FOGLE-HUNTERS, WIRE-TOOLERS AND BUZZERS

 

caveat

Picking pockets is an ancient and still-prevalent form of robbery, a criminal craft complete with its own cryptolect, or secret language. Read on to develop your lexicon of wicked words used by, and about, pickpockets through the ages.

In the sixteenth century and later, the term fig was used to denote the picking of pockets, and the one who did the deed was a figger. There were various classes of figger, depending on skill. The most basic was a nip or cutpurse who simply used a knife to separate money from victim. The more skilled practitioner was a foist. Greene observed in his The Second Part of Conny-catching (1592), that ‘The foist is so nimble-handed, that he exceeds the jugler for agilitie, and hath his legiar de maine as perfectly.’

Leger de maine, or sleight of hand, would still be in use to describe skilled criminality in colonial Australia during the 1840s. By this time, a favoured pickpocket target was a fogle – the elaborate and expensive pocket-handkerchiefs favoured by gentlemen and those who wished to appear as such – and the craft had become known as fogle-hunting or fogle-getting. Fogle lived on in criminal Cant until about 1930 in Britain and perhaps 1940 in the United States, by which time the value of handkerchiefs to the pickpocket had greatly declined. By the early twentieth century pickpockets in Britain, America and Australia were known as whizzers.

Ancient or modern, pickpockets by whatever monikers they used (they were often known as files in the seventeenth century) have always been highly organised with an extensive trade argot to conceal their crimes. In 1552 Gilbert Walker’s underworld exposé, Diceplay, mentioned the figging law, or pick-purse craft, and almost forty years later Robert Greene’s A Notable Discovery of Coosnage provided a helpful list of the craft terms related to ‘the figging law’:

The Cutpurse, a Nip

He that is halfe with him, the Snap

The knife, the Cuttle boung

The pick pocket, a Foin

He that faceth the man (i.e. the victim), the Stale

Taking the purse, Drawing

Spying of him, Smoaking

The purse, the Boung

The monie, the Shels

The Act doing, Striking

By the late seventeenth century the figging law had become the figging lay, but pickpockets were just as active and organised. As early as 1608 Dekker’s The Belmen of London observed of figgers that they parcelled out territories among themselves and their supposedly Biblical secret language was an effective form of communication and identification:

The language which they speak is none of those that came in at the confusion of the Tongues, for neither infidell nor Christian (that is honest) understands it, but the Dialect is such and so crabbed, that seven yeeres study is little enough to reach to the bottom of it, and to make it run off glib from the tongue: by means of this Gibrish, they knowe their owne nation when they meet, albeit they never sawe one another before …

Oliver

In the early Victorian era pick pocketing was perhaps the most common form of urban crime. So profitable had the game become that the best wire toolers and fine toolers became known as the swell mob and sported the trappings of wealth, and lived lives to match, further enhancing the possibility for ill-gotten gain. Dippers attended race meetings, fairs, shows and hangings in droves, running the old tricks along with a few new variations developed for the growth of public transport, such as the railway carriage and the omnibus. Maltoolers, often female, deprived middle class women travellers of their purses a pogue, slipped the booty to their stickman who rapidly exited the vehicle, leaving the maltooler with no incriminating evidence should the victim discover her loss before journey’s end.

At this time, men still used large and valuable handkerchiefs as an accompaniment to the fashionable habit of taking snuff. Known as kingsmen, these decorated and colourful squares of cloth were greatly prized on the black market and easily pulled by even child smatter haulers. As with much other Cant speech, there was a complex hierarchy of butterfly-like descriptions for different kinds of handkerchiefs. A watersman was made of blue silk, a randlesman was white and green, while a white and yellow handkerchief was a fancy yellow. From the middle of the nineteenth century it became fashionable to use black handkerchiefs during mourning, a central Victorian obsession, and these items, known as black fogles, became the most valuable for lifting.

So great were the labour demands of this illicit occupation that children were trained in groups by kidsmen to become buzzers from an early age. The celebrated depiction of such an academy in Oliver Twist is very close to reality. The real-life models for the fictionalised characters of Fagin and the Artful Dodger were commonplace in Victorian England where children were made to practice dipping skills on tailor’s dummies to which small bells were sewn, tinkling at the slightest insensitivity of a small hand. Despite this training, many were caught and sometimes transported.

‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’, as the famous song went. Maybe not.

 

THE SECRET SPEECH FROM THE DEVIL’S ARSE

 

Mollcutpurse

Moll Cutpurse (BL)

What were the King of the Gypsies and Cock Lorel doing in the Devil’s Arse?

They were meeting in the Derbyshire cave with the memorable name to concoct a new language, the tongue of crime and criminals. The Gypsy King of the 1520s and 30s was Giles Hatherley and Cock Lorel was the mythical head (cock) of the rogues (lorels). Mostly referred to as ‘Cant’, the secret speech they allegedly created would last for centuries and some of its words are still spoken today.

Cant was a fluid amalgam of criminal codewords and street slang of the past and present, enriched with Romani and Parlary. Robert Copland’s Highway to the Spittal-House, published around 1536 contains the first record of this tongue. It included bousy cove, meaning a man under the influence of alcohol, a meaning still preserved in some slang. Another cant term that survived the centuries was patrynge (pattering) cove, meaning one who lived by some line of verbal deceit or other dubious activity. Others did not last so well, including dell for a virgin, pek for eat and jere for shit.

