's vindictiveness, overtake a known member, the hat which is passed round will be seldom or never sent empty away. Again, it may possibly happen that, in the event of a thief coming in the ordinary way of his business by a sort of goods he knows no market for, he will seek and obtain a friendly hint from a neighbour whose transactions have run more in that particular groove. But there is nothing like a commonwealth amongst the fraternity. Each has his little family circle, and minds his own business with as much privacy as possible. The proverb that there is honour amongst thieves is nowhere so little believed in as in Thiefdom. Undoubtedly there are superior ruffians of the housebreaker and burglar order who "work" in gangs of three or four; but the criminal records clearly show that even in such cases there exists no lasting partnership. The leading rascal, knowing where to seek them, picks his men, and "arranges" with them to assist him in the business in hand; but the job completed, there is a severance of the connection. Such men, however, are not of the common tribe of thieves, which comprehends the horde of petty peculators who live from hand to mouth as precariously as the honest "odd job" seeker or the dock labourer.
Police statistics profess to know within a few the number of this kind of professional depredators infesting the metropolis. They reckon several thousands, and, of course, must live somewhere. Within the past five years wholesale havoc has been made with their familiar abiding places. Round about the Sessions House, on Clerkenwell-green, the criminal classes used to find shelter in amazing numbers. Nearly the whole of the eastern side of Turnmill-street was pierced with closely adjoining courts and alleys — Fryingpan-alley, Turkshead-court, Bit-alley, and Broad-yard, alias "Little Hell." The entry to these Newgate nurseries was in no case wider or deeper than an ordinary doorway, and the tall, black houses that hedged the pestilent lane on either side of the awful "no thoroughfare" swarmed each from garret to cellar with people who, for by far the most part, were known to the police. The whole of this hideous rookery has now been swept away. At Bethnal-green, again, including the notorious Club-row and Hare-street, there stood about as villanous a square acre of houses as the wickedest city in the world could produce. Metropolitan improvements have razed them one and all. The same thing has happened at Lambeth, at Whitechapel, at Westminster; and the curious question that presents itself in face of these facts is - What has become of the evicted criminal population? It is too much to hope that it has been made honest by Act of Parliament — that, deprived of the time-honoured privilege accorded to birds of a feather, the whole foul flock, though sorely against their inclinations, have been compelled to take to honesty. Much as one would desire this to be the case, our prison statistics forbid the pleasing assumption. There has been no material decrease in the number of magisterial convictions or committals for trial, and our gaols are as fully tenanted as ever. So far, however, from repining at this state of things, it should, under the circumstances, afford us considerable satisfaction. According to the natural order of mundane affairs, matters by this might have been much worse. To put it mildly, there must be at the present time at least a couple of thousand professional thieves scattered among the honest community, and retaining their position there by studiously concealing from their neighbours who and what they are, and by what means they obtain their livelihood. It is difficult to see how it can be otherwise. There never was over much room for the class in question. Squeezed out, as it were, from decent society, the miserable members of it were satisfied to shrink into any hole or corner where the police would not look too closely after them, and made light of the inconvenience of a little overcrowding. This being so, it would be to cast a slur on our metropolitan sanitary and lodginghouse inspectors to suggest that the non-evicted of the tribe, though already closely pressed for elbow-room, have further pinched themselves to accommodate their less fortunate brethren. The evicted two thousand must have gone further afield for harbourage. What has become of them? Have they gone into the country? Have the rogues followed the example of sensible, honest folk of limited means, and taken lodgings a few miles down the line, with a railway season ticket to enable them to travel to and from business cheaply and expeditiously? If so, it may be good for the thieves, but it must be alarmingly bad for the suburbs, as well as for London at large. The depressing influence of pent-up and ill-ventilated lodgings must necessarily be felt by the dishonest as well as by the honest, and, low-spirited in consequence and dejected, it must be rare that the alley-bred thief is as bright and sharp as he might be; but, invigorated by country air, and with his leisure hours freed from the worrying reflection that a policeman may be lurking near at hand ready to pounce on him, with a brisk and cheerful railway trip every morning to business, the common thief ought to be at least twice as keen as he used to be, and prosperous in proportion.