Queens of the Underworld

The idea behind the book

Popular culture is littered with famous criminal men – from Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, to Ruby Spark, Billy Hill, 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 Lawrence, for example, was an elegantly dressed diamond thief of the 1860s, while Elsie Carey was an Eton-cropped gang girl of the 1920s. Noreen Harbord was the postwar Queen of the Contraband Coast, while Zoe Progl was Britain’s No. 1 Woman 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.

Queens of the Underworld will reveal tales 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, skippering yachts or running illegal empires. But crime has traditionally been regarded as a male pursuit, and so 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.

Meet some of the Queens

‘Why crouch over the fire with a pack of gossips, when the highway invites you to romance?’ Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse (below), pickpocket, fence and ‘masquerader’ who ran an Insurance Office on Fleet Street. She turned her home into a warehouse for stolen property, many of it pinched by her thieves, which she sold back to robbery victims for a finder’s fee. She died a wealthy woman in 1659.

‘My Dear, it is a very cold Night, suppose you, this young Woman and I, were to go to a House, I know you will be so good to give us a Dram this cold Evening.’ Ann Duck, notorious street robber and member of the Black Boy Alley Gang, based around Chick Lane in Holborn, London. She worked with other women in the gang, pretending to be prostitutes in order to commit crime, and was arrested and acquitted 19 times for theft, assault and highway robbery.

 

‘No hero of romance was ever more famous,’ Ann Gregg, one of Cumberland’s most determined felons, first convicted in 1777. She was jailed in at least ten prisons, escaped four times, and used over a dozen aliases.

‘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 Lawrence, diamond thief who committed robberies in Paris and London, described by a fellow Millbank prisoner. Emily had been a domestic servant but knew how to ‘come the lady’ and in January 1860, at the age of 21, she stole a diamond locket from a Mayfair shop worth the equivalent of a quarter of a million pounds today.

 

‘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 (left), as described by Lloyd’s Weekly. Mary was born in Holborn, London, in 1862 and by time she reached her twenties, she was the Queen of the Forty Thieves, working as a blackmailer, thief and fence. She fitted the profile of the ‘born criminal’, as identified by Victorian criminologists, apparently intent on pursuing a life of vice and crime.

 

‘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. Helen took over the role of queen from Mary Carr, she was a ‘dangerous character,’ according to police, and ‘fatally alluring’ to men.

 

‘It was more exciting than anything I thought I’d ever do…for once in my life I was boss,’ American Celia Cooney, describing a spate of New York grocery store robberies in 1924. The twenty-year-old became a criminal celebrity and, along with her husband Ed, evaded arrest for nearly four months – despite the largest ‘manhunt’ in New York’s history.

 

‘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 (left) and her lieutenant ‘baby-faced’ Maggie Hughes in the 1920s.

The women masterminded military style raids on department stores, from London’s West End to Newcastle, from the city centre of Manchester to the shopping districts of Derby and Bristol. The press and police portrayed Alice Diamond as an ‘Amazon’, and the ‘tallest woman criminal in London.’

 

‘This nimble-brained young woman is organising county robberies by motor-car on a large scale’, Lilian Goldstein, the Bobbed-haired Bandit started her career as a getaway driver for smash and grab raiders in the early 1920s. The police tried – and failed – to convict her over a 15 year period, but Lilian was a ‘female Jekyll and Hyde’ and able to change her appearance at a moment’s notice. Detectives described her as ‘a very spunky girl.’

 

‘She openly taunted that in crime she was the equal of any man,’ Blonde Alice Smith, jewel thief, hailed as the Queen of Crooks in 1923. She too was a mistress in the art of make-up, a Chameleon Countess who eluded the British bobbies.

 

‘A cunning and dangerous thief and a menace to the community,’ Elsie Carey (supposedly pictured left), the 1930s Eton-cropped leader of a bandit gang. Born in Canning Town, London, in 1910, she started shoplifting as a teenager, then progressed to shopbreaking.

After her arrest in Oxford in 1937, Elsie appeared in court wearing a squarely-cut blue reefer coat and a white silk men’s muffler – and from then on she was known as ‘Lady Jack.’

 

 

‘A coffee coloured beauty’ and ‘the worst woman in London,’ Queenie Day, arrested at Margate’s Dreamland in 1937. Queenie was a Londoner, the youngest of seven children, who became a thief, housebreaker and burglar – as well as chorus girl, dance partner and dance hostess. She was known to some as ‘Coloured Queenie’.

 

‘If there was going to be any monkey business, I decided we would fight it out,’ Noreen Harbord (below), The Queen of the Contraband Coast, describing her escape from a pirate attack on the French Riviera in the summer of 1949. Noreen was a former debutante, born in South Africa, who swapped her seat at Ascot’s Royal Enclosure for a life smuggling gold on the high seas.

 

‘Of course crime pays – it’s getting caught that’s the fucking problem,’ Shirley Pitts, co leader of the 1950s The Happy Hoisters Gang, who became known as the Queen of the Shoplifters. Born in Lambeth, London, in 1934, she started stealing food for her family as a child, received shoplifter training from Alice Diamond, and went on to enjoy a 40 year career as a professional hoister.

