Visitor Safety in Regency London

Visitor safety in Regency London was important because many such London visitors had no idea what to expect and did not realize that from the moment they boarded the stage to London until the minute they returned home, they were “eyed by the crafty, the wicked, and the designing.” To help naive visitors safeguard themselves against cheats, pickpockets, and swindlers, advice was available. Some of the more valuable advice was don’t be a country bumpkin, watch your bags, don’t get tripped, look and listen, avoid street crowds, don’t window shop, don’t get bumped, walk correctly, and be wise, aware, and prepared.

Regency London

A pickpocket and his accomplices. Public domain.

Don’t Be a Country Bumpkin
Among the tricks played on the unsuspecting country bumpkin was smashing. It consisted of exchanging bad money for good, and sometimes, coachmen, guards, clerks, and waiters were guilty of it. Unscrupulous men also hung about inns pretending to be useful or selling and buying articles and passing bad money. Drivers, mostly “short stage and hackney coachmen; the latter of whom [were] mostly ‘turned-off characters'” sometimes gave bad money in return for good when providing change. It was a favorite trick because the victim usually did not discover it until much later.

Watch Your Bags
In Regency London one piece of advice to ensure visitor safety was to watch out for certain thieves who would purloin a visitor’s boxes or baggage immediately upon their arrival at an inn. These thieves earned their living by what they could snatch and were said to be “upon the kedge.” They accomplished their thefts when travelers left their bags lying about “promiscuously” in the yard. They also used a technique where a thief would approach passengers pretending as if they knew them. The thief would turn with a smile, pick up a bag or bundle, and pretend to head towards the inn. However, once out of sight, the thief bolted with the goods.

Don’t Get Tripped
One scheme, known as “Tripping Up,” was accomplished by knocking a visitor off balance. It occurred “either with a stick, which was thrust between the [victim’s] legs, or by kicking the heels of the party.” As the victim attempted to maintain his or her balance, the thief would grab the unbalanced person’s bag or enter their pocket. Another more violent trick that threatened visitor safety was known as “knocking down” and was accomplished similarly. However, it involved a fist or a bludgeon. There were also thieves who would walk one in front of the other, with the front thief throwing himself down as if he tripped. As the tripped thief was helped to rise, the unsuspecting prey lost whatever was in his or her pockets.

Look and Listen
At dusk and after dark visitors needed to look and listen, particularly if walking in dangerous areas. One piece of advice to ensure visitor safety was that if you were walking with someone else to do so at a distance — six to eight yards — apart. This was because it would take twice as many attackers, and if you were separate, one person could seek help. Additionally, attacks often happened after thieves used a prearranged signal. Sometimes the signal was a bird call, a whistle, or even a song, and, when given, it meant the perfect prey had been found and the attack would begin.

Avoid Street Crowds
Pickpockets were admired for their dexterity, and they loved crowds, thus, places like market places, fairs, or traveling shows, such as Madame Tussaud‘s, were favorite haunts of these thieves. They also loved people who assembled for an event, gathered around a fainting woman, or watched a horse take a tumble. This provided the exact distraction the pickpocket needed. While everyone’s focus was elsewhere, the pickpocket and his accomplice lifted pocketbooks, money, or watches. That was why London visitors were advised to “steer clear of assemblages in the streets, by going round them or pressing rather rudely through them, whereby you become the assailant [similar to a pickpocket].” This idea of steering clear of danger was based on the old saying “the dog will not eat the dog.”

Street Crowd Pickpocket in Operation, Public Domain

Street crowd pickpocket in operation. Public domain.

Don’t Window Shop
During the Regency era window shopping was an easy way for women to become victims of crime. Apparently, when 18th century pocket hoops were used to extend the shape of a gown and allowed wearers to carry fans, handkerchiefs, or other possessions in their pockets, there was no easier pickings for a pickpocket. That was because thieves could easily slash a woman’s pockets loose. However, when pocket hoops fell out of fashion, it still did not deter thieves. Thieves just used other tactics to gain what women carried by using one short and one tall thief. The short thief would hide between the tall thief’s legs. When the thieves were near their target, the short fellow would spread the woman’s petticoats and using a knife or cutting blade, slice her pockets and drop her treasures into his hand.

Don’t get Bumped
Hustling was a daring and sometimes violent crime. It was usually performed at dusk or after dark and most frequently practiced in the fall. Thieves also never targeted more than one person at time. To accomplish a hustle, the target was violently bumped, as if by accident. Additionally, when bumped, the target’s arms were forcibly held down, while the accomplice who was pretending to be a true gentlemen, withdrew the victim’s watch, money, or pocketbook. If in the process the thieves were accidentally knocked down, it was even better. Both got up, begged pardon and departed as quickly as possible. “The sufferer, in adjusting his dress, then … [discovered he had been] robbed.”

Walking Correctly
There was also a certain way to walk to avoid being pegged as a visitor. Regency visitors to London were told to walk on the right side of the street from St. Paul’s toward the Royal Exchange because they were next to the wall. If they walked on the other side of the street, they had to walk on the curbstone. When walking on the curbstone pickpockets noticed the person was visitor and purposely instigated an altercation. One thief would pretend to support the visitor while the other thief stole the visitor’s pocketbook or watch. To avoid such a theft, the conclusion was “it is better to walk a little out of the right path, than run the risk of being directed wrong.”

Be Wise, Aware, and Prepared
Visitors were perfect targets for thieves because thieves could pretend to be of assistance to them. So, the best warning to ensure visitor safety was for visitors to be wise, aware, and prepared. Cheats, pickpockets, and swindlers hoped to take advantage of naive visitors by offering what appeared to be friendly gestures, but these friendly gestures were a thief’s way to get the visitor off guard. Therefore, the following advice given to Regency women equally applied to Regency men: “when … performing … an act of civility, you receive a squeeze of the hand, a thrust of the elbow … or a card of address, — learn that no good is intended: it is nothing more or less, than an attack on your purse.”

References:

  • Perry William, The London Guide and Stranger’s Safeguard Against the Cheats, Swindlers, and Pickpockets that Abound Within the Bills of Mortality, 1818.

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