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Training with Fagin

When the breakfast was cleared away, the merry old gentleman and the two boys played at a very curious and uncommon game…The merry old gentleman, placing a snuff-box in one pocket of his trousers, a note-case in the other, and a watch in his waistcoat pocket, with a guard chain round his neck, and sticking a mock diamond pin his shirt, buttoned his coat right round him, and putting his spectacle-case and handkerchief in his pockets, trotted up and down the room with a stick…All this time the two boys followed him closely about; getting out of his sight so nimbly, every time he turned round…If the old gentleman felt a hand in any one of his pockets he cried out where it was; and then the game began all over again. [1]

This passage from Oliver Twist is the most famous description of the training of young thieves in literature. Although it is a fictional account, as with all Dickens’ books it was taken from real life stories and events he had witnessed, read about or heard of from the people involved. The details of how pickpockets learnt their trade are corroborated by numerous factual accounts and Saffron Hill where Dickens placed The Three Cripples, Bill Sikes favourite alehouse was actually a lodging house in the Victorian period. Next to the lodging house was a pub called The One Tun which Dickens patronised. This public house was established in 1759, and is one of only two pubs of this name still in existence and trading in London today[2].

The One Tun of Old Pye Street

Incredibly there was another One Tun public house during the same period which also boasted a connection to Dickens. Although both pubs were located in slums, the pub in Old Pye Street managed to reach new lows even in a city noted for areas of abject poverty. The name of this infamous area of London paints a vivid picture – The Devil’s Acre. The Devil’s Acre was only a few yards from Westminster Abbey and the prestigious houses which surrounded it. The irony of its location was not missed by Dickens who wrote “The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribably infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey”[3]. This notorious rookery (a popular slang word for slum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) with its narrow streets, gloomy alleyways, overcrowded and dilapidated buildings was home to thousands of destitute and poor inhabitants, many of whom eked out a meagre living through criminal activities and prostitution.

Dorset Street 1902. Jack London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The pub in Old Pye Street was known to be a hideout for a thief-trainer and his boys, orphans who had been taken off the streets. On a visit, Andrew Walker, a member of The City of London Mission, was horrified to find the children living in such a place. He nicknamed it ‘The School of Fobology’[4] and witnessed first-hand, children being taught the art of pickpocketing. His report so shocked the Mission that the wealthy philanthropist, Adeline Cooper in 1853, bought the pub and along with the famous social reformer, the Earl of Shaftesbury, founded the first Ragged School which gave free basic education for poor children. Interestingly the landlord left without paying his rent and stripped the pub of all its furnishings and fittings. By 1871, the school had around 133 pupils[5].

The Billigsgate Cutpurses

One of the earliest known schools of theft was found at an alehouse at Smarts Key near Billingsgate in 1585. It was run by Wotton, a gentleman who had fallen on hard times. The Recorder, Fleetwood, wrote that somehow Wotton convinced all the cutpurses in the area to come to his house. He set up a school to train thieves and devised some ingenious methods to help them learn their trade. Two objects were hung from the roof, one a pocket and the other a purse. The pocket contained counters and was hung up with hawk’s bells and a little scaring bell. The purse held silver. The boys would try to remove a counter and the silver without disturbing the bells. Those that managed to get the counter became a “public foyster”(pick-pocket) and those that took out the silver was “adjudged a judicial nypper” (cutpurse or pick-purse)[6].

Life on the Streets

Amongst the filth and poverty and largely ignored were the street children. Neglected and abandoned both by their parents who were often in prison, absent or dead and society to whom they were either invisible or treated like vermin, they stole to survive. The large number of children in prison or in Houses of Correction is heart-breaking. In 1849, in England and Wales 10,460 children under 17 had been arrested and convicted[7]. Living on the streets, preferable to the brutal workhouse, was dangerous and so many preferred to band together into child gangs as there was safety in numbers.

See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is therefore no wonder that the professional thief-trainers had their pick of candidates. For street children suffering malnutrition and living in filth this represented a step up as they would gain a roof over their head and food in their belly. Thief-trainers would look out for boys and girls who were quick, sharp and steady. Sometimes they would notice a child stealing and approach them. If the child was good-looking this would be another point in their favour.

As well as teaching them the tools of their trade they would also instruct them on how to behave and dress in fashionable places such as railway stations and race-courses so they could blend in with the crowd. As for the thief-trainers they gained a source of income and knew that if the child got caught it was nearly impossible to trace the crime back to them and so they could “concoct crimes with a readiness and a recklessness arising only from impunity”.[8]

How to be a Thief

Nearly two hundred years later the Annual Register of the 5 March 1756, records another school which had managed to achieve notoriety[9]. The school was sited in a public house near Fleet Market where a club of boys were instructed on pickpocketing. Taken from the evidence given by the four boys who were arrested, an idea emerges of the techniques and skills which the boys were taught at this school.

