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A Brief Introduction To Criminality

October 8, 2021
by Dick Hobbs

This is an extract from THE BUSINESS, Talking with thieves, gangsters & dealers, the new book by Spitalfields Life Contributing Criminologist Professor Dick Hobbs

Professor Hobbs stands at the centre of this family group


I grew up in Plaistow in the fifties, born to parents who were part of a bomb-damaged generation that had experienced poverty, war, chaos and insecurity. The population that had fought fascism for six years was encouraged to keep their heads down, enjoy the spam, and wait for rationing to end. Despite the immediate benefits that the welfare state delivered, the fear of unrestrained chaos remained very real for my parents and a steady job, along with avoiding any risk, was vital if they were to quarantine their family from impending disaster.

My parents had difficulty in coping with three children born so close together, so I was taken in by my maternal grandparents, in whose home I spent most of the next few years. While I was only a few minutes’ walk from my parents, I may as well have been on another planet.

Most days, my grandfather would take me out for leisurely walks, usually to the local street market. He knew a lot of people and he would stop and talk to many of them, including a group of men who congregated at the top of the market outside Upton Park station. They were different from the other men who populated my small fifties world. Unlike the ex-servicemen who nervously smoked and drank tea through tense evenings of heavily edited reminiscences in my parents’ home, these market men were relaxed, but wary. Of what, I was not certain. They were very well dressed, in trilby hats and overcoats over dark suits, though they seemed to talk in code, and my grandfather always politely refused the coins that they offered to me.

Over half a century on, I know now that the men were thieves and bookies’ runners. Although my grandfather was a working man and no villain, he was at ease in their company and they held him in some respect. He and the men he spoke to shared something that had been acquired the hard way: a street wisdom and a willingness to do what was necessary in the face of constant grinding poverty and unemployment.

Glimpses of the quasi-Dickensian lives of older relations peppered my childhood and I pieced together fragments of conversations concerning booth boxing at Mile End Waste, fights in Victoria Park, knuckledusters and pickpockets, ‘Jackie Spot’ and coin-tossing rings, dodgy bookmakers at the races, the police horses at Cable St, rat-baiting in Brick Lane, ‘coming off worst’ in a fight with two pimps during the war and a detective’s unsuccessful attempt at blackmail. There was clearly something going on outside the gratefully received oppression of a respectable job and not everybody kept their heads down.

In many ways, the fifties were the beginning of the East End’s golden age. For generations it had been associated with poverty, filth, disease, ignorance, racism and violent depravity. But as the post-war years moved into the modern era, the gloom that had settled upon the East End appeared to be lifting. Rehousing, although it destroyed established neighbourhood networks, improved the lives of families. ‘Getting a council place’ with a bathroom, indoor toilet and perhaps central heating, was a highpoint for those who, both literally and figuratively, had dug themselves out of the insanitary rubble of the Blitz.

And there was work, and plenty of it. As ships queued up along the Thames to unload in the East End’s booming docks, dockwork – once a job that only pariahs would do – became a desirable occupation, in part due to the strength of the trade unions. Numerous other industries reliant on the docks – factories, processing plants and the like – also prospered and as London’s bomb sites were turned into construction sites, building trades and crafts blossomed. Men had money in their pockets, many of the women who had experienced paid labour during the war years never went back to full-time domestic toil and East London was no longer a place defined by poverty.

Yet it was clear to anyone involved in dockwork that the good times could not last. Cargo was becoming increasingly containerised, which mechanised dockwork and reduced the need for labour, while the ships themselves were rapidly outgrowing the narrow confines of the London Docks. But for the time being, the pubs, clubs and many of the streets of East London took on a vibrancy that inspired an irresistible cocktail of hedonism, anti-authoritarianism and embrace of skulduggery that would have been recognisable in the Wild West or the pirate havens of the eighteenth century.

However, co-existing with this vivacious world was an alternative universe where working-class families such as mine lived in terror of their children getting into trouble with the authorities. If you took liberties, you got caught, and if you got caught, the police would ruin you. For a relatively timid kid such as myself, this could be terrifying. And yet the rules of engagement were confusing: while the direction to keep your head down was commonly enforced at home with levels of violence that are difficult to explain to contemporary youth, it was clear to me that other people were taking liberties and nobody seemed to get caught.

