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Den of Thieves in Whitechapel

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Den of Thieves in Whitechapel

Post by Karen on Mon 28 Feb 2011 - 23:01


There is a little street in Whitechapel, not far from the Commercial Road, and near the scene of one of Jack the Ripper's exploits - a narrow, dirty, evil-smelling, ill lighted street, which the police knew to be a den of thieves. It is one of the first places they visit when information reaches them of a large robbery, for if they may not lay their hands on the culprit or culprits just at the moment, they stand a good chance of getting clue of some sort to start operations with.
The thieves themselves take some pride in the street, they regard it as their special property, and if at any time a family who make their living in the orthodox fashion of working for it appear on the scene, the place is soon made too hot for them, and, consulting their own comfort, they move elsewhere. In this way the thieves have the street practically to themselves. Visits from the police they cannot avoid, but these are mere incidents of their precarious profession, and do not interfere with the internal economy of the place.
It is in this street that there has been founded a thieves' club, and there was a good deal of debate as to the time of meeting. Everybody agreed that in a community so engrossed in business as theirs, not more one night per week could be given up to social enjoyment, but the question was: Which night?
On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday thieves are always up to the ears in work, for the simple reason that these are the days when most people have money about them. Wednesday is early closing day with shopkeepers throughout the greater part of London, and in consequence is much prized by a certain influential class of thieves. When somebody proposed Friday, he was met with the objection that it is unlucky, and thieves, like gamblers, are notoriously superstitious. The choice thus became limited to Tuesday and Thursday - and as opinion varied between the two a vote was taken, when Tuesday secured the balance of favor.
So it is, therefore, that every Tuesday evening this strange company meet in their Alsatia and enjoy themselves in their own fashion. At times they become a trifle disorderly, especially when the malt gets above the meal, but on these occasions the authority of the chair, wielded as it is with a great amount of discretion, can usually control the disturbing elements, or at least patch up a temporary peace. At a pinch, the Chairman has been known to allow a stand-up fight between two men who were sworn enemies. Doubtless he did so as much for the benefit of the company as that of the disputants, for the inhabitants of this part of Whitechapel are just as fond of a bit of sparring as their neighbours.
But the staple amusement of the club is song, and let it be said at once that nearly every member can "do a turn." When anyone sings particularly well he gets something more substantial than rounds of applause, although he gets these, too, and in unstinted measure: he is treated to a draught of the "chairman's cup," as it is called - usually a gallon jar containing beer. The songs are generally of the popular theatre or music-hall order, picked up in most cases from the street organs. One or two members, however, have a turn for composition, and taking a tone familiar to the company, they sing it to words of their own. for instance, this is how "Tommy Atkins" was treated on one occasion by a young expert in the art of relieving ladies of their purses in omnibuses: -

You walk abroad in search of something sweet,
And you dress yourself in style both clean and neat.
You ask the copper when the 'bus goes by,
To take you to the City - oh, my eye.
For it really doesn't matter what's the route,
So long as someone's there that you can loot.
Once you've pocketed the purse, you don't have a single curse,
But off you go and have a jolly wet.


Oh ladies, dear old ladies, you're a blessing in the land,
You're the best of all companions when one's travelling down the Strand.
May your purses ne'er be empty, may the coin be sterling true,
God bless you, dear old ladies, here's a health to all of you.

The chairman himself is something of a musician. He frequently brings with him a flageolet, on which he performs with a considerable amount of skill. He is particularly strong on quick dance tunes, Irish jigs, Scotch reels, and the like, and these never fail to please the company, who are allowed to beat time on the floor - thus adding greatly to their enjoyment. Before I forget, let me tell you how on one occasion a veteran housebreaker, who in the days of Millbank Prison probably knew more about that puzzle of a building than the governor himself, rang the changes on the familiar song, "Off to Philadelphia." Here it is: -

My name is Tommy Hay,
I was born in Botany Bay,
Where at first the governor called me "little darling."
But ere I crossed the sea
He'd seen too much of me
And I left without the slightest sort of warning.


With his clothes upon my shoulder,
Made for one who was much older,
I left the dear old place that I was born in.
For I quickly took the notice,
Twas well to be in motion,
So, off I sailed for England in the mornin'.

There was a time when recitations were in favor with the club. That was when a little north country fellow with special gifts as a reciter enjoyed his liberty - he is now in gaol - and attended the meetings. This youngster comes of a family of actors. Both mother and father were on the stage at one time, and at the present moment he has a brother playing in a West-end theatre. Though less than five feet in height he affected tragedy and a deep voice, and liked nothing better than to recite the "Dream of Eugene Aram" or some stirring passage from the play of "Richard III."
Curiously enough, it was such heavy pieces as those that took beat with the club. But with "Little Joey," as he is called, "in prison pent," the taste for recitation seems to have died out. Dancing is and always has been in favor, particularly step dancing, in which many of the members are very expert. For this music is supplied by the chairman's flageolet. The existence of this strange club is, of course, well known to the police. Occasionally it happens that an officer looks in, perhaps in search of a prisoner, or perhaps just to see what is going on. "Little Joey" was taken at a meeting of the club. He was in the middle of a recitation when the detective appeared at the door, and although among the first to notice him, and although he probably had a shrewd suspicion as to his purpose, he made no sign, and went on with his recitation. The detective neither said nor did anything until the little fellow had finished and got his reward at the hands of the chairman. Then he took him prisoner.
I am told that members of the police force have shown so much good will as to contribute, upon more than one occasion, to the entertainment of the club, and in a limited degree to share its hospitality. This, of course, could very well be done without compromising the position of parties, for the understanding between them is well-defined and thoroughly carried out.

Source: Mercury and Weekly Courier, Thursday 21 May 1896, Page 3

Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"

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