A WEEK or two back, we read of the desperate early years of Arthur Harding, raised in the Nichol and seemingly fated for a life of crime. His autobiography (and its subsequent adaptation and expansion by Raphael Samuel) certainly doesn’t go easy on its subject.
But though Harding became renowned as a career criminal, and a vicious one at that, what shines through the pages of his first-person
account is a craving for order, for respectability … for a job. He loved his time at Barnardo’s: he got a regular meal of course, but he also got his education, and enjoyed it. He writes of his envy at the blokes who can land work in the breweries (in the early 1900s there was Truman, Hanbury and Buxton in Brick Lane, and the Watney brewery on Whitechapel Road), but they are all fit, brawny country lads; there’s no place for cockneys from the Jago. He craves the security of working on the railways or being a City Corporation street cleaner (the ‘shit rakers’ or ‘sparrow starvers’). Both of them jobs for life, and neither of them likely to be given to a guttersnipe from the Nichol. And he loves his brief weeks in training in the army, with its discipline and order … before his detested father drags him back to supplement the family income.
They may be the selective memories of an old man (Arthur was well into his eighties by the time he wrote all this stuff down) but a life of crime seems to have chosen him as much as the other way round. On several occasions he is arrested ‘as a suspected person’ – not actually having committed a crime, but looking as if he might be a likely candidate*. Of course Arthur was guilty of plenty of things, but between 1901 and 1922 he achieved 27 acquittals, invariably conducting his own defence. It’s a remarkable tale: a ‘street Arab’ from London’s roughest estate taking on a criminal prosecutor and frequently winning. Building on his schooling at Barnardo’s he became a voracious autodidact. During his many months in prison in his late teens (he unfortunately lost almost as many cases as he won) he taught himself criminal law and devoured novels such as Oliver Twist and Les Miserables, which must at least have reminded him of home.
He was receiving another kind of schooling too. Prison had made him ‘fitter, stronger and taller’. Emerging from one stretch in 1903, he sought out a married couple who had beaten up his mother (now a hopeless drunk) and thrashed them and their son senseless. The educated street Arab was establishing a terrifying reputation for violence. He was also developing a varied criminal repertoire. His gang would pickpocket around Brick Lane, run protection rackets and – equipped with Webley army revolvers, many of which had been liberated by soldiers returning from the Boer War – they would hold up spielers (Jewish social clubs). While many of his gang turned to pimping, Arthur specialised in snide-pinching, buying counterfeit coins from forgers and laundering the currency through local shops.
And when Brick Lane got too hot, the boys would go on tour – taking ferries to Newcastle, to Buxton, Manchester and to Wales – picking pockets and passing Harding’s snide coinage; his sister would post packets of coins to post offices around the country for Arthur to pick up. The one town they avoided was Liverpool, which was famed for having an efficient and ruthless police force.
It was now that Harding and his boys began to run the north end of Brick Lane, with Isaac Bogard running the south. A Brick Lane shopkeeper of the time described how they would operate, saying: ‘My corner is a very convenient corner for them, because they can see four ways. They throw out scouts in every direction, and they use dumb motions, they do not talk to each other. When they steal goods they get small boys to take the parcels away, and they take them in different directions. It is very difficult for us tradesmen to carry on our business. Brick Lane has got a very bad name, and it is the men of Harding’s class that give the neighbourhood a bad name.’
But his own bad name was catching up with Arthur. He spent the whole of the First World War in Wormwood Scrubs; a reformed Bogard joined up and became a decorated war hero. By the twenties Harding had had enough, and resolved to go straight … ish. He settled down and married Milly, 15 years his junior, and the two settled in a cottage in Gibraltar Gardens, off Bethnal Green Road, with Arthur turning out furniture, tables, easels and boards. He still had a fearsome reputation. One day, a younger criminal called Dodger Mullins knocked on his door demanding protection money. Arthur grabbed a loaded revolver and chased the gang up the road. Again, Harding used the courts to his advantage, seeing Mullins sentenced to six years for demanding money with menaces. He also got a bung of £60 from the gang for withholding elements of his evidence and decided to seek the quieter life.
But maybe there was a thirst for confrontation and danger that crime had previously satisfied. In 1926 he was leading gangs scaring dockers back to work during the General Strike. In the 1950s he became a cohort of Oswald Mosley (the Blackshirts called him ‘uncle’) though he professed to detest racism. And he became something of an elder statesmen to the Krays. By now he was comfortably off. In the thirties he had toured the country, knocking on doors and buying gold jewellery at knockdown prices from innocent punters. During World War II and after he had dealt in stolen ration books. After the war he made a mint buying and selling secondhand clothes. Comfortably retired to Leytonstone, he put crime to one side and spent 43 years with his beloved Milly: the pair had six children.
There was an interesting postscript to Arthur’s life. A few years back, Diana Rowbury went along to the Bishopsgate Institute to talk about her extraordinary grandfather. It emerged that she had known nothing of the name ‘Harding’ until Raphael Samuel’s book went into print. In later years, Arthur had re-adopted his original family surname of Tresadern – while his mother had come from Norfolk, his father had been a Cornishman. The retired villain theorised that cockneys had trouble pronouncing the unusual moniker, so shortened it to ‘Adern’ and then corrupted it to ‘Harding’. Perhaps Arthur was trying to go back to a childhood before crime had taken over, but over decades of peaceable retirement, he had buried infamous East End villain Arthur Harding.
*This draconian law was still being used with some enthusiasm by the Met 30 years ago, and was one of the factors blamed for the riots that swept English cities in the summer of 1981.
The Life of Arthur Harding http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/content/1196/The-Life-of-Arthur-Harding
East End Underworld by Raphael Samuel: