The Bandit Gangs of London

In the very early stages of the investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders, there appears to have been a consensus that the crimes were the work of one of the local gangs attempting to extort money out of the prostitutes of Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

As a result of this, the press began to take an interest in the problem of the gangs, and it soon became apparent that London as a whole was being terrorised by gangs, who, when they were not fighting each other, were happy to pick on innocent bystanders who they might rob and assault with seeming impunity.

Indeed, it would appear that, in some parts of London, the police were as scared of the gangs as any of the ordinary citizens of the Victorian metropolis were; and, if the following article, which appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on Saturday 13th October, 1888, was to be believed, the constables of the Metropolitan Police had just cause to be wary of the gangs of London:-


“There are few more melancholy illustrations of the inability of the authorities to cope with the forces of disorder in London than the existence in various quarters of the metropolis of more or less organised gangs of young ruffians.

The hoodlum and the larrikin of civilisation is the standing difficulty of our sentimental age. A generation is growing up around  us which has never been disciplined, either at home or at school.

Spare the rod and spoil the child, is a maxim relegated to the dark ages and the wealthy classes. Our young aristocrats are birched as of old, but the persons of the children of King Demos are now sacrosanct. So they grow up like wild asses’ colts, and are the despair of the custodians of law and order.

Such, at least, is the explanation of one set of sociologists.

But we have nothing to do with causes.

What we are concerned with are the facts.

Thugs outside a lodging house being watched by a police officer.
Thugs Outside A Cheap Lodging House In Spitalfields. From The Illustrated Police News, 15th September 1888. Copyright the British Library Board.


Within the past year there have from time to time been brought before the knowledge of the public the existence of gangs, always ruffianly and sometimes predatory, which are composed of young fellows who are distinctly not of the domesticated variety of the genus homo.

Here are the names of a few of these gangs:-

The Marylebone Gang of Lisson-grove.
The Fitzroy-place Gang of Regent’s Park.
The Monkey-parade Gang of Whitechapel.
The Black Gang of Union-street, Borough.
The New-cut Gang of  The New-cut, Lambeth.
The Greengate Gang of City-road.
The “Prince Arthur” Gang of   Duke-street, BIackfriars.
“The Gang of Roughs” of Norwood.
The Jovial Thirty-two of  Upper Holloway.

These are a few of the names taken from the police-court records.

Some of them may have now ceased to exist. Others are still in full activity. They are of very low type of organisation – without discipline, recognised leaders, or definite objects.


It is not of yesterday this plague.

Mr. Justice Hawkins has denounced it in the strongest term, from the judgement seat at the Old Bailey.

On one occasion, while sentencing eleven prisoners in one batch, he said that they with others had “associated together in gangs for the purpose of robbing, assaulting and beating those whom they desired to plunder.”

A gang garrot one of their victims.
An Act Of Garrotting By A Victorian Gang


No part of the metropolis has been free from this plague.

In Whitechapel, in Islington, and in Covent-garden itself, I find the same offence committed at all hours of the day.

“It is absolutely necessary,” said the judge, “for the public safety that this sort of robbery with violence should be immediately and sternly repressed,” and he showed his appreciation of that fact by sentencing the prisoners to long terms of penal servitude.


For a time the epidemic was abated. The Skeleton Army was put down, and little was heard of the gangs for a year or two.

The plague has, however, revived again, and the recent trials at the Old Bailey of the young ruffians concerned in the Regent’s Park murder showed that the fighting gang was as powerful and as troublesome as ever.

They prowl about the streets armed with belts and sticks, they fight, and when they get a chance most of them steal.


There is much said about the terrorism of the National League, and London Tory M.P.’s, from Mr.W. H. Smith downward, have wept copious tears over the sad fate of the terrorised and boycotted witness in remote wilds of Ireland.

Just as Mr. Gladstone was too intent on Mitchelstown to see the brutality of Bloody Sunday in Trafalgar-square, so the law-and-order men in Parliament look over all the terrorism of the London ruffian in order to seek out the woes and sufferings of a stray land grabber in Munster or Connaught.

Here is one instance which is quite as horrible as anything that the Curtins have ever suffered. It occurred in Southwark last month, but not a member of Parliament has ever noticed it.


