Menace, Mayhem, and Moriarty!

Crime in Victorian London

By William A. Barton


As readers and admirers of the Great Detective of Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes (as well as his hated rival upon the Surrey Shore, Mr. Barker), we are all at least somewhat familiar with the seamy underbelly of Victorian London—that great city that lay at the heart of the British Empire. In fact, aside from the figures of Holmes and Watson, it is many of Holmes’ adversaries that we remember most from the 60 stories of the Holmes Canon. Who could forget, for example, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of “The Speckled Band”; the evil Stapleton, of Hound of the Baskervilles; John Clay, of “The Red-Headed League”; and, of course, the Napoleon of Crime himself, Professor James Moriarty (who looms quite large over the Sherlockian legend, even though he actually appears in but one story and is mentioned in only a handful of others).

But once past these major villains and some of their accomplices, as described in the Canon, how much do we really know about the Victorian underworld and its sinister denizens? Suppose that you (or I) were to be transported through time and space to the seamier sections of the East End of London during Victoria’s reign. Would we know enough about the inhabitants of those mean streets, whether law-abiding or otherwise, to be able to recognize potential danger when it greeted us with light fingers or a heavy, blunt instrument? What do we, in fact, know about the very real world of Victorian crime at the heart of the Queen’s empire—outside the confines of the Sherlockian Canon? Well, whether you know a little or a lot, it is my hope that this talk today will add to your knowledge about the world of the Victorian criminal.

Now, when we talk about Victorian crime, the first thing that you need to realize is that it wasn’t some unified, monolithic organization, completely controlled and regimented by the likes of a Professor Moriarty or Colonel Sebastian Moran. The criminal underworld in Victorian London was, in fact, quite complex and diverse—as well as wide-spread. Although most violent crime occurred primarily in the East End — in the labyrinths of lower-class regions such as Whitechapel, Spitalfields, and Limehouse — even the posh residences and fashionable clubs of the upper-class West End often felt the sting of the cracksman, the swindler, the macer, or the broadsman (these last two being, in Victorian slang, a cheat and a card sharp, respectively).

Crime and Criminals

Most Victorian criminals worked alone or with an accomplice or two, although criminal gangs and mobs, such as the notorious Swell Mob, weren’t uncommon throughout London during Victoria’s reign — giving at least some credence to Conan Doyle’s portrayal of Professor Moriarty as the controlling force at the center of a vast web of crime. Given the increasing pressure from the police on one side, and the threat of poverty and near-starvation that many criminals faced on the other, the community feeling that the Victorian underworld developed among its ranks was hardly surprising. Victorian criminals, in fact, often referred to themselves as members of “The Family” — precursors to today’s true criminal families, such as the Mafia (which already existed at the time) and similar organizations.

With few exceptions, the criminal classes of London arose mainly from the lower classes. And yet the Victorian criminal belonged to a class all his own. The distinctive criminal slang in use among Victorian criminals, especially among those whose territory centered around the East End, gives testimony to that fact. Much of the criminal argot used among Victorian criminals developed prior to Victoria’s reign – in Georgian and even earlier times. (Fans of Charles Dickens have read about the criminal elements of  Georgian London in such novels as Oliver Twist.) This criminal argot came from numerous sources — Cockney slang, Tinker’s Cant, Romany, Costermonger’s slang, and others. Criminals used it as underworld shorthand to confuse the police and other outsiders and to identify one another — especially if engaged in crimes outside their regular territories.

Even the types of criminals and the crimes they committed bore colorful names in Victorian criminal argot. A mugger, for example, was a rampsman. Someone passing counterfeit money was dubbed a smasher. A hunter was a common street robber, while anyone selling stolen goods wasn’t a fence but a duffer. A palmer was the term used for a shoplifter. Nobblers and punishers were the names given those among the underworld who inflicted bodily harm, often in the form of severe beatings, to anyone transgressing the Victorian criminal’s “code” — especially those serving as informers to the police (known as blowers). The most vicious of these were labeled bludgers, from their use of bludgeons in their bloody work. Some criminals were particularly specialized in their crimes, with titles to match. Snoozers, for example, stole luggage and belongings from hotel guests while the latter slept. Skinners were women who made their living luring children into alleys, stripping them, and selling their clothing, leaving their frightened young victims naked in the  street.