Stage One: The ability to remove a handkerchief out of the thief trainer’s pocket and then a watch. They were taught to go for small light objects such as scarf pins which were easy to remove and hide; how to bump into and distract their prey; and where they could find the best pickings such as at crowded fairs and firework displays. Practice made perfect and eventually the trainee thief could remove the items without the owner being aware that their property had gone.

Image courtesy of www.janeaustenslondon.com

Stage Two: The next stage was how to pilfer from a shop. The first important step was to choose a shop with a hatch. One boy would distract the owner or manager by gaining entry whilst the other would lie on his belly close to the hatch. The hatch would be left slightly ajar when the first boy left. Once the owner had disappeared from the shop floor the second boy would crawl in on all fours and take whatever items they could, including money from the till. They would then escape the same way.

Stage Three: This stage saw the pickpocket move on to breaking and entering. Here they were instructed to work in pairs. The boys would be sent to a potentially lucrative target and pretend to be beggars. They would then lie down under the shop’s window and feign sleep whenever someone passed them. During the intervals when they were unobserved they would scrape out the mortar from around the bricks in the wall (which were usually thin and poorly constructed). Once they had a hole big enough, one of them would crawl in and steal anything they could carry and the other would hide the gap with his body, pretending to be asleep[10].

Lodging Houses and Flash Houses

Lodging houses also gained a bad reputation and as with public houses sometimes functioned as schools for thieves. These schools flourished during the Victorian era largely due to the end of apprenticeships and the march of industrialisation which worsened conditions in the slums.

Generally the training techniques did not vary that much wherever the children received their education. An unidentified lodging house trained both boys and girls (girls were often used as decoys and could be more successful as thieves since they could get closer to wealthy ladies without arousing suspicion). In this school a doll was hung up and dressed in the image of a gentleman or lady and a purse placed in its pocket. The purse contained 6 old pence and a bell. Again the children had to remove the money without ringing the bell[11].

Pubs because they sold alcohol were seen as places of vice and disrepute and so it is not surprising that they often became centres “for thieves and other evil-doers”[12]. Those pubs which had a particularly bad reputation became known as ‘flash-houses’ and were labelled “nurseries of crime”[13]. It was believed that in the first half of the 1800s, at least 200 flash-houses functioned in London. Here the police and crooks would drink side by side. Often the police ignored any dubious goings on within their walls such as the fencing of stolen goods since they provided such a rich source of information for any more serious criminal activities in the area. The infamous Mrs Jennings of the Red Lion in White Cross Street ran a very profitable flash-house where she acted as a fence, hiding goods behind cupboards and at the same time controlled a number of boys and girls who reported to her and lived with her [14].

Final Thoughts

In my mind the image of the Victorian thief and their training will always bring to mind Ron Moody from the musical Oliver dressed in a tatty green coat with handkerchiefs hanging out of his pockets dancing and singing You’ve got to pick a pocket or two to a group of cheerful urchins. Although, I know that in reality life for these children was far from jovial, I do find it fascinating that the musical does in its own way show the reality of how juvenile pickpockets and cutpurses were trained.

So who were the thief-trainers? That is another post…

Ron Moody as Fagin in Carol Reed’s 1968 musical drama film, Oliver!


Thomson, J. & Smith, Adolphe: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Street Life in London, 1877, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications/thomson-35.htm

Garwood, John: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City, 1853, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications4/peopled-01.htm

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice, https://forromancereaders.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/rookeries-flash-houses-and-academies-of-vice/

Slum Living: London’s Rookeries-, http://georgianlondon.com/post/49461306842/slum-living-londons-rookeries

Cholera and the Thames: The Devil’s Acre, https://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-westminster/the-devils-arce/

White, Jerry: London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’,  Bodley Head , 2016

Hindley, Charles (ed.): Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’, Palala Press, 2012

Lower Thames Street, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp41-60

Saffron Hill, https://exploring-london.com/tag/the-three-cripples/

Day, Samuel Philips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, Samuel Phillips Day, (originally published 1858), 2014

Rookery (slum), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rookery_(slum)

Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist

Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill, https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/one-tun-pub-saffron-hill

The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870, http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/750780/the-one-tun-ragged-school-perkins-rents-c-1870

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice, https://forromancereaders.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/rookeries-flash-houses-and-academies-of-vice/

One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster, https://pubshistory.com/LondonPubs/WestminsterStJohn/OneTun.shtml


[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill

[3] The Devil’s Acre

[4] Cholera and the Thames – The Devil’s Acre

[5] The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870

[6] Thames Street

[7] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[8] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[9] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster

[13] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[14] Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice