The idea behind the book
Popular culture is littered with famous criminal men – from Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, to Ronnie Biggs and the Kray brothers, they’ve become folk heroes, glamorized and romanticized, even when they killed. They’ve inspired books, films and TV, been the focus of academic research and study. But what about all the criminal women? Where are the highwaywomen and jewel thieves, the bank robbers and gold smugglers, the motor bandits and burglars? Did they never exist, or have they just been forgotten?
I’ve been fascinated by the portrayal of women criminals ever since I wrote The Ghost of Lily Painter based on the true story of two Edwardian baby farmers who were executed at Holloway Prison. But until I started writing Bad Girls: a History of Rebels and Renegades I had heard of very few famous female criminals, aside from those charged with murder. Then I was given exclusive access to the archives of Holloway Prison and began to discover members of a forgotten criminal aristocracy.
Emily Laurence, for example, was an elegantly dressed diamond thief of the 1860s, while Lady Jack was an Eton-cropped gang girl of the 1920s. Norah Price was the postwar Queen of the Contraband Coast, while Zoe Progl was Britain’s No. 1 Female Burglar of the 1960s. I had never heard of any of these women. They may have been infamous at the time, but since then their careers have been ignored, twisted, dismissed, and buried. This is my chance to set off on a journey to rediscover their stories. I know more women are out there; now I just need to find them.
Queens of the Underworld will reveal the incredible tale of female criminals from the 17th century to the present, including Moll Cutpurse who ruled the Jacobean underworld, Ann Duck and the 18th century Black Boy Alley Gang, and Mary Carr who led the Forty Thieves in Victorian times. These women, like their successors, were professionals who were respected, revered and often feared. They were outlaws in both a legal and social sense – defying laws made by men and flouting the rules of feminine behaviour.
The Queens of the Underworld broke down barriers in their pursuit of crime, whether wearing trousers, driving racing cars, or running illegal empires. Crime offered escape, as well as independence, adventure and wealth. They were unrepentant women who reveled in their criminality – the thrill, risk and rewards. But because crime has traditionally been regarded as a male pursuit, female criminals have been dismissed as either not ‘real women’ or not real criminals, and in the process their stories have been lost.
If you were asked to write a list of Britain’s most famous female criminals how many could you name?
The women chosen for the book will not be murderers – the very few women who kill have been endlessly covered – and they will not be victims. Instead they will be professional criminals who were at the top of their game, the women who were once Public Enemy No.1.
After nearly two years of intermittent research, I’m now writing the first draft of the book. Here are some women and quotes gathered along the way:
‘Why crouch over the fire with a pack of gossips, when the highway invites you to romance?’ Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, pickpocket, fence and ‘masquerader’. Died a wealthy woman in 1659.
‘Sir, it being so late, you had better stay here Night, for fear you should meet People, and be knock’d down and robb’d…’ Ann Duck, The Black Boy Alley Gang, highway robber. Executed 1744.
‘A powerful woman, who makes her appearance on the road after dark, and robs…with the greatest impunity,’ Crusty Poll, operated near Banbury in the 1820s.
‘A famous, real tiptop, high-flying dona; she was in all the big things a-goin’, Emily Laurence, notorious diamond thief, described by a fellow Millbank prisoner in 1860.
‘She was noted for her good looks and engaging manners and managed to get round her a gang of young women who gave her complete obedience as their leader,’ Mary Carr, the first Queen of the Forty Thieves, born 1862.
‘I am a lady, what do you mean, you scoundrels, by interrupting me?’ Fair Helen, Queen of the Forty Thieves in 1906, upon her arrest at a funeral.
‘Their past records, too long to quote here, make one gasp for breath,’ The Illustrated News on the activities of the Queen of the Forty Elephants Alice Diamond and her lieutenant ‘baby-faced’ Maggie Hughes, in the 1920s.
‘A cunning and dangerous thief and a menace to the community,’ Lady Jack, the 1930s Eton-cropped leader of a bandit gang who ‘dressed like a man’.
‘A coffee coloured beauty’ and ‘the worst woman in London,’ Queenie Day, arrested in Margate 1937.
I’m grateful to the Society of Authors for a grant to research this book. Information about grant applications here