The most common criminal type in London’s underworld was the ubiquitous pickpockets, known variously as dippers, drunken-rollers, mobsmen (if operating with a mob), or mutchers. Very skilled Pickpockets gained the moniker toolers. These crafty criminals roamed the streets and frequented all the special events of Victorian London, ranging in shapes, sizes, and ages from young street arabs to grizzled old “retirees,” the latter often posing as disabled Army veterans. Unsuspecting Londoners — and visitors — suddenly called on to catch or hold up a swaying drunk falling against them on a street corner often found themselves missing watches, wallets, and other valuables after helping the poor unfortunate wretch. Pickpockets frequently disguised themselves as beggars, too, relieving victims of somewhat more than the charitable souls intended.

Thanks to the legacy of E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, the cracksman, or burglar, probably most typifies in popular thinking the Victorian London criminal class. The competent cracksman could gain access into just about any house or building, armed with the special tools of his trade. These included the jemmy (a small crowbar for wrenching open windows and doors), the cutter (a tool for cutting holes in woodwork), betties (lockpicks), a jack (for removing iron bars), a dark-lantern, a knife (for cutting glass), and a rope (for use as a ladder). He kept these tools wrapped in list (strips of cloth) for easy disposal should apprehension by the police appear imminent.

Cracksmen normally worked alone; some, however, used a lookout, known in the underworld as a crow (a canary if female). Cracksmen sometimes entrusted their tools to a crow or canary until reaching or after leaving their targets for the night. That way, they avoided suspicion should they end up caught in a police sweep. (Although the accomplice often faired poorly in such a situation.)

For protection, cracksmen frequently carried a weapon known as a life-preserver. Although the term could apply in Victorian times to any sap or blackjack, the cracksman’s version consisted of a small lead or steel ball attached to a short length of rope or gut that fastened to the wrist. The weapon thus remained handy while freeing the cracksman’s hands for such tasks as picking locks, cracking safes, and scaling walls.

Cracksmen specializing in safe-cracking were known as screwmen. Screwmen usually carried another instrument called a Jack-in-the-box. This tool could pry open all but the strongest safe doors. By century’s end, many screwmen had also become quite adept in the use of such explosives as nitro-glycerin and even dynamite to further their trade.

Although London criminals were often well-armed, usually their weapons were restricted to knives, life-preservers, and similar items. Firearms weren’t difficult to obtain, but their possession was considered a serious offense by the law. Criminals caught after using firearms in committing a felony could probably forget about any leniency in court — not that such a prospect deterred the hard-core criminal, who frequently had little to lose.

Fortunately, although crimes of violence against London’s citizens were hardly rare, three-quarters of all criminal offenses recorded in the city were against property, without violence. That’s why, as cheap as life was in the East End and other lower-class areas, such extraordinary crimes of violence against even the poorest Londoners caused such a sensation, as was the case, for example, with the notorious Jack the Ripper, a case I’ll briefly cover a bit later in this article.

Flashhouses and The Rookeries

Victorian criminals had a wide range of places to congregate, whether just to “hang out,” as we’d say today, or to take refuge from the long arm of the law — whether that took the form of the police constables of the Metropolitan Police Force on their beats (also knows as “bobbies” or “peelers,” from the founder of the MPF, Sir Robert Peel, as well as by less-flattering names to the criminals of London) or the plainclothes inspectors of Scotland Yard. (As a Sherlockian, I’d like to be able to claim that one of the generic terms for a Scotland Yarder was a “lestrade,” but that would be fibbing.) One such place where Victorian London’s criminals spent their time away from “work” was the flashhouse, a safe haven where criminals could fence their ill-gotten goods and where those new to the streets could learn their trade. Flashhouses thus acted as a sort of School of the Criminal for Victorian London’s underground.

