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Ask the Author: Caitlin Davies on Queens of the Underworld - a history of female crooks


Author Caitlin Davies is a novelist, non-fiction writer, award-winning journalist and teacher. She is the author of six novels, six non-fiction books, and several short stories. Queens of the Underworld her history of female crooks, has recently been released in paperback.

What inspired you to write about this topic?

I’d written a book about the history of Holloway Prison (Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison, John Murray, 2019), and one of the women I came across was Zoe Progl, who was Britain’s ‘No.1 Woman Burglar’ in the early 1960s. She made a daring escape from the infamous prison in 1964, but after her re-capture she promised to give up her life of crime and go straight. I couldn’t find any more mentions of her in the press, and so I assumed she’d retired from being a burglar.

Then quite by chance I met her daughter, and she told me the truth about her mother. She also explained that her mum had been proud of her career as a professional crook, and her title as ‘woman of the underworld’. That made me wonder why she hadn’t been treated seriously as a criminal, why do we know so much about her male contemporaries like the Krays and nothing about Zoe Progl? Then I wondered about other women who’d also been ignored and written out of criminal history, I was sure they were out there somewhere, but would I be able to find them?

What kind of research did you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I probably spent about a year on research but even when I’d started writing, I had to keep stopping to research more. Professional female crooks are so hard to track, they had a habit of hiding their identities - some used literally dozens of aliases – so I trawled newspaper reports from the 1600s onwards, made freedom of information requests to access criminal records, and ordered a lot of birth, death, and marriage certificates.

I went to places associated with all the women – such as the 17th century site of Moll Cutpurse’s warehouse for stolen goods - and tried to follow in their footsteps. I also tracked down modern day relatives to see if they would agree to talk to me. That was tricky, contacting someone out of the blue and asking if they knew that someone in their family had been a professional crook…

Was there anything especially surprising that you found in your research?

I hadn’t known just how vilified professional female crooks were, the misogyny aimed at them was breathtaking. They came to represent everything that was ‘bad’ about women - and they did everything a woman was not supposed to do. I was also surprised at how much fun the women had while breaking the law. No wonder they’d been excluded from most histories of crime.

In term of individuals, I got a surprise when, in the very last stages of writing the book, I finally established the true identity of Diamond Dolly, a jewel thief of the 1920s. She was always portrayed as a glamorous American quick-change artist, and her mugshot wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

What types of non-fiction book do you tend to gravitate towards reading?

If it’s for work, then any book that fits my topic. If it’s for pleasure then any book that tells a good story, in an accessible, accurate, non-judgemental way. I was amazed at how much rubbish has been written about women in books about crime, even the basic facts were wrong!

What is your favourite chapter in the book? Why?

I fell in love with quite a few of the Queens, especially Elsie Carey who appears in Chapter 8. She led a shop-breaking gang in the 1930s. Elsie had such nerve and charisma, and the stories her niece told me were a revelation. The woman I admired the most was probably Chris Tchaikovsky who appears in Chapter 17. She led a fraud gang in the 1970s and turned her life around by forming the charity Women in Prison. I think what attracted me to all the women was their lack of fear.

You state that ‘the queens of the underworld shouldn’t be glorified’ or even looked upon as crusading feminists. How do you feel we should process their crimes and what gap do you feel your book fills in social history?

They shouldn’t be glorified because they committed crime, people were robbed, threatened, exploited, and occasionally violently assaulted. But this doesn’t mean the women shouldn’t be taken seriously, it’s important to know why they chose crime, what they did, and why they enjoyed it. I’m hoping other people will research ‘queens of the underworld’ in their own areas – I had to restrict myself mainly to those based in London - and that one day we will see fully rounded female characters portrayed as professional crooks in popular culture.

The Queens are important figures in the social history of women, criminology, and the justice system. Women have always been held up to different standards from men, and this influenced what they were arrested for, how they were treated while on trial, and how they were portrayed in the media. For centuries women were explicitly punished for transgressing the feminine role; and incarcerated in order to become domesticated.

Did you notice any patterns in these women’s lives during your research? Were there any findings that genuinely shocked you?

The women operated in such different times, committed different sorts of crimes and had very different backgrounds, and yet their similarities, right from the 17th century to today, were striking. They all described themselves – or were described – as rebels from an early age, who deliberately rejected the feminine role. They didn’t want to be meek and mild or do what girls were meant to do.

They were often first arrested as teenagers, usually for minor thefts such as stealing chocolate or a jumper. Then they joined a criminal gang, stumbled across an ‘underworld’ den, café or bar, or fell in love with a criminal man. Most tried legitimate work, in low-paid jobs where they were mistreated and demeaned, and then they discovered they were good at crime. They liked the thrill, adrenaline, and ‘buzz’, crime gave them money, authority, power, and respect.

As for findings that shocked me, the worst was when I ordered the birth certificate for Queenie Day, known to Scotland Yard as the ‘Terror of Soho’. Queenie grew up in the early 1900s, she was mixed-race, lesbian, and convicted of prostitution more than once. She had to fight to survive. In 1918, she was arrested for the first time (under an alias), after breaking into a house and stealing £50 worth of silver goods. The press reported she was 14, but then I received her birth certificate and realised she had been just 10 years old when she was convicted and sent to a reformatory on the other side of the country for 3 years.

You point out that male crooks are recorded everywhere and are also lionised in books and films. Has working on this book made you look at female, or even male criminality, differently?

I already knew that the vast majority of women in prison have always committed petty crimes, often to support a family or partner, and I knew they were discriminated against within the ‘justice’ system. But I hadn’t known what a long tradition there was of women who deliberately set out to flout the law.

Every age has had its share of notorious female crooks, it’s fascinating – and depressing – to see how quickly these women were forgotten. As a society, even today we’re still very uncomfortable with women who break the rules, the media prefer women to be victims or ‘psychopaths’, and I’ve been surprised at how many times I’ve been asked to justify why I wanted to write about the Queens in the first place.

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