London’s secret history: gangs

Black cabbie and Views From The Mirror blogger, Rob Lordan, shares his knowledge on London’s historic and seedy underbelly…

It’s tempting to think of gangs as a recent phenomena; a social quandary afflicting some parts of London where the landscape is characterized by sodium-drenched concrete. However, such concerns are nothing new, and gang crime has always existed in London; the 17th and 18th centuries being particularly notorious…

Gangs first began to appear during the Elizabethan-era, and just like their modern counter-parts, they had a penchant for catchy names. The earliest of these was ‘The Damned Crew.’  Formed around the 1590s, this gang was led by the disgruntled Sir Edmund Baynham who, despite his grand title, was nothing but a ruffian. After one particular night of mischief, Sir Baynham was found bellowing behind bars that he cared ‘not a fart for the Lord Mayor or any magistrate in London’!

Gang culture progressed during the reign of Queen Anne, when London was terrorised by ‘The Mohocks’ aka the ‘Young Bloods’ (a handle which would not sound out of place today); a gang who specialised in stuffing their victims into barrels before hurling them downhill. The era also witnessed the infamous cult of the Highwaymen. Glorified thugs, these individuals, with pistols packed and faces disguised, pre-dated hoodies by several centuries.

Stalking the desolate roads surrounding London, some highwaymen achieved great fame – the dashing Claude Duval, for example, successfully persuaded one of his female victims to join him in a moonlight dance. Others, such as John Rann and James Maclaine were noted dandies, committing crime whilst donned in their finest togs. And Dick Turpin, despite profound romanticism, was renown for being a vicious sadist…

In the absence of the Met police, law and order was controlled by the ‘Thief Takers’; bounty hunters who tracked down crooks for cash. The most famous of these being Jonathan Wild; the ‘Thief Taker General’ who condemned 120 criminals to the scaffold.

Unfortunately for the Capital, Wild himself was deeply corrupt, a double-crosser who harboured many links with the criminal underworld. But in 1725, Wild’s shady past finally caught up with him and he was executed at Tyburn Gallows, where many of the gang members he captured also ended their days.

If you fancy a slice of London’s horrible history, the thief-taker’s skeleton can be viewed in the Hunterian Museum

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