The urban gang that terrorised Georgian London!

So you think urban gangs are a modern phenomenon? Well, 18th century Georgian London was horrified by the activities of the Black Boy Alley gang who showed no mercy to their victims but came to a pretty gruesome end themselves!

Let me take you back to the early 18th century and the wickedness of a group of criminals known as the Black Boy Alley gang. They operated very near to what is now Holborn Circus – or “midtown” as estate agents like to call it. I worked around this part of London as a journalist for many years and it’s a kind of intermediate zone between the City of London in the east and the bustling shops of the West End.

The story of this gang turned up in a book published in 1817 from my large collection of old London related volumes going back three hundred years. The book is called A History and Description of London and was probably written around ten years before by David Hughson – whose real name was Edward Pugh.

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It consists of a series of walks through the city that includes some really nasty areas. Hughson seemed determined to expose his readers to the sleazier side of London life! The streets he mentions once led off what is now Holborn Circus roundabout towards the meat market at Smithfield. Saffron Hill is still there but Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley have gone – and maybe not surprisingly!

Black Boy Alley was where a gang operated from in Georgian London

Because under the reign of King George II (reigned 1727 to 1760), Black Boy Alley was “the terror of the whole city” – according to Hughson. The Black Boy Alley Gang used prostitutes to lure passers-by into the grubby tenements. These hapless individuals were then gagged, robbed and murdered. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch with all the city rubbish.

Women played a prominent role in the crimes and three were executed in 1743. These included Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (I’m not making these names up!!). A man called George Cheshire survived an attack by both of them in nearby Chick Lane. Duck and Barefoot beat Cheshire giving him some severe cuts and bruises. In total, they stole four pence. And for that crime – both women were hanged.

Sarah Bartlet and Martha Ewers were sentenced to transportation for luring a man called Robert Copperthwait into a house on Black Boy Alley and relieving him of his watch. Lucky for him he wasn’t murdered but inexplicably decided to return and they mugged him again – this time taking his money.

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The gang included a 21-year-old local lad known as Gugg (real name William Billingsley). He had gone to the free school to learn to read and write but crime was way more attractive than working as a lamp lighter. Then there was Thomas Well, reputed to be the husband of Ann Barefoot mentioned above. At his trial, he was said to have been “much addicted to vile women and drinking, swearing, gaming and every other destructive vice”.

Then there was Dillsey (real name William Brister) and a fourteen-year-old called Scampey (real name Henry Gadd). At his trial, Scampey was asked who was his Redeemer and instead of saying “Jesus”, he scandalised the court by yelling “the Devil!”. Another gang member was a Frenchman called Sulspice du Clot who was a Roman Catholic, as was an Irish gang member, Patrick Bourk.

The Black Boy Alley gang also had two Jewish members: Benjamin David Woolfe who was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia and now the capital of the Czech Republic. And Hannah Moses was from Frankfurt. She had seen her husband executed in February 1743 in London for robbing a silversmith.

The law eventually caught up with the gang and a staggering nineteen were executed on a single day at Tyburn gallows – near where Marble Arch is today at the end of Oxford Street. The mass hanging took place on Christmas Eve 1744. Gugg, Dillsey, young Scampey, the Frenchman Sulspice and the two Jewish gang members all swung from the end of a rope in front of a large, festive crowd.

And so ended the terror of the Black Boy Alley gang!

Homosexuality and the abuse of psychology

Homosexuality throughout history has been a matter of concealment, adapting or risking an open expression of your sexuality. In the last hundred years, it’s clashed head on with the relatively new science of psychology.

My parents both worked in psychiatric care in the 1960s and I recall a particular book they had about gay men called – The Homosexual Outlook. It was a classic work of post-war psychology that would be laughed at now – by most people.

That psychology tome on homosexuality had an unintentionally hilarious chapter titled On the gayest street in town and it detailed, as if describing the mating rituals of an animal species, how gay men hook up.

Two strangers approach each other gingerly and then one chap might say – ‘say fellow, have you got the time?’ Apparently, they would then analyse how the other person was holding their cigarette and on the basis of that decide whether to take things further!

Ironically, this 1953 psychology study was actually a defence of homosexuality – but you’d struggle to think so today. This was a time when American gay men were still firmly in the closet with a few heroic exceptions. And the world of psychiatry still treated same sex relationships as a disorder.

Early psychology and homosexuality

Go back another 50 years and you have the best selling work on psychiatry – Degeneration – by Max Nordau. He thought that human beings were gradually degenerating as a result of urbanisation.

Writing in the 1890s when Europe was enjoying a cultural and artistic boom, all Nordau could see was decadence and the destruction of human minds. And he saw the open display of homosexuality as a big part of the problem.

He had several targets and one of them was – Oscar Wilde. Nordau was particularly offended that Wilde had “walked down Pall Mall (an upmarket street in London) in the afternoon dressed in doublet and breeches with a picturesque biretta on his head and a sunflower in his hand”.

Nordau – speaking for many conservative chaps in the world of psychology – angrily dismissed this very visible expression of homosexuality as “anti-social ego mania”.

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Dressing up for the sake of it is mental illness!

In a rather curious abuse of psychology, Nordau attempts to argue that human dress is primarily about exciting the opposite sex in order to encourage procreation.

Because Wilde is dressing just to annoy people, he “evinces a perversion of the instinct of vanity”. Say that phrase with a Germanic accent and you capture the flavour of Nordau!

Psychology versus the homosexuality of Oscar Wilde

And he goes on: “Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime”. Nordau was particularly shocked that when Wilde was asked about the real-life murder of a woman called Helen Abercrombie, he blithely remarked: “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do – but she had very thick ankles”.

He puts this all down to Wilde’s uncontrolled ego and – in a more sinister observation – says that Wilde “is a pathological aberration of a racial instinct”.

Oscar Wilde – flamboyant or mentally ill?

In truth, Nordau wasn’t a great psychiatrist. In fact, he was a conservative snob and bigot who cloaked his prejudices in the upcoming science of psychology.

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But, incredibly, up until the 1960s, homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder with some linking it to narcissism and a dysfunctional ego. The American Psychiatric Association only voted in 1973 to de-classify same sex relationships as a mental illness.

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And incredibly, the World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from its ICD classification in 1992. ICD stands for “ego-dystonic sexual orientation”.

Nordau would have approved of that classification! But thankfully the world of psychology has mended its bridges these days with the reality of homosexuality.

LGBT men hanged in London – in 1743

Attitudes towards LGBT people have changed over the centuries. Sometimes there have been periods of relative tolerance followed by extreme cruelty. The eighteenth century was incredibly camp when it came to fashion and manners but you could be hanged by the neck for being an active homosexual.

I know because two LGBT men were hanged for the crime of sodomy near where I live in the year 1743. They had basically cruised each other in central London and then been caught in the act.

LGBT men hanged for their sexuality

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people recorded in Iran in recent years.

But this was London – and barely 250 years ago. The scene of the execution was near Kennington Park pictured below in the mid-winter.

Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place

LGBT men hanged in public

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June that year.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay.

Who wouldn’t?

Men hanged for being LGBT in public

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter. As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him.

Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court.

Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now. A sad story of two gay men hanged for the crime of love.