Women and Crime – Britain’s Bad Girls
Updated: Jan 15
Six true crime stories featuring notorious women criminals. From a celebrity pickpocket who performed on the London stage, to an aristocrat turned highwaywoman. From a cross-dressing pirate to the first documented girl gang, and the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
Mary Frith became famous as Moll Cutpurse. She was born in London’s Aldersgate to a shoemaker and his wife and began her career as a cutpurse age 11. Branded on her hand four times for thieving, Moll moved from stealing to fencing stolen goods from her shop in Fleet Street, where she became a London celebrity - famous as one of the female first smokers in England. Fame took her to the London stage in the play The Roaring Girl, the story of her cross dressing and scandalous behaviour.
Katherine Ferrers was an aristocrat who turned highwaywoman. Lady by day, outlaw by night . At dusk she donned her ‘highwayman’s clothes - in a secret room in her house, accessed through a concealed staircase. Known as the ‘Wicked Lady’, her story has become legend, celebrated in a heavily romaticised but successful 1945 film.
Mary Read found a way to become a soldier, sailor, and eventually a pirate. She fought a duel with her lover’s enemy, was taken prisoner and was sentenced to hang.
Margaret Catchpole stole a horse for love and was sentenced to death. She scaled a 22ft wall topped with spikes, using a gardening frame - and escaped from prison and went on to lead a remarkable life in Australia.
Forty Elephants formed in the 1870s, when the women of the male run Elephant & Castle mob broke away to form the first documented girl gang. This clutch of thieves and confidence tricksters went on the make for nearly a century – and became a London legend.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
Hear these stories in our Women and Crime British history podcast.