Moll Cutpurse was a female pickpocket who walked the streets of London wearing men’s clothes and wielding weapons.

Moll was actually Mary Frith. She also performed as an entertainer.

The story of the misdeeds and life of this woman, along with those of others female criminals is now told in a brand new book.

Queens of the Underworld – A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks, written by Caitlin Davies and published by the History Press, sheds light on 24 women who fell foul of the law.

Famous 1950s burglar Zoe Progl broke into many homes, before becoming the first person to escape Holloway Prison, north London.

Following a series smash-and-grab raids, and country home robberies that she committed, Lilian goldstein gained a reputation as the “bobbed-haired Bandit”. Charles ‘Ruby’ spark, her accomplice became the ‘British Bonnie & Clyde’.

Elsie Florence Carey was a poker-faced member of the bandits that ran in 1930s London. She was also known as a hard-bitten West End woman gangster. 

The book also includes Noreen Harbord (an ex-debutante) who was caught trying to bring into Britain 8,000 Swiss watches she kept in secret in her Chrysler.

The MailOnline History Correspondent, has taken a look at the lives and times of six women in the book.  

Moll cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse was a child of Mary Frith, born 1584 in London’s Fleet Street. While her parents were law-abiding and she was young, she had a “boyish, boisterous” disposition.

She was charged with her first offence – stealing a purse from a man’s breast pocket – in the summer of 1600 after being arrested with two other women.

Her second arrest for theft was made two years later. After she was arrested, the authorities put her aboard a ship heading for Virginia (the English colony in North America). However, she fled and returned to London.

Moll Cutpurse was born Mary Frith in 1584 near London's Fleet Street. Whilst her parents were law-abiding, she displayed a 'boyish, boisterous disposition' from a young age

Moll Cutpurse was conceived Mary Frith 1584 in London’s Fleet Street. While her parents were law-abiding and she was a good girl, Cutpurse showed a “boyish, boisterous disposition” from an early age.

Once she returned to the capital, she joined the criminal fraternity.

She also became an entertainer around the same period and was seen performing in alehouses and taverns.

Ms. Davies however reveals how the modern society regarded her choice to wear men’s clothes as a sin.

But it was her choices of clothes that allowed her to continue her criminal activities. She was well-known at that time and attracted attention from playwrights. In a play, she played the lead role at London’s Fortune Theatre.

Moll performed also at the theater and joked with the audience about how, even though she was wearing men’s clothing, any man could return to her accommodations and’should discovere that she’s a woman’.

In 1611, she spent even more time behind bars. On Christmas Day, she was again arrested and accused of wearing ‘undecently manly attire’.

She also confessed to visiting most of the ‘disorderly & licentious places in this Cittie’. She was then made to lie on a sheet of white cloth in front of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Even then, her gang was stealing goods from Londoners who had come to see her penance.

Moll eventually turned her attention to hiding stolen goods, making Moll’s home an haven for thieves who were involved in recent thefts.

Historians also know that she spent time in Bethlem psychiatric hospital – which later became known as Bedlam – but it is unclear why she was admitted.

In July 1659 she died as a wealthy widow at the age of 74.

Zoe Progl

Progl was born in March 1928. Progl’s childhood was marked by turmoil caused by her father’s drunken antics.

At the tender age of 13, she moved into her first home and wrote her autobiography in 1964.

Progl made her first raid at Potters Bar’s mansion. She kept watch in a stolen jaguar as her Canadian criminal lover known as ‘Johnny the Junkie’ stole £7,000 worth of furs.

Progl carried out her first raid on a mansion in Potters Bar. She kept watch in a stolen jaguar as her Canadian criminal lover known as 'Johnny the Junkie' stole £7,000 worth of furs. Above: Progl after her final release from prison in 1963

Progl made her first raid at Potters Bar’s mansion. She kept watch in a stolen jaguar as her Canadian criminal lover known as ‘Johnny the Junkie’ stole £7,000 worth of furs. Above: Progl upon her 1963 release from prison

The Daily Mail published this article shortly after Progl's escape from Holloway Prison. It recounted how she had returned her prison clothes to the jail via the newspaper

This article was published by The Daily Mail shortly after Progl’s escape form Holloway Prison. This article described how Progl returned to prison via the newspaper.

Numerous more robberies followed, including one in which £12,000 was stolen from a sub-post office in Surrey.

Progl also stole trucks and began shoplifting. He targeted jewellery shops as well as other high-end venues.

Progl was not discouraged by her spells in prison and moved to Clapham to set up her operation. Ms Davies describes how the flat became well-known to “all the top thieves in the underground”.

In disguise, she was also an expert and could make herself seem 20 years old by growing her eyebrows.

Progl used a rope ladder which had been thrown from the other side to clamber over the prison wall. Above: Resident Constance Heafey witnessed Progl's escape

Progl used the rope ladder, which was thrown to the opposite side of the prison wall, to climb over it. Above: Constance Heafey, a resident of the prison witnessed Progl’s escape

But after being caught breaking into a house in Brighton in 1960, Progl was sent back to Holloway prison – where she had previously spent time – and was sentenced to two and a half years for housebreaking and larceny.

The fame of her escape vehicle increased when she used the rope ladder that had been pulled from one side of the prison to climb over it, leap 25ft below the ground, and then flee in the getaway car.

It was featured in numerous newspapers the next day.

Progl was quickly re-captured and decided to end her crime life. She served her sentence in Holloway Prison with no incident.

After her arrest, she sued the police for a return of a diamond ring that they took from her.

Her case was won and she sold her story to newspapers following her release.

