The Story Behind London's Notorious Girl Gang, the Forty Elephants

Ling Tang /
Ling Tang / | © Culture Trip
James Gunn

The Hatton Garden burglary in 2015 has captured the nation’s imagination. So much so, that recent reports of Jim Broadbent and Michael Caine’s new film adaptation of the event will be the crime’s third on the big screen in as many years. A few old blokes – one a narcoleptic – pulled off the most valuable heist in London’s criminal history, stealing an estimated £25 million worth of goods from the safe depository in Holborn only a few hundred metres from the Royal Courts of Justice. Needless to say, organised crime is often viewed ambivalently by a public obsessed with the drama and romance of thieving and swindling, despite the harm done along the way.

But to find an equally compelling criminal story we need not wait for another grand heist. Looking back through the annals of London crime is exactly what writer Brian McDonald did. In his 2010 book, Gangs of London, he drew attention to the Forty Elephants Gang, a syndicate of working class women who lived in and around London Bridge and whose greatest notoriety came from their glamorous exploits of shoplifting, blackmail and extortion in London’s West End. The topic was so extraordinary he returned to his research and, in 2015, Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants was published.

Definitive records show that the Elephants operated between 1873 and the 1950s, but there is some evidence to suggest that the gang’s origins can be placed as early as the end of the 18th century. The gang’s name is not as cryptic as it may sound: the number is a rough estimate of its membership and the choice of animal is due to two factors: that they all lived around the Elephant and Castle pub in Southwark, and – more significantly – on leaving shops with their stolen goods under their clothes, the sheer volume of garb made them look like elephants. Only women were allowed to be members and they were almost all exclusively from a working class background; they rejected the jobs that people like them were condemned to do and instead, similarly to the suffragette movement, they took matters into their own hands. However, instead of fighting for the right to vote, the Elephants wanted something more immediate: financial independence. They would steal clothes and jewellery, sell them on for far less than they were worth, and distributed the earnings amongst their community, providing their families with a lot more than they could otherwise hope to.

Glamorous now, but equally glamorous then: London’s West End

When responding to a magistrate during one of her numerous court appearances about her violent treatment of policemen, Alice Diamond said: ‘Police forces are set up by governments to stop others getting a share of what they’ve got!’ It is this anarchic attitude, underpinned by a sense of fighting social inequality, which has reignited public interest in the Forty Elephants. A Canadian theatre company recently took its play adaptation of the gang’s history to Edinburgh Festival, while BBC screenplay writer Marnie Dickens has been said to be working on a series which might offer the same allure to viewers as the hugely successful Peaky Blinders.

The success of the Hatton Garden Heist will long be remembered for its slapstick incompetence, but there is equally plenty of mileage left in resurrecting the Forty Elephants Gang. It is no surprise, given the extraordinary story of a few dozen women who, equipped with some light fingers and a sense of social purpose, managed to terrorise London’s rich and metropolitan elite for the best part of a century.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article