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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. | Source

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 Flash
English
Patter
English
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
Source: The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum or the Rogue’s Lexicon, by George W. Matsell, 1859

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. | Source

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. | Source

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

show route and directions
A markerWhitechapel, London -
Whitechapel, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, London E1, UK
get directions

The streets of Whitechapel were crowded and filled with pickpockets in 19th century London.

B markerBaker Street, London -
Baker Street, City of Westminster, London NW1, UK
get directions

Baker Street was the location of Oliver Twist's pick-pocketing crimes.

C markerTyburn, London -
Tyburn Way, City of Westminster, London, UK
get directions

Men were hanged publicly in Tyburn - a popular event for pick-pockets, who could steal while the masses were distracted by the spectacle.

D markerSpitalfields, London -
Spital Square, London, UK
get directions

Spitalfields gained the reputation as the location of the worst criminal rookeries in London at the end of the 19th century.

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Comments 10 comments

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

Interesting on so many levels!


Vanderleelie profile image

Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

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!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

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


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

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!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

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.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

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.


kate 4 years ago

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


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

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.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

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


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

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.

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