According to the old saying, “there is strength in numbers.” This is something that criminals have learned, as well, and although some prefer the “lone wolf” approach, others have found it more effective and lucrative to become part of a gang.
Today we will be touring through the annals of crime, as we take a look at some of the most notorious, unique, and ruthless gangs in British history.
8. The Cock Road Gang
During the late 18th century, Kingswood Forest in South Gloucestershire was a lawless land, that served as a hideout for many rogues, swindlers, and malefactors, and most notorious of all was the Cock Road Gang.
Named after a tiny hamlet near the city of Bristol, the Cock Road Gang was active for decades and consisted, mainly, of multiple generations of the same family – the Caines – accompanied by their friends and confederates. That being said, it is unclear if the gang was started by the Caines or if they merely took it over. One issue of the Bristol Gazette from 1786 writes about the execution of two members for counterfeiting and robbery – Joseph Fry and Samuel Ward – but makes no mention of the Caines family. The same issue reported that the gang “kept the neighborhood in so much dread that people used to pay them an annual stipend not to rob them.”
The year 1815 was a turning point for the gang, after storming a lock-up to free one of their members and attacking two local constables. Afterward, a posse of watchmen from Bristol assembled and raided the houses of all the known gang members and arrested 25 people. Reverend and historian H. T. Ellacombe revealed the end of the Cock Road Gang came in 1817 after most of the Caines had been executed or transported:
“The eldest son George was transported for life for housebreaking; Thomas and Benjamin were executed for burglary; Thomas, Joseph and Samuel transported for burglary; James, a grandson of old Benjamin, executed for murder; Francis and Thomas, grandsons, transported; other descendants transported or executed; three daughters had their respective husbands executed or transported.”
7. The Sabini Family
Although it had been mostly forgotten for almost a century, the Sabini Family, which was once the most powerful gang in London, is once again well-known thanks to it being featured on the TV show Peaky Blinders, but more on them later.
The Sabini Family was led by Charles “Darby” Sabini, the son of an Italian father and an English mother. Born in Clerkenwell Green, in London, Sabini started as a brawling hoodlum before he assembled a crew of his own that mainly handled racketeering and fencing. His power grew during the 1920s when he took over the protection and extortion rackets for racecourses, a highly lucrative business.
In the TV show, Sabini feuded with the Peaky Blinders and the Jewish gang led by Alfie Solomons. In real life, his main enemies were the Birmingham Boys led by Billy Kimber and the Elephant and Castle Mob headed by the McDonald brothers. Even though his opponents allied themselves against him, Sabini came out on top. Their feud culminated with a violent brawl in 1927 on Waterloo Road where eight men were killed. The fight brought too much police attention and both the McDonalds and Billy Kimber decided to flee to America, leaving the Sabini Gang in charge.
Their power slowly dwindled during the 1930s and Darby took a step back as his brother, Harry Sabini, assumed the leadership role. During World War II, both brothers were arrested and imprisoned as “enemy aliens,” although they were eventually released because their mother was English. Of course, by that point, the Sabini Gang was a shell of its former self, and other London mobsters such as Billy Hill and the White Family were more than ready to take over.
6. The Forty Elephants
Compared to other gangs on this list, the Forty Elephants might not seem so bad. They were rarely violent and they mostly resorted to shoplifting from fancy stores. But this allowed them to keep a low profile and they managed to operate a lot longer than any other gang on this list. Records suggest that the group was in existence for at least 80 years, between 1870 and 1950, and for as long as 200 years. And there was one more thing – the Forty Elephants consisted entirely of women.
They got their name from the Elephant and Castle area of London where they were based. That’s the same place where the Elephant and Castle Mob were from and the two groups often worked side-by-side and, indeed, more than a few of them were married to each other.
The Forty Elephants took advantage of the morals of the day. They walked into stores wearing heavy coats, bloomers, crinolines, and skirts that had hidden pockets sewn on the inside, knowing that, more often than not, the staff and even the police would be too prudish to search them. Those who did get caught often only spent a few months in jail.
Most of them were careful never to wear the things they stole, instead preferring to fence the goods and buy their own clothing and jewelry legitimately. They had their heyday during the interwar period, especially during the decadent 1920s when they became known for throwing lavish parties and indulging in the new flapper lifestyle. Their activity slowly declined following World War II, although it is still unclear what exactly brought a permanent end to the Forty Elephants.
5. The Richardson Gang
The Kray Twins are, without a doubt, London’s most notorious gangsters, who ruled the city’s criminal underworld during the mid 20th century. But even at the height of their power, they were not completely untouchable. They’ve always had a thorn in their side and that thorn’s name was the Richardson Gang.
Led by brothers Charlie and Eddie Richardson, this gang based out of South London garnered a fearsome reputation for extreme sadism, cruelty, and torture, all employed to protect their criminal empire which was based mainly around fraud, protection rackets, and drug dealing.
Catching a beating from the Richardsons was known as “taking a shirt from Charlie,” referring to the fact that Charlie Richardson gave the victim a new shirt when they were sent home since their own clothes would have been covered in blood. Some of the gang’s go-to techniques involving nailing the victim to the floor, using electric shocks on their genitals, and cutting off their toes with bolt cutters.
Other prominent members of the Richardson Gang included “Mad” Frankie Fraser, whose favorite punishment involved pulling teeth out with pliers, and George Cornell, who was murdered by Ronnie Kray inside the Blind Beggar.
