Monday 22 January 2018

Diamond Annie and the Fearless Forty Elephants by Catherine Hokin

 Jewellery Displays at the Ritz Paris
In among all the Brexit misery and non-shuffling cabinet
re-shuffles that have dominated the press so far this year, there has been one story which has had more elements of farce than even the Prime Minister can conjure up: the recent jewellery heist at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. For those of you who missed it, a group of thieves (one dressed as a builder) armed with small axes smashed through a window and assorted display cases and stole items with a value of several million euros.

Not surprisingly their actions triggered the alarms: the hapless thieves (who were all known to police), ran, scattering their loot like confetti, and were pretty much immediately caught by security. More Wallace and Gromit than the Pink Panther. Perhaps they should have spent a bit more time studying history than the hotel layout and acquainted themselves with the shop-looting tactics of the Forty Elephants, a female-run gang which dominated parts of the London crime scene for almost two hundred years.

The gang worked out of the Elephant and Castle district and, although they are primarily documented between the 1870s to the 1950s, appear to have grown out of the Elephant gang of highwaymen operating around the area's Elephant Coaching Inn in the eighteenth century.

 Female Shoplifter
Their activities included blackmail and house-breaking but they were most notorious for ransacking department stores, including Selfridges and Whiteleys. Police reports describe thousands of pounds of clothing and jewellery being seized in a single swoop, to be stored away in deep pockets, muffs and the voluminous bloomers and crinolines of the period. Perhaps because of all the stowed loot, one report (in the 1925 San Jose Chronicle) reports many of the gang women as big handsome women about six feet tall. They are also described as fashionably dressed although the mention of razors in their corsages does cast a darker side on some of the rather glamourised reporting which focused on their good looks and excessive, partying lifestyle particularly in the 'decadent' 1920s. These girls were territorial and ruled their patch as much by violence as any of their male counterparts.

 Lilllian Rose Kendall, the Bobbed Haired Bandit
The gang seems to have been at its strongest in the 1920s and 1930s when they took full advantage of the newly available motor car to extend their operations beyond London and acquire get-a-way vehicles far faster than anything the police could manage. One police report describes how they would descend in taxis and limousines like a gang of locusts, stripping out a store within an hour. Others describe the arrest of one gang member at Whiteleys who had a bag hidden inside her clothes which hung from her waist to her knees and contained over 40 stolen items and one who used a false arm in her blouse. Techniques included the 'crush' where women crowded at a counter and then handed round or dropped items for others to hide. And fighting back, hard. During this period, the gang had its most famous queen: Alice Diamond or Diamond Annie as the police dubbed her after her jewel-encrusted rings which gave her a punch to beware of. Alice was born in Lambeth workhouse, came from a crime family and was a notorious shoplifter by her teens. She took over the gang in 1916 when she was 20, continuing to rule the mob even after she was imprisoned in 1925 after the 'Battle of Lambeth' when a dispute led to Alice leading an army of women armed with lumps of concrete and broken bottles into a brutal attack. The role of Queen passed next onto Lillian Kendall and the gang continued its operations into the 1950s.

Many of the women involved in the gang have colourful reputations but also stories of lives begun in terrible poverty. Alice was one of eight children born in the dreadful conditions of a workhouse and her father was a violent and illiterate petty criminal. Life had few choices for women in her position so perhaps the path the glamour-loving Alice chose is not so hard to understand. Last year it was announced that Marnie Dickens is developing a series for the BBC about the gang and its members - with so much 'glamour' involved it's easy to see why this could be a female Peaky Blinders but let's hope it tells a rounded tale. For anyone interested in finding out more, there are a number of books about the gang, including one by Brian McDonald whose uncles led the male Elephant and Castle gang who the Forty Elephants were linked to. It's quite a story.


Penny Dolan said...

Reading about these rip-roaring exploits, my immediate thoughts went to the Peaky Blinders success and to imagining the Elephant gang in development as a tv series. It seems others have too so I'll watch out for news of this drama, especially who will play Diamond Annie. Thanks for the post, Catherine.

Susan Price said...

I've never heard of the forty elephants! This blog s a gem itsself.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I hope as well the TV series looks at their background and circumstances as much as the obvious glamour. It would be a shame if it just became known as the female Peaky Blinders. Frankly male, female, London or Birmigham I wouldn't want to get in the way of any of them!