New research from Beezy Marsh unveils post-war London’s violent girl gang, the Forty Thieves

The tall, well-dressed woman lingered by the rail of fur coats in Selfridges, a row of diamond rings glinting on her fingers.

In the lean years after World War II, such beautiful sables cost more than six months’ wages, so the shop assistant busied herself with another customer, assuming only a wealthy lady could afford to browse.

But in the blink of an eye, the woman had snatched a fur, rolling it into a bundle, then quickly pulling open the waistband of her skirt and stuffing it down a leg of her bloomers, which were elasticated at the knee to help hold her loot. 

Then she calmly strolled away.

By the time the assistant realised the fur had gone, Alice Diamond, the Queen of The Forty Thieves, was relaxing in the back of her Chrysler in Oxford Street, sharing a joke with two of her ‘girls’, who had stuffed their pockets full of silk stockings in their spree.

It was just another day for London’s most notorious girl gang, which targeted high-end shops in the first half of the 20th century. 

The Forty Thieves offered girls from the roughest London slums a chance to carve their own lucrative path on the wrong side of the law.

For London’s gangland in the years around the war was not just a man’s world. And, as I discovered while researching my new novel Queen Of Thieves, some of their antics made the Peaky Blinders look like choirboys.

Some of London’s The Forty Thieves’ antics made the Peaky Blinders look like choirboys. Pictured: The female cast of the hit BBC show Peaky Blinders

The gang was ruled by Alice Diamond, born in Lambeth Workhouse, who stood 5ft 10in tall and had a punch as strong as a man’s, using her diamond rings like a knuckleduster.

Her ‘hoisters’ (shoplifters) dressed like film stars, with beautifully coiffed hair. 

But they carried razors wrapped in lace handkerchiefs and thought nothing of whipping out a hatpin to blind or maim anyone who crossed them – from the police to rival gangsters.

Yet they could be caring, standing up for wives whose husbands frittered the housekeeping on drink or were handy with their fists behind closed doors.

A Hoisters’ Code of loyalty dictated rules such as having an early night before ‘going shopping’, handing over all they pinched to the Queen in return for generous weekly wages, and never stealing each other’s boyfriends (bad for morale).

Anyone who crossed them paid a heavy price. In 1925, a man and his teenage son who had offended the gang were knifed and beaten with iron bars on the orders of Alice Diamond, who led the attack.

The gang probably had its roots in the Victorian slums around Seven Dials, near Covent Garden, infamous in Dickens’s day. 

But by the 1930s, the breeding ground for its recruits was South London. 

The grim terraces of Waterloo and the tenements of Elephant and Castle provided plenty of girls desperate enough to join The Forty Thieves.

Many started as child lookouts. One such member was Lilian Goldstein, who was known as the Bob-Haired Bandit.

Notorious for high-speed getaways, she was eventually caught stealing lingerie and sentenced to hard labour in prison.

A photograph of Lilian Rose Goldstein, known as the Bobbed-Haired Bandit, circa 1926. Notorious for high-speed getaways, she was eventually caught stealing lingerie and sentenced to hard labour in prison

A photograph of Lilian Rose Goldstein, known as the Bobbed-Haired Bandit, circa 1926. Notorious for high-speed getaways, she was eventually caught stealing lingerie and sentenced to hard labour in prison

The years just after World War II were a boom time for the gang, as clothing was rationed until 1949. 

Even decent folk were often only too happy to ‘take a bit of crooked’ to have something new.

Mothers would hide hoisted clothes in their prams and move them to pubs, where they were sold on. 

Tallymen, who sold goods door-to-door, would shift them across London.

At her kitchen table, Alice would teach her girls how to roll furs on the hanger and shove them down their drawers, which the gang called ‘clouting’. 

Alice herself was famous for clouting three furs in one go: one down each leg and one under her gusset.

She would send her girls out in teams of three or four at least three days a week, to stores all over London and as far afield as Birmingham and Brighton.

Jewellery was a favourite target, as it was easy to hide up a sleeve – rings could be switched for worthless fakes. 

Mink stoles and furs were the top prize, but some of the gang stole silverware and one even put on a maternity girdle to pinch an entire china tea set.

The gang passed on their secrets from mother to daughter, aunt to niece, so whole generations of families saw crime as a way of life.

The notorious gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser told me his sister Eva had risen through the ranks of the gang after joining in the 1930s. 

‘Any girl worth her salt in South London in those days was a hoister because they could outearn us men two to one,’ he said. ‘And they were the best fun for a night out.’

Various members were eventually caught, though — and served their time in Holloway prison, where rations were meagre and they slept on boards.

Eva Fraser got six months for stealing stockings from Bentalls in Kingston upon Thames. 

But when her brother Frankie was in prison, she helped to run his protection rackets in Soho and even sent her daughters to collect payments, as the police would not stop a child.

A mugshot of Forty Thieves' Maggie Hughes, who was uncontrollable and dissipated by drink

A mugshot of Forty Thieves’ Maggie Hughes, who was uncontrollable and dissipated by drink

Eva knew the Krays well and they treated her with reverence, although she saw them as little more than naughty boys. 

She had known their father, who was a fence (seller of stolen goods) or a ‘thieves’ ponce’ – he would put up the money to finance criminal operations – which was a career on which she looked down. 

If you weren’t actually stealing, you were outranked by The Forty Thieves.

When Frank Sinatra came to London in the early 1970s, he made a special visit in his limo to Eva in her little terrace house in South London to pay his respects.

One hoister, Maggie Hill, was the sister of 1950s gang boss Billy Hill, who claims in his memoirs to have had half the Metropolitan Police and a barrister on his payroll.

Maggie, a drunkard, stabbed a policeman in the eye in 1938, while fleeing a shop with stolen goods.

She was jailed for two years but when the judge said, ‘Send her down’, she winked at him and replied: ‘You didn’t say that to me last night, your Honour.’

By the 1950s, the gang were facing ever-present store detectives and had to rely more on disguises. 

Some became pals with young actresses as they partied in Soho nightclubs and stole dresses to order for them to wear on the red carpet.

Sometimes the hoisters’ lives became entangled with those of underworld bosses through affairs, family ties or marriage. Yet they fiercely guarded their right to ‘earn’ their own money.

Even now, the hoisting tradition carries on in some families. One descendant was taught to steal as a young girl in the 1970s by a relative who had been taught by Alice Diamond in the 1930s.

‘They didn’t see anything wrong in it because these things were too expensive for most people to afford and shops had insurance. And I felt the same way,’ she said.

‘My gran liked to go for tea at the Ritz, especially if she could pinch someone’s fur coat from the cloakroom on the way out. She was still hoisting well into her 70s.’

This smartly dressed woman in her 50s looked respectable. 

Yet she laughingly told me: ‘The only thing that isn’t hoisted is my knickers. And I still have my gran’s hoisters’ drawers. I have used them!’

Queen Of Thieves, by Beezy Marsh, is published by Orion Dash as an e-book on August 22 for £2.99; and in paperback on September 23 at £9.99.

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