A poor woman was walking along the Lower Marsh, Lambeth, one night in company with another woman, when she was pounced upon by one of a gang of ruffians that infest the neighbourhood of the New Cut, and she was dragged or pushed into Grove-place. There a savage struggle ensued between the poor woman and the wild beasts who had her in their clutches. Savage at being baulked by her gallant resistance, they stabbed her, and so serious was the wound that it nearly proved mortal.

After much delay, she made her appearance in court to prosecute; but she would never have entered the witness-box if pressure had not previously been brought to bear on her by the court.

She told the magistrate that the reason she had failed to appear in support of the charge on former occasions was that she considered her “life would be in danger” if she did, as the prisoner’s companions were capable of avenging themselves on her.

As to the woman who was with her at the time of the attack, and who seems to have then behaved courageously enough, she seems soon after to have lost heart, and is said to have removed from her residence in order to avoid the risk of giving evidence.

A woman nearly outraged, and all but stabbed to death, who dare not prosecute lest she should be murdered: her companion, rather than bear witness against the assailants, preferring to seek safety in flight. What a picture!

The Wild Boys fighting.
A Wild Boys Fight. A Story About The Gangs of London. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Six months’ imprisonment is the maximum for a murderous attack by a gang on the police  in London.

Here is an, item from the police reports of Marylebone:-

At the Marylebone police-court Patrick O’Connell, nineteen, Carrie Neenan, twenty, Dennis M’Carthy, seventeen, Edward Dunn, nineteen, and Thomas Aldridge, eighteen, were brought up, on remand, some charged with behaving in a disorderly manner, some for attempting to rescue, and all except Dunn for assaulting the police.

The evidence was that several men were standing at the corner of Devonshire-street and Salisbury-street, Lisson-grove, obstructing the pavement, and because they were asked to move they used abominable language.

They defied the police, and at last Neenan was arrested.

A riot ensued, during which the police were kicked, beaten, and pelted with stones, bricks, iron weights, bottles and every conceivable kind of missile.

Previous convictions were proved against O’Connell and Neenan.

Mr. De Rutzen sentenced O’Connell and Nennan to six months’ imprisonment; M’Carthy and Aldridge were fined £3 or three weeks’ imprisonment; and Dunn he ordered to be bound over in £5.

But for the previous convictions, three weeks’ imprisonment would probably have been the maximum sentence on those who kicked and beat the police and pelted them with stones, bricks, weights, &c.

The occurrence is so common it attracted no notice, and the sentences provoked no criticism.


The condition of the streets of Marylebone is a subject calculated to fill with greatest alarm the mind of any pedestrian who, for the first time, finds himself invading its precincts either by day or night.

“From several policemen on duty”, writes one of our Commissioners who was charged to visit the locality, “I heard the same startling statement – namely, that they were totally unable to suppress the riotous proclivities of the many gangs continually infesting the neighbourhood.”

These roughs loaf about the vicinity of Lisson-grove in groups varying in numbers from a dozen downwards.

In Lisson, Union, Bell, Paul, Church, and Princess Streets they are to be seen at all times, actually blocking up the roads and pathways. Their demeanour is always openly aggressive, their loud-toned converse of a most horrible nature, alternating blasphemy and obscenity yelled into the ears of shuddering females and tender little children with equal unconcern, while the so-called “guardian of the peace” passively looks on with the unconcern and helplessness of sheer imbecility.

“Of what class do you consider these gangs to be chiefly composed?” I asked of a shopkeeper of Lisson-street.

“Well, about 2 percent working men perhaps,” was the reply; “the remainder of thieves and blackguards of the vilest type, mostly utterly degraded wretches, living on immoral women. Some few are connected with the militia, are called up for two months in each year, and get a sum of money which may supply them with beer and ‘baccy’  for a time; some also go ‘hopping.’

This latter and the two months’ drill forms rather more of the aspect of real work than they usually care to face in one year.

When they return with their bounty money, or funds collected at hopping, they drink beer till they get utterly besotted and maddened. Then they commence their favourite methods for working off the effects of the publican’s poison, not usually attempted until the last penny has gone – consisting of murderous attacks on the wretched woman passing as wife, a solitary policeman, or any other object that may present itself at a moment of drink-blinded fury.