Much of the liberty-taking had its origins in London’s docks, and every level of theft – from petty to professional, from handfuls to lorry loads – was nurtured in the neighbourhoods that serviced the world’s largest port. Local pubs were alternatives to the corner shop and few people failed to spice their lives with the odd roll of cloth, box of shirts or leg of lamb. And it was all so normal. Once I was at a friend’s house when his dad, a docker, came home from work looking as if he had put on a lot of weight. He took off his donkey jacket and then removed a sweater, and another sweater and another – all in all he wore eight sweaters under his work clothes after plundering a shipment from the Far East.

One famous tale from the sixties involved a man who was staggering down the street apparently the worse for drink. When he collapsed onto the pavement, concerned bystanders rushed to help the stricken pale-faced man, who was shivering and incoherent. Eventually, he was taken by ambulance to the casualty department at the local hospital, where nurses discovered six large frozen steaks inside the patient’s trousers, secured by clips attached to a scaffolder’s belt. The meat, which had been liberated from the nearby Royal Docks, was resting against the docker’s bare skin, causing hypothermia.

As a child, I was already learning about hypocrisy and the usefulness of denial – on occasion from inside the four walls of my respectable, law-abiding family home. It was always late at night after I had gone to bed when Mickey called. He was a docker and the brother of a close neighbour. When my mum answered the door a familiar, and somewhat reassuring, pantomime would commence.

Mickey: Hello Mary, I have got a lovely roll of material for you.

Mum: It’s not knocked off, is it?

Mickey: No, of course not, I got it from the auctions like the last lot.

Mum: All right, let’s have a look.

Even the most virtuous could be seduced by the lure of a bargain, their conscience salved by a throwaway enquiry as to the legal status of the goods on offer before the swag was unloaded into the front room of the now absolved grateful punter. However, most people did not bother with such niceties and considerable prestige was often attached to being involved in these ‘little earners’. Just like the contemporary drugs trade, goods were regularly sold on several times before reaching the eventual consumer. Normal punters, despite whatever ‘little earners’ they were on, did not see themselves as criminals. Everybody was at it.

Yet violence was an ever-present fact of life. Working-class men of my father’s generation had taken to boxing in the same way that modern-day kids play computer games. Violence had been hardwired to their sense of self and these mild-mannered but war-damaged men who had experienced extreme violence in Europe, Africa and Asia would instinctively ‘raise their hands’ to anybody threatening their home, their family or their self-respect.

When one late evening my father heard breaking glass and rushed to the front door to find a man breaking in, he opened the door and knocked the would-be intruder spark out. However, this was no burglar but a neighbour who had returned from the pub drunk and could not understand why the key to number 13 did not fit the lock to number 9. Next day, without a word from either combatant, our hungover neighbour fixed a new pane of glass to the front door. Calling the police was not an option.


My father, Jack Hobbs, 1942

My mother, Mary Anne Reynolds, 1945

My parents with twins, Charlie & Phil, 1953

Me with my grandparents, Fred & Mary Reynolds, 1951

You may like to read these other articles by Dick Hobbs

Terry Hobbs, Samaritan

Sam Nicholls of Nicholls & Clarke

Bobby Cummines, Not A Gangster

Joe Baden, Open Book

Len Hoffman, Football Coach

The Walking Footballers Of West Ham

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    October 8, 2021

    Thank you – that was fascinating!

  2. October 8, 2021

    An impressive story, indeed. It shows wonderfully the poverty that existed in the early 50s. My parents also experienced this after they fled from East Germany to West Germany (before the Wall was built). They had to start with nothing. Only slowly did the conditions improve, but then they turned to better days. I grew up in those times after all.

    Love & Peace

  3. Jennie permalink
    October 8, 2021

    This account echoes so many of the features of my childhood in Hackney. The priority of security through work, but an acceptance of all sorts of goods acquired through ‘informal’ channels. My family were only ever end users, shoes, records, occasionally clothing, would appear, ‘I got it cheap at work’.

