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The ever-evolving art of the sly London pickpocket

Over the last year, reports of sleight-of-hand robberies have more than doubled in the capital. But why are we still so fascinated by these dexterous thieves?

Illustration of a hand stealing a phone from a bag
Image: Samuel Tomsky
Image: Samuel Tomsky
India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

It has happened to so many of us. It begins in a crowded and touristy place, usually when you’re least expecting it. Often working in pairs, one person will distract you – maybe they’re asking for directions, or spilling something on you – while another slides their hand into your pocket and swiftly takes your phone. 

By the time you’ve noticed your phone is gone, the thief has vanished. And although you might be able to log into Find My iPhone and see a little blinking light offering a flash of hope, often, it will be too late. Before you know it, the device could be heading to some far-off land. As crime experts have told us, it’s much more likely for stolen phones to be sent and sold abroad than to remain in the UK. Plus, even if it stays in the country, flaws in the technology – such as not being able to trace the phone to the exact apartment in a block of flats – mean the police are unlikely to be able to do anything about it. 

Pickpockets are as sly and cunning as ever, and they’re on the rise in London. Over the past year, reports of sleight-of-hand robberies have more than doubled in the capital. According to data from the British Transport Police (BTP), reports of pickpocketing between 2021 and 2022 reached a record high of 7,899 – that’s significantly higher than pre-pandemic rates. 

It’s also gone through the roof on the tube, with more than 1,200 pickpocket thefts reported on the Central line in 2022 and more with more than 1,100 on the Northern line. And the figures are going up every year. 

But why, exactly, are pickpockets so rife at the moment? And why are we all still so intrigued by this age-old crime?

A brief history of pickpockets 

Most of us can agree that pickpockets are egregious, opportunistic law breakers, but there also lies a certain fascination with their craft. When you think of ‘the olden days’ (more specifically, the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), London was often painted as a place where pickpockets were as ubiquitous as the people playing TikTok out loud on their phones are now. 

From the Artful Dodger to Catwoman, literature and pop culture is filled with street rats, urchins and cunning thieves – characters we seemingly can’t help but show some affection towards. In the United States, there are even ‘professional pickpockets’ who act as quasi-magicians, using their sleight of hand tricks to dazzle befuddled audience members in flashy stage shows. A crime that requires a certain amount of skill and street-smarts, it’s not a surprise that there lies a certain morbid curiosity with its art, similar to some folk’s obsession with taxidermy or the thousands who watch pimples being popped on TikTok. 

There’s something quite exciting about it, the idea of organised crime: it’s surreptitious

‘There’s a certain mythology around pickpockets,’ says historian of crime and youth justice Professor Heather Shore at Manchester Metropolitan University. ‘There’s something quite exciting about it, the idea of organised crime. It’s surreptitious. Pickpockets are often seen as being agile and clever and dexterous.’

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens calls the art of the pickpocket ‘a curious and uncommon game’. But does this lore built by the likes of Dickens and his contemporaries ring true? According to Shore, the answer is partly yes. 

The Artful Dodger teaching Oliver Twist to pickpocket
Imag: Alamy / George CruikshankThe Artful Dodger teaching Oliver Twist to pickpocket

‘It’s like the chicken and egg,’ she says, explaining that while based in fact, such stories have also helped to paint an image of the crime that was more sensational than its reality. While nineteenth century authors like the novelist Dickens and the chronicler of the Victorian poor Henry Mayhew were busy crafting stories about thieves that they knew would be popular at the time, they were also diligent researchers who were savvy to the real facts.

‘There is some truth to the Artful Dodger,’ says Shore. ‘There were accounts of young boys practicing on older men and being trained up, but if you look at the Old Bailey records [detailing trials at London’s central criminal court], most of the crimes were much more mundane.’

Back then, pickpocketing was considered a lucrative trade and even an occupation. So, has much changed?

A curious and uncommon game

In the Georgian and Victorian eras, central London was crawling with nimble-fingered thieves. ‘Pickpockets were especially noted in the Strand, the Exchange, Drury Lane and Covent Garden,’ historian Rictor Norton writes in ‘The Georgian Underworld’, a study of criminal subcultures in eighteenth-century England. Theatres, sporting events and mass gatherings were often the targets of pocket divers.

Needless to say, it’s not much different today. Londoners of the present are still mostly likely to be targeted by opportunistic phone and wallet snatchers in the busiest, most touristy spots. According to data from TfL, the boroughs of Westminster, Camden and Southwark are where the most incidents of pickpocketing were reported in the past year. Westminster alone had more than 20,000 reported incidents in the past year, equalling a whopping two thefts every hour. In Camden, there were 5,300 pocket robberies, while Southwark had 4,200. 

Westminster had more than 20,000 reported incidents in the past year, equalling a whopping two thefts every hour

There are plenty of tales about the methods used by the slyest of thieves, like the eighteenth century’s Jenny Diver, who often went out sporting a pair of false arms so she could unsuspectingly rob her victims using her real arms without anyone knowing any better. In present day, pickpocket’s tricks are almost as devious. Common methods include asking for directions, asking for the time, and even hugging victims while emptying out their pockets. Then there are the opportunists who will target people sleeping on public transport. 

