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Blag Ladies - Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

If you’re into crime and history then you’re no doubt aware of Peaky Blinders, the truly excellent gangster series. A show that just oozes cool. Well I’m here today to talk to you about a gang that is way cooler. Not only are they damned sight more glamorous, they’re all girls, and they’re real. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you “The Forty Elephants” – come on BBC, why is there no TV series of these?

The Forty Elephants were a shoplifting gang whose heyday we can trace back to the 1870s although there is evidence to suggest that they go back even further into the late 18th century, which means they pre-date the mafia. How cool is that?

The name comes from their original area of operation which is the London Borough of Elephant and Castle and these were formed from the wives, sisters, girlfriends etc of the local slogging gang ‘The Elephant Mob’ – and their crimes were initially based around still keeping a life going when the husband is languishing in jail. Which, for the Elephant Boys, was a regular occurrence.

Initially they started out shoplifting high end department stores and clothing stores. Basically how they worked was by adding to their dresses that one thing that I’m led to believe most women want in dresses… that being pockets.

Department stores and window displays were a new thing at the time and while it did make the store more attractive to passing shoppers, it also means that valuable and attractive items were much more accessible to wandering elephants.

As they wandered round the likes of Selfridges and others they would lift jewellery items and secrete them in the pockets of their dresses, and in coats, muffs, skirts, hats and even underwear, and it was absolutely unheard of to search a respectable woman.

This is part of the reason for the success of the gang. They appeared like respectable women of means and as such didn’t immediately arouse suspicion.

In fact, shop assistants and floor managers would fall over themselves to fulfil the every whim of a rich-looking woman. The taller the hat, the more dressed the hair and the more confident the manner, the richer she looked…. And they’d use that to their advantage.

Leader of the gang Mary Carr operated under a number of aliases but was well known to both the police and most of the department stores, but again she could turn this to her advantage. She would walk into a department store and every clerk, floor manager and store detective would watch her like a hawk, thus paying absolutely no attention to the other 5 girls that had come in behind her. One 19-year-old rookie was caught one time and was found to have over 40 items secreted in her clothing.

A later member Maggie Hughes used this technique to lift a £600 fur coat. After asking to see a great many products and asking a great many questions Hughes had enough time and enough misdirection to place the coat under the one she was wearing. It took 30 minutes for the store to notice that it was gone…. By which time so was Maggie… long gone.

Far from being ladies just stealing clothes, once they’d pulled the heist they didn’t keep the stolen property long. Once out of the stores they quickly offloaded the merchandise to many of London’s network of fences. You had to actually catch them red-handed and have the arrest right there or both the girls and your property was gone… and like we said. Nobody dare search the ladies.

A London Detective said at the time: “their methods were so remarkable that they had never been seen to take any goods and none of the taken property had ever been recovered.”

At the death of Mary Carr, the formidable figure of Alice Diamond or “Diamond Annie” became Queen of the Forty.

Diamond Annie was born in 1886 in Southwark and like her predecessor, was born into a criminal family. By the age of 17 she already had a string of thievery convictions and in 1905 had been arrested using a fake identity to gain access to an ammunition factory. Although her reasons for this have never been proven it was widely suspected she was after explosives and ammunition. At 5’ 8” she curt a formidable figure and she usually wore several diamond rings on each hand which made impromptu, but elegant, knuckle dusters… which she didn’t mind using.

The police at the time described her as having a “punch to be reckoned with”. You can see why the Elephant Boys thought she’d fit right in can’t you?

Annie expanded the operation to include cells set up across Britain and opened up blackmail, protection and burglary as a side-line. The younger elephants who were not going to pass as wealthy wives were placed as servants in wealthy houses, usually with fake references. Whilst undercover there they would rob the household valuables, and in some cases seduce the man of the house before demanding a hefty payment for their silence.

If a thief stole something from a store on their turf then he (or she) would be paid a visit and reminded that the Elephants should have their percentage… and this was all backed up by the muscle of the Elephant Boys for, you know, when things needed enforcing. Non-compliance led to beatings or kidnapping.

But, despite the violence they lived a lavish lifestyle, or as Annie called it ‘they put on the posh’. It involved wild parties, copious amounts of champagne and you could see why lower class girls would dive into this life. One retired elephant said “If you’ve got to be crooked, it’s not a bad life”

There was a behaviour code amongst the ladies including “No drinking before a raid” and “always provide another member an alibi in the event of arrest”. No member was to be left high and dry in the arms of the law, although to be fair they were that slick they were very rarely arrested.

Maggie Hughes was arrested once out of sheer dumb bad luck. In 1923 she did a grab on a tray of 34 diamond rings from a store and ran out… …straight into a policeman. She got 2 years inside for her trouble. It didn’t reform her character at all.

The trouble was, it was Annie’s rules that really triggered the process of Annie’s downfall. One of her rules was very much “no outsiders”, for obvious reasons, but when Marie Britten left the gang to marry outside the firm a posse went round on the offensive

As Marie refused to give up her new husband Diamond, Hughes and two other elephants Gertrude Scully and Bertha Tappenden went round to the house armed with bats, straight razors and Annie’s ‘punch to be reckoned with’. They put rocks through the windows and forced their way in, given the new husband a right beating and maliciously wounding Britten’s new father-in-law before the police arrived and the four were arrested. The trial was all over the newspapers. They each got 18 months hard labour for malicious wounding.

Let’s remind ourselves here, these are criminals. They are not pleasant people.

Although the newspapers, particularly the Illustrated Police News trumpted that this had broken the gang up this was not the case. It was not going to operate under Diamond Annie’s leadership again, on release from prison she became a brothel manager, but the gang did continue. Step forward Lilian Rose Kendal a.k.a. the Bob-haired bandit.

Kendall looks every bit the femme-fatale and glamour-girl but, like the others, she too had lived a life of crime from an early age. This extract from the Illustrated Police News in 1920 highlights a Hackney jeweller Henry Goldstein who is ‘living off the immoral earnings of Lilian, who is not yet eighteen years of age.

It is not specified what sort of immoral we’re talking about here. and she brought a new style of theft to the gang. Ramraiding. She blasted her car through the window of Cartier in Bond Street and made off with a fortune in jewels. The police tried, for 15 years to convict her, but she could always outrun them, she’d leave no evidence that could prove beyond reasonable doubt and she was remarkably good at changing her appearance.

There are signs that the gang continued throughout the war, long-time gang member Ada Wellman was sent down for 4 months in late 1939, but changes in clothing styles from the 40s onwards meant fewer places to hide items and lower profits for the gang. Added to that, without Diamond Annie’s leadership the gang never really got back to its heyday heights.

Diamond Annie died on April 1 1952 having contracted Multiple Sclerosis….

The gang is now mainly forgotten, and completely fictional gangs get all the fame. But then, given they left behind a trail of violence, theft and extortion maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating them.

I’ll let you judge.

Want to know more about the forty elephants? Pick up a copy of the book by Brian McDonald, 'Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants'.

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