The Richardson Gang came to an end in 1966 when both brothers and ten other members were arrested on various charges. They were given long prison sentences following what became known in the British media as the “torture trial.”
4. The Damned Crew
We’re going back in time for this entry, all the way to the early 17th century, to take a look at a unique London gang that consisted mainly of gentlemen, roisterers, and revelers who liked to get drunk and cause mayhem. They were called the Damned Crew, also referred to as the Cursed Crew because they were regarded as men without fear who were in service of the Devil.
There isn’t a ton of information about this gang readily available, but we do know the name of the man who was in charge, at least for a few years – Sir Edmund Baynham. We also have a contemporary account for one of their misadventures, which occurred on the night of March 18, 1600. After Baynham and his men got drunk at the Mermaid Tavern, they “cast off their cloaks and upper garments, drew rapiers and daggers, [and] marched through the streets.” They were arrested after getting into a fight with the city watchmen and, as they were being dragged off to jail, Baynham shouted that he “cared not a fart for the lord mayor or any magistrate in London.”
Afterward, Baynham was implicated in a rebellion in Essex, and then the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was forced to flee England and spent the rest of his life in Europe, and it is likely that his getaway also meant the end of the Damned Crew.
3. The Scuttlers
Just because most of the gangs on this list were centered in or around the capital does not mean that gang violence was strictly a London problem. In fact, during the 19th century, a lot of the fighting seen in Manchester and the surrounding townships was caused by young hoodlums known as the Scuttlers.
Technically speaking, the Scuttlers were not just a single gang, but rather multiple similar gangs, each one centered around a specific neighborhood. They consisted of teenagers, with rarely anyone being over 20 years old and most boys joining as soon as they hit 12 or 13 years of age. As for their crimes, the Scuttlers usually fought each other in turf wars that often turned bloody since most of them were armed either with knives or with heavy buckled belts.
The Scuttlers even had their own style of dress, which made them immediately recognizable. They wore bell-bottom trousers, clogs with brass tips, and colorful neckerchiefs that could have been used to signal their allegiance to a particular neighborhood. They also had a distinctive “donkey fringe” haircut, with the back and the sides cropped very short and a long fringe at the front.
The violence between the various gangs reached its peak in 1870, during a series of street battles that became known as the Rochdale Road War. Around 500 Scuttlers were arrested over a one-year period and a lot of them were given lengthy prison sentences as a deterrent to other gang members. Even so, this did little to curb their enthusiasm, and it wasn’t until a few decades later when various clubs for working-class boys were opened in the city that the numbers for the Scuttlers finally started dwindling.
2. The Peaky Blinders
Without a doubt, the Peaky Blinders are the most famous gang on this list, thanks mainly to the TV show of the same name. Centered in Birmingham, the “peakies” were a street gang consisting of working-class men and teenagers who liked to get drunk and cause some trouble.
Although the program brought them renewed notoriety, there are some differences between the show and their real counterparts. For starters, the show takes place during the 1920s, and many Peaky Blinders and their associates are veterans of World War I. In reality, the gang was at its peak in the late 19th century and had declined significantly by the time the war even started.
Another myth was that the name “peaky blinder” came from the fact that members liked to line the rims of their peaked caps with razor blades and used them as weapons. The truth was much less dramatic, as detailed by a contemporary businessman who described the average peaky blinder in his memoirs. He said:
“[The peaky blinder] took pride in his personal appearance and dressed the part with skill. Bell-bottomed trousers secured by a buckle belt, hob-nailed boots, a jacket of sorts, a gaudy scarf and a billy-cock hat with a long elongated brim. This hat was worn well over one eye, hence the name ‘peaky blinder’.”
The last myth is a typical Hollywood exaggeration. The real Peaky Blinders were hardly criminal masterminds and rarely took part in the kind of exciting exploits seen in the TV show. While they did have a hand in gambling and protection rackets, they were mainly responsible for brawling and other street crime. The most serious offense that we know of was a charge of manslaughter in 1898 against 19-year-old George “Cloggy” Williams, who killed a police constable by throwing a brick at his head.
1. The Firm
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a criminal organization known as “The Firm” ruled over most criminal enterprises in the East End of London, thanks mainly to its two leaders, brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray, better known as the Kray Twins.
Born in 1933, Ronnie and Reggie became street brawlers from a young age and they were proficient enough that they took up boxing. However, a dishonorable discharge from the army ended whatever hopes they might have had of a legitimate career and the duo turned to organized crime.
They started small, doing a bit of fencing, hijacking, and protection rackets, or working as muscle for other, more established outfits. Eventually, there was a power vacuum created by the absence of two big-time gangsters, Billy Hill and Jack Comer, and the Krays were there at the right place and the right time to become the new dominant organization in the East End.
Ronnie and Reggie used their money to open nightclubs in the more fashionable West End of London and that is how they transformed from gangsters to celebrities. They were often seen in the company of famous movie stars, singers, and socialites, and became an integral part of England’s Swinging Sixties culture.
Their success came to a screeching halt in 1968. Each brother had been in prison before, but The Firm always survived because the other sibling was always on the outside to run it. Scotland Yard knew that they needed to imprison both Krays to put an end to the gang. Which they did…in 1968. Ronnie and Reggie were each convicted of murder, while another 15 prominent members of the gang were also arrested on various charges. The Krays both got life in prison and, just like that, The Firm was dead, but its mark on London can still be seen half a century later. And if you would like to know the full story, you can check out the video we did on the Kray Twins on our sister channel, Biographics, embedded at the top of this entry.