Over the Easter weekend, the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit company – based in the heart of London’s principal jewellery quarter – was raided. The circumstances of the case have yet to be established, but initial reports speculate that the perpetrators may have abseiled down an elevator shaft and broken through the wall of the vault with heavy-duty cutting equipment, before finally using drills to get into the deposit boxes.
The value of their haul is also unclear but they could have made away with as much as £200 million in jewels and other goods.
It has even been suggested by the former head of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad that the thieves may have started the fire that ground much of central London to a halt in the days before the heist – either as a diversion or to weaken the local electricity supply.
Several observers have remarked nostalgically that the heist is redolent of the good old days of safe-breaking in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the origins of this kind of crime – and how we respond to it – stretch much further back.
A Victorian fascination
Technically astute criminals first captured the public imagination as long ago as the 19th century. It was these criminals who engendered a new way of thinking about professional crime which emerged from the 1850s.
Crucial to this was the proliferation of new security technologies such as high-tech locks, safes, strong rooms and – from the 1870s – purpose-built safe deposits. Professional thieves who could circumvent these innovations started to be singled out by the press. They were distinguished from lesser operators because of their technical skill and the eclectic set of specialist housebreaking tools they used.
In 1897, a gang of thieves broke into the highly-fortified Diamond Merchants' Alliance Company in Piccadilly by cutting through the bolts of its steel shutters, and levering them up to gain entry. The raid caught the attention of the Daily News, which inferred that the felons were clearly members of “the High Mob … who scorn small affairs, and who are regarded in the highest reverence by the smaller practitioners in private plunder”.
Still in a class of their own
As the Hatton Garden case illustrates, these Victorian perceptions of criminal professionalism persist. Where the press of yesteryear zoned in on the drills, explosives and blowpipes of their criminals, the modern-day media swoons over the cutting tools, drills and abseiling gear that make for a eye-catching diamond heist these days.
The Evening Standard ran a whole article about the drill used in the robbery, noting that it cost more than £3,000. The Telegraph offered up a diagram detailing every stage of the operation, the Daily Mail (today similarly fascinated by the Hatton Garden case) did the same, in full colour.
And indeed, the ex-Flying Squad officer made his remarks about the coincidence of the central London fire because he was approached for comment about the quality of the job – was it well planned? How could they have pulled it off? How long would such an operation take? Journalists asked exactly the same questions of police detectives over a hundred years ago.
The Hatton Garden case has been styled as something out of heist movies Ocean’s Eleven or Sexy Beast. This tendency to refer to fictional characters when jewels are stolen is not new either. In the past, safe-breakers were described alongside references to imagined crooks such as Bill Sikes, the brutish burglar of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
There was also the much-mythologised Georgian housebreaker Jack Sheppard. His name was frequently invoked following a sensational raid at a jeweller’s shop in Cornhill in the City of London in 1865. On this occasion, thieves had worked on cracking the safe over the weekend – much like the Hatton Garden crew – hammering metal wedges into the frame to enable them to wrench open the door. According to the Times, the heist “indicated so much system, concert, audacity, and skill” – even “the thieves of JACK SHEPPARD’S time never reached this mark”.
Perhaps most strikingly, we share with our Victorian ancestors a strange species of admiration for the professional criminal. It is not just that we enjoy the vicarious thrill we derive from their feats, we acknowledge that these operators – highly skilled, organised, disciplined – are worthy of a better cause.
In contrast to the bulk of unremarkable, often petty crime, their exploits signal a creditable application (though, regrettably, a misapplication) of education, science and technology. This kind of professional thief is a figure whose accomplishments elicit little affection, but a good measure of recognition.
Evidently, we continue to talk in a particular way about stunning, major robberies – and the highly capable criminals who pull them off – following conventions established well over a hundred years ago.
Now, like then, we read about the losses to businesses and the harm caused to victims, but despite it all but there remains, throughout the coverage, a note of admiration for the culprits.
David Churchill receives funding from the Economic History Society.
Authors: The Conversation