The rookeries of London were nests of alleys, courts, and dead ends within an enclosed part of town that one could reach only by one entry point. Although they were most common in London’s’ East End, rookeries often existed within blocks of even the most exclusive neighborhoods, especially at the beginning of the Victorian era. The rookeries were usually home to London's worst forms of lowlife. Cheap lodging houses attracted not only the destitute, but also thieves, prostitutes, and other criminals. These dark mazes provided the perfect hiding places for the lawless, because outsiders — mainly the police — quickly found themselves lost. The original rookery was a triangular district bounded by Bainbridge Street, George and High Streets, and St. Giles. From 1850 through 1890, new thoroughfares were relentlessly carved through the old rookeries. By the end of the Victorian years such renovations and civic-improvement projects had all but wiped out the rookeries that characterized Georgian and early Victorian London (and played such a vital part in the tales of writers such as Dickens).

Victimless Crime

Not all types of crime in Victorian London were violent or resulted in the loss of valuables. What many today call “victimless” crimes – especially drug use and prostitution – were either not crimes at all or were usually overlooked by the constable on the beat. (Most of today’s illegal drugs were quite legal during Victoria’s reign, and most Victorian prostitutes who spent the night in the local gaol did so for rowdy behavior induced by excessive drunkenness or for such crimes as shoplifting and other petty thefts.) Even so, both prostitution and drug use left in their wake countless victims ravaged by alcoholism, social diseases, and addiction.


Prostitution was undoubtedly the most common “victimless” crime in Victorian London. By mid-century, an estimated 80,000 prostitutes were working the streets of London, and the city contained some 6,000 brothels. Some social reforms occurred by the 1890s, often instigated by private organizations such as the Salvation Army, but the overall situation in the East End had improved very little even by the end of the Victorian era. A glass of gin and a few pence — and often, just one or the other — was sufficient to purchase the services of any of the area’s poorest streetwalkers for the night. Even in the worst sections of Whitechapel, women operating out of a brothel under the relatively benign guidance of a madam were far better off than those working the streets.

These often-wretched street women went by a variety of names among the underworld (many of which are unprintable), including buors, ladybirds, or troopers. Amateurs and streetwalkers who worked only part-time were often dubbed dollymops. Prostitutes who were especially good at their craft – and better looking than most of their sisters -- were more able to attract higher-class customers, known to them as toffs. These women were called, accordingly, toffers. The spectacle of square-rigged swells (or high-class dandies) roaming the East End’s gaslit streets, seeking surreptitious assignations with these prized ladies of the night was anything but rare throughout the entire Victorian period — and beyond.

The Adventuress

The common London streetwalker’s lot was hardly enviable. But Victorian society also spawned a different type of “lady of the night,” more fortunate than her lower-class sisters of the East End. Such a woman often attracted the continuing patronage and protection of an aristocrat or wealthy squire — a situation sometimes resulting even in marriage. The Victorians knew these “higher-class” prostitutes by the popular euphemism of “adventuress” (or, on the Continent, demimondaine). These women — who were usually bold, intelligent, and talented — often frequented the more fashionable sections of the city, dressing in the newest styles from the Continent, strolling arm and arm with their wealthy patrons on a jaunt to the opera or a gala society affair, or riding the purebred steeds they’d earned as tokens of affection from their aristocratic paramours. (Hyde Park was a particular favorite place for these high-class “ladies of the night” to ride their horses and see and be seen by the aristocracy—and perhaps even find a new and richer paramour.)

Many Victorian adventuresses were, in fact, looked on as popular heroines by society’s otherwise straight-laced scions (although mainly by the men and not the women, who often feared the adventuress as a potential rival for their husbands’ affections). Middle-class women often dreamed of becoming as fortunate as the daring adventuresses, many of whom also enjoyed prominent careers in the theater or opera. Among the best known of Victorian adventuresses was singer Lillie Langtry, sometimes companion of the Prince of Wales.

Of course, the most famous of adventuresses to Sherlockians is Irene Adler, “THE woman” of “A Scandal In Bohemia,” who was loosely based on Langtry and epitomized the adventuress as seen in popular fiction. Other real-life adventuresses, such as the notorious “Skittles,” were well-known and generally accepted throughout most of Victorian society.

