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Meet The Forty Elephants, The All-Girl Gang From London

A unverified picture of the gang

When we conjure up images of crime gangs, our minds often drift to Italian mobsters or Japanese Yakuza members, maybe Mexican or Colombian Cartels. However, there have been numerous gangs throughout history that haven’t received the same level of recognition. Consider, for instance, the Forty Elephants. Named after their territory in Southwark, the Elephant and Castle area in London.

The Elephant and Castle area of London, early 1900s.

Operating from at least the 1880s and possibly as far back as the 18th century, the Forty Elephants gang thrived in London until the 1950s. During the 1920s and 1930s, the gang enjoyed a robust partnership with the Elephant and Castle Mob, marking the peak of both groups. However, unlike the mob, the Forty Elephants gang consisted entirely of women.

The members would often dress as housemaids in order to gain entry to wealthy homes, relieving the inhabitants of their jewels and other valuable objects. However, the gang’s specialty was covertly stealing from department stores with extreme efficiency.

Photographs from an 1916 article in Popular Mechanics showing the garments shoplifters wear to make their work easier.

Legend had it that a mere hour was all it took for a group of Forty Elephants members to clear out a store, skilfully concealing valuables in their numerous pockets. However, the gang had a particular fondness for fur coats, which became their signature style. Interestingly, rather than donning their stolen loot, the women opted for high fashion purchased outright with the proceeds from their illicit activities. Wearing the stolen goods was actually against the rules, known as the “Hoister’s Code” which also prohibited going out drinking the night before a big job or working with the police, among other things.

During that era, women in department stores were granted a degree of privacy, recognising that shopping for clothing or other items could potentially compromise a woman's modesty if certain protocols weren't upheld. However, this autonomy also provided an opportunity for the gang members to pilfer vast quantities of merchandise without detection.

Alice Diamond, also known as “Diamond Annie,” began leading the Forty Elephants Gang in 1916. Other members included Lillian Rose Kendall, also known as the “Bobbed-Haired Bandit,” left, and Florrie Holmes.

The most infamous figure at the helm of the Forty Elephants was Alice Diamond, better known as Diamond Annie due to her dazzling rings that lent her punches considerable force. Taking charge in 1916, Diamond Annie steered the gang to unprecedented success, consistently outmaneuvering law enforcement with remarkable efficiency. Despite numerous members being apprehended and prosecuted for minor thefts, often without any direct association with larger gang operations, many of the girls resumed their affiliation with the gang upon completing their sentences.

The Forty Elephants employed blackmail as a lucrative tactic, enticing affluent men only to later extort them for financial gain. This method was occasionally leveraged to call in favors and evade legal repercussions. Renowned for their resilience, many of these women were as formidable as any man when faced with threats. Conversely, the gang was also famed for throwing extravagant parties, indulging in the opulent nightlife of the 1920s and embracing the glamorous sophistication and champagne-soaked revelry depicted in 1930s cinema.

The alternative for nearly all of the members of the Forty Thieves would have been extreme poverty and/or a life of prostitution. This would have been particularly true for the 19th century members of the gang as class divisions in London during the 1800s meant there was almost no chance of rising from poverty without considerable help.

In the period between the World Wars, Diamond Annie served as the Queen of the Forty Elephants.

In the 1920s, the gang reached the pinnacle of their success and notoriety. Diamond instituted numerous clever tricks into the gang’s arsenal, ensuring that all thieves were equipped with secret pockets and flaps in their gowns to facilitate shoplifting. They were also early adopters of automobiles, making their getaways in the most glamorous models. They confounded police by handing off stolen goods to an unseen accomplice on foot before dashing off in a high-speed car chase; police were left befuddled when they caught up with the car and found it devoid of any stolen goods. Cars also allowed the members to expand their operation outside of London to nearby towns, all the better once Diamond’s and other faces became too well-known to local law enforcement to go incognito.

Ultimately, Diamond was undone by her increasing fixation on controlling the gang. The Hoister’s Code forbade members from doing anything against Diamond’s wishes, including marrying men she did not approve of. When a member defied her in 1925, Diamond led the gang in a brutal attack against the newlyweds so disruptive that it became known as the Lambeth Riot. For her role as instigator, Diamond was sentenced to 18 months in prison. By the time she was freed, a new queen had taken over. Diamond turned to a career managing a brothel, while still offering tutelage to aspiring young thieves. One of her protégées, Shirley Pitts, was the acknowledged queen of the gang in the 1960s. Pitts’s operation was on a smaller scale than that of her mentor. Changing fashions made it harder to stow shoplifted loot inside of clothing as stores increased security and surveillance.

Diamond Annie passed away at the relatively young age of 55 due to complications from multiple sclerosis. After leaving the gang, she became the madame of her own brothel.

Following her departure, the leadership of the gang fell into the hands of Lillian Rose Kendall, a true embodiment of the flapper era! However, by the 1950s, increased store security and the advent of sleeker clothing made shoplifting considerably more challenging, marking the eventual decline of the Forty Elephants' activities. Still, this is a story that's begging to be made into a film.



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