The Gangs Of Mile End

The East End of London before and after the murders carried out by Jack the Ripper was widely – and, in many ways, justifiably – widely perceived as being a hotbed of villainy.

Gangs posed a major problem to the residents of the locality, and, on Saturday, 27th April, 1889, one of the local newspapers – The East London Observer – published the following special report aimed at highlighting how a particularly active gang of miscreants was operating with seeming impunity – and with little fear of the police – around the Mile End Road.


“For some considerable time past, we have been the recipients of numberless complaints regarding the unprotected condition of that portion of the main East End Road extending between the Paragon Music Hall and Baker’s Row.

The invariable tenor of the complaints made is to the effect that the portion of the Mile End Road thus indicated is infested with a gang of professional pickpockets and thieves, with whom the police seem utterly inadequate – to use no stronger term – to cope, that they practice their vocation with impunity at all times of the day and night; and that repeated complaints made to the police seem to have no deterrent effect whatever upon this marauding gang.

An East London Observer reporter, bearing these facts in mind, made it his business this week to endeavour to find out the facts of the case for benefit of such of the general public as have up to the present time been ignorant of the existence of this haunt of crime.

A photograph showing Mile End Road.
Miles End Road In The 19th Century.


To confess  the truth, he did not start his investigations with an entirely unbiased or unenlightened mind, for he has a very vivid recollection of how, on the occasion of the recent visit of the Lord Mayor to the Great Assembly Hall in the Mile End Road, he was surrounded by the members of the gang, of how – to use the expressive words of Harry Anderson, the comic vocalist – “they were all over him in about two seconds,” and finally, of how he was left, in a remarkably short space of time, minus his scarf pin and his loose cash.

A general inquiry amongst the residents of the neighbourhood, together with a personal investigation, elicited the fact that the junction of the Cambridge Road with the Mile End Road is infested at all times of the day and night with a gang of thieves, all of them more or less known to the warders of our prisons – some of them respectably and even well dressed, and others, technically known as ” blockers,” whose business it is to form a crowd round the victim selected for robbery, and to distract his attention, equally shabbily-dressed.


A well-known ex-detective, with whom our reporter formed an acquaintance, pointed out to him on Thursday evening no less than seven men who were loafing around the junction of the two roads, of whom five at least had passed, he said, through his hands, and had at different periods “done their bit of time ” for having – not to put too fine a point upon it – mistaken other people’s property for their own.

“This place,” said the ex-detective, “is well-known as being the resort of many East End thieves, and that public house” –  pointing to an adjacent building – “was equally well-known in my time as being their favourite retreat.

Whenever a robbery occurring along the road here was reported at headquarters, my first visit was invariably to this spot, and in nine cases out of ten I have been able to trace my man here.

“It is useless,” he added, “to blame the police for not more actively interfering in the matter; the people who are to blame are the magistrates who let these men off when they are caught, with lenient sentences, and the authorities of the Arbour-square and Bethnal Green police-stations.


This point here marks the boundary between the beats of the  ‘J’ division men and the ‘H’ division men, and when, as is not infrequently the case, one station trusts to another to supply men for the beat, it generally happens that the other station is equally dependent on its colleagues, and, between the two, there are no men at all on this particular piece of ground.

Matters have been only slightly remedied since the establishment of the new bank here. Knowing the dangerous character of the place, the bank officials have put a special man on to guard their place, but as his business only relates to the bank premises, I suppose he doesn’t concern himself with anything else.”


“Are you aware of any gang of thieves hanging around here?”, asked the reporter of a barman who, for the past eighteen years, has served behind the bar of one of the public-houses near the junction of the two roads.

“Well, rather, or you wouldn’t see that notice there,” replied the barman, as he pointed to a large notice on the window threatening with prosecution any loafers hanging round the tavern.

“But that notice is little more than a farce,” said the reporter, ” for there’s a gang hanging round outside the place now.”

“But what can we do?”, asked the barman. “The men we know to be thieves, and scarcely a night passes but that one or more robberies take place. As soon as the gang see a policeman they simply move off the pavement on to the piece of waste adjoining the road, and as they are not obstructing the thoroughfare, the police can’t touch them.