Opium Dens and Drug Use

One modern crime — the possession, use, or sale of various drugs — wasn’t a crime at all during Victorian times. Such drugs as opium, cocaine, and morphine were quite legal and often prescribed by Victorian physicians and apothecaries to ease their patients’ pain. An especially popular prescription of the day was laudanum, an addictive tincture of opium and alcohol, which Victorian doctors routinely prescribed and Victorian chemists (what we’d call pharmacists today) routinely dispensed.

Opium dens, too, flourished throughout London’s East End – especially in the Chinatown areas of Limehouse. (Although opium use wasn’t really native to China, as many supposed. Most Chinese opium came from British India, and Britain fought two Opium wars with China in the early Victorian era to keep the opium trade flowing.) How could we Sherlockians ever forget the opening scenes in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” for example, in which Watson encountered a disguised Holmes in an East End opium den, for a moment fearing that the Great Detective had added this drug to his repertoire of “mental enhancements.”

Those seeking chemical enhancement for almost any purpose could, in fact, openly purchase cocaine and similar drugs at the local chemist’s shop. (Even Sherlock Holmes, as we all know, occasionally used a 7% solution of cocaine to relieve his boredom when his brilliant mind wasn’t engaged a case, although fortunately, Dr. Watson eventually weaned him of the habit.) It wasn’t until the 20th century that the use and possession of most drugs of this nature were outlawed.

One other type of quite legal “drug use” often resulted in a crime in Victorian England, however – drunkenness. In 1871, in fact, almost one-third of all convictions throughout England and Wales involved drunk and disorderly charges.

Prisons and Gaols

Now, of course, one hazard of being a part of the Victorian criminal underground was the very real possibility of ending up in jail (or gaol as it was sometimes spelled) or, worse, one of the Queen’s prisons. Several prisons within London, in fact, served as holding places for the city’s criminal elements – as well as, all too often, for those whose only crime was poverty. I’ll briefly cover a few of these, just to give you an idea of where the least-successful elements of the criminal class spent their “leisure” time.

King’s Bench

King’s Bench Prison in Borough High Street, Southwark, for example, was originally built as a debtor’s prison. It was a profit-making institution until it was taken over by the Home Office in 1877. Before that, prisoners had to pay the marshal and his gaolers for their keep. If they paid a large sum, they could even serve their sentences within a three-mile radius outside the prison walls. Prisoners also had to pay a release fee at the end of their sentences. If they couldn’t afford the release fee, they had to remain in prison until it was paid.


Newgate was London’s chief prison and place of execution during the first half of the 19th century. Londoners could pay £10 for a seat at the windows overlooking the gallows. Public executions were abolished in 1868, however, and prisoners were thereafter hanged inside, out of view, until 1901. Newgate also served as the principle holding prison for those being tried at the Central Criminal Courts in Old Bailey in Central London.


Millbank Penitentiary was a large London prison, located in Westminster along the banks of the Thames until 1893. It was demolished that year and replaced by industrial buildings and a museum. If you look on maps of Victorian London from before that year, you can see it’s unique shape sitting along the Thames—looking very much like a daisy or similar flower. (Conditions inside, however, as was true of all Victorian prisons, bore little resemblance to anything remotely floral.)

Other London Prisons

Among the city’s other institutions of incarceration were City Prison, Coldbath Fields, the House of Detention (in Clerkenwall), and Pentonville, to name just a few. Woe be to the London criminal who ended up in one of these less than forgiving institutions.


Before closing, it seems appropriate that I mention at least briefly the two most notorious Victorian criminals in fact and in fiction: Jack the Ripper and Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime.

Jack The Ripper

As aficionados of the Victorian Age, in general, and of Sherlock Holmes in particular, we are all no doubt at least passingly familiar with the short but bloody career of the as yet unidentified (at least to everyone’s satisfaction) fiend know as “Jack the Ripper.” The Whitechapel killer butchered five women—prostitutes all—in London’s East End in less than three month’s time. (Of course, some count the actual number of the Ripper’s victims as anywhere from six to seven to several dozen, not only in London but across the world. As the official police file on Saucy Jack listed only five definite Ripper victims, however, we’ll stick to that figure—which is quite horrific enough, I believe.)

