Who Were the Forty Elephants?

Margaret Hughes, a.k.a. Baby-Faced Maggie, served as a second-in-command of the Forty Elephants until her incarceration in the mid-1920s. (Photos: Public domain).

For nearly 200 years, a gang of female criminals terrorized the merchants and citizens of the Elephant & Castle area of London. Their crimes and escapades are now largely forgotten, but there used to be a concentrated police activity in an attempt to keep the women at bay.

First mentioned in a newspaper article in 1873, the gang's activities may pre-date that article by 100 years. The Forty Elephants (a.k.a. the Forty Thieves) perpetrated crimes ranging from shoplifting and blackmail to various forms of robbery and random violence.

At the time, the newspapers eagerly reported on their crimes, calling them "amazons [who were] handsome women about six feet tall."

One of their shoplifting methods was simple: all of the gang members rushed into a store from various entrances, grabbed what merchandise they could, then fled out of the store and headed in different directions. There was no way the store's security or police could catch all of them, so they were guaranteed some success with each crime. They generally wore coats with oversized or hidden pockets and even had hiding places for stolen valuables sewn into their undergarments.

The gang was active until the 1950s and featured a rotating membership. As the women became too old or infirm to continue, new and younger recruits (almost always from the lower classes) would take their place. The gang was led by a woman known as "the queen" who was responsible for strategizing each crime.

Over time they branched out into other crimes. Not above bedding wealthy men of the area, they would later blackmail the men for hefty sums to keep silent. They would use false references to obtain jobs as servants in wealthy homes and then rob the place, bringing the loot back to the queen for pawning or distribution. If caught, the women would be bailed out of jail using funds that the gang kept in reserve for just such a need.

Alicia Diamond of the Forty Elephants

One of the queens, Alice Diamond, a.k.a. Diamond Alice (at right), reigned at the start of the late 1910s. She and her lieutenant "Baby-Faced Maggie" (Margaret Hughes) ran a successful crime syndicate for several years. Alice was in charge of the rough stuff. She enlisted the help of a local gang of male thugs to terrorize local merchants and to ensure that the men being blackmailed paid up on time. She kept razors and blackjacks on her person and her handful of diamond rings caused a nearly-lethal punch that she used against various policeman and underworld rivals.

Their reign of terror couldn't last forever, and in the mid-1920s a thief named Marie Britten ultimately caused the downfall of the gang. Marie had fallen in love with someone outside of London's underworld, and this was against the gang's rules. Summoned to see Alice and Maggie, Marie brought her father along for protection. When Marie refused to give up her beau, Maggie attacked Marie's father with a straight razor. Although Marie and her father escaped, Alice wasn't done yet. Several days later the gang surrounded Marie's house and began to hurl rocks through the windows of the house. They forced their way into the home and went in search of Marie and her father. Amid the chaos, Alice and the gang managed to injure several of the inhabitants before the police arrived and arrested some of the gang members who hadn't fled, including Alice and Maggie.

At trial, the prosecution charged only the two women with the attack on the Britten home. It was rumored that men in high places did not want the details of the blackmail activities (and the indiscretions that caused that blackmail in the first place) to come to light.

The newspapers carried every aspect of the sensational trial of the two women. They were easily convicted and sentenced to hard labor. Alice remained stoic at the verdict, but Maggie screamed and railed against the judge and courtroom spectators.

After serving her time, Alice found the Forty Elephants weak without her leadership. By 1930, after years of not having a powerful queen, the gang fell out of power, although random shoplifting continued until the 1950s in a weak attempt to control central London.

Largely forgotten by the turn of the 21st century, interest in the gang was revived with the 2010 publication of the book "Gangs of London" by Brian McDonald, who included the Forty Elephants in his work featuring the more infamous male gangs such as the Broadway Boys, the Red Hands and the Silver Hatchets. McDonald chronicles the women's crime spree in detail and discloses one of the benefits of being a member of the Forty Elephants that might have attracted lower-class young women into the gang: "...they threw the liveliest of parties and spent lavishly at pubs, clubs and restaurants."