The idea behind the book
Popular culture is littered with famous criminal men – from Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, to 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 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 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 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, 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
After two years of intermittent research, here are some Queens gathered so far:
‘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’. 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.
‘No hero of romance was ever more famous,’ Ann Gregg, one of Cumberland’s most determined felons, first convicted in 1777.
‘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, 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 (left), 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.
‘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 store robberies in 1924.
‘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 (below) and her lieutenant ‘baby-faced’ Maggie Hughes, in the 1920s.
‘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 in 1925.
‘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
‘A cunning and dangerous thief and a menace to the community,’ Lady Jack, the 1930s Eton-cropped leader of a bandit shop-breaking gang who ‘dressed like a man’.
‘A coffee coloured beauty’ and ‘the worst woman in London,’ Queenie Day, arrested at Margate’s Dreamland in 1937.
‘If there was going to be any monkey business, I decided we would fight it out,’ Norah Price (left), The Queen of the Contraband Coast, describing her escape from a pirate attack on the French Riviera in the summer of 1949.
‘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.
‘Playing the part of the happy little domesticated wife was a big bore,’ Zoe Progl (below), Britain’s No.1 Woman Burglar and Holloway Prison escapee, 1960.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
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
Delving into the Archives
It’s always hard to trace women, and it’s even harder with criminal women who did their best not to be found.
The Queens have been left out of most crime history books, films, documentaries and exhibitions – so their stories often have to be built from scratch.
Some can be found in official documents, such as birth certificates, census records, wills, and electoral rolls. Here is the register of birth for Alice Diamond, Queen of the Forty Elephants, in 1896:
Many can be found in institutional records, whether workhouses, remand homes, borstal or prisons.
This is the Millbank Prison record for Emily Lawrence, the Victorian jewel thief, in the 1860s:
But the records aren’t necessarily accurate – most Queens used at least one alias (some had over a dozen), while they frequently changed their ages and place of address.
Criminal records help to build up a picture, but often these need to be accessed under a Freedom of Information request.
The media paints the most vivid image of female crooks, but stories were twisted and quotes were made up.
Some queens can be found briefly mentioned in crime history books (such as those on my bookshelf below), which often repeat inaccurate stories that were first published a century earlier. A few queens wrote their own stories, but there tend to be a lot of gaps and omissions….
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 Society of Authors for a grant to research this book. Information about grant applications here
Thank you to Susan Leggett, a researcher with Bob O’Hara Public Record Searches.