Given the size and diversity of life in London, there has always been a lot of crime in the old city. In fact, in the early years of the twentieth century, you could draw a map of London showing how it was split up into different fiefdoms among the various gangs who operated there. As with pretty much all commercial activity at the time, the gangs were all made up of men. Well nearly all. In fact, down in SE1, there was an all-female gang running amok, and it is their story that forms the basis of Margo Macdonald’s one-woman show The Elephant Girls at Draper Hall.
In a nondescript public house a couple of years before the start of WWII, a flashy man enters. Everything about his attire is perfect. From his three-piece suit, matching tie and handkerchief in the top pocket, to his trilby hat, this chap is immaculately dressed and out to be noticed. Except, once he removes his hat and starts to talk, you realise this chap is in fact, a woman. A woman by the name of Maggie Hale. A woman who used to be quite senior in The Elephant Girls, a notorious gang of women operating out of the Elephant & Castle area of London. For a pint or two, Maggie will tell you her story, and what a story it is. How the gang used to steam through stores, robbing them at such a pace that fifteen minutes after entering, the stolen goods were away. Maggie will also tell you about her queen, Alice Diamond – so named for her penchant for wearing a diamond ring on every finger, pretty and deadly in a fight. A woman she adored and pretty much worshipped. Alice ran the gang with “a fist of iron, in a velvet glove” and ensured that all the members were fully aware of where their first loyalties lie. Not just in their ‘working lives’ but also in their private and personal lives, Alice told them how to live and who they could go with – something that worked to Maggie’s benefit. Whilst very successful, the gang hit problems when the worst possible thing happened, and Alice fell in love. Reliving those days, Maggie takes her interlocutor with her, as Alice’s love starts a chain reaction that will have a profound effect on the Elephant Gang and Maggie in particular.
What a fascinating story The Elephant Girls is and, after a little bit of research this morning, it turns that Margo’s work is based on fact and the Elephant Girls did exist and basically operated in the way that she tells us. Overall, this is an amazing story told in a great way by a talented writer and actor. Seeing the show at the intimate venue of Draper Hall in Elephant & Castle obviously adds something to the tale but this show could work pretty much anywhere. Margo is an amazing storyteller and, like everyone else, I was hanging on her every word throughout the just over an hour runtime totally consumed by this fascinating story. If anything, I would have liked more details and for the show to have gone on a bit longer, and into more detail, especially as to what happened to Maggie after the Battle of Lambeth.
All told, The Elephant Girls is a great show. Well produced and delivered. Like the BBC, it informs and entertains and is overall a really enjoyable way to spend an evening.
Review by Terry Eastham
The Forty Elephants, or the Elephant Girls, are a historic all-female gang which operated in London, England from the mid-1800s to about the 1950s. They were brought to light in 2010 by Brian McDonald who included them in his book The Gangs of London. Maggie Hale is both a conflation of several different historic gang members, and also entirely fictional. Unlike many male gangsters of the period, none of these women ever wrote their memoirs, and today any further information regarding these female “enforcers” is lost to time. Using, then, a combination of meticulous research, instinct, and imagination, this is a story both captivating and repelling, humorous and terrifying.
This is a story which needs to be told, and, once heard, it will not be forgotten.
6/22 April 2017
London, SE1 6TL