Jewellery maker Paulomi Debnath, 43, was pickpocketed in London this July for the first time after living in the capital for 17 years. ‘It happened on Oxford Street,’ she says. ‘My Mulberry purse with my cards, cash, driving license and most importantly, a sentimental picture, were stolen. It was at & Other Stories near Bond Street tube station.’

A sign saying 'Police Warning, Beware'
Image: Alamy

The quick-witted thieves grabbed her purse right from her bag, which was unfortunately left open. ‘I only noticed when it was minutes too late,’ she says. ‘All happened within five to 10 minutes. When we looked back at the CCTV it seemed like an organised crime – they were two women who knew the store's camera blind spots. I didn’t get anything back.’

For Debnath, central London has now lost some of its appeal. ‘Oxford Street is my favourite place to hang out but now it doesn’t feel safe. I learned the lesson in a hard way: I can’t replace the picture and I won’t keep any sentimental things in my purse anymore.’

Sean Hui, 26, had his phone snatched out of his pocket during a Bullet For My Valentine gig at the Roundhouse in Camden. Born in London and living here for most of his life, this was the first time he was pickpocketed in the capital. ‘I didn’t back my phone up and lost loads of pictures and videos of my Dad who had passed away recently,’ he says. ‘It was gutting.’

I didn’t back my phone up and lost loads of pictures of my Dad who had passed away recently: it was gutting

Hui says he was close to the centre of the crowd when he took out his phone to take a few pictures. ‘I put it back in my right pocket and zipped it back up,’ he says. ‘Those shows get a bit hectic, people push each other around. The next thing I realised was my right pocket was open and there was no phone inside.

Hui used a GPS tracker to find his stolen Galaxy S21 Ultra, which was worth £1,300 when he bought it. He even followed the phone to the house where it ended up, but the police weren’t able to help. ‘It makes me angry to think about,’ he says. ‘I know where the phone is, but the police are reluctant to do anything. They said the GPS is not accurate.’

You’re probably not getting your stuff back 

Unlike in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when pickpockets could be executed for their doings, nowadays, it’s a bit different. But while pickpocketing remains a very common crime, it’s become difficult to catch and prosecute them.

‘Pickpocketing is more sophisticated than most theft, and it often involves multiple people,’ says Dr Matthew Ashby, lecturer in Security and Crime Science at UCL. ‘One of its features is that the actual pickpocket disposes of the property really, really fast. And that’s one of the reasons why it's so difficult for the police to deal with.

‘I've spoken to officers who have seen pickpockets steal a wallet or phone, drop it into an envelope with an address in a different country – like Nigeria or China – and then stick it in a postbox. Within five minutes of the crime, the offender doesn’t have the stolen property on them anymore.’

Officers have seen pickpockets steal a phone, drop it into an envelope with an address in a different country, and stick it in a postbox

CCTV isn’t much use either, as often thieves will use a bag or coat that allows them to conceal the actual moment of taking the object. As for GPS tracking, Dr Ashby explains that following a phone’s location, to say, a block of flats, is simply ‘not good enough to get a search warrant’.

‘It's really frustrating for victims, because they can see their phone and think they will get their stuff back,’ Ashby says. ‘Unfortunately the tech just isn’t working the way that it should. By far the most effective way of catching pickpocket is to catch them in the act.’

Finding the culprits 

If it’s not the Artful Dodger and co, who are the folk actually picking pockets? ‘Very few crimes are committed by large, organised groups,’ says Dr Ashby. ‘Because every extra person that you involve in the crime is someone else who they might have to share the profits with. Most criminal networks are pretty small.’

And it turns out a lot of divers aren’t based in London at all. ‘Historically, with pickpocketing, there are family-based networks,’ Dr Ashby says. ‘And they’re not always local. The BTP has for a long time had issues on the tube with groups of offenders flying in to the UK, committing as many offences as possible and then leaving to wherever their home country is.’

The experts explain that there isn’t one clear answer as to why pickpocketing reports are on the up, but it’s likely to be down to an amalgamation of cuts to the police force, more people carrying expensive phones, and changes to the way these crimes are recorded by the police. 

A sign saying 'Attention, Pickpockets'
Image: Shutterstock

The BTP’s specialist squad tackling tube pickpocketing was disbanded in 2017. But the force now operates a plainclothes squad on the London Underground ‘to great success’, a spokesperson says. Above ground though, it’s a different story. ‘It just comes down to limited police resources,’ says Dr Ashby. ‘It’s difficult to focus on the prevention of pickpocketing.’ 

So what can you do to protect yourself from the prying fingers of pesky thieves? For starters, don’t keep your phone in your back pocket. And if you’re carrying a bag, try wearing it across the front of your body so you can keep an eye on it, and never leave your phone out on a table in a restaurant or on a train. It also helps to keep your bags and pockets zipped. All of these things might sound like common sense, but with Londoners leading such busy lives, sometimes it’s easy to forget to look out for your stuff.

And if bad luck strikes and you do get pickpocketed, try to report the crime to the police as quickly as possible. Pretending that you’re in a Dickens novel might help to soften the blow, too. 

The Met Police declined to comment.

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