The Forty Elephants Girl Gang: London’s Seamy Underworld

Girl gangs are not a modern British problem and new research coupled with forgotten stashes of photographs and correspondence have indicated that an all female crime syndicate controlled London’s dark streets as far back as the 18th century. Gangs ruled different territories of the city, mostly male, but one all- female gang plundered and pillaged just as rapaciously as their male counterparts.

The Forty Elephants gang, also known as the Forty Thieves, was a ruthless brigand of women who ran the largest shoplifting racket in London. One member, Maggie Hughes, is seen below after she was jailed in 1923 for stealing 34 diamond rings. She was a busy lady; she used false references to obtain work as a housemaid to gain entry into homes where she could steal, and she blackmailed many married men who paid her substantial sums to keep quiet after being seduced.

According to Brian McDonald, author of a new book entitled Gangs of London:

“Many a husband lounged at home while his missus was out at work, and many an old lag was propped up by a tireless shoplifting spouse. Some of these terrors were as tough as the men they worked for and protected.”

The Forty Elephants often worked alongside the Elephant and Castle gang, an all male army of villains and thieves of all types operating across south London. The females were more organized, however, and their operations extended into other parts of the city and into others as well. A formidable queen always presided, and the gang was responsible for the largest shoplifting operation ever seen in Britain between the 1870s and the 1950s! Even more amazing, police records indicate that this gang has been in operation since the late 1700s!

The women would wear specially designed coats that were sewn with hidden pockets when they went on their sprees, stealing goods worth thousands of pounds. When their thievery became well known, they simply branched out to the country and seaside towns. They adapted quickly to change, and during the early 20th century, they used high-powered cars to outrun the police. When working in other towns, they also utilized the railroads depositing empty suitcases at train stations, which they filled with booty for the return trip.

McDonald said of these gangs:

“On the plus side, they threw the liveliest of parties and spent lavishly at pubs, clubs and restaurants. Their lifestyles were in pursuit of those of glamorous movie stars, combined with the decadent living of 1920s aristocratic flapper society. They read of the outrageous behavior of rich, bright young things and wanted to emulate them.”

It would seem that the netherworld of crime is and always has been “an equal opportunity employer.”

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  1. Pretty good post! love it! England is bad as# !! you walk in the wrong part of London and your chances of getting stabbed too death by 17 year olds is almost 70%.