Hoxton Hall musical shines spotlight on Victorian girl gang Forty Elephants that lasted 200 years
PUBLISHED: 09:02 04 January 2018 | UPDATED: 09:40 04 January 2018
A musical about rival Victorian girl gangs links in with the music hall history of Hoxton Hall, where it is set. Emma Bartholomew finds out more about the women behind the Forty Elephants – a notorious gang that was driven to shoplift and pickpocket because of the extreme poverty its members faced
Lil Warren “fell in love” with Hoxton Hall while researching there for a community project about British Music Hall seven years ago – and now her own musical is set to be staged there.
Lil’s great grandparents had sung her “all the old songs” like The Boy Up in the Gallery when she was growing up in Stepney and Wapping.
With memories of “people of 80 singing and lifting up their skirts” in the pub, she “still felt that old Victorian working class culture” inside of her.
She was thrilled to discover the stars who had sung all those songs, like Marie Lloyd, had once stepped into the Hoxton Street music hall and performed them there.
Stories about male impersonator drag kings like Vesta Tilly and Hetty King piqued her interest, and led her to uncover stories about a matriarchal criminal gang of the time, the Forty Elephants, who would also sometimes dress up as men.
The gang were based in Elephant and Castle, from which they took their name, and incredibly remained active for 200 years.
Members would use distraction techniques: while one pretended to faint in her corset, others would pickpocket the gentlemen who went to their aid. They would also shoplift from the most luxurious central London department stores, and emerge like “elephants” with wares hidden under their big dresses.
“When you think about Victorian times, history is generally taught is from a male point of view. But the Forty Elephants were a matriarchal gang, and these women took control,” said Lil, a former stand-up comedian who now lives in Kingsland High Street.
“That really interested me, and I thought: let’s have a musical about women.”
Four years on, an all-female cast is now rehearsing at Hoxton Hall for her show Oranges and Elephants, which is being directed by Hackney Empire’s Susie McKenna.
The story is set in the 1890s and sees turf war break out between two gangs pickpocketing in the busy theatre heartland of Piccadilly. The Forty Elephants are pitted against the Oranges – a gang Lil made up based on memories from her childhood.
“There was this myth of a gang from years ago. They had a reputation for nicking off children,” said Lil. “This was made up to frighten children to keep an eye on their money if they went to the shops for their mum. You had to keep your eye on your money all the time in case of this gang.”
Lil has conducted research at the Hackney Archives, Jewish Museum, British Library and British Musical Society and read various books to find out as much as possible about the Forty Elephants.
Led by Annie Diamond, the gang would sometimes masquerade as housemaids for wealthy families before ransacking their homes, using false references. One of them –Maggie Hughes, aka Babyface – had tattoos on both arms and a psychotic temper and drove a Ford V8 car with a periscope on the roof, so she could spot police before they saw her.
“They are listed as one of the 10 most successful gangs ever,” said Lil. “They rarely got caught. You didn’t start hearing them about too much until the industrialisation of news.
“It started going a bit wrong for them in the ’20s with the advent of the motor car. They were working in Brighton and tried to get away, and they got caught because they had a rubbish car.”
Unlike modern-day city gangs, they didn’t use knives. “They used guile, wit and physical dexterity,” said Lil. “They didn’t use violence.
“In those days as a woman you didn’t have many choices. You would probably die in childbirth, you would be legally battered by your old man three times a week, or you would be a prostitute. Most women would be homeless, or doing petty crime like nicking an apple.
“The West End was as busy then as now and there was a lot of money wafting about. It was the rise of the middle class, and people were promenading around showing off their suits and feathers – it was easy pickings.”
Lil’s childhood has also influenced her.
“My great-grandparents considered themselves slaves, and my great-grandmother was a Communist,” she said. “She lost four men in the First World War and she was very angry.
“I read Charles Dickens early on, and that’s when my rage and injustice for the poor started, reinforced by seeing my grandparents broken physically by their jobs. But on the other hand they were funny and they were tough.
“What’s really crazy is the needle has gone 360, and we are staring this in the face again.”
Hoxton Hall is hosting a Victorian themed tea party at 2pm tomorrow to raise funds to stage the show. Heritage food expert Susie Q will be baking sponge cakes, pictured, and there will be music hall sing-along and excerpts from the show as entertainment.
Oranges and Elephants’ two week run begins on January 23.
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Hackney Gazette. Click the link in the orange box above for details.