In the 1700 and 1800s times were hard. Orphans, street children, or the very poor sometimes became apprenticed to men who dabbled in the art of pickpocketing. Two well-known, but fictional pickpockets, Fagin and The Artful Dodger, were made famous in Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Similar to Dickens’ characters, young pickpockets needed to be skillful so as to not find themselves sitting in jail or worse, hanging from a noose.
Many young pickpockets, often called natty lads, were extremely adept at sleight of hand. Francis Grose in his book titled 1811 Dictionary in the Vulgar Tongue described the art of pickpocketing. “The newest and most dexterous way, which is, to thrust the fingers strait, stiff, open, and very quick, into the pocket, and so closing them, hook what can be held between them.”
These natty lads did not learn the art of pickpocketing on their own. Henry Mayhew claimed in his book London Labour and the London Poor, children, sometimes as young as five years old, were taught by older thieves. One method to train future pickpockets was to have “a coat … suspended on the wall with a bell attached to it … the boy [then] attempts to take the handkerchief from the pocket without the bell ringing. Until he is able to do this with proficiency he is not considered well trained.”
Child pickpockets abound between the 1780 and 1840s. They flourished in London where approximately one-tenth of all England’s population resided. London was the perfect site for pickpockets because of its overcrowded streets. School was also not compulsory and with parents working long hours, children were often left on their own. Such freedom encouraged some children to spend time learning the lucrative trade of pickpocketing.
Skilled pickpockets knew they had a slim chance of getting caught. However, if pickpockets did get caught, they might be executed. England had no professional police force until 1829, and, so, to deter crime, many petty criminals were executed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Sometimes natty lads worked alone and other times they worked in swarms on Newton or Dyot Streets or in St. Giles Parish, which according to Grose were “the grand head-quarters of most of the thieves and pickpockets about London.” They also plied their trade at crowded venues, such as racetracks, festivals, Smithfield market, or at public lectures. In these crowds, pickpockets misdirected and distracted unsuspecting victims so as to pick their pockets. Then they shared their proceeds or lack of proceeds, depending on their skill, with their accomplices.
One famous London pickpocket during the Georgian and Regency Eras was George Waldron, alias Barrington. He got into a quarrel with a school mate at the age of sixteen. Barrington stabbed the school mate. This resulted in Barrington’s school master flogging him. Barrington then ran away, adopted the name of Barrington, and joined a traveling theater company. When the company ran short of funds and needed traveling money, “the manager prevailed upon Barrington to undertake the profession of a pickpocket. … He then commenced [in this endeavor by] … affecting the airs and importance of a man of fashion.”
The gentleman pickpocket, as Barrington came to be known, had some short-lived success. However, he was eventually caught, convicted and sentence to hard labor on the Thames. Finally, on 27 September 1798, officials transported him to Botany Bay. On his way he subdued a mutiny. So, when he arrived at his destination, officials “appointed [him] superintendent of convicts.” After that Barrington gave up pickpocketing and lead an exemplary life.
- d’Enno, Douglas, Brighton Crime and Vice, 1800-2000, South Yorkshire, 2007
- Early American Crimes: Pickpocketing, on Early American Crimes
- London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1, 1851
- McAdoo, William, The Procession to Tyburn: Crime and Punishment in the Eighteen Century, 1927