I’m delighted to have an excellent guest post from Michelle Higgs, author of ‘A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England’. It is a wise and necessary warning for all time travellers, so take heed:
With the development of the Victorian railway network, a whole industry producing tourist guidebooks was born. These guides, which were mostly aimed at foreign tourists visiting England for the first time, were full of warnings about the potential to become a victim of crime. The advice also applied to inexperienced visitors from the countryside who were naïve and unaccustomed to city ways.
For example, in The Popular Guide to London and its Suburbs (1852), George Frederick Pardon warns readers to “avoid lingering in crowded thoroughfares, and keep the right-hand to the wall”. He adds:
“Never enter into conversation with men who wish to show you the way, offer to sell ‘smuggled cigars’ or invite you to take a glass of ale or play a game at skittles. If in doubt about the direction of any street or building, inquire at a respectable shop, or of the nearest policeman. Do not relieve street-beggars and avoid bye-ways and poor neighbourhoods after dark. Carry no more money than is necessary for the day’s expenses. Look after your watch and chain, and take care of your pockets at the entrance to theatres, exhibitions, churches, and in the omnibuses and streets.”
Pickpockets were indeed a daily hazard in Victorian England but savvy city dwellers rarely became victims. They knew that anyone who kept their watch, purse or pocket book (for holding banknotes) on show attracted thieves like moths to a flame. To protect themselves, the streetwise kept their money and valuables well hidden, and never left their belongings unattended.
Having said this, the skilled pickpocket could easily steal from a gentleman’s coat tails or waistcoat pocket, or even from a lady’s pocket deep in her dress under multiple layers of petticoats, without the victim noticing. ‘Buzzers’ specialised in picking gentlemen’s pockets, while ‘wires’ were more manually dextrous and could pick a lady’s pocket with ease. The railway ‘sneak’ was another thief who would quickly walk off with an overcoat, cape or portmanteau if left unattended.
In 1900, Living London reported on an alarming new tactic used by street boys to rob people:
“Imagine them face to face with a lonely wayfarer in evening dress, carrying presumably a watch and a sovereign purse…One boy whips the overcoat back and imprisons the victim’s arms; the other goes through the pockets…The sandbag, too, is handy. It is an American importation and has made some reputation in New York. Unlike the bludgeon, it leaves no visible mark; unlike the cheap pistol, it makes no noise. It is easily hidden up the sleeve till required; and a well-directed crack over the head with a sandbag – especially if the sand has been damped – will stun the strongest man for several minutes.”
If you were ever able to visit Victorian England, the best way to avoid becoming a victim of street crime would be to keep valuables hidden, to make sure you’re never isolated from the crowds, and to think of police officers (‘bluebottles’) as your new best friends!
Michelle Higgs is the author of A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England (Pen & Sword)
Follow her on Twitter: @michellehiggs11
Many thanks to Michelle for sharing her superb advice and I can highly recommend her book – a must read! (And for the record, I never agree to play skittles with strangers…)