Now it wasn’t only the viciousness of the Ripper’s attacks that disturbed the Victorians—brutal slayings in which he generally slit his victims’ throats from ear to ear, sliced them open, and joyfully removed their internal organs, sometimes leaving them strewn about the body and other times taking parts of them with him, perhaps as gruesome souvenirs. The Victorians were used to brutal and senseless murders, especially on the East End. But the fact that the first murder wasn’t a random killing, but the initial one of a series, made Jack’s spree a relative novelty for the day. He was undoubtedly, if not the first serial killer ever, the first one that achieved national — and even international — notoriety.

Who was Jack the Ripper, and why did he do what he did? Although theories abound, to this day, no one really knows. And that is probably why the Ripper’s dark fame is so enduring. Whether you believe that the Whitechapel killer was a mad doctor, a ritualistic black magician, part of a Masonic conspiracy to protect the crown, or a demented prince of the realm (one of the least likely theories, I may add) — or any of at least a dozen other theories battered about — we’ll never know for sure. Unless, that is, new evidence comes to light. (And no, despite such hoaxes as the so-called “Ripper Diary,” or attempts to identify century-old DNA on some of the questionable Ripper letters, none has to date.)

And that’s all I’ll say about Saucy Jack . . . for now. (I’ll return to this topic, however, in a future paper.)

Professor Moriarty — the Real Deal

As Sherlockians, we are, of course, all quite familiar with Sherlock Holmes’ greatest nemesis — Professor James Moriarty, the “Napoleon of Crime,” as Holmes describes the villain to Watson in “The Final Problem.” But was Moriarty merely the product of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fertile imagination (and, please, no cries of blasphemy here)? Or was he perhaps based on a very real master criminal, one who would also be declared the “Napoleon of Crime” by Scotland Yard’s Sir Robert Anderson (although not until 1907)? The answer? Yes. (To the second question, of course.)

Most Sherlockian scholars now agree that Moriarty was based on a real Victorian criminal, one Adam Worth, an American of German and Jewish ancestry, born in Germany in 1844, who grew up in Massachusetts and, by some accounts, learned the criminal life on the streets of New York. Worth rose from his humble beginnings to create a vast criminal empire stretching from the United States to England, France, and South Africa. In 1876, while living in Mayfair, London, under the alias of Henry J. Raymond, Worth stole a valuable Gainsborough painting owned by the Duchess of Devonshire from right under the noses of Scotland Yard.

Worth was pursued for decades by both the Yard and by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. (Unfortunately, no real Sherlock Holmes was available to track down the wily criminal mastermind.) He was finally captured in Belgium in 1892 while attempting to hijack a bank van. He spent the next seven years in a Belgium prison and died penniless in 1902. A far more ignoble end than was granted by Doyle to the fictional Napoleon of Crime.

Worth’s life of crime, however, was quite colorful; he even had his own nemesis in the underworld — a safecracker who fancied himself as “Baron” Max Shinburn (who also appears in the Holmes stories, fictionalized as Baron Gruner in “The Illustrious Client”). But, again, that is a topic I must leave for a future article.

Thus ends our all too brief survey of crime in Victorian London.


For Further Reading

The following titles can provide additional information about London’s colorful criminal classes. (All but the Thomas book and perhaps the MacIntyre, however, are out of print, so you’ll need to look for them in the library or through an online used-book service.)

The Anti-Society: An Account of the Victorian Underworld, by Kellow Chesney (Gambit, Inc., 1970).

The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, by Ben MacIntyre (Farrar, Straus, Girox, 1997).

London’s Underworld, by Henry Mayhew; edited by Peter Quennell (Bracken Books, 1983). (Not really about Victorian criminals per se, but a good review of London’s lower classes, from which most criminals came.)

The Complete Jack the Ripper, by Donald Rumbelow (New American Library, 1976). (A good, general survey of the Ripper, his crimes, and the theories about him, although it doesn’t include some of the newest ones.)

The Victorian Underworld, by Donald Thomas (New York University Press, 1998).

Urban Crime in Victorian England, J.J. Tobias (Schocken Books, 1972.)


Note: Parts of this article originally appeared in Cthulhu By Gaslight by this author, published by Chaosium, Inc. Some parts may also appear in the forthcoming GURPS Gothic Victorian sourcebook from Steve Jackson Games.