Patter Flash: The Secret Language of Thieves and Pickpockets in London

“Draw dragons from the dummy!”

The preceding sentence probably makes no sense to the majority of English speaking people, which was precisely the point behind Patter Flash, or the language used by thieves and pickpockets in 19th century England. A rough translation of the phrase above would be: “Steal gold coins from the coin purse!”

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Thieves in England would “flash the patter” (talk the slang) to allow pickpockets to communicate without notice. Even the Bobbies (policemen) could not understand the patter of the pickpockets, so plans to rob a person of the gold coins held in their purse could be made aloud on the streets.

London streets were dark and crowded in the 1860’s – the perfect stage for stalking and robbing a victim. A particularly harrowing type of robbery was called garroting – the pickpocket would partially strangle a victim in order to steal valuables from their person. In 1862, one such case made the “penny dreadfuls” (the newspapers).

Mr. Hugh Pilkington, a British MP, was walking from the House of Commons to the Reform Club. As he was walking, two thieves pounced on him and stole his watch as they half-strangled him. The crime occurred on July 17, 1862, and the fact that a person in such high standing could be strangled and robbed on the streets caused a panic. People feared garrotters around every corner, though the crime was quite rare in reality. Those who chose to walk the streets after dark often did so armed, for defense if attacked by the imagined armies of garrotters hiding in the shadows. Any garrotter who was apprehended faced a public outcry for execution or deportation to a prison colony. Pickpocketing crimes decreased greatly once gas lamps were introduced to London streets – the well-lit streets made it harder for thieves to hide in dark corners.

The language of thieves is quite old, and many of the words used by London pickpockets were also used by rogues in New York City and in many other cities with organized crime. According to George Matsell, author of The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum or the Rogue’s Lexicon (1859), the language originated from wandering bands of Gypsies in Europe. A large part of the “patter” is derived from Romany language, then adapted to the particular location of the gang of thieves. Word origins from all over the world can be found in the thief’s vocabulary – examples would be aqua (Latin) for water and casa (Spanish) for house.

There was no place too sacred for pickpockets to lurk – in 1735, a large group of pickpockets (known as a battalion) burst into a Whitechapel church during a funeral service and shouted, “Fire!” The ensuing chaos of escaping mourners created a windfall for the pickpockets.

Public executions were another favorite among pick-pockets. Executions could gather crowds in excess of 200,000 people, and the event created the perfect distraction: people were so engaged by the public spectacle of execution that the thieves could easily commit the robbery and be safely away before the victim noticed anything was missing. The gallows at Tyburn were a favorite of pickpockets – people often gathered in large crowds to observe people in the pillory or a public hanging.

By the end of the 19th century, criminal activity was rife in London streets and the biggest concentration of thieves and other miscreants was in Spitalfields, London.

A pickpocket was also known as a File in the language of thieves. The file was usually accompanied by two other conspirators: one called the Adam Tyler and the other called the bulker (or staller). The threesome generally worked as follows: the bulker would push up against the unsuspecting person, and the file would reach into the pocket and grab the coins, watch, or other valuables. The goods were immediately handed to the Adam Tyler, who escaped quickly. If a finger was pointed at the file or the bulker, the stolen goods would not be found on their persons. The Adam Tyler had safely made off with the stolen articles.

Another method was known as cross-fanning. This method required only one thief, who crossed his arms and pretended to look at something. While distracting his victim with the hand on the far side, the crossed arm on the near side would reach into a pocket and nab a watch or coins.

Amusers were a third sort of pick-pocket. This method required two thieves: one would carry pepper in his pocket, and throw it in the eyes of the victim. While the victim was incapacitated, the second thief would rob him blind (quite literally).

Dropping was another way to steal money. These thieves usually took advantage of charitable individuals by dropping a pocket-book full of fake money near an unsuspecting person. The thief would rush up and pretend to “find” the coin purse. The thief would get the victim to buy the coin purse – the victim would not realize the pocket book contained counterfeit money until the Dropper was safely away.

In some thieving circles a carrier was needed for the counterfeit money – this person was known as the Boodle-Carrier.

Stealing from stores required two thieves: one thief would ask the store owner about an item that was either at the back of the store or in a far-off corner. While the merchant was occupied by the first thief, the second thief would steal money or goods from the store. When this tactic was used, it was called a dobing lay.

Some thieves would steal dogs from local neighborhoods – when a reward was offered, the dog nipper would show up with the “lost” dog and take the reward money.

Anglers were small-time thieves who would literally fish for stolen items by placing a hook on the end of a pole. These thieves would use the fishing pole to steal from windows, doors, or any other entrance to a store or home.

One sort of thief was called a bludgeoner. Bludgeoners often recruited well-dressed women to pretend to be their wives – the woman playing this role would get a man to follow her to an isolated place by flirting with him. Once the two of them were alone, she would slyly rob the man of any valuable items. As soon as this was done, she would give a signal, and the bludgeoner would come into the room armed with a knife or club, accusing the victim of coming on to his wife. The victim would flee in terror, not realizing he had been robbed until much later. The woman in this circumstance was called the bludget. Mistresses of thieves were called blowens.