  4. herry Lawford permalink
    October 8, 2021

    This is fascinating. I was involved with shipping and insurance and we even had an in-house team of ex-policemen who were specifically employed to try and deal with the epidemic of theft in the docks. Great story.

  5. keithb permalink
    October 8, 2021

    I saw the tail end of some of this on the banks of the Mersey in the early sixties. Milk bars rather than pubs were important, as was the supply of 78s from the Caribbean. Containerisation was happening fast though, I was very young then and did not grasp the significance of certain rituals.

    Dock work was still on a casual basis despite the union organisation. The work pattern suited many people who did not fit into the 9 to 5 day 48 weeks a year norm. The so-called ‘gig economy’ perhaps needs its union organisers!

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 8, 2021

    Great stuff, and a fascinating insight into East End life at the time.

    It was happening over the river as well… Danny Baker’s autobiography is full of stories of all the swag his docker father used to fill their house with in Deptford!

    It also reminds me of the story by Joe Lawrence called The East End Butcher Boy which shows how what begins as seemingly harmless scams can quickly degenerate into really dangerous and harmful crime.

    I look forward to catching up with the rest of Dick’s blogs.

  7. October 8, 2021

    Totally vivid account, and the photos added so much.
    Dare I say, some of this had a familiar ring…….although the activities took place in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s West Side. I married one of those street urchins, and savor every detail of his stories of his upbringing on those mean streets. The invented pavement games, the “semi-legit” neighborhood notables, the punitive nuns, the earnest priests, the tolerant
    shop-keepers who put up with the boy’s loitering and noise, the diligent mothers, the tough lessons learned, the innocence lost, the back-hallway trysts, the lifelong friendships maintained. I’m enraptured hearing these tales of a childhood so unlike my own.

    Thank you, GA, for always shining a light.

  8. paul loften permalink
    October 8, 2021

    Echoes of my own 50’s childhood . Not in Dockland but Stoke Newington. One memory at about 7 years old . One night at 3am we were awoken by a loud banging at the door . From our slumber We rushed to the door My uncle , my fathers brother ,who was a London cabbie stood there with badly bleeding hands. He had a fare that took him into the back streets of Wapping where two men got out of his cab and seized his money bag that he kept by his side. He got out of his cab and they attacked him. he hit the first one and then the second and left them both unconscious lying on the pavement . The memory that will always remain is my father bandaging his hands in the scullery in the early hours and seeing the deep tooth marks embedded deep in in his bruised knuckles . He remembered the boxing lessons that my dad gave him as a child and he said to him that it saved his life .

  9. Cherub permalink
    October 8, 2021

    It was still going on in the 80s and 90s when I lived in Essex. I knew someone who bought a VCR that turned up on Police 5, it was from a shipment that had been stolen.

    We then had a neighbour who worked for a company at the docks and was a union rep. His house was full of all sorts including expensive Persian rugs. He went on to become MD of another company.
    Once or twice he knocked on our door and offered us stuff but we said no thanks. Owning knock off gear didn’t appeal to us.

  10. October 8, 2021

    A fascinating life, with a lot of poignancy too. My eldest brother worked the Docks for a short while and used tell me about the huge spiders that came in with the Banana shipments. My brother went on to marry a girl from Canning Town, who presumably he met while working in the area.
    I also have a much treasured illustrated Dictionary given to me by a friend of my father’s, which reads on the fly ‘To My Friend Jack Hobbs. To The Past Happy Memories and Future Friendship. A.H. Richards, Dec 16th 1931’ – although this particular Jack Hobbs was the Cricketer!

  11. October 8, 2021

    Wonderful story and lovely to see the photos of you and your family.

  12. Amanda permalink
    October 9, 2021

    First impression of the top family group photo gave me the idea the adult father figure was the Criminologist narrating this intriguing recollection. Reading on to discover he grew up in his grandparents household and the twins remained with his parents, l studied the photo closely and there it became glaringly obvious the bright demeanour of the immaculate child in the middle, with his ‘Harry Potter’ specs, was likely destined to become a professor. He certainly had a special aura in my eyes. His subject perhaps honed subliminally from the fortunate destiny of living with the grandfather who introduced him to those fascinating early encounters at the market.
    I cannot wait to order the book.

  13. October 9, 2021


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