Thief in Victorian London

Cockney rhyming slang is said to have originated as a thieves’ cant – a dialect intended to be understood by those in the know and be incomprehensible to everybody else, especially the police.

In fact, one of the most common cockney rhyming slang expressions is tea leaf, meaning thief.

So if cockney slang started around 1850, amongst the London criminal underclasses, then who exactly were these London thieves and how did they make their living?

In “The London Underworld”, journalist and author Henry Mayhew and others tour London documenting the poor and working classes. They were able to identify, with great confidence, exactly who the thieves were, how they came into their profession, where they worked, and the many different types of thief.

Victorian laundry thief

Thievery was practiced by men and women, old and young and certainly by children. The character of The Artful Dodger is certainly based on the thousands of children roaming the streets of London, many without parents.

Here are some examples of the types of thievery common in Victorian London:

Laundry thieves

Nobody would think to steal clothes on the way to or from a laundry today, but it was a common problem in Victorian times as clothes were more valuable and there was a thriving second-hand market for rags and clothes, both to be re-sold and to pawn.

Because linen and clothing was worth money in the pawn shops, it was common for laundry to be stolen as it hung out to dry.

Lobby sneaks

People who find a pretence to enter the lobbies of hotels and fine houses, only to make off with silverware or anything else they could find. 

Tradesmen sneaks

Children who sold laces, matches and other small wares door-to-door in order to enter the homes of tradesmen and working people, to steal from their homes.

Pickpockets

Stole from the pockets and coats. Silk handkerchiefs, money and pocket watches were popular hauls. Pickpockets could be children, but could also be very smartly dressed young men who could easily mingle with the monied classes in the street.

Street sneaks

People (often children) who stole fruit and other consumables from market stalls. Or they stole the money directly from the baskets of the market sellers. Often operating in pairs or groups, they often used distraction techniques to harass the market trader while another member made off with the takings, or the consumables. 

Shoplifters

People (often women) who would steal goods from shops, whilst pretending to be a customer. 

Till thieves

Again, often children who would steal goods or often the till contents from shops. Often used distraction techniques to divert the shopkeeper while an associate rifled the till. 

Shop doorway thieves

These would steal the goods ranged around the doorways of shops. 

Star glazers

Would break the windows of shops, often after dark, by forcing a knife into the glazing or putty, causing a crack large enough to put their hand through and steal the sweets or others goods displayed.

Burglars

There were many types of burglars. Young boys were often forced through small windows (because they could fit). Targets were both middle class houses and the dwellings of labouring people. 

Burglars using false keys

As the types of locks on doors were relatively unsophisticated, false keys were quite easy to make. By trying a number of false keys, locks could often be opened. 

Child-robbers

Crime against children was incredibly common, as children walked the streets unaccompanied in a way that would be unthinkable now. As children were commonly employed to carry items such as laundry from customer to laundress or back, it was relatively easy to trick a child into handing over the clothes. Fine silk dresses were worth a lot of money. 

Highway robbers

In modern parlance, these people might be called muggers. They stole openly, using threats of violence. They often attacked people returning home drunk. They also sometimes teamed up with prostitutes and attacked their customers as they went along with them. 

Prostitute thieves

Using a prostitute in Victorian times was a risky business. Prostitutes themselves were very often likely to steal from you, if their criminal associates did not.

Bug hunters

Those who would hang around outside pubs and gin palaces and steal from drunk people coming out. 

Another way of stealing in pubs was for one or two women to accost a man in the streets, and get him to buy them a drink in a pub. Not only would they get bought drinks, their (usually male) accomplices, who would be in the pub and in the know, would steal from the mark either at the bar or by simply jumping him when he left. 

Embezzlers

Those who stole the property or money of their employers, be it tools, equipment, goods or money. 

Sharps

Those who stole money using card tricks, skittles or cups. Still seen in London today. 

Vehicle thieves

Those who would steal goods and laundry from carts and vehicles as they made their way around the crowded streets of London. 

Lead thieves

Those who stole lead from rooftops. Often done by workmen in the houses they were working on. 

Lodging thieves

It was very common for people to make off with the content of the furnished rooms they were lodging in, especially in the dead of night. Items that were often taken included chairs, tables, crockery, cutlery and bedlinen.