Lilian Goldstein and her partner in crime became known as the 'British Bonnie and Clyde'

Lilian Goldstein was a partner in crime and became the “British Bonnie & Clyde”

Lilian Goldstein

Goldstein was born in Tooting Betc in south London in August 1902. She was the daughter a housepainter and a builder.

Goldstein turned to crime and outwitted authorities for over a decade. He also carried out several smash-and grab raids together with Charles “Ruby” Spark, a notorious thief.

Goldstein was being followed by police since mid-1920s when an unidentified female driver of a car was observed during raids on country homes.

Spark was also aided by an unknown woman who, according to the media, was called the “Bobbed Haired Bandit”. She had also escaped from Manchester’s Strangeways Prison (1927).

Although her shoplifting conviction in 1933 was her only, Lilian and her accomplice in crime were soon known as the “British Bonnie and Clyde”.

Goldstein, however, was able convince authorities that Ruby forced her to be his accomplice rather than acting as a willing party.

Elsie Florence Carey, who became known as Lady Jack, was described as a 'cunning and dangerous thief'

Elsie Florence Carey was known as Lady Jack and is described as a “cunning, dangerous thief”.

Elsie Florence Carey

Elsie Florence Carey was known as Lady Jack. She was described as a “cunning and dangerous theftist” and a “poker-faced” woman who led a group of sinister shop breakers during the 1930s.

Even though she measured only 5ft 7in tall, she was praised by the media for her ability to ‘rule men twice as old and hypnotize men with their daring’.

Elsie was born in Canning town, East London, on October 10, 1910. It was a difficult start to her life. At the tender age of 10, Elsie’s mother passed away leaving her to care for her siblings and herself.

Her first conviction – for stealing a quilt from outside a shop – came when she was aged 19. In 1931 she was then sent to a hotel where she spent six months. She had robbed tramcar tickets boxes of cash.

One year later she was sentenced to prison for taking items, including handbags.

1937: She was accused for taking 67 men’s shirts, 21 woollen pullovers, and 55 men’s ties from a prison she had broken into.

Elsie was also found guilty of taking gold jewellery from her landlord.

She was again arrested in 1937, and she appeared in court. The Daily Herald described her as a “hard-bitten West End women gangster” and leader of a band of bandits.

She said that her manly, tailored dress made of tight-fitting fabric was so reminiscent of a man’s costume that the assize clerk mistakenly thought she was one.

From this, she was known as Lady Jack.

Noreen Harbord

Noreen, a South African girl, was born in Pretoria in 1913. Her parents were upright. By the age 18 she joined other debutantes at Buckingham Palace and curtsey in front of King George V.

Her pictures were often featured in society magazines. She also visited the Royal Enclosure at Ascot racecourse.

She had been married to Arthur Harold Bligh Harbord, a wealthy businessman in 1935. However, they lived apart by 1939.

In July 1950, Noreen arrived in the Sussex port of Newhaven, where her Chrysler car was searched by customs officials. To her horror, they found the 7,742 watches which Noreen had hidden in secret compartments. Above: The former debutante attending her trial in 1950

Noreen, a Sussex woman, arrived at Newhaven port in July 1950. Customs officers searched her Chrysler car and found the 7,742 watches. Noreen’s 7,742 watches, which she had concealed in secret compartments, were discovered by customs officials to her dismay. Above: Her trial as a debutante in 1950

Ms Davies relates how Noreen’s society parties that followed were popular with the nobility and were described as ‘wild.

Noreen was a victim of crime after she joined the lucrative business of cashing travelers’ checks in Switzerland. She made 17 Swiss Francs per transaction.

After docking in Spain’s Seville, Johnnie became her companion and she fell into the smuggling world.

Johnnie and She became part of a smuggling gang based in London, made up ex-military and RAF officers.

She helped get past customs the first time she was transporting cigarette smoke and liquor. Noreen later moved to the transport of expensive drugs like penicillin.

The gang switched their activities from smuggling expensive Swiss watches to smuggling in 1949.

Noreen turned a London apartment in Chelsea into an illegal headquarters. Here, thousands of watches arrived via France from Switzerland.

The former debutante ended up smuggling more than 30,000 watches through customs and made the equivalent of more than £1million in today’s money.

Noreen reached Newhaven on the Sussex coast in July 1950. There, her Chrysler vehicle was checked by customs.

They discovered the 7,742 watches that Noreen had kept in secret pockets. 

However, she claimed that she didn’t know anything about the watches. She also tried to assert that her belief would not be influenced by smuggling as she was able to take into account her social position.

Noreen, who was accused of the crime, was sentenced for a year behind bars and then confessed to it in an interview.

Blonde Alice Smith 

Newspapers described Blonde Allice Smith from 1920s as a criminal who could transform her costume within minutes.

Her transformation could be quick from an old crone to a tall and glamorous blonde woman.

They believed she was American born, so the US papers claimed that they boasted of her ability to escape London’s ‘Bobbies.’

Newspapers described the 1920s criminal Blonde Allice Smith as a thief who was able to undergo a ‘complete change of costume in a matter of minutes’

Newspapers described the 1920s criminal Blonde Allice Smith as a thief who was able to undergo a ‘complete change of costume in a matter of minutes’

Alice, however, was actually born at London’s Marylebone on 1880.

In 1913, she took part in what became known as the Great Pearl Robbery – when a £150,000 pearl necklace was stolen near Hatton Garden.

Alice was then convicted in 1923 of taking nine diamond rings from Stockton-on-Tees jewellers. This led to her being called the Queen of Crooks.

Ms. Davies points out that the Belfast Telegraph reports she said she was the “equal of every man”, despite her daring undertakings.

Queens of the Underworld – A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks, written by Caitlin Davies and published by the History Press

Queens of the Underworld – A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks, written by Caitlin Davies and published by the History Press