Last year Emily Burgess produced an outstanding dissertation on the all-female working-class gang from South London known as the Forty elephants. Here she writes about how she came up with the idea and carried out the research, with Rob James as supervisor. Emily concludes with some useful advice for all our students currently writing proposals for their third-year dissertation. Emily has since set up her own consultancy for historical research and consultancy – see our previous post.
From a young age I was fascinated by criminal history. My grandmother and family from the East End of London would often tell me tales about the Krays and other villainous figures from the area, filling my head with stories of the criminal underworld. My fascination was only enhanced further by childhood visits to museums, particularly Dartmoor Prison and Kilmainham Gaol which left considerable impressions and sparked my intrigue in Victorian and Edwardian criminality.
As I grew older, I became fixated on television programmes and films that depicted organised gang crime, causing me to develop an interest in the representation of criminal types. However, there was a common occurrence between these types that I became more aware of while attending university, and that was that they were almost always male. So that left me thinking, what about the women?
This prompted me to do some archival research where I came across an all-female working-class gang from South London, labelled as the Forty Elephants, whose activities spanned over a seventy year period and influenced the criminal underworld from the late nineteenth century, to the mid twentieth century. I wondered why I had never heard of them before if they were so infamous, and I soon realised that it was because they were women. Specifically, there were common misconceptions within historiography that female criminality was limited and incapable of ‘serious’ organised offences. Therefore, the Forty Elephants had been relatively neglected in favour of male gangs from the period. This made me even more determined to write about them as they challenged common attitudes and opinions surrounding female crime.
After forming a question with the help of my tutor, I began my hunt for primary and secondary sources in the summer before starting third year. By focusing on newspaper reports from the 1920s and court records I was able to develop an understanding of their offences, and the media fixation that came to surround them. I found that this was due to their ability to break from gender and class boundaries within the metropole which caused a moral panic over contemporary criminality. Most striking were their crimes and sentencing, and the fabrications within media concerning their appearance. This caused me to split my dissertation into three sections, historiography, official documentation and the reality of female gang crime, and newspapers and accounts showing the fantastical elements that shrouded them in criminal celebrity. With the structure formed I began writing the dissertation and enjoyed putting my research together.
I would advise students who are trying to choose a research area to pursue what fascinates them the most, even if it is unusual or a little out of the box, these make for the most interesting dissertations!