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

Flashing the Patter (Talking the Slang)

“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!”

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.

Pickpocket in a Market

A painting from the 17th Century depicts a pickpocket stealthily robbing a woman in a market.

A painting from the 17th Century depicts a pickpocket stealthily robbing a woman in a market.

A Case that Made the Papers

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.

Are You Flash to the Patter? A Translation Guide

Patter FlashEnglishPatterEnglish

Acorn

Gallows

Cat

Drunken prostitute.

Academy

Penitentiary

Century

100 dollars

Amuse

Distract a person with a story while robbing them

Catamaran

Ugly woman.

Apples and Pears

Stairs

Charley

Gold watch

Bag of Nails

Chaos

Chatts

Lice

Balsam

Money

Cheese

Be quiet.

Barking

Shooting

Chin

A child.

Barking Irons

Guns

Cly

Pocket

Beak

A judge

Cold Pig

A victim who has been robbed of his clothes.

Benjamin

A coat

College

State Prison

Bleak-Mort

A pretty girl

Crib

House

Blue Pigeon Flying

Stealing lead from the rooftops.

Cross-Cove

A thief

Bonebox

Mouth

Daddles

Hands

Cake

An easily fooled police officer.

Darbies

Handcuffs

Cank

Dumb

Day Lights

Eyes

Cap Bung

Give it to me.

Devil Books

Cards

The Origins of Patter Flash

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.

Whitechapel Street Market

A modern market in Whitechapel: the street was a hotbed of criminal activity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A modern market in Whitechapel: the street was a hotbed of criminal activity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thieves in London in the 18th and 19th Centuries

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.

Spitalfields Rookeries

Whitechapel was a hotbed of criminal activity in the late 19th century. The red dot indicates the death of the first victim of the Whitechapel murders.

Whitechapel was a hotbed of criminal activity in the late 19th century. The red dot indicates the death of the first victim of the Whitechapel murders.

How Pickpockets Work

Pick-Pocket Techniques in England

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).

Droppers: Another Sort of Thief

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: Dobing Lay

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.

Dog Nippers: Restoring “Lost” Dogs, for a Profit

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: Fishing for Stolen Goods

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.

The Murder of Crows: A Short Film on Modern Pick-Pocketing in London

Rough Stuff: Thieves Who Used Violence

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.

Popular Pickpocket Locations in 19th Century London

Comments

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 12, 2019:

The slang is very interesting, inside boy. Translation is definitely needed to understand the jargon! It was a fantastic way to be able to communicate nefarious plans in public without anyone else catching on to what the thieves were planning.

inside boy on March 07, 2019:

TO THE ACORN WITH YOU YOU CROSS COVE! FOR I AM NOT A MUCH OF A CAKE AS YOU MIGHT THINK! Wow. you can really say that with power. I'm going to go confuse so peeps now.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 14, 2018:

That is a fantastic question, Steve. Tiler is an old slang word for a pickpocket, and Adam is from the book of Genesis and the creation story and was used to denote a generic first name. A pickpocket's accomplice would be called "Adam Tiler" in the same way we might say "Johnny Come Lately" to mean a newcomer to a place or activity.

Steve Filks on April 10, 2018:

Hi

Where does the name 'Adam Tyler' come from? in pickpolcketing parlance?

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 06, 2017:

Thank you, Haider! It is a fascinating history and the use Patter Flash is not widely known.

Haider from Melbourne on February 03, 2017:

Fascinating read! So far I know very little about pick-pocketing history in England. It intrigues me to read more about this topic.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 10, 2012:

Another source is the "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence."Printed for C. Chappel of Pall-Mall, London in 1811.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 10, 2012:

Patterflash, a Queer Language by M.F. Andrews is another great source for information about the language.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 10, 2012:

Hi Kate, as cited in the article above, one source is The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum or the Rogue’s Lexicon, by George W. Matsell, 1859.

kate on November 10, 2012:

who wrote this info about patter flash? i want to know more / cite this who is the author of this work etc

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 15, 2012:

Slang can be very confusing if you aren't a "native" speaker of the dialect! My younger son has reddish hair, and it is so funny to hear the terms used by my international friends. Ranga is the term used in Australia for redheads! I absolutely love languages and the use of Patter Flash fascinates me - it was a way to communicate without the authorities understanding the gist of the conversation. It was used in London, but also in New York and other urban thieving circles.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on April 12, 2012:

Whoah, this was so interesting, I loved it! Voted up! The English language is so rich and complicated, and slang can really make things confusing. I once started a novel by an Austrailian who used so much slang that I could not make any sense out of it.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 30, 2012:

Vanderleelie, many of these techniques are still used by pickpockets. I know that London is still a hotbed of pickpocketing activity, along with Paris, Madrid, and many other major cities. There are reports of child trafficking to the modern thieving rings, where child slaves are used to commit crimes in these major cities. If someone bumps into you in a city street, it is best to check your pockets!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 30, 2012:

Thanks, RTalloni! I was fascinated by the language, which could convey complicated messages that would sound like gibberish to the uninformed.

Vanderleelie on March 30, 2012:

Fascinating account, revealing the secret coded language of the pickpocket. Thanks for the heads-up on specific techniques. I've almost been the victim of at least two of these methods in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and in Madrid, Spain - but managed to clue-in to what was happening just in time. Voted up!

RTalloni on March 30, 2012:

Interesting on so many levels!

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