 

‘Playing the part of the happy little domesticated wife was a big bore,’ Zoe Progl (left), Britain’s No.1 Woman Burglar and Holloway Prison escapee. Zoe was also born in Lambeth, in 1928, and broke into her first house at the age of 13. She pursed a varied career, robbing a Post Office of the equivalent of half a million pounds, kiting with stolen chequebooks, stealing lorries and selling their contents, and burglary. At the age of 32, she made criminal history by climbing over the wall of Holloway Prison and going on the run for 40 days.

 

 

‘The only two good things about prison was that it taught me to reject capitalist values and it turned me into a feminist. That hadn’t been the Home Office’s plan, of course!’ Jenny Hicks, convicted of defrauding the Post Office of a quarter of a million pounds in 1975.

 

‘My criminality was the result of rational choice, nobody had coerced or cajoled me into it,’ Chris Tchaikovsky, (below) leader of the 1960s & 70s The Happy Firm, an international fraud gang. Chris was born in Newquay, Cornwall, in 1944, and described herself as an outlaw, outsider and rebel from an early age. After her third imprisonment in Holloway, she co formed Women in Prison, in response to the treatment of women behind bars and became a leading penal reform campaigner of her day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘God, it was always such a good feeling, such a rush to the brain,’ Joan Hannington, the ‘Godmother’, describing a diamond theft in the 1980s. Joan refined methods first used by female jewel thieves in Victorian times, stealing rings worth up to £50,000, and also became known for her ability to swallow diamonds.

 

‘This wasn’t no nickel-and-dime shit, I was becoming as good at getting people’s money as the men on Wall Street,’ Doris Payne (below), American diamond thief, whose criminal career lasted from 1952 to 2017. In 1975, she made a flying visit to London where she stole diamond and emerald earrings from Garrard & Co, jewelers to the Royal Family.

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Criminal Theories

 

Criminal theories on female crooks have been repeated over and over again. Women have been portrayed as too weak, vain and stupid to commit crime. On the other hand, they have been depicted as dangerous, natural born liars.

 

‘The born female criminal is ‘doubly exceptional, first as a woman and then as a criminal. This is because criminals are exceptions among civilised people and women are exceptions among criminals…As a double exception, then, the criminal woman is a true monster,’ Cesare Lombroso, the ‘father’ of criminology, 1890s

 

‘The principal parts assigned to women by criminal associations are those of spy, decoy, and watcher…burglary, requiring skilled labour, is beyond her,’ Harry Ashton-Wolfe, Investigator, the Marseilles Scientific Police Laboratories, 1920s

 

‘The menopause seems to bring about a distinct increase in crime, especially in offenses resulting from irritability, such as arson and breaches of the peace,’ Otto Pollak, The Criminality of Women, 1950

 

‘The phenomenon of female criminality is but one wave in this rising tide of female assertiveness…technology and the women’s liberation movement have equalized the capacity for male crimes, including violence,’ Freda Adler, Sisters in Crime, 1975

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Delving into the Archives

It’s always hard to trace women, and it’s even harder with criminal women because they did their best not to be found – frequently changing their names, dates of birth, address and next of kin.

Their biographies often have to be built from scratch, by searching birth certificates, baptism records, marriage certificates, census records, wills, deed polls, electoral rolls, death certificates and probate records.

Here’s Alice Diamond in the 1911 Census of England and Wales, along with her parents and siblings. They were living in Southwark, South London. Alice was 14 years old and working as a servant. The following year she was arrested for stealing chocolate, and by 1920 she was Queen of the Forty Thieves.

Many of the Queens can be found in institutional records, such as workhouses, Houses of Mercy, industrial schools, reformatories, remand homes, approved schools, borstals and prisons.

Here’s Emily Lawrence, the Victorian jewel thief, in Millbank Prison records for 1868.  She’d been convicted of stealing a gold and diamond necklace in Brighton. Her conduct inside the prison was reported to be ‘atrocious’, and she was repeatedly locked in the punishment cells.

Criminal records can provide important clues, but they often need to be accessed under a Freedom of Information request.

Here is Mary Carr‘s entry in The Central Criminal Court’s Calendar of Prisoners for 1896. She was convicted for kidnapping, and the record shows she was previously jailed for stealing a watch and chain, under the name Eva Jackson.

 

The Queens can also be found in media reports, with the press painting a vivid image of female crooks. But their stories were frequently misreported, the truth was twisted and quotes fabricated. ‘I guess when the newspapers don’t know anything,’ said American Bobbed Haired Bandit Celia Cooney, ‘they just make things up.’

 

Some Queens can be found briefly mentioned in crime history books or memoirs written by former detectives, which often repeat inaccurate stories that were first published a century earlier. The basic facts are often wrong – including nationality and marital status.

A few queens wrote their own stories, especially in modern times, but as with all criminal memoirs there tend to be a lot of gaps and omissions. Names are changed, events embellished, scores are settled.

The best source, and the hardest to find, is modern day relatives and contemporaries who are willing to share what they know about a Queen of the Underworld. I’m grateful to the descendants who agreed to speak with me.

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Thanks to the Society of Authors for a grant to research this book (information about grant applications here) and to Susan Leggett, a researcher with Bob O’Hara Public Record Searches.