Although many children were arrested again and again for stealing, a few were never caught, moving silently amongst crowds like ghosts and melting away into thin air. Those that were trained by a thief trainer possibly had a better chance of survival than those working alone or in small groups, but not by much. Even though the names of fences of goods such as Ikey Solomon and child thieves have come down to us through the public criminal records not many of the thief trainers were ever caught, maybe due to lack or proof or because many members of the gangs were too afraid to rat out their bosses.
Despite the fact that there were lots of thief-trainers both male and female in all the big cities in England most are shadowy nameless figures. Even those that are known such as Thomas Duggin of St Giles and Jemima Matthews of Upper Keate Street in the Flower and Dean Street rookery, who sent eight children out daily to steal in 1820, little is known of their background.
Cabbage Ann of Angel Meadow
There are some exceptions for example Cabbage Ann (real name Ann Powell) who lived in the infamous slum of Angel Meadow in Manchester. A widow aged 42, she ran a grocery shop and lodging house and was acquainted with criminals from across England. She was also well-known for regularly giving shelter to thieves. Despite her obvious fishy and underground activities she seems to have been a slippery character. The police to their frustration never seemed to have enough evidence to arrest her.
Finally in 1867, she was arrested after a stolen coat belonging to a milkman was found in her cellar. She denied all knowledge and accused 13 year old Michael Crane. Crane admitted to the theft and having left it without permission – whether he was truly responsible or taking the fall for Ann we will never know. To the authorities dismay she was let go but not before the Judge, Mr Fowler issued a damning statement “you are a regular trainer of young thieves – one of the worst women in Manchester – and I will take care to help the police in every possible way to get you transported as soon as possible”.
Grassing up the Boss
Although as said before most young thieves refused to dob in their leaders, some did – maybe hoping for a reduced sentence. One such case was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 28 May 1821, when a boy arrested on the charge of petty felony led the beadles to the lair of a 50 year old thief-trainer or fence who was with three other boys trying to melt down and disfigure a brass cock. The group was arrested and the man condemned to 14 years transportation.
Another famous story of a young thief turning against his master was the case of John Reeves and Charles King.
The Fall of Charles King
Charles King is for me a fascinating character because he managed to successfully work both sides of the law and reap awards – both as a thief-trainer and as a policeman remaining undetected for years.
During the heyday of his shady activities King was employed as a Metropolitan police detective and was considered a worthy man and who regularly received praise from his superiors for his “extraordinary vigilance”. In his other life he visited daily, the Prig’s Haunt in Tyndal’s Building, Gray’s Inn Lane where he would train ‘outcast’ boys to become efficient burglars. He demonstrated how to use various instruments and tools which would help them in their work and taught them how to pickpocket without being noticed. He would swing a coat on a line and get the boys to practice their skills both singly or in twos and threes. Possibly if the boys got out of hand King could punish them by arranging their arrest and conviction as he knew where and when they would be..
Eventually King’s luck ran out when one of his most successful boys, 13 year old John Reeves turned against him. Reeves had been in and out of prison for years. He had started thieving from a young age. His first arrest had been for stealing bread from Newport market for which he was imprisoned for seven days; his other charges included stealing a bunch of cigars and pinching bacon from shops. According to Reeves he started on his career as a pickpocket after his 6th arrest (maybe it was around this time he first met King). Despite being caught numerous times he was considered a successful thief and must have brought King a tidy sum, for instance one week he managed to steal £100 worth of goods. It was even reported that he could afford “to keep a pony and to ride in the parks”.
It seems strange that all of a sudden Reeves agreed to testify against King since by his own admission King always watched over and protected him; trying to get him off charges and never giving evidence against him. Maybe Reeves was threatened or promised a lighter sentence (he was at the time serving a two year sentence for theft at Bridewell) or maybe he was just fed up with being controlled by King.
King was arrested and tried on the charge of ‘larceny from a person’ on the 9 April 1855. The account of the proceedings can be read on the Old Bailey online records. The crime had taken place on the 31 December 1853, at the Serpentine where crowds of people had gathered to skate on the frozen lake. He was accused of having planned and orchestrated the theft. Reeves stated that he had known King for three years having first met him in Soho. Their association was confirmed by other witnesses seeing them together at other locations.
Reeves described what happened that day; how he met King at a public house in Pulteney Street, Soho, how they met up with other thieves many of whom he recognised at Hyde Park, how he was instructed to steal from a lady watching the skaters from a bridge, how King removed the money and placed the empty purse in the hollow of a tree and how the money was divided up. He also stated that King tried to obstruct another boy from being arrested by tripping a man up. Unluckily for King, Benjamin Sims, a Park Keeper had noticed King and his group acting shifty around the tree. After the party had moved on he found and handed the purse into the police. Other police on duty also recognised King including Police Sergeant Hubbersley who spoke to him and noticed some boys close by who seemed to be following King’s instructions.
At the time of the trial King was 32 and married with four children. He had left the police and was running a coffee shop possibly in Soho where he also lodged. He was arrested on the 3 January 1855, and was taken to Bow Street Station. Based on the evidence he was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation to be served in Western Australia.
So the incredible criminal career of corrupt policeman-cum-thief trainer King came to a sudden end. When the full extent of his crimes was revealed it must have been a shock to many who had worked with him. Their feelings were summed up by a fellow policeman who said that he “had never heard a whisper against his character up to the time this charge was made against him”.
Society changed as more people began to campaign to eradicate poverty. The rise of orphanages and free schools together with the razing of slums and their replacement with housing associations such as the Peabody Trust ended much of the need for schools of thievery. Unfortunately, even though the image of a man wearing a long coat with a handkerchief in his pocket teaching urchins to remove it silently is no longer relevant, criminals taking advantage of neglected children and leading them into a life of crime will never disappear completely.
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
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’, 2012 (digital version)
Old Bailey Online Records: Charles King, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-484-18550409&div=t18550409-484#highlight
Mayhew, Henry: The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-person accounts by beggars, thieves and prostitutes, Dover Publications, 2005
Gilfillan, Ross: Crime and Punishment in Victorian London: A Street-Level of the City’s Underworld, 2014
Kirby, Dean: Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum, Pen & Sword History, 2016
Day, Samuel Phillips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, (original published in 1858), Sagwan Press, 2018
The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 2; Volume 6, October 1862
Vaughan, Robert: The British Quarterly Review, Volume 35, January and April 1862
Duckworth, Jeannie: Fagin’s Children: Criminal Children in Victorian England, Bloomsbury Academic, 2003
 London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’
 Angel Meadow
 Fagin’s Children
 Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’
 London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’
 Old Bailey Online Records – full account of the proceedings