Rich chronological account of the English capital’s seamier side, from the dreaded footpads of the 18th century to the organized crime syndicates of the 20th.
Linnane (London: Wicked City, 2004) turns a scholarly eye on the various rough characters who have scraped (or shoveled) a dishonest living from the streets, alleys and racecourses. There's no shortage of material; London had no organized police force until the mid-1800s, so for much of the city’s history crooks operated with a great deal of freedom. Citizens had to rely on thief takers—bounty hunters, essentially—who trapped and turned over criminals for the reward. Linnane begins with the most famous of these: Jonathan Wild, “the original Godfather,” a double-dealer who was as pleased to be bought off by the thieves as turn them in. This age also saw the rise of footpads, gangs of thieves who quite willingly murdered their victims to make good an escape on foot. Schools of vice like Fagin’s establishment in Oliver Twist were quite common, and pickpocketing seems to have been endemic in the crowded London streets. Linnane explicates underworld slang, from highwaymen and garrotters to rookeries and peelers. He also traces the rise of London’s gangs and their charismatic leaders: Jack Spot, Billy Hill, the Sabinis and the Kray twins, all intent on running the city’s rackets. The author carefully places each event and character in context, leading to some redundancy, but with so many criminal empires and aspirations to keep straight, it’s a forgivable fault. A lengthy bibliography and extensive index make the work more than just a sightseer's romp through 300 years of slums.
Dense and informative: a book to keep on hand when reading any kind of period literature that touches on London’s dark side.