London Brigands And Their Methods

There can be no doubt that London in the 1880’s was in the grip of an, all too familiar, gang problem.

The so-called “fighting gangs of London” were, very much, a blight on Victorian society – so much so that the newspapers throughout the 1880’s were full of articles about the fact that the gangs seemed to be able to operate with impunity on the streets of the metropolis.

In the very early stages of the investigation into the Whitechapel Murders, the police line of inquiry favoured the idea that the murders might have been carried out by one of the local gangs.

A previous article on the gangs of London, featured an article from The Pall Mall Gazette that looked at some of the gangs that were afflicting London and at some of their escapades. If you missed t you can read the article here.

The Pall Mall Gazette, returned to the subject of the gangs in the following article that was published in its edition of  Saturday March 25th 1882.:-


“The fighting gangs of London are by no means the only organised forces of disorder with which the police have to deal.

These organisations are largely predatory in their character, but they exist side by side with others whose only object is plunder.

Yesterday at the Middlesex sessions the assistant judge sentenced five burglars to varying terms of penal servitude and hard labour, who were proved to have formed part of a gang which has been preying upon London for years.

Nor is this all the evidence which the morning papers afford us of the existence of predatory organisations in various parts of the metropolitan area.

The Wild Boys fighting.
A Wild Boys Fight. Copyright, The British Library Board.


At Woolwich yesterday two members of a gang calling themselves “The Forty Thieves of Rushgrove” were sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment for stealing fowls.

It was stated in court that “the Forty Thieves” had their rendezvous in a wash house, from which they sallied forth to plunder the neighbourhood, and to which they returned with their booty in the small hours of the morning.

“Within the last few months every tradesman in the vicinity had been robbed, but the booty was generally eaten or otherwise disposed of before the police could follow it up.”

All this is very unpleasant reading for timid householders; and yet any one who has been accustomed to study the lower phases of life in the metropolis will not be so much astonished at the existing alarm as at the circumstance that its causes are looked upon as being new and unprecedented.


Ruffianly gangs may almost be regarded as ancient institutions.

Every year they commit hundreds of offences which are never made known to the general public. They watch their opportunities very closely, and it is only where there is some misadventure or some mismanagement that any of their members are caught.


There are eleven thousand policemen in London; but the majority are kept on regular “beats,” and their rounds are accurately timed by the young criminals who move about the metropolis in search of plunder.

Take the Embankment as an illustration.

At night, before orders were given for strengthening the force on duty, one policeman was supposed to have charge of all that portion which lies between the Temple Pier and the end of Blackfriars Bridge.

It took him at least a quarter of an hour to make his round, and when he was at one end of his beat the roughs had complete command of the other.

The gangs do not confine their operations to secluded thoroughfares: they affect crowds, and are much given to frequenting of the centres of traffic.


The stranger who strolls down Whitechapel on a Saturday night will notice that he is surrounded at some part of his journey by rough-looking youths who, in their utter unconcern, have a habit of jostling against him without making the usual apologies.

If he stands before a shop-window he will probably receive a push from behind, and while he is looking round his watch will disappear.

Should he discover his loss and essay to chase the thief, the unconcerned looking youths will step quietly in his way, and, when he stumbles against them, savagely inquire, “who he’s a shovin’.”

These are detachments of the gangs, pursuing the quieter lines of business, risky, but in the main, profitable.


In secluded places their methods are different.

In many cases they proceed straightway to violence.

The victim is tripped up suddenly from behind, kicked into partial insensibility, and robbed before he is able to utter a cry.

Very frequently a woman is one of the party.

She salutes the passing stranger, and, if he pauses to speak to her, the signal is given to the gang and he is maltreated and robbed.

Cases of this kind repeatedly come under the notice of the police, but seldom under that of the magistrates.


The young roughs know all the windings and turnings, and have reckoned up their chances of escape before proceeding to violence.

It is seldom that any great number participates in acts of this nature. The gangs break up into small bands of five or six, or perhaps a dozen; and even these do not keep together as with a wanton purpose. They straggle along as if there were no concert between them, and only combine when there is business in hand.


The gangs usually muster in the greatest force on the occasion of a fire.

At such times they select their victims carefully, surrounding and then jostling them and, while one of their number makes off with a watch or a purse, they render pursuit impossible, and even dangerous.

The extremities to which they will sometimes proceed received a remarkable illustration at the time of the fire at the Park Theatre.

On that night the Golden-lane gang was out, the Park Theatre being in its district.


A tradesman residing in a neighbouring street was watching the fire from the doorsteps of an acquaintance when a hurried messenger arrived to inform him that he must hasten home or “his house would be sacked.”

The intelligence was alarming, but not exaggerated. When he arrived at home he found that the Golden-lane gang was subjecting it to a siege. All the windows were broken, the panel of the door was cracked, and stones were showering in from all directions.

Elbowing his way through the crowd, the tradesman, a stout Northerner, entered his house amid a volley of missiles, and found three men struggling in the passage.

The explanation was that two of the men were detectives, the third being a thief who had appropriated a watch at the fire.

In conveying their prisoner to the station the officers had been overtaken by the gang, savagely assaulted, and compelled to take shelter in the first house that had an open door; otherwise, they averred, they would probably have been killed.

The end of this remarkable incident was that one of the officers had to make his exit by a back door and summon a force of police to clear the street before the prisoner could be securely conveyed to the police-station.


In this account of the London street gangs there has been no exaggeration either in style or in statement.

There is no reason to unnecessarily alarm the public. What these gangs arc doing now they have been doing to a greater or less extent for years past.

There is, however, reason to fear that immunity is making them bolder than they have been heretofore, and that they are widening the boundaries within which their operations have been confined.

It is certainly to the public advantage that the nature and extent of the danger should be known.

The assurances of Sir William Harcourt [he was the Home Secretary at the time], and the denials of the police, are rather worse than useless in the face of events which have occurred since the manslaughter on the Thames Embankment.


Quite recently savage assaults were committed, one with the evident intention of robbery, by gangs passing over Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges.

On the 4th of March seven young roughs belonging to the Old-street and Dove-row gangs, who were described as being “in the habit of meeting in the neighbourhood of Tiger Bay, Bethnal-green, and making desperate attacks on people who were passing by,” were sent to prison by Mr. Justice Hawkins.

In the same week a youth of nineteen, described as the captain of the New-cut gang, was sent to prison for six months, his apprehension having been effected after a severe struggle with his followers.

With these and other facts of the same kind before them, no one can be surprised that the Metropolitan Board of Works yesterday should have entirely concurred in the representations made by the Vestry of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields as to the gross outrages committed on the Embankment, and should have joined in urging the police authorities to take measures to prevent their recurrence.”