In his memoirs, the famous, Glasgow-born detective Allan Pinkerton noted that in his adopted America in the 19th century, there were very few thieves who worked ‘in all fashions and in all places’ – instead, they tended to specialise, focusing in on a particular type of theft, or a preferred location.
He noted that one class of thieves were mainly juveniles, and known as ‘theatre thieves’. They would hang around outside the doors of theatres, and pickpocket theatre-goers – undetectable in the ‘ingoing and outgoing rush’.
These young pickpockets knew that the risks were relatively small; if their victims noticed their losses, they would be reluctant to report them to the police, because they might have to appear as witnesses in subsequent trials, and this was not something they wanted to do. In addition, the generally young age of theatre thieves meant that their punishment, if caught and convicted, might be more lenient than that meted out to older thieves.
Although Pinkerton had been referring to the situation in the US, the congregation of pickpockets outside theatres was common on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1892, the Illustrated Police News commented on the ‘gangs’ of pickpockets who hung around the theatres on the Strand, particularly at the time when shows were ending, and audiences would be coming out of the theatre doors – usually between 11pm and midnight.
They took advantage of the crowds, and of the weather, for when it was raining, cabs could take some time to reach the theatres to take theatregoers home, and they would be forced to huddle outside the theatres. They tended to work in groups, surrounding individuals and ‘hustling’ them until a watch, chain or purse had been snatched from a pocket.
Men were particularly at risk if they were escorting a female relative or friend along the road towards a cab; thieves would assume that his attention was distracted by looking after his companion, and mark him as a ‘fit victim’.
The police were constantly on the alert for these offenders, but they were reactive rather than proactive, and this caused complaint; it was suggested that they should monitor the local area prior to the shows ending, and ‘warn off obviously suspicious characters’ who were hanging around the exit doors.
The prevalence of these characters, standing around on the Strand, was described not only as a scandal, but also ‘a disgrace to London, a danger to residents and visitors, and a matter of wonder to the foreigner from every other civilised capital in Europe.’
However, the thieves were not to be deterred by the police, because theatre-goers were seen as easy targets. They were dressed up; they had money; they were easily distracted not only by the performance but by the company they were with – friends, relatives or partners who they were either deep in conversation with during intervals or on leaving the theatres, or busy escorting home on foot or to a cab. They weren’t looking out for the thieves, and the thieves knew it.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that newspapers continued to report cases of theft relating to theatre audiences, such as when 23-year-old bookbinder William Brown, a ‘notorious’ West End theatre thief, was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1906, and even in 1930, theatre-goers were still being singled out by pickpockets.
One ‘new ruse’ reported that year involved thieves dressing up in evening clothes and attending the theatre during intervals. They would follow an audience member to the cloakroom, where they would squirt flour and water onto his coat, and then call his attention to the mark left.
The victim would take off his coat, find a clothes brush and try to clean off the mark – it would only be when he put on his coat again that he would find his wallet missing from it. Several identical thefts were reported to Scotland Yard, and it was said that pickpockets were making ‘good hauls’ from the theatres every night.
Therefore, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the theatre was a place of entertainment – but also of criminal activity. The targeting of theatre-goers by thieves was just one example.
You can read more about crimes relating to the theatre – as well as about the professional and private lives of Victorian entertainment professionals – in my new book, Life On The Victorian Stage, which is out now, published by Pen & Sword.