Hang 'em high. Razor Smith enjoys a history of the brutalised criminal classes of the capital

London's Underworld: three centuries of vice and crime

Fergus Linnane <em>Robson Books, 288pp, £16

Jonathan Wild, the self-styled "Thief-Taker General of Britain and Ireland" and first "Public Enemy Number One", was the originator of the term double-cross. Wild had lists of all the thieves, burglars, pickpockets and highwaymen operating in 18th-century London and the surrounding counties. And when one of them agreed to pay him a share of their booty to ensure his help in escaping a last jig at the end of a rope at Tyburn-tree, he would place a cross next to their name. When Wild no longer had any use for these men, or if he heard they had been holding back their ill-gotten gains, he would place a second cross next to the first. This indicated that he would make sure they were arrested. Thus the term for betrayal became known as the double-cross.

Fergus Linnane's London's Underworld is packed with such snippets of information and will be fascinating to those who like their "true crime" to have an informative and historical flavour. The descriptions of London's brutal and impoverished slums and "rookeries" are vivid enough to provoke an itch while reading them. For most of London's poor, life was short, filthy and likely to end prematurely at the hands of a public executioner. By 1820, the number of capital offences had risen from 80 in 1688 to more than 300. Some of the offences for which you could be publicly executed included murder, rape, sodomy, arson, forgery, burglary, housebreaking, maiming cattle, shooting at a revenue officer and cutting down trees in an avenue. Bizarrely, you could also face the short drop for concealing the death of a bastard child, sending threatening letters, being disguised within the Mint, maliciously cutting hop-binds, being a soldier or seaman and wandering about without a pass, consorting with gypsies, and impersonating an "out-pensioner" at Greenwich Hospital.

In Wild's London, there was no police force, only the decrepit old men of the Watch, who were the butt of public ridicule and were known as "Charleys". In 1821, a mock advertisement appeared that showed exactly what the public thought of them. It read: "Wanted, a hundred-thousand men for London Watchmen. None need apply for this lucrative situation without being the age of sixty, seventy, eighty or ninety years; blind in one eye and seeing very little with the other; crippled in one or both legs; deaf as a post; with an asthmatic cough that tears them to pieces; whose speed will keep pace with a snail, and the strength of whose arm would not be able to arrest an old washerwoman of fourscore returning from a hard day's fag at the washtub."

Under the unseeing eyes of the Watch, and despite public hangings and the "Bloody Calender", crime in London was reaching epidemic proportions and there was urgent need for a real police force. Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Bill had an easy passage through parliament in 1829, and by May 1830 the new force was fully operational with 3,200 men. But the new police were in for a rough ride. They were vilified, spat on, stoned, blinded, mutilated, spiked on railings and generally molested by the public.

In 1831, a constable was stabbed to death during a riot in Clerkenwell, and a coroner's jury brought in a verdict of "justifiable homicide". An annual banquet was held to commemorate the event for many years afterwards. Costermongers, who sold food and goods from stalls, had a particular hatred of the new police. The police had a habit of seizing their barrows; coster vengeance against the police was a point of pride. One costermonger who attacked a policeman from behind and disabled him for life was imprisoned for only a year. This at a time when a man could get ten years or be transported for stealing a few pounds.

By the turn of the 20th century the Metropolitan Police Force was established and starting to make a dent in crime in the capital. But London villains were coming to the fore as quickly as their predecessors were being arrested, jailed, hanged and buried, from "Darby" Sabini's racecourse razor gang of the 1920s to the boastfully violent, "comic-opera" capers of Jack "Spot" Comer and Billy Hill in the 1940s and 1950s. Both Comer and Hill laid claims to the title "King of the London Underworld", and vied for supremacy over Soho and the West End. Using a combination of violent henchmen and tame tabloid journalists to stake their claims, Comer and Hill were so busy attacking each other and blowing their own trumpets that they failed to realise, until it was too late, that they had been usurped by a younger breed of gangland bosses.

The Krays and the Richardsons carried on the fight to be London's top dogs throughout the 1960s, only to earn themselves extremely long prison sentences and the kind of lasting notoriety that both Comer and Hill would have killed for. Their places were quickly filled by the smaller and less publicity-hungry gangs, like the Tibbs, Nash and Dixon firms.

As for Jonathan Wild, he met his end dangling at the end of a rope at Tyburn-tree, jeered by the crowds and being pelted with rotten fruit and dead animals. A fitting fate for a man whose betrayals had sent so many to the same end.

Linnane ends his book with a short chapter on the alleged modern kings of London's underworld, the Adams family of north London and the Arifs of south London. Their exploits are tame when compared to what has gone before, but one story stands out. An accountant is said to have stolen £40,000 from the Adams family while working for them. He was later found cowering in a car with his girlfriend and pleading for his life because she was with him. One of the hitmen shot the girlfriend through the head, and said, "You're not with her now", before shooting the accountant dead.

London's Underworld is shocking, sometimes amusing, but never boring.

Razor Smith is in Whitemoor prison. His memoir A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun is to be published by Penguin