Historical Figures

Alice Diamond and the Forty Thieves

Last updated:2022-07-25

Leading the female gang Forty Elephants , Alice Diamond (1896 – 1952) staged shoplifting sprees and ruled underground London at the start of the 20th century.

First larceny

Daughter of Mary Ann Alice Blake and Thomas Diamond, Alice Diamond was born on June 22, 1896 at the Lambeth Hospice, today in Greater London, England. She is the eldest of seven children. His father is the subject of at least three convictions by the courts, including one for having seriously injured the son of the Lord Mayor of London by pushing his head through the glass of a door.

What we know of Alice Diamond's childhood, like what we know of her father, comes largely from court decisions. Alice's first theft dates back to at least 1912, when she was 15 or 16 years old. She and her classmate Mary Austin are caught stealing chocolates. She made her first stay in prison the following year.

The following years were dotted with convictions for theft. Beyond an escape from poverty and her father's example, Alice dreams of the chic and glamor of movie heroines, and a life of adventure and excitement. She's not even 20 yet when the police and the press make her the Queen of the Forty Thieves , Queen of the Forty Thieves, successor to Mary ‘Polly’ Carr.

The Forty Elephants

Alice Diamond has indeed joined the female pickpocketing gang of the Forty Thieves (forty thieves) or Forty Elephants (forty elephants); a name that comes from the district from which they operate, Elephant and castle , south of London. In existence since at least 1873, the gang, allied with the Elephant and Castle Mob , already testifies to an impressive longevity. But it could be even older:police records indicate female pickpocketing activities since the end of the 18th century.

Entirely female, the gang has its own rules and expects absolute loyalty from its members. Respected by their male counterparts, the Forty Thieves have a reputation for not being intimidated and able to physically confront groups of men as large as themselves. Measuring almost 1m75, about ten centimeters taller than the average man at the time, Alice herself was broad-shouldered and powerful.

Alice doesn't just join the Forty Thieves; she takes control of it. With the support of her closest accomplice Maggie Hill, known for her alcohol problems and her violent character, of Gertrude Scully or even the Partridge sisters, she leads the gang with an iron fist and proves to be an excellent organizer of expeditions in the West End of London but also in the suburbs.

The Forthy Elephants methods

Alice Diamond and the Forthy Thieves show great creativity in setting up their operations, and use a wide variety of techniques. They sew hidden pockets in their coats, their belts, their skirts. And rob the posh stores of the West End from London while accomplices distract staff, chatting, trying on clothes or knocking over mannequins with affected clumsiness; one of them will be arrested with 45 stolen items in a bag hanging from her belt to her knees!

Another technique:a member of the gang sometimes used a false arm, slipped into her blouse, to hide her real hand in the process of stealing some goods. Acting as a group, they could gather in large numbers around a counter, ask to try on jewelry or make-up and pass it around until the object was lost sight of. They could also have a copy of a jewel made and exchange it discreetly in the store.

Over time, the Forty Thieves are no longer content with shoplifting but also resort to burglary and blackmail. Members are thus hired as servants with false references, with the aim of robbing the house of their employers. With their various techniques, the Forty Thieves would have stolen for several thousand pounds; Alice wears diamonds on the fingers of both hands.

A life between parties and prison

The skill of the Forty Thieves does not prevent them from being sometimes arrested. Alice, Maggie, and other members of the gang are repeatedly convicted. Sentences which are generally relatively short, from one to three years... and which do not prevent them from starting again.

For them, indeed, the game is worth the candle, and prison and a life of parties and luxury are worth more than poverty. After their operations, the members of the gang don indeed elegant dresses – never the fruit of their thefts – and use part of their income to organize large parties. Dressed in fashionable but very expensive fur coats, they frequent pubs, restaurants, clubs where alcohol – and sometimes cocaine – flows freely.

End of reign

In 1925, Alice and Maggie lead a violent punitive expedition against one of the gang members who broke the rules of the Forty Thieves . The police intervene, and Alice and Maggie are sentenced to 18 and 21 months respectively. While the gang leader is locked up, a new queen emerges. Lilian Rose Kendall, a thief and daring driver who uses her car to smash jewelers' windows, takes control of the gang.

Coming out of prison, Alice does not reclaim her former empire. She ran a brothel for years, and played the role of protector for younger generations of shoplifters, still racking up the occasional arrest. To a magistrate asking her why she did not like the police, Alice reportedly replied:

'Police forces are set up by governments to stop others getting a share of what they've got!' have!)

Alice Diamond died of multiple sclerosis in 1952.