The most popular weapon with these desperadoes is the belt, although many carry knives also.

The former article can be obtained for a few pence at most of the ‘second-hand shops’ in the neighbourhood – the more massive the buckle the better.

Something like a quarter of a pound is the average weight of the brass fastenings.

Miss Elizabeth Lee, one of the female witnesses in the Regent’s Park murder case, recently received frightful injury to one of her eyes – in fact, nearly getting the optic cut out – in a fracas between a ‘Grove gang’ and a Fitzroy-place mob.”


“At what time do these riots mostly take place, and how are they usually commenced?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, the Lisson-grove gangs are continually involved in broils, either with the police, or other gangs, but the most frequent rows are organised for the purpose of robbery.

The rioters have no fear of the police, and the latter always get worsted.

Several constables have been very severely injured recently.

The last most serious affray occurred some months back, and took place at the corner of William-street, at Mrs. Medhurst’s shop.”


Arriving at the corner of William-street, Lisson-grove, at about nine o’clock P.M. I found Mrs. Medhurst weighing up and serving ‘taters  to groups of dirty and ragged children.

She told me, until this affair happened “we did a pretty good business, but the customers suspect us of having assisted the police, that is to say taken their part against the mob, and so we are doing very badly now.”

“Will you tell me,” I asked, “how the riot at this corner came about?”

“I can’t tell you what actually started it that time. It was on a Saturday night in July, and we were too busy to take much notice till the crowd came up to our very door; then, all of a sudden, we saw three policemen streaming with blood, holding a man each and trying to fight their way through a crowd, I should think quite a thousand strong.

The police dashed into our shop with their prisoners, followed by the mob, and if they hadn’t done so they would have been murdered, surely as I am talking to you at this moment.

The crowd attacked the police in our place, endeavouring to rescue the three men, two of whom had come from prison only the day before.

My husband and myself flew for our lives into the room at the back; a woman tore a whistle from one of the policeman’s hands, ran upstairs, opened the window, and blew the whistle for assistance.


More police came, and still more of the gangs, who, having heard the alarm, concluded that there was a ‘barney’ on, as they call it.

The crowd of roughs grew thicker every moment – men, women, and even children – bringing all kinds of things for the use of the rioters. Brickbats flew about in all directions, some hitting the police, some hitting the bystanders.

All kinds of domestic articles were heaped up in the shop when we came to look the next morning, and among other things we found several murderous-looking choppers.

Our weights were snatched up and dashed at the heads of the three policemen, who did their best to keep the mob from entering the shop, and during all this most of our stock (worth about £20) was stolen.

At last, when assistance came, the three policemen were almost overpowered, covered with blood, and fearfully injured; they took the three men, but were quite unable to get any others.”


When the curtain falls in the Marylebone Theatre, a stream of youths of both sexes pour into the street to insult with impunity those unfortunate enough to fall in their way.

The shrieking crew dash on toward the Edgware-road, flinging down shutters or boards stationed outside the various shops being among the very mildest of their practical jokes.

About the same time the low beer houses of Marylebone are closing: reeling men and women stagger therefrom, some not able to carry their load of beer further than the gutter into which they retch the foul smelling, poisonous liquid.

The rowdy element fills the streets, and practically takes possession; the solitary policemen, seen at very rare intervals, and who slink off at sight of the brawling bands, can scarcely count in the way of protectors of the public at large, and any well-to-do looking person, unless armed with a pretty stout looking cudgel, out at midnight in any portion of Marylebone, must be prepared, at any moment, to find himself set upon by a gang bent on robbery – or, failing the same, even murder.

While the male rowdy prowls about, his female accomplice is by no means idle.

The policeman who should be near is quietly smoking a comforting pipe in some well-sheltered doorway, leaving his “beat” in the charge of the midnight footpad.


Complaints on the score of disorder are not lacking in Hackney-road, any more than they were in Gray’s-inn-road and Southwark-park-road. But in Hackney-road they were mainly directed against disorder of the kind which is the outcome of the existence of a music hall; and they chiefly emanated from residents in the centre of the thoroughfare, near which Seebright’s music-hall (which was reported to be in course of -rebuilding) stands.

