This exert is from the beginning of story I have been writing about one of the poorest areas of 19th Century London and the characters such places create. St. Giles is where our story begins and is as notorious as a Victorian slum can get. Dangerous alleys and dark nooks this neighbourhood had in plenty. It was eventually destroyed in the 1870s leaving 5000 people homeless, with literally nowhere to go. But for decades people lived and breathed amidst the rats and the dirt.
Introducing the gang
Gary Swift Fingers, named so for his Gary Swift Fingers, named so for his deft skill at plunging a hand into a pocket and withdrawing its contents before you blink. He was a gutter rat and linguistic extraordinaire. He could charm your sister in a sentence while rifling through your mothers pockets. Born to a whore and an unknown redcoat of the 48th Foot who died from a French Bayonet at Talavera on a warm Sunday morning.
Before he was seven begging was his trade and wooing old ladies for a penny was the aim or thieving a cravat when it was in range. No one taught the rascal to behave. Thrice they tried to put him in the orphanage, the beatings and misery of those who lived in poor relief wasn’t such a privilege. Thrice he escaped ready to retrace his steps in the crux of St. Giles’ alleyways and ten to a room houses. Within ten years he had a crew that would follow him into Buckingham Palace to steal the sleeping King if he asked. Soon their crew had a name, The Lost Rats, and their fame spread throughout the great city like the coming of the high tide ‘pon the river.
Their hideout was in view of St. Martins Church off Bethnal Green road, the dank rookery was a treasure chest of stolen goods, there five brooding criminals lived amongst their profits. Holders of hundreds of nabbed items; sold off hand through the back doors of antique and jewellery shops to be spent straight away in rowdy inns. The five famous thieves sowed their seeds of crime deep in the city’s ever churning belly.
There was Tom the silent eyed pick pocket, a handsome lad of nineteen lost in conjuncture with the grimy shit ridden streets of St. Giles. Sly Tom was expert at moving silently on account of being beaten from an early age by a drunken father. Nightly passing a snoring dad to creep around the dark city aiding and abetting house breakers. Entering by an attic window, or trap-door to the cellar, sometimes lifting tiles off the roof as silently as he could, then creep through the house as candles burned low to let the burglars in.
Getting a cut of the stolen items, he started saving, a secret from his violent father till he had enough to escape and learned he had the skills to become an expert pick pocket. In his a-hunting for purses and bracelets, he wore his hat low and stooped like a drunken beggar with too big a coat clumsily swaying this way and that bumping into a few gentlemen, robbing them of their hard earned coin. Young Tom has a missus with a bump and needs booty so they can have off to Bristol where said missus has a cousin who said he could get them passage on a ship bound for America.
Slack Jack the six foot mugger, a giant of an Irishman, armed robbery and hold ups were his speciality. A violent man who spent his life drunk, when he walked through the rookeries streets people avoided the hulking menace looking every inch the thug he was. With no family to speak of, drink and crime were all he knew. Another past time of his was bare knuckle boxing, his fists were so hard it was as if he had Galway lead for bones. He was prone to making a right mess of his opponent. Brave or stupid was the man who threw fists with him.
Bold Peter had a gait that no one could miss, had it ever since he was a boy, his right leg always turned inwards and it had to be dragged. He was an orphan like Gary, and the two had met at a young age. Gary had punched his lights out on their first meeting but since then Gary had brought Peter under his wing and barely ever left his side, even twenty year later. Pete was mousey haired and slight, not made of substantial stuff like Slack Jack. Despite this, Pete was a con man, or at least tried to be but hardly ever gained a penny, even as Gary liked to joke:
“You couldn’t con dinner off a blind lady that she had giving up eating”
Gary always maintained that Pete was soft and Pete comfortably accepted this, he always looked up to Gary, with a mixture of adoration, jealousy and longing. Gary knew differently, Pete wasn’t cut out to be a cutthroat like one of them, he had a heart of gold, well at least compared to the other four.
Lastly there was Mary the murderer, whose name was well known around these parts of London. Her name was pertinent to her occupation. Give her enough coin and she would kill whoever, wherever, however. She never killed for pleasure though, only business and was a crack shot with a rifle. She had connections with the Forty Elephants and they had once tried to recruit her, however she owed Gary a life, and that she would repay or her name wasn’t Mullins. She had her hand in many pies, as did the rest of them and together they were amassing a small fortune, delivering their liberation, or so they hoped.
More will be published in the coming months
© Jack Nugent