North East writer Beezy Marsh tells the extraordinary tale of the notorious women behind her latest novel, Queen of Thieves

SWATHED in luxurious fur coats and wearing the most expensive designer hats, the women in these police mugshots from a hundred years ago give a very different view of Britain's gangland, proving it wasn't just a man's world.

Confidential records held in the National Archives have revealed the secrets of the most notorious all-female gang, The Forty Thieves, which not only made rich pickings by stealing from the swankiest shops all over the country, but also used violent methods more traditionally associated with male criminals.

The sophisticated gang had its base in the slums of South London, and was ruled over by a "Queen", Alice Diamond, who stood six feet tall and wore a row of diamond rings as a knuckleduster. Her deputy, Maggie Hughes, was famed for her red hair, her liking for drink and her brutal attacks with her hat pin.

Alice was the daughter of Thomas Diamond, a labourer from Middlesbrough, born in 1871, who travelled to London to seek work and soon found himself in trouble with the law for drunken brawls in the squalid slum streets in Southwark, beside the River Thames, which had changed little since Dickens' day. His eldest daughter Alice, who used several aliases in her life of crime, went on to lead the most notorious and feisty gang of shoplifters, whose exploits made the Peaky Blinders look like a bunch of choirboys.

Gang members adhered to a strict code of loyalty to the Queen, went "shopping" three times a week in West End stores such as Selfridges, or further afield to Birmingham, Manchester and Brighton, in search of fur coats and wraps, silk stockings, jewellery and other valuables, which they hid in specially-adapted coats with secret pockets, or in baggy bloomers with elastic at the knee to hold their loot.

They were highly organised, with a network of around two dozen women working at any given point in time – including those pictured here. They were caught and sent to prison on numerous occasions, but still went back to their life of crime. Men were not allowed in the gang, but were employed as drivers, and the Queen paid generous wages to her "hoisters" on the understanding that everything they pinched was handed to her, to be sold on. When the gang travelled outside London, they posted stolen goods back home in parcels or deposited suitcases stuffed with furs at left luggage offices, to be collected later.

Darlington and Stockton Times: 'Queen' Alice Diamond, daughter of a labourer from Middlesbrough

'Queen' Alice Diamond, daughter of a labourer from Middlesbrough

Whenever they were caught, many of them fought back or made daring escapes and by the late 1920s, Alice Diamond's notoriety had grown to the extent that she is described in newspaper cuttings as the "Giant Queen of the Terrors" – it once took six policemen to hold her down. Maggie Hughes was known as "Babyface" for her sweet looks and made a habit of cheekily shouting back at the judge when she was sentenced to jail: "It won't cure me! It will only make me a worse villain!"

Maggie Hughes, famed for her red hair and her liking for drink

Maggie Hughes, famed for her red hair and her liking for drink

They made regular appearances in the confidential Register of Persistent Offenders, which was circulated to police and also on the front page of the Police Gazette, where their glamorous appearance is at odds with the faces of rows of male criminals.

And while the award-winning TV show Peaky Blinders was inspired by the all-male Brummagem Boys gang from the same period, the Forty Thieves make some of even their escapades seem tame by comparison. Countless films and column inches are dedicated to Britain's underworld being ruled by male crime bosses including the Krays and the Richardson gangs of the 1960s, but all the while, The Forty Thieves were carving their own path, going against all the social norms for women at the time.

The gangster "Mad" Frankie Fraser, whose sister Eva was a leading light in the gang, said that being a hoister was, "the only sensible choice for a girl in South London, because during the war, they could earn around a hundred pounds a week, out-earning most blokes ten to one". His own criminal tendencies were spotted as a boy by Alice Diamond, who once praised him for stealing an entire cigarette machine from a hotel and helped him sell its contents.

The Krays held Eva Fraser in high regard because of her role in the gang and during the 1940s and 1950s, and the Soho gang boss Billy Hill – brother of the fiery Maggie Hughes – was careful not to encroach too much on their territory because he respected their right to earn their own money, free from male interference.

The exploits of the Forty Thieves inspired my book Queen of Thieves, the first in a planned trilogy about the strong and subversive women.

Meeting descendants of some of the original gang, which had its heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s, I was struck by how their shoplifting skills had been passed on through generations of families. Being a "hoister" offered a lucrative alternative to low-paid factory work and was seen as a good career choice for women who were prepared to risk a spell in the grim confines of Holloway Prison.

Petite shoplifter Bertha Tappenden stood just over 5ft 2ins tall, but was convicted of inflicting grievous bodily harm on a man in Lambeth, after kicking down his front door and attacking him with razors and knives, to settle a score, aided by Alice Diamond and another gang girl, Gertrude Scully. Many of the Forty Thieves were noted for their beauty as well as their shoplifting skills, such as Madeline Partridge and her sister Laura, whose mother was often used by Alice Diamond to sell stolen goods. But they were never afraid to use razors on those who crossed them.

One woman, who was taught how to steal in the 1970s by her gran, a former member of the Forty Thieves, said: "They always dressed like film stars when they went out and many of them enjoyed going up to the West End for dinner and parties using the money they had earned. It gave them a life they could never have afforded. I don't think they felt bad about it. They enjoyed buying nice things with the money and putting on the posh. There was also kind of respect for them locally because people could get a nice dress or a pair of stockings cheaply."

Queen of Thieves by Beezy Marsh is published by Orion Books, £8.99

Beezy Marsh

Beezy Marsh

Author and journalist Beezy Marsh grew up in Hartlepool. She returned to the region after university, spending many years working for the D&S Times' sister paper The Northern Echo in its head office in Darlington as well as covering district offices, including Bishop Auckland, Barnard Castle, Teesside, Durham, Chester-le-Street and Northallerton. Many of her close friends and family still live in the North East and, although she now lives down south, she considers herself a Northerner at heart.