Nearly everyone around this place, including myself, have either been robbed at one time or another, or attempts have been made to rob them. It was only the other night when coming home from the Pavilion Theatre, and when near here, that a gang of three young fellows attempted to get my watch and chain, but they failed, and I gave one of them something to remember me by.”


“About eight months ago,” said Mr. Chas. Taylor, auctioneer, of Mile End-road, whom our reporter first visited, “at about two o’clock one afternoon, my father was standing just beside the brewery gate over there, when three men seized him. One man knocked him down, another seized his watch, while a third gave him a kick which resulted in a long illness. The condition of the road here,” he added, “is nothing more or less than scandalous. You are continually hearing cries of “Stop Thief!” but the police are seldom to be seen till long afterwards.”

Mr. W. Batchelor, the secretary of the Beaumont Club, is one of the latest victims. Last week, in the broad daylight, he was getting on a tramcar, when two or three “blockers” hustled him in an apparent attempt to get on the tramcar, and a few minutes later, Mr. Batchelor found himself minus his watch.

This system of “blocking” the tramcars is, apparently, one of the latest and most successful dodges of the gang, knowing as they do full well that when the victim is engaged in getting on the car his attention is sufficiently distracted as to make him an easy victim.


Some time ago, Mr. Miller, the former proprietor of “The Blind Beggar” public-house, was standing at his door, when his watch was seized by some members of the gang.

Mr. Bevan, his successor, has also suffered at the hands of the same people, for it was only recently that one of the gang made a raid on his till, for which the thief received the severe (?) sentence of two weeks, the policeman who took the charge professing not to know the thief, although he was generally known as having been a notorious character.

Two years ago, near the same place, Mr. Bell, of 8, Mile End Road, was, at three o’clock in the afternoon, robbed of £8O, and one of the notes, which was afterwards traced, was found to have been in the possession of one of this notorious gang.


Some months ago, Mr. Myers, the printer, of Whitechapel Road, was seen by some of the gang to enter his house.

Seizing their opportunity, they immediately knocked at the door, which was opened by Mr. Myers, and, taken off guard, his watch and chain were both seized, and the thieves had cleared away before he was able to raise an alarm.


Continuing their operations farther down the road, some members of the gang entered the “Three Crowns” in Mile End, and managed to seize the watch of Mr. Williams, the manager.

Mr. Saunders, the proprietor of “Three Compasses”, on Sidney-street, is another victim, his watch having been stolen near the Cambridge Road, but a smart detective having been put on the case, he managed to make matters so warm for the gang that, a day or two later, the watch was returned.

Mr. J Anderson, a neighbour of Mr. Saunders, was scarcely so lucky, however, for his watch disappeared by the efforts of the same gang, never to return.

About four o’clock one afternoon, now some time ago, Mr Massina, of the firm Messrs Massina, Roper and Mead, based in the Mile End Road, and his watch parted company near Newcastle Place.

About the same time, Mr A. Furness, of Eastbury Terrace, was relieved of his watch by a member of the gang near Cambridge Heath Gate, but a smart chase resulted in the capture of the culprit.

A little further up the Mile End Road, Mr. Baxter, of the Mile End Vestry, was robbed of over £20 in broad daylight by another member of the Mile End “gang.”


It is between Cambridge Road and the Paragon Theatre, however, and among the crowd of people that usually assemble outside the Great Assembly Hall that the light-fingered members of the gang reap a rich harvest of purses.

They may usually be recognised by their long coats, and by the fact that their hands are invariably in – what are apparently – their pockets, but which are, in reality, merely openings through which their hands are inserted, and, by means of which, and under the cover of their large coats, they are easily enabled to remove the purses of women.

Nearly a dozen empty purses were found lying only the other day beneath an oyster stall on the Mile End Waste.

These are but a few instances, which could be very easily multiplied, of the recent depredations of the gang, and, for the purpose of making the case more complete, we shall be glad to receive the particulars of any recent robberies that have been committed in the same neighbourhood.”