The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

How bicycles are stolen (1920s style)

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Netley Lucas, ‘How Bicycles are Stolen: By an Ex-Thief’, Cycling, 21 August 1925, p.vii.

The following article is written by Netley Lucas, a pseudonym which conceals the identity of the author of “The Autobiography of a Crook.” Once a noted criminal, the writer has now taken up a literary career. 

Glance down the calendar of the Old Bailey or at any sessions or assizes and you will be amazed to notice the number of crooks indicted for the theft of bicycles.

According to police statistics (pardon my quoting statistics; personally, I never put much faith in them), over 50 bicycles are stolen every week in the Metropolitan Police area alone, about 30 per cent of which are recovered.

In the underworld the bicycle thief is considered to be very small fry indeed, as he belongs to the sneak-thief class–the class of crook who will steal rugs out of motorcars or parcels from the tailboards of vans. After all, the humble bicycle is a very easy thing to steal–much easier than a motorcar or motorcycle, for the very good reason that it can be stolen noiselessly, there is no engine to start up and give the game away or misfire and thus increase the risk of detection.

All the bicycle thief has to do to bring off his “coup”is to mount the cycle and ride away. The only risk he runs is direct observation of the owner or someone connected with the owner.

Disguise Unnecessary

Then again, it is very easy indeed to camouflage a stole bicycle, and even this is unnecessary if it is taken to another town or district. When you report the loss of your bicycle to the police, do you realize what a tremendous task you are setting them to recover your property? There is no registration, as in the case of cars or motorcycles, and the distinguishing marks which may help recognition are very minute indeed.

Put yourself in the place of the bicycle thief and you will realize how absurdly easy is the theft and how difficult the recovery. Even you would be unable to recognize your own bicycle when the tyres have been altered, the bell and lamp etc. changed, and the whole given a new coat of enamel. The little distinguishing marks which you would look for would be entirely obliterated.

“Fences” (receivers of stolen property) do not hesitate to purchase stolen bicycles: they know that they are not running such a risk as with cars or motorcycles and are assured or a more or less quick sale.

Like other types of criminals, bicycle thieves sometimes work in gangs, and I know of one gang comprised of six young thieves, who “work” districts and make a “round-up” of bicycles in that district in one day.

They travel to the district they intend “working” in the morning in a Ford van and then disperse, each out to make his own “pinch”. The van is parked in a secluded spot–left in charge of one member of the gang. Throughout the day these young crooks make off with bicycles, ride to their van, which is a closed one, and conceal the bicycle inside. When four or give bicycles have been stole the gang drive back to their haunt in the East End of London and sell their complete haul for a lump sum down to a dealer, who camouflages the bicycles and sells them through his own second-hand shop.

For six bicycles this gang will receive about £10, which they will share amongst them, moving to a new district the next day.

This gang is undoubtedly responsible for the bicycle theft epidemics in certain districts.

Strange as it may seem, bicycles are often used by expert burglars as a means of transport: they recommend themselves to Mr Bill Sikes because they are practically noiseless and do not given warning of his approach or departure, as would a car or motorcycle.

There is today an expert gang of cracksmen, some five in number, who always travel to the scene of their crimes on bicycles, carrying their tools in satchels attached to the frame. These satchels are useful in carrying away their spoil.

Hints on Prevention

In conclusion, I should like to give you one or two hints to prevent the theft of your cycle. Many cyclists lock their wheels with a chain and padlock; this is a very good protection, as the bicycle thief prefers a quick “get away” and does not care to stop to file a chain. I once saw a handlebar lock which made a very good thief proof device. When locked, it was impossible to turn the bars either way.

It is a good dodge also to lock your pedals to the frame. This can be down either by means of a chain and padlocks or a vice grip shaped like an elongated horse shoe with a lock at one end.

Invent your own secret device — an invisible one if possible, as standard “thief-proof” locks soon become known to crooks, who buy them and experiment until they find their weak points.

Crooks are no fools, you must remember, and to circumvent them you had much better invent a device of your own which cannot be experimented on.

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