A dictionary of cant by ‘B.E. Gent.’ was published in the late 1690s under the exhaustive title A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of theCanting Crew, in its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all sorts of People, (especially foreigners) to secure their Money, and preserve their Lives; besides being very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly new. This early example of multi-marketing by whoever the gentlemanly ‘B E’ might have beenechoed the speech of a vast underworld of vagabondage, thievery and deception. A New Dictionary, and the many publications like it, were mostly written to pander to the insecurities and curiosities of the literate classes and so often exaggerated aspects of the lives and language of conny-catchers and sturdy beggars.

Another early example of this publishing fad was The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching. With the new devised knavish art of Foole-taking by ‘R G’, Robert Greene, which tells a number of cautionary tales of those who have fallen victim to the wiles of ‘this hellish crew’ who ‘cheate, cosen, prig, lift, nippe and such like tricks now used in their Conie-catching Trade’. The book ends with the warning ‘let each take heed of dealing with anie such kind of people’. There were no police forces at this time, so the honest citizen was generally responsible for his or her own safety and security. Similar works such as Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors (1566), The Defence of Begging by ‘Cuthbert Cunny-catcher’ (1592) and Thomas Dekker’s The Belman of London (1608), among many other similar titles allow us to hear this tongue and know something of the lives and crimes of those who spoke it.

 

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The Tudor period experienced increasing numbers of masterless men and other vagrants wandering the roads. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, vagrancy and crime had become major issues for society and government. The poor – which meant the vast majority of the population – were seen as a possible source of disaffection and political violence. This was held to be especially so of those who would not or could not work, preferring instead a life of crime and, it seemed to the authorities and the respectable classes, of dissipation. In 1596 an Order by the Privy Council to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex described the activities of such people:

a great number of dissolute, loose and insolent people harboured and maintained in such and like noysom and disorderly howses, as namely poor cottages and habitacions of beggars and people without trade, stables, ins, alehowses, tavernes, garden howses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicying howses, bowling allies and brothell howses. The most part of which pestering those parts of the citty with disorder and uncleannes are either apt to breed contagion and sicknes, or otherwize serve for the resort and refuge of masterless men and other idle and evill dispozed persons, and are the cause of cozenages, thefts, and other dishonest conversacion and may also be used to cover dangerous practizes.

Almost twenty years earlier the author of a polemical pamphlet had made similar complaints aimed at “Dauncers, Fydlers and Minstrels, Diceplayers, Maskers, Fencers, Bearewardes, Theeves, Common Players in Enterludes, Cutpurses, Cosiners, Maisterlesse servauntes, Jugglers, Roges, sturdye Beggers, &c.”

These light-fingered (from at least the 1570s) Canting Crews involved themselves in a bewildering variety of criminal specialisms and sub-specialisms. Cozenage was an Elizabethan version of the con trick, from the name that such people gave to their prospective victims, cousins or cozens. To prig was to steal, also used as a term for the stealer. To liftwas to steal goods from a shop, as in shoplifter, or to practice a form of robbery in which the lifter assumed the identity of a servant to gain access to luggage or other belongings. The nippe was a form of cutpurse thief who stole purses by slicing them from their owners clothing with a knife. A more refined nippe was the foyst, who used pickpocket skills to achieve the same ends.

From the sixteenth century Conie-catching also referred to deceptive practices, conie (conny, connie) being a term for a rabbit or, as we might say today, a bunny, who is caught by a con man. These swindles involved the catchers making the acquaintance of their intended conie, winning his trust then cheating him of his money or other possessions. In one variant or another the word has had a continuing presence in criminal tongues. In the nineteenth century a coney, coney dealeror coniacker was one who dealt in counterfeit money and the term eventually produced con man in all its English-speaking variations during the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth and the twenty-first. These include con artist,con game, con girl, con woman, con head, con mob, con job, con racket and simply a con.

A slice of Cant from what is usually said to be its first record in print was written by Copland around 1536. While this is a contrived piece of verse conversation, it well suggests the difficulty of comprehending such talk for anyone not schooled in its complexities. The speaker is a porter of whom Copland has asked whether pedlars ‘with broken hose and breche’ pass this way:

Ynow, ynow; with bousy cove maund nace,

Teare the patryng cove in the darkeman cace

Docked the dell for a coper meke;

His watch shall feng a prounce’s nob-chete,

Cyarum, by Salmon, and thou shall pek my jere

In thy gan, for my watch it is nace gere

For the bene bouse my watch hath a coyn …

Copland admits that even he has difficulty understanding this ‘babble’, or ‘pedlyng frenche’.

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The canting crews (BL)

 

1808 mermaid tattoo

 

GREAT CONVICT STORIES

 Here’s the cover and Prologue from my just-released new book, Great Convict Stories:




LASHLAND
I saw a man walk across the yard with the blood that had run from his lacerated flesh squashing out of his shoes at every step he took. A dog was licking the blood off the triangles, and the ants were carrying away great pieces of human flesh that the lash had scattered about the ground. The scourger’s foot had worn a deep hole in the ground by the violence with which he whirled himself round on it to strike the quivering and wealed back, out of which stuck the sinews, white, ragged, and swollen.
The infliction was 100 lashes, at about half-minute time, so as to extend the punishment through nearly an hour. The day was hot enough to overcome a man merely standing that length of time in the sun, and this was going on in the full blaze of it. However, they had a pair of scourgers who gave each other spell and spell about, and they were bespattered with blood like a couple of butchers.’