1800's, 1895, art, artist, arts, battle, beggars, begger, budget, burglar, burglars, canvas, chalk, chalker, chalking, chalks, crime, england, history, london, markings, news, newspaper, pavement, pavement art, paving, philip, publication, screever, screeving, secret, signs, social, stone, street, uk, urban, urbancanvas, victorian, westminster
Burglars and their Secret Signs
THE average Londoner who takes his walks abroad in this great City is not a particularly observant man. He notes the pavement artist and his lurid chalking’s upon the footway; the pictorial advertisements that make hideous the hoardings and dead walls of his neighbourhood; and all the odds and ends of illustration that meet his eye in the windows of the newsvendors.
But he makes no count of the apparently childish scrawls and scribbles that decorate, after a fashion, the walls and pavements of the suburbs; or, if he notices them at all, dismisses the thought of such puerile things as merely the doings of the Board school scholars who thus give vent to the illustrative instincts that all children possess as a gift of nature. They are not, however, always children who chalk splayfooted effigies and eccentric-looking signs upon the walls and fences of suburban roads—they are indeed, often the handiwork of prowling housebreakers, area-sneaks, burglars, and miscellaneous vagrom men who, sometimes in the guise of itinerant old-bottle merchants and dealers in discarded domestic trifles, and more often as shambling mendicants, infest quiet neighbourhoods, remote from the central districts of London, and become the terror of servants and lone women.
These signs, so meaningless and ill-drawn to the eye of the uninitiated, are intelligible enough to the vagrants who lurk in every district. They are sufficiently graphic for their purpose, and need no words for their comprehension by the light-fingered fraternity, by whom they are more easily to be read than ordinary writing. And at the same time their hieroglyphic character renders them either utterly senseless or inscrutable to the general public.
What else than a childish freak would this scribble, roughly done upon the garden fence of some Fairlawn or Myrtle Villa, appear to you? Yet it was placed there by a burglar’s spy, who in the guise of a beggar obtained accurate information as to the dwellers in the house, and conveyed it in this cryptic and succinct manner to his associates.
Here are three figures: two evidently intended for women; the third a boy. The information pictorially conveyed is to the effect that the house is tenanted by a lady, one woman servant, and a page-boy. That he is a page boy is evident from his buttons; and the servant is indicated in a manner customary to these criminal sign-writers, by a short skirt dotted to resemble a print dress.
The top one is a very instructive sketch, and a rather spirited one, too, as these things go. Prigs and cadgers are warned by it that this cottage is guarded by a dog; a bull-dog, if we may rely upon this evidence. He appears to have only three legs, but that is an omission of one by the artist, who was, no doubt, a great deal more concerned to give the information that a dog was kept on the premises than he would need to be to give his proper complement of legs.
The next example is of somewhat, greater ambition, and at the same time more mysterious; but it finally resolves itself into the announcement that there is a man in the house who goes out to business in the morning and returns at eventime are indicated.
These signs are, of course, of the greatest use and value to the criminal classes, and represent a great deal of careful inquiry. Indeed, the burglar who knows his business spends a considerable period in obtaining all necessary information, and rarely works in an unpremeditated or uninformed manner.
He has, in fact, a Criminal Investigation Department, equally with the authorities of New Scotland Yard and one not a whit less efficient. He is well informed, through his confederates, of the internal economy of the house selected for his operations, and knows where the electric bells are as well as the inmates. This peculiar scribble, in fact, copied from chalk marks on a garden wall, indicates the existence of an electric bell, and the figure with a large numeral 3 beside it tells of the number and the sex of the people within.
These signs and portents serve yet another turn—of informing other roaming burglars, eager for cribs to crack, that the houses thus marked are already selected for spoliation by the fraternity. Sometimes, also, servants are in league with burglars, and leave everything in proper train for them at the selected time. And, in this connexion, it must be said that the typical burglar, the Bill Sikes of fiction and caricature—with his burly form, moleskin cap, breeches, clumsy ankle-jacks, and savage bulldog—is entirely a myth. He would only need to go across his doorstep into the street to be arrested at once on suspicion, so earnest of swag; jemmies, and skeleton-keys is his whole rig-out. The average burglar of modern times is, to the contrary, more often a respectable workman in appearance, not necessarily of good physique (since a revolver equalises such matters in a contest), but often quite undersized and contemptible as an unarmed assailant. Frequently he is a painter or a plumber, and yet more frequently a friend (or something nearer still) to the servant. But it is not so often that the actual housebreaker is the servant’s friend: More usually it is his spy or go-between.
The next sketch is a representation of a servant who has been “squared.” The cross and the grin (intended, presumably, for a smile) tell that tale, and the extraordinary group of miscellaneous articles roughly pictured beside her give some idea of the booty (plate, coin, and what not) to be had within. A revolver however is in the house, and also a dog.
Last of all is a mark from London streets, perhaps the most difficult to be understood of the whole series. It represents a tall house, next to one remaining unlet, and a line, barbed with an arrowhead, shows the best means of ingress to be by the trap-door in the roof. This was not chalked outside the house, for in London the police would be quite alive to its meaning, but in an obscure corner of a neighbouring street. The position of the particular house is indicated by the figures and the arrow-mark below, thus: - “Number sixteen in the second street to the right.”
Written by CHARLES G. HARPER
Originally published in The Westminster Budget, January 11th 1895
Transcribed and researched by Philip Battle
Visit my Artists of The Paving Stone page on Facebook!