This music-saloon seems to empty twice in an evening, about half-past nine and half-past eleven o’clock.

Then there turn into the road throngs of rowdy boys and girls and vicious men and women, who not only sing, scream, and shout at the tops of their voices, and knock each other about like clowns in a circus, but seek to convert the side streets into sewers.

This kind of behaviour is common in the thoroughfare until at least one o’clock in the morning.

“Between twelve and two o’clock,” said a resident, “the Zoological Gardens were pleasantly quiet by comparison.”


Since the music-hall was closed, the inhabitants have recognised a great improvement in the state of the road in the evenings; and many of them anticipate the re-opening of the Seebright saloon with the profoundest regret.

“The language used is awful, and the disorder is disgraceful,” said one good lady, who explained that in consequence she had to change the bedrooms of her children from the front to the back of the house.

In the words of a tobacconist, “This is a warm quarter at night,” especially when the music-hall is open.

Our representatives also heard certain clubs described as centres of disorder, especially on Sundays.

One good citizen, who reminded us of Sir William Harcourt, exclaimed, “Lord send that the clubs could be stopped!”


There is little reason to doubt that for much of this recrudescence of violence and ruffianism Sir Charles Warren is directly responsible.

The roughs of the criminal type, the ruffians who form the rank and file of the predatory gangs, are almost always the bullies or “ponces” of prostitutes. They live upon these women, and work hand in glove with them in plundering the public.

Now, it is one of the most distinctive features of Sir Charles Warren’s Chief Commissionership that he has resolutely refused to allow his constables to assist the vestries in suppressing disorderly houses in which these criminals have their lair.

We are not advocating, and have never advocated, a wholesale crusade against houses of ill fame.

But we have always maintained that when a house, whether moral or immoral, becomes a centre of disorder and of crime, it is the duty of the police to co-operate with the local authorities to suppress that centre of disorder, not because of the unchastity of its occupants, but because of the nuisance and disorder which they occasion.

Sir Charles Warren, preferring to use his police for the suppression of orderly meetings rather than for the suppression of disorderly houses, refused to allow his men to keep observation on those houses when their assistance was invoked by the parish authorities.

A portrait of Sir Charles Warren.
Sir Charles Warren, The Metropolitan Police Commissioner. From The Illustrated London News, 1st May 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Twenty-one out of the forty-one vestries of the metropolis united in a deputation to the Home Secretary on December 2, 1887, to protest against Sir Charles Warren’s conduct.

Mr. Matthews, as usual, professed to sympathise, and snubbed Sir Charles Warren publicly. He said that his Chief Commissioner could not have meant what he said.

Letters, however, were produced from Scotland-yard by Lord Hobhouse showing that the police had absolutely refused to assist the local authorities in the prosecution of disorderly houses.

Mr. Matthews, however, insisted that his version of Sir Charles Warren’s order was the true one, as it would be outrageous and illegal if it meant what it said.

Now we have in the Chief Commissioner’s report, just issued, a fair test of the value of Mr. Matthews’s assurance.

The Home Secretary was quite positive in his declarations to the vestries that the old system would be resumed, and that the police would watch those houses when they were disorderly.

A portrait of Henry Matthews.
The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews. From The Illustrated London News, 14th August, 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


But in the Police Report for 1887 just issued we find that Mr. Superintendent Steggles of Bow-street lets the cat out of the bag, and shows that the Chief Commissioner has calmly ignored the Home Secretary.

Says truthful Steggles, “The suppression of brothels is imposed on parochial authorities, and the police are not now allowed to be withdrawn from duty to watch such places, the Commissioner having considered the old practice of police being specially engaged at the instigation of vestries to keep observation on disorderly houses to be generally objectionable.”

That is Sir Charles Warren all over.

The Home Secretary tells him to his face before half the vestries of London that his conduct has been outrageous and illegal. Calm and undisturbed, he sets forth his opinion that the view of the Home Office and of the vestries is generally objectionable, and therefore he will pursue the outrageous and illegal course which he prefers.

But every one of these really disorderly houses is a centre and breeding-ground of crime and indolence and dishonesty and violence.

Need we wonder that disorder riots in our streets, when its nesting places are specially preserved by the